Pretty Thing

June 6, 2012

Pretty Thing.
Pretty Thing (video, fragment).

A few throwaway album tracks find Tin Machine in its most viable conception, of being a cracked imitation of a hard rock band. “Pretty Thing” is often knocked as being crass, tuneless filler (which it is), but it’s also a compressed set of musical parodies. Start with Bowie’s lyric, which is so crude and laddish (“something getting hard when you rock it up,” “tie you down, pretend you’re Madonna“*) that it seems like a mocking attempt to cobble together verses from half-remembered Winger or Motley Crue come-on lines, though here sung by Bowie in a nasal, whining tone that’s counter-erotic.

There are also various blunt references to past Bowie glories: “sweet thing” and of course, “Oh! You Pretty Things.” The chorus even begins with the title line of the latter, though where in “Oh! You Pretty Things” Bowie had begun on a high A note and grandly plummeted down an octave to finish the phrase, in “Pretty Thing” it’s a dud, an aborted melody, with Bowie starting on a G#, falling to C# (on “you”) but then pulling back to the original G# to end the phrase, as though he’s lost his nerve or just doesn’t give a damn anymore.

You can find parody even in the song’s harmonic structure: it’s set in F# minor with occasional feints to the relative major, A, which is a standard heavy-metal progression (e.g., Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”). “Pretty Thing” soon becomes so unstable, so barely-there as an actual conception, that it feels as though it’s constantly about to be consumed by its players: take how the four-bar raveups ram against Bowie’s spindly verse lines (it’s yet another reference, here to the stop-start structure of the Pretty Things’ “Don’t Bring Me Down”).

Finally, in the solo section, “Pretty Thing” implodes. There’s a four-bar Reeves Gabrels skydiving solo guitar line and then, out of nowhere, a miniature six-bar Mod soul track gets wedged in, with Kevin Armstrong on Hammond organ. Gabrels kills that interlude off with a bludgeoning riff that’s better than anything he’s played in the “proper song” so far, and Hunt Sales follows up by doing his best Gene Krupa imitation. While “Pretty Thing” lurches back to life for another round of choruses, the collective damage has been done: it’s become a beaten pulp of itself and expires soon afterward with a final taunting on drums by Hunt.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. The video clip above is the entire Julien Temple-directed sequence of mini-videos for Tin Machine (here’s Part 2), which includes “Working Class Hero” with the Machine wearing tuxedos and “Video Crime” with girl boxers and a dancing monkey.

*A tasteless reference to then-current tabloid stories about Madonna being abused by her husband Sean Penn (including allegedly being tied to a chair). Bowie made it worse by joking about “hanging out with Sean, and he told us a few things, you know what I mean?” in a 1989 interview.

Top:  Lincoln Clarkes, “Elizabeth Mazzoni, London, 1988.”