Video Crime

May 24, 2012

Video Crime.

“Video Crime,”* a tuneless Bowie collaboration with the Sales brothers, is part of the loose affiliation of “protest” songs on Tin Machine, the subject here a hodgepodge of serial killing (“trash time Bundy,” “late night cannibal“), urban decay/de-industrialization (the singer’s a broke prole who “wonder[s] where the Third World went“) and the corrupting influence of “video nasties.”

It’s worth briefly recounting the latter, a UK scare of the early Eighties that was fueled by the usual suspects (Mary Whitehouse, The Sun) and concerned the popularity of straight-to-VHS horror/sex films (in a Young Ones episode, the gang rents Sex With the Headless Corpse of the Virgin Astronaut). This was pure capitalism at work: the major movie studios, wary of piracy, had been slow to release their films on video, so a wave of cheap, violent schlock filled the vacuum. For the likes of Whitehouse, the rise of the home VCR meant yet another sign of cultural devolution. After all, in the past, you had to go to seedy theaters or Friar’s Club stag parties to see pornography: now you were able to watch it in your own apartment. It was too easy, a domesticated depravity; someone could now spend their life watching violent, morally vile movies (and rewinding the good parts) that censors would have formerly prevented him from seeing. It would make for a coarser, more violent, more debased society.

So in his lyric, Bowie’s playing with this idea—his narrator is a pathetic, grubby figure whose imagination has been shot through with lurid images from too many slasher films (“chop it up!”) and there’s a vague suggestion he’s started killing people himself, or at least standing on a street corner at night pretending that he’s casing victims. The scenario had some promise—there was something to make out of the cultural fascination with serial killers** in the Eighties—but the lyric is a string of first-draft juvenile images, and Bowie sang it terribly, in a jerking, sing-songy, appalling vocal that keeps to a four-note range. Yes, I know, it’s meant to be numbed, dehumanized, robotic. But compare how truly strange and alienated Bowie’s vocal is, his phrasings, his intonations, on something like “Breaking Glass”—there the detached figure Bowie plays allows no entry into his workings, but his performance is so striking that you try to puzzle him out regardless. By contrast “Video Crime” is, in the words of a better songwriter (at this point), a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard.

Worse, the track is just a slog: two chords, E and F, with a brief escape to A in the solos; given not so much a groove as an imposition, with the usual tricks used to keep things moving—-Hunt Sales’ fills, Gabrels’ guitar-screams. It’s all such dull stuff that it’s a highlight when Tony Sales varies the bassline in the third verse. Credit again to Kevin Armstrong, whose rhythm guitar playing is in the pocket and hints that a better song was buried somewhere in this morass.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. The only song from Tin Machine never to be played live.

* Called “Video Crimes” on the LP sleeve and in the official songbook. I went with the singular, as that’s how it’s registered with BMI.

** Once on a bus ride from Boston to New Haven, I listened to two mild-mannered-looking middle-aged women, who apparently had never met before and were just seatmates, talk for an hour about various serial killers (“then there was the one who used to hang them from coat hangers”).

Top: Freddy Krueger breaks for lunch, Nightmare on Elm Street 4, 1988.