ALBUM RESCUE SERIES: TIN MACHINE ‘TIN MACHINE’ by DR IAN DIXON

Hello Humans, can you hear me thinking?

These words begin Bowie’s second Tin Machine album, critically panned as ‘second rate’. This marks Bowie’s second attempt at equanimity within a band since heading up The King Bees as Davie Jones in the mid 1960s (Trynka, 2011). In the interim, he added the moniker ‘Bowie’ vying to outdo Mick Jagger (meaning ‘hunter’) by naming himself after a legendary hunting knife – although the story is still hotly debated and becoming a mega-star (Sandford, 1996).[1] Was forming Tin Machine an act of sheer pretension or a genuine plea to return to his roots? Indeed, for the inimitable David Bowie, self-conscious pretension is an active part of his stagecraft and a key ingredient within his famous ‘personas’. This brings us to another quandary: where is his faithful, protective mask during the Tin Machine era? Did the 1980s, which saw him perform to audiences in the hundreds of thousands, selling albums in the tens of millions, see him emerge from behind the mask? Had he finally accepted his Reality as a household name without obfuscating his (dubious) ‘true’ self behind theatrical disguise?[2] Or was he making Tin Machine, the band, his latest attempt at subterfuge; albeit in the guise of honest, grassroots rock ‘n’ roll? As band member, Hunt Sales, famously remarked, “this was presumably the only garage band in existence with a millionaire for a lead singer” (Leigh, 2014). How ironic that ‘Woody’ Woodmansey, the drummer of the Spiders from Mars, once declared Bowie as simply ‘one of the lads’ who became a star and a show-off and relinquished his duties lugging gear as he had done in the early days (Trynka, 2011).

An assessment of the Tin Machine album in hindsight, however, highlights the successful experiment it was: his image, though tainted, lived to see many more reinventions. Consequently, both Tin Machine albums can be seen as improvisations on themes and ideas which would take another decade to perfect with the emergence of his next manifestation of (flawed) genius in albums such as Outside (1995) and Heathen (2002). Fast forward yet another decade and The Next Day (2013) appears without warning; offering up songs of radical contrast from the heartbroken Where Are We Now? to the rock lament The Stars (Are Out Tonight). So the Tin Machine experiment represents a necessary pipeline through which Bowie’s creativity passed, surged, died and re-emerged. We might therefore consider Tin Machine’s second album from the point of view of the music; Bowie’s fandom; the Tin Machine band; the Bowie mask; the album itself and the individual tracks as a way of rescuing the album from damnation within the Bowie lexicon.

Arguably, all the libel against Tin Machine connotes the best part of the great man’s life: the music itself. The first Tin Machine album was lambasted as a work of garage band wall-of-noise and both garage devotees and Bowie fans alike seemed baffled. For my part, I confess to greeting the first album hoping to hell it would match his seminal works of the 1970s, and after a valiant period of evangelical apologism, I resolved (along with the rest of the enclave) that it was awful. This second album was released by Polygram in Australasia in 1991 and, despite its questionable merits, ushers in a new era in music – a time when the rock giants of the 1970s were truly gone (maybe not as ‘gone’ as Syd Barrett, but gone nonetheless). New rock supergroups such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana took up the mantle. Indeed, the 70s gods of rock returned in the guise of ‘old rockers’ two decades later (De Generis, 2007), (those that had not carked it, that is).

Certainly, the diehard Bowie fan really wants the second album to work, and listens intently for the expected sense of transcendence to rise. Alas, like their response Tin Machine one, the exemplary fan falls somewhere between disappointment and denial.

There is, however, much that this album promises and foreshadows, echoes and reinvents: both in Bowie’s music and that of his protégés – all commendably. With hallmark screaming guitars supplied strategically by Reeves Gabrels, who also co-wrote most of the material, the album provides a clarity and balance, which might betray a rookie breed of excellence… had it been anyone but Bowie in the co-driver’s seat. The reputedly telepathic Sales brothers, Hunt and Tony, fill out the basic line-up contributing some not-quite-dirty-enough tunes to the song list. According to biographer Paul Trynka, all three accompanying performers on Tin Machine toured with, befriended and did copious amounts of cocaine with Bowie in preparation for this album.

Produced by Tim Palmer (& Tin Machine) and mixed at Studio 301 in Sydney, Australia, this album prefigures the simple rock line-up of the Reality tour (2003). But the cookie-cutter mentality to songs does not quite have that ring of authenticity, nor does Bowie adequately disappear in the background. Had Bowie read too much Marxism during his performance of the titular role in Berthold Brecht’s polemic play Baal (1982)? Did he look back in anger to find his teacher lounging in his overalls? Or was he simply in denial of his status as mega-star? As forerunner to much of Bowie’s subsequent work with virtuoso guitarist Reeves Gabrels, the album promises a burgeoning style, which subsequently shape-shifted all the way to Outside. But where The Spider’s lead guitarist Mick Ronson had been the exemplary axeman for the glam rock era and ‘crafty’ guitarist Robert Fripp had all but created Scary Monsters’ keystone, inimitable, psychotic rock, Gabrels virtuosity just becomes annoyed, annoying and overweening.

The cover art provides a first glimpse of the material to come, while simultaneously causing a cringe of trepidation. Bowie’s languid stare at the camera on the inner cover of the CD seems to deny the contrasting cover depicting four circumspect (and circumcised) Egyptian male nudes (banned in some countries). Bowie glowers with a touch of suppressed charisma as if subsuming himself in the (dubious) mentality of band solidarity were just a private joke he had not let the others in on. His look seems to say: ‘I am just visiting here’, like the space traveller Thomas Jerome Newton of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1975) or the escapee from worldly oppression, Major Tom.

Once the album is in the player, the scrutiny begins in earnest: as does our attempt to recover the gems hidden in the detritus. With yet another reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Baby Universal kicks the album off with a techno-fetishist repetition of the word: “baby, baby, baby…” The hook is excellent and reeks of self-referentiality: space, star babies, alien voices and a reversal of the haunting ending of Diamond Dog (“bra, bra, bra, bra, bra…”). Baby Universal’s theme curiously collides two of Bowie’s notable obsessions: space and mental telepathy. Yes, Sir David, we can hear you thinking: do ‘think’ us some more. For a moment there’s real potential in this album.

One Shot, written with Tony Sales, produced, mixed and engineered by Hugh Padgham (retuning for another crack after Loving the Alien). There is a touch of The Labyrinth in the song’s simplicity and screaming guitar lead (not mixed so far back as to obscure its pretensions to garage band). And yes, Gabrels peels off an awesome arpeggio or two, but does it add up to a unique song? Here the listener is privileged to hear fine musicianship hitching a ride on a less than satisfactory vehicle, which only goes to prepare us (dejection beginning to set in) for the pedestrian song: You Belong in Rock n Roll. Yet, this next track, with the whispered, haunting, low crooner tones of Bowie at his best, promises to impress. However, the song proves a mere practice-run for the far superior Where Are we Now? on The Next Day. If this is rock ‘n’ roll, then it ain’t the 60s anymore. And if this is garage, they ain’t waking up the neighbours. Yet, the song actually sits nicely in the set: well arranged; some inventive SFX mixing, which creates a rush of insight for the listener; and some fine restraint on Bowie and Gabrels’ part (although seemingly vying for attention). Just when the album might have become odious, If There Is Something (written exclusively by Chuck Ferry) arrests Gabrels’ guitars from competing with Bowie’s voice and the two elements dovetail melodiously and effectively.

Amlapura: trippy, deliberately messed up, like coming off cocaine – which according to Wendy Leigh (2014), Bowie was snorting copiously at the time of this album, having claimed to have ‘kicked’ the habit previously. The dream-life represented in the appropriately titled Amlapura, couched in a sound-reverb shell, which echoes Pink Floyd (less satisfactorily). The song also prefigures psychedelic revival bands such as The Dandy Warhols and Tame Impala, invents upon the past, only to leave us hankering for the future.

And so to Betty Wrong. Scrap the tedious guitar clichés and play this on half speed and the incisive sheering chords cut through with the delightful weirdness of a David Lynch film. Indeed, the title sounds like a character from Twin Peaks (this is not such an improbable simile when you consider that in 1992, Bowie acted for Lynch in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and provided the title track for Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), I’m Deranged (1995). Perhaps that’s what Betty Wrong lacks – the essential ‘derangement’, which comes to fruition on Outside years later. Betty Wrong’s curiously switching bass, all-too-squeaky-clean, yet muffled riffs counterpoising Bowie’s smacked-out lyricism and affectedly exhausted vocal delivery contributes to a song, which is tonally satisfying, if not fully congealing. However, by this stage we are aching for the quintessential Bowie: the genius that invents (even steals) melodies such as Somewhere Over the Rainbow for sublime songs like Starman (1974) (Trynka, 2011).

So with You Can’t Talk (again written with Tony Sales), the messy grunge guitar, the driving, steam-train beat propels us through lyrics, which should be worth listening to, but somehow, Somewhere Over the Rainbow just isn’t manifesting here. Is it that Bowie’s invention is too good in the chorus to deliver a sense of the holistic song – especially a garage (w)hole? Embarrassingly, the lyrics seem lazy and teenage, yet without the prerequisite youthful anger, which ought to accompany such garage fare: the genuine, raw-power rage, which underpinned works like Scary Monsters (1979) and Ziggy Stardust (1972) is simply saddened by impending middle age; nor does it bear the inspired improvisations of Heroes’ (1977) lyricism. When the tired, clichéd fade out announces a sheer lack of creativity at the song’s ending, we are left wondering where Bowie’s mask is? Is he emerging from behind the disguise to a disappointing response? Should he simply venture back behind the personas we love so much?

The next track Stateside is: Iggy Pop meets Screaming Jay Hawkins. The Hammond organ and slick lead guitar (both played by Gabrels) seems merely an excuse to scramble up the fret-board for a good old-fashioned ‘rave up’ ending (with a dash of Steve Vye xxx).

Shopping for Girls bears a taste of Lodger (1977) or Blackout from the Heroes album with its inspired hatred of the world. Unfortunately, with none of the edge, nor the concessions to feminism, which shone from Lodger (‘I guess the bruises won’t show, If she wears long sleeves, (Don’t hit her)’) (Bowie, 1979). For all its noise, the song somehow seems tame, as if washed by an all too generic chorus. Here, we observe a concession toward Bowie auteurism: we fall, yet again, into the trap of comparing this wanting album to the master’s former greats.

A Big Hurt: could that be Suzy Quatro sneaking into his influences (an ironic reference to the one girl in glam rock who dressed as a boy instead of vice versa)? Perhaps only Oz-centricity recognises this similarity? In any case, the Sprechgesang in A Big Hurt is palpably self-conscious. Yet, even this is understandable for an artist such as Bowie: always deliberately self-conscious compared to the ‘organic’ Rolling Stones. Bowie always more interested in conveying ideas, intellectual narcissism, interplanetary tin cans and lost, remote screaming style than unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps this is why both Tin Machine albums suffer so: without music as vehicle for ideas, Tin Machine is just bad rock.

Speaking of which, his next track, Sorry (bearing no resemblance to The Easybeats or even The McCoy’s Sorrow (for which Bowie recorded the definitive version) demonstrates that Bowie and Gabrels have a deft capacity for clashing styles against each another while retaining the essential ‘sense of the song’ and still rendering it as garage. The welcome acoustic twelve-string guitar, which opens and concludes this track, makes us wish the writers really were sorry, rather than just crooning about it.

Goodbye Mr Ed (written with Hunt Sales) sports lyrics, which again promise the Bowie that was and will be again, particularly with pop references to 1960s U.S. TV shows and classical Greek mythology alike. The parallel voices (albeit missing Bowie’s backing up his own lead: ‘the many Bowies’ as Shaar Murray put it (1981)). This track foreshadows the bleak, ironic lament of Better Future off the Heathen album, but without the messed up innocence of Bowie’s infamous ‘Baby Grace’ vocal delivery or the bleak entropy of its strikingly accurate witness to our evolving reality post 9/11.

With unwarranted feedback to finish off, Bowie improvises a screaming sax line, as if to announce, like Monty Python: “I’m not dead yet!” At the conclusion of Tin Machine’s second album, the listener concedes that it is definitely an improvement on the first. But, was Bowie really ever satisfied to reside in the background? Or was it doomed from the start, implying that it simply could not be done? Indeed, there in the foldout photograph of the band, beams Bowie’s impish, wry testament: his knowing refusal at anonymity.

Look, can’t we just let Bowie off the hook (so to speak?). Just because he has provided us with genius in so many forms over so many decades, must we expect him to conquer every genre in existence? Indeed, Tin Machine II is an experiment in garage rock, which, although questionable in its own right, still gestated many an experiment to come – and with admirable delivery. The albums which stem from this one – Gabrels Bowie’s Outside, Heathen, Reality, The Next Day all bear the hallmarks of Bowie’s relinquishing genius, but then again there was a time when Bowie cut and ran from the highpoints of the past. It is, of course, the self-righteous indulgence of Bowie fandom to make comparisons to his former glories. Fans must therefore concede that, compared the travesties of Tonight and Never Let me Down (which for many fans spelled the death knell), it is an album with a balance of the pragmatic and the trippy; the hard-edged and the gilt-edged, the beery dance halls just a tad too sober and clean for genuine garage. Indeed, the album is a bottleneck of talent still waiting to flow and fills the hard-core fan with sorrow (complete with string quartet backing track). Yet, surely the clarity of Tin Machine’s production and the slick, riffing rock ‘n’ roll style (even as we cannot help our judgement) is only to be admired (if I still sound like an apologist – I am).

[1] Biographer Wendy Leigh argues this is not true and that Bowie fashioned himself on entrepreneur Norman Bowie.

[2] Where Kiss had theatricalised even the act of unmasking (1983-1996) after their 1980 album Kiss: Unmasked, heralded a change, Bowie, in this same era had merely neglected the mask until it stuck firm in place (Shaar Murray, 1981).

The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. Tin Machine ‘Tin Machine’ is written by Dr Ian Dixon, one of ARS’s guest academics. Dr Ian Dixon is a well known Melbourne-based film and television director who is also one of the world’s most eminent David Bowie scholars. (Follow Dr Ian Dixon on Twitter @IanIandixon66)

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