Needles on the Beach

July 9, 2012

Needles on the Beach.

Though Tin Machine II wound up a stitched-together, incoherent record, it began with Bowie and Reeves Gabrels working in a general theme: life in the rotten South Pacific. Drawing from Bowie’s recent vacation in Java and an earlier trip to Borneo with Iggy Pop (see “Tumble and Twirl”), Sara Terry’s (Gabrels’ wife) work covering child prostitution in Thailand and the Machine’s stay in Sydney while recording, a recurring image was a spoiled tropical paradise, whether corrupted by the West or by the eternal human verities of greed and lust. A few of these songs—“Shopping for Girls” and “Amlapura”—made it onto the final record, but another variation on the theme, the Machine’s attempt at a jaundiced surf music, was ultimately shelved.

The instrumental “Needles on the Beach,” which finally appeared on a “surfbilly” compilation on a Boston indie label in 1994 (arguably the most obscure official release in the Bowie catalog), got its title from Gabrels noticing that the tide on Bondi Beach would often bring in used syringes. There’s a musical joke baked into the song as well, as some of its chord changes are from Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic surf track “Third Stone from the Sun”—specifically the progression when Hendrix, in the original recording, murmurs “to you I shall put an end, then you’ll never hear surf music again.”*

A set of alternating eight-bar runs, “Needles” has a once-repeated structure of variation 1 (Gabrels’ guitar riff (similar to the opening of Hendrix’s “Third Stone”) & drum shuffle), variation 1, variation 2 (slightly altered guitar riff and straight-on drums), variation 1, and variation 3 (three-chord descending phrase by Gabrels). On the released version, “Needles” is faded before the final repeat of variation 3, which ends with a full close and a Gabrels pick slide, à la Dick Dale. Either Bowie or Kevin Armstrong plays a dreamy rhythm guitar that’s barely audible in the released mix.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, 301 Studios, Sydney. Released in October 1994 on Beyond the Beach. Thanks: Ian McDuffie.

* Allegedly a buck-up message intended for Dick Dale, who had colon cancer at the time.

Top: Ross Giblin, “Jerry Nepia and Rajee Patel surfing at Titahi Bay [New Zealand], 15 January 1991.” From the Alexander Turnbull Library.