ALBUM RESCUE SERIES: JOE STRUMMER ‘EARTHQUAKE WEATHER’ BY ADAM SPELLICY

THE FUTURE IS REWRITTEN

By the mid 1980s, seminal punk rockers The Clash had disbanded. Founding member Joe Strummer fired lead guitarist and songwriting partner Mick Jones via public communiqué in 1983 and the hastily reconstituted Clash Mark II only managed to launch one final, misguided salvo before skulking off to die: 1985’s Cut The Crap which, for all the opprobrium heaped upon it, boasts the epic, defeatist state-of-the-nation address This Is England.

In the traditional rock ’n’ roll playbook there is a post-band-breakup ritual to be observed: after an appropriate grieving period the former members, having gone their separate ways, set about issuing solo albums. Tunes that were torpedoed, vetoed, or simply failed to pass muster finally see the light of day, at last immune to internecine wrangling. Mick Jones took this well-trodden path, forming Big Audio Dynamite (B.A.D) in 1984. B.A.D.’s mix of sloganeering punk, electro pop, sampling, hip hop, dub reggae and funk seemed like an organic update of The Clash’s genre explorations and for a time the band enjoyed great success.

Joe Strummer’s solo career, on the other hand, presented as a classic case of Wilderness Years. He went off the reservation, sporadically popping his head above the parapet before promptly vanishing again. Unless one was a keen eyed aficionado of late 1980s independent film, it was a pretty effective disappearing act motivated by Strummer’s state of mind following the implosion of The Clash.

Having reached the summit of rock stardom, Strummer found himself isolated and riven with remorse. In his relentless pursuit of fame he had severed many significant human bonds, becoming the very thing he had once decried. In his own prophetic words:

“What’s the point in being one of the few? There’s nothing there. You can get all the Rolls Royces, all the country houses, all the servants, all the dope – and there’s nothing at the end of that road… no human life or nothing.”

– Joe Strummer, Rude Boy (1980)

Strummer’s ensuing period of itinerant soul-searching was contextualised within a redemptive narrative arc by Julien Temple, in his 2007 documentary The Future Is Unwritten. At the end of Temple’s film, Strummer devotes himself to rekindling the spark of camaraderie with those he had once spurned, around the flames of his legendary Glastonbury Festival campfires.

But back to the mid-1980s, before such reparations had been made. Whether consciously or not, Strummer made use of the years between 1986 and 1989 to systematically dismantle his iconic persona and scatter the fragments to the four winds. This was a strategy that, to a large extent, involved Strummer subsuming his ego and identity to the will of other artists.

The first was filmmaker Alex Cox, who invited Strummer to contribute two songs (Love Kills and Dum Dum Club) to the soundtrack of his 1986 film Sid & Nancy, which depicted the doomed romance between punk idols Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. In the first of several acting roles he would take on during this period, Strummer appeared in the music video for Love Kills (also directed by Cox), playing an incompetent Mexican Federale opposite Gary Oldman’s Vicious, in a prison-break superhero fantasy.

Strummer already had some prior form as an actor, playing himself in Jack Hazan and David Mingay’s 1980 docu-drama Rude Boy. And it could, of course, be argued that “Joe Strummer” was a long-form role-play by the downwardly mobile, class-conscious John Mellor – one he was growing ever more weary of performing. Aside from the odd Travis Bickle-style Mohawk haircut, Strummer was never given to the chrysalis-like transformations of a Bowie or a Dylan – it was always about the music – but he would nevertheless don a variety of guises in the next few years, before emerging in his final incarnation at the turn of the century.

By 1986, the wounds sustained during the breakup of The Clash were already starting to heal: Strummer co-produced and co-wrote many of the songs on Big Audio Dynamite’s second (and strongest) album, No. 10 Upping St. His role in this case was essentially that of ‘Silent Partner’, lending artistic support to former band mate Mick Jones and his new crew.

In 1987 Strummer returned to acting, in Alex Cox’s next feature Straight To Hell. Surely one of the most bizarre Plan Bs ever conceived, the film came about after the collapse of a proposed Nicaraguan tour by Strummer, The Pogues and Elvis Costello, in support of the embattled Sandinista government. Augmented by an eclectic supporting cast (including Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones and Jim Jarmusch) the musicians and Cox relocated to Almeria, Spain, where they cooked up a genre-colliding heist film slash ‘Paella Western’ remake of Giulio Questi’s Django Kill. Roundly dismissed at the time as a self-indulgent piss-take, or a very expensive home movie, Straight To Hell endures as an often hilarious, anarchic, proto-Po-Mo hybrid (and quite possibly an unacknowledged influence on one Quentin Tarantino).

It was during the production of Straight To Hell that Strummer connected with a musician who would take on an increasingly significant role in his subsequent creative efforts: Zander Schloss, formerly from punk band the Circle Jerks. They bonded on-set: Strummer was playing one of the film’s protagonists, Simms, a member of a gang of thieves who hole up in a desert town only to run afoul of the caffeine-addicted McManus Gang (played by The Pogues); while Schloss was cast in the minor role of local hot dog vendor Karl The Weiner Boy. Further details of the film’s eccentric ‘plot’ are probably best omitted, though it is worth noting that Strummer fully immerses himself in the role of a brooding, sexually frustrated wannabe bank robber. In addition to contributing two songs of his own to the film’s soundtrack, Strummer teamed up with Schloss to co-write Karl’s theme song, Salsa Y Ketchup, a rousing, double-entendre-riddled paean to sausages. Thus an unlikely yet fruitful collaboration was born.

That same year Cox, on a creative roll, directed a second feature: his allegorical masterpiece Walker, penned by legendary screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Two Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid). Ostensibly an historical biopic about William Walker, the freebooter who invaded Nicaragua in the 1850s under the doctrine of manifest destiny, the film is a rabidly anti-American stab at President Ronald Reagan’s then-contemporary support for the counterrevolutionary Contras. The film is rendered all the more subversive by the fact that it was made with $800,000 of Universal Studio’s money. Confined to a furtive cameo on the periphery of the frame, all but unrecognizable beneath bushranger beard and straggly long hair, Strummer’s on-screen contribution to Walker is negligible. Off-screen, it’s another story.

No longer content with dashing off a few tunes for the soundtrack, Strummer expressed a desire to compose the entire score for the film. Duly afforded the opportunity by Cox, Strummer recorded a series of 4-track demos using only acoustic guitar and a rudimentary keyboard. These skeletal ideas were entrusted to the prodigiously talented Zander Schloss – a “show off” by his own admission – who fleshed them out into lush arrangements for stringed instruments, horns and percussion. Much inspiration was apparently taken from the local music Schloss and Strummer heard in the cantinas they frequented during the film’s Nicaragua shoot.

Walker’s resulting score blends folk and country with more distinctly Central American and Caribbean influences, at times echoing Bob Dylan’s minimalist soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, elsewhere evoking the strident dramatics of Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western themes. The Clash often experimented with musical genres (dub, reggae, funk, rockabilly), assimilating their influences through a tight-knit filter. Out on his own, Strummer became an ever more inclusive musical polyglot, a twitchy World Music exponent (minus the Great White Saviour Complex). Strummer’s contribution to the actual recording is limited to lead vocals on a few lilting campfire ballads, demonstrating a remarkable degree of autonomy imparted to Schloss and his session musicians. It is sublime in its own right, but as the first full-length solo album by the former front man for The Clash, it understandably left many fans bewildered.

In 1988, Strummer was commissioned to compose the soundtrack for Marisa Silver’s independent film Permanent Record, a melancholy meditation on teenage suicide. An early test screening of the film reportedly moved Strummer to tears. The backing band assembled for this project, fittingly dubbed The Latino Rockabilly War, comprised the rhythm section of punk/jazz outfit Tupelo Chainsex – bassist Joey Altruda and drummer Willie MacNeil – augmented by the now ubiquitous Zander Schloss on lead guitar. The eight songs they recorded rank among Strummer’s best solo work and display a brash, one-take vitality, repetitive rave-up Trash City even featuring the film’s star, Keanu Reeves, guesting on scrappy rhythm guitar. A slightly altered line-up of this band would soon go on to create Earthquake Weather.

But before they did, Joe cropped up on screen once more, skulking around a Memphis bar playing a suicidal drunk in one of three intersecting storylines that comprise Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train. A role specifically written with Strummer in mind (as is Jarmusch’s casting modus operandi), his character’s repeated line: “Don’t call me Elvis!” is a succinct, significant statement of Joe’s desire to shrug off the ill-fitting rock star mantle.

Which brings us, finally, to 1989’s Earthquake Weather.

I recall buying this album eagerly upon its release – apparently one of only 7,000 people to do so, if my research is correct. Finally, a fully-fledged Joe Strummer solo album! After a few perplexed spins, it was thereafter consigned to some dark recess of my record collection. Reviews from the time vindicated my initial disdain.

Before we take the platter out for reconsideration, let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the front cover. As a tequila sun sets over Californian palm trees, an enigmatic silhouette stands on the edge of a swimming pool diving board, quiff hanging lank atop his uplifted head, cigarette dangling from his lower lip. A leather-jacketed, bow-legged, cowboy-booted guitar slinger, Telecaster slung like a rifle at his hip. A pomaded pirate poised to walk the plank. It’s simultaneously elegiac and defiant. Later adopted as the logo for The Joe Strummer Foundation and as Chris Salewicz notes in his biography Redemption Song, it’s “an iconic Strummer image ironically much better known than the music inside the record it was intended to herald.”

Off-mike, Joe bellows a war cry: “LET’S ROCK AGAIN!” and the album opener Gangsterville kicks off with no fanfare, the words and music coming thick and fast, rhythms wrestling. Strummer hollers urgently over the top of a reconfigured Latino Rockabilly War, now with Lonnie Marshall replacing Joey Altruda on bass:

The Revolution came, the Revolution went

 Strummer summarises, with an abrupt sense of futility.

Wanted: one man to lead a crusade

Payment: a bullet on a big parade

Then, all at once: the pounding punk thunder flips to a tipsy Caribbean sway and we’re relocated to the titular ‘Gangsterville’. The effect on Strummer’s vocal also turns on a dime, switching from mighty slap-back echo to tinny, crackly filter, as if emanating from a cheap transistor radio in a broken down ’57 Chevrolet. The song continues in this schizoid fashion, alternating back and forth between two distinctly opposed feels, the effect unnerving yet undeniably cinematic: the abrupt transitions from verse to chorus are like scene cuts. The lyrics equivocate every bit as much as the music – Strummer is alarmed to discover common ground with both the victims and perpetrators of political crimes:

On the other hand, sitting next to an evil crew
They just got down from floor 82

Been selling Indian reservations

Comin’ in looking for some jazz and a little libations

I like the same kind of beer

I gotta get right out of here

If the first track speaks of political disillusionment, the second, King Of The Bayou, immediately contradicts this position with a hopeful salute to Phillipine President Corazon Aquino, elected in the wake of the 1986 People Power Revolution that toppled Ferdinand Marcos. Here, the optimism is infectiously anthemic:

Cory is the one

She’ll never ever die young

Next up is Slant Six, which comes on like a Keith Richards solo number, right down to Schloss’ wiry slide guitar licks. It’s apt, then, that the song critiques the decadent trappings of rock stardom – and their isolating effect – that Strummer himself was struggling to avoid:

 You got Juan-Le-Pins

You got the needle and the deep cellar wine

You got the slow boat to China

You own part of South Carolina

What a fate: to be imprisoned at the height of your dreams

An abrupt climate change comes in the form of Island Hopping, whose lazy nylon-string lope, evocative of Jamaican folk, underpins a telling ode to the joys of shirking one’s duties and the lure of capitulating to wanderlust:

I don’t like to do a drop of work

Drive a cab, or paint the church

It’s been the same since I don’t know when

So I’m goin’ island hopping again

Throughout the album Strummer is preoccupied with rebellion, escapism and restlessness, topics that must have felt very dear to him during these “lost” years. Significantly, the majority of the song titles suggest movement, modes of transportation or destinations: Slant Six, Leopardskin Limousines, Ride Your Donkey, Island Hopping, Gangsterville, Sleepwalk, Highway One Zero Street, King Of The Bayou, Shouting Street, Passport To Detroit. The lyrics coalesce into a surreal, novelistic, globe-spanning travelogue, jumping to and from locations both real and fictional, rapidly juxtaposing rich and poor, cops and robbers, boardrooms and barrios, in imagery pitched somewhere between Bob Dylan’s Invisible Republic and William Burroughs’ nightmarish Interzone.

Earthquake Weather marks the point where Strummer’s laissez-faire approach to band leadership reached both its zenith and nadir. Evidently pleased with the result of recent collaborations, he allowed his co-conspirators great liberty to flesh out his foggy notions, bringing their diverse musical pedigrees to bear as they discovered the arrangements through intensive jamming. Zander Schloss, for his part, revels in this freedom, grandstanding on lead guitar, banjo and any other stringed instrument within reach as he navigates the hairpin genre curves. His hyperactive solos come off like Marc Ribot channeling J. Mascis. These musical explorations often took place with Strummer in absentia: he would take to the streets in search of real-life lyrical stimulus, or hunker down in a far corner of the studio in his notorious spliff bunker to pursue more inward inspirations.

It’s only around the middle of the album that this otherwise fruitful regime of organized chaos threatens to skip the rails: on Dizzy’s Goatee and Leopardskin Limousines the grooves are tentative, the vocals delivered in an unconvincing mumble, as if something hasn’t quite gelled. And Boogie With Your Children and Sikorsky Parts – which no amount of re-listening can fully redeem – bear unfortunate comparison to early Red Hot Chili Peppers. This is possibly due, in no small part, to the abrupt mid-session replacement of Willie MacNeil with drummer Jack Irons from the aforementioned Californian funkers.

Four songs on the album reveal that Strummer never fully transcended his Punk Rock Warlord persona. Nor perhaps, ultimately, did he truly wish to. Shouting Street drives like a madman, with Schloss rapid-firing Chuck Berry licks from the passenger seat (complete with a shout-out to Jim Jarmusch); Jewellers & Bums is an insistent thumper that could stack up against anything on The Clash’s flawless London Calling; Highway One Zero Street (with a title that’s pure Zimmerman) effortlessly shifts gears from Mariarchi-Waltz time to stabbing punk to anthem rock to popping funk, unfolding like a map of intersecting ethnic neighbourhoods; and Passport To Detroit rockets along an apocalyptic desert highway at midnight, headlights illuminating doomy portents.

The sole cover version on the album, Ride Your Donkey, is a relaxed rendition of The Tennors’ Rocksteady standard, which Strummer might have first heard at the Marquee Club in the early days of London’s punk scene. Its inclusion here suggests a nostalgic trawling through past influences, and is one of the few backward glances Strummer permitted himself in his relentless forward march to a new identity.

Some critics speculated that Earthquake Weather was a self-sabotaging attempt on Strummer’s part to wriggle out of his contract with EMI, but it’s far too complex a piece of work to have been conceived with such a cynical endgame in mind. Much was made at the time of the “muddiness” of the album’s production and it’s true there is a kitchen-sinky chaos to some of the mixes, but much like Strummer and Schloss’ soundtrack work the focus favours ambience over radio-friendly clarity. Several songs even feel like they’ve wandered in off the set of Walker: Island Hopping, Leopardskin Limousines and the album’s closer, Sleepwalk (originally written for Frank Sinatra), provide gentle acoustic oases of calm amid the urgent electrical storms that dominate elsewhere.

The album has a palpable sense of topography and geography, heavily populated by a multinational cast of heroes, villains and background extras, as if Strummer’s forays into film were feeding back into his songwriting. The cumulative effect of Earthquake Weather is akin to reading the screenplay and listening to the score for an unmade trans-national road movie, as an abstract but nonetheless coherent narrative plays out on the screen behind one’s eyes. The main character, of course, is Joe Strummer himself. No matter how hard he fought to submerge his stardom and defer to his creative associates, the resulting work bears his indelible imprint.

It took another decade for Strummer to finally emerge as a solo artist in the traditional sense. With new backing outfit The Mescaleros, he released a trio of increasingly decent albums in quick succession between 1999 and 2002. The last of these, Streetcore, was completed posthumously by band mates Martin Slattery and Scott Shields, Strummer having only recorded his rhythm guitar and vocal tracks before his sudden death at age 50.

And so, once again, responsibility for the realisation of Strummer’s vision fell to his collaborators – but this time out of heart-breaking necessity rather than trusting intent. As a result, Streetcore makes for bittersweet listening: it’s the solid solo album every fan had been waiting 13 long years for – but Joe was no longer around to hear it. Faced with the reality that we’ll never be graced with another, and freed from past prejudices a listener may have once brought to the material, the music Strummer made between 1986 and 1989, culminating in Earthquake Weather, now reveals itself to be richly rewarding and ripe for redemption…………….

Sources:

Cox, A. (2013) Website of filmmaker Alex Cox (Retrieved from alexcox.com)

Excerpts from lyrics to Gangsterville, King Of The Bayou, Slant Six and Island Hopping © Joe Strummer

Hazan, J. & Mingay, D. (1980) Rude Boy (Buzzy Enterprises / Michael White Productions)

Jarmusch, J. (1989) Mystery Train (JVC Entertainment Networks / Mystery Train)

Pottker, N. (2014) In Conversation: Zander Schloss (Retrieved fromfiles.wordpress.com/2014/10)

Salewicz, C. (2006) Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography Of Joe Strummer (London, Harper Collins)

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. Joe Strummer ‘Earthquake Weather’ is written by Adam Spellicy, one of ARS’s guest authors. Adam Spellicy is a screenwriter, filmmaker and an occasional musician based in Melbourne, Australia. (Follow Adam Spellicy on Twitter @AdamSpellicy )

Album Rescue Series Guest Author, Adam Spellicy.
Album Rescue Series Guest Author, Adam Spellicy.

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)

Album Rescue Series: David Bowie ‘Tonight’ by Dr Ian Dixon

You might remember him from such extravagant masquerades as Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke; from outrageous publicity stunts such as proclaiming himself Satanist (Sandford, 1996), born again Christian (Leigh, 2014), bisexual, Nazi apologist (Trynka, 2011), even an alien. You might recall his feminine make up, his Kabuki and Kansai suits, his “screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo” (Bowie, 1973), his double reinstatement of the Pierrot theme (1967, 1979) or just pacing before a bulldozer surrounded by clerics of varying denominations in Ashes to Ashes (1979). That’s right! The inimitable David Bowie.

In the late 1960s, Bowie’s band, The Konrads, played at weddings, was ignored and booed off stage then, in the 1980s, Bowie played to audiences in the hundreds of thousands for the Serious Moonlight tour. During the 1970s he was hounded by the press for sexual excess and conspicuous public perversion then succumbed to monogamous marital reclusiveness in the 1990s. He has played, sung, written, arranged and produced for mega-stars such as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, supported lesser-knowns such as Mott the Hoople and generally championed bands globally for their prog rock adventuring. He’s terrified himself with the constant threat of ‘madness’ as exemplified by his beloved brother Terry’s schizophrenia. He’s slept with more people than you could poke a stick at: everyone from Marianne Faithful to Nico, Charlie Chaplin’s widow, Oona O’Neill Chaplin, transsexual Romy Haag and supermodels Winona Williams and his scintillating wife, Iman Bowie.

Above all, Bowie represents the triumph of high art in popular music having firmly wedged himself into the zeitgeist with iconic songs like Space Oddity, Starman, Rebel Rebel, Heroes, Fashion and Let’s Dance while exemplifying the very spirit of rock creativity and its synthesis with art and literature, referencing works from Sigmund Freud’s Interpretations of Dreams to George Orwell’s 1984. David Bowie acts on stage and screen (especially noted for his exemplary physical gyrations in the stage play version of The Elephant Man in New York, 1980). He writes music in irreconcilably contrasting styles, even movie soundtracks for Nicolas Roeg’s (see Big Audio Dynamite) confusing extravaganza: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and the downbeat realist drama Christiane F. in which he plays himself (as he did in far more capricious vein in Zoolander (2001)). More recently, Bowie performed in The Prestige (2006) alongside Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale (Batman, Wolverine and Ziggy Stardust on the same screen! Now that’s a film worth seeing).

This is David Bowie: inexhaustible, inspired, insecure, admirable, charismatic, a man with impeccable manners and a reputation for rapidly writing songs that go from 0 to 100 in seconds. Fame (1976) was apparently penned with John Lennon in less than twenty minutes (Sandford, 1996)). In short, the man is a genius (antiquated modernist term though it be), which prompts the question: how did Tonight (1984) mess it all up so irrevocably?

Tonight, produced by Bowie, Hugh Padgham and Derek Bramble followed the unprecedented commercial and artistic success of Let’s Dance: his top selling album in which the production smarts of disco-funk king Nile Rodgers met with the sharp guitar excellence of Stevie Ray Vaughan (before the latter left the tour in a helicopter: disdainful that Bowie had matched his own outrageous egotism (Sandford, 1996)). Bowie’s 16th studio album, Tonight, reached number one on the British charts. Yet, despite its commercial success fans still whisper that the success was merely ‘off the back of’ Let’s Dance, which had skyrocketed Bowie’s fame.

Tonight is the album Bowie biographer Paul Trynka called, “a perfect storm of mediocrity”’ and “leaden white reggae” (2011, p. 408), and Melody Maker (1990) refers to as “rotten”’. The album relinquished Bowie’s former acumen at predicting the market and trailed the reggae wave by some years (Leigh, 2014). Tonight, the album after Bowie’s telepathic ability to predict the market, saw him leave behind the music-fashion predictions that had secured his place at the top of the pops – folk-rock, glam rock, theatrical grunge, techno and ambient, disco-funk, plastic soul and new romanticism. Tonight represented a loss of confidence on Bowie’s part and a switch to mainstream as a source of inspiration rather than underground music, which had serviced the master for over a decade. Where previous fare had included The Velvet Underground, Brian Eno’s ambient music and classical composers such as Gustav Holst, Hanns Eisler and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Tonight relied on sources from The Police, Laurie Anderson and The Thompson Twins.

Relying heavily on the 1980s big drum sound, even the dance anthems of Let’s Dance succumb to the tragedy of falling behind, but Tonight brings it home and nails the coffin shut on a decade of unprecedented reinvention and primavera excellence in popular music. 1983 was the year that dedicated Bowie journalist Charles Shaar Murray, “David’s number one cheerleader in the British press”’ (Leigh, 2014, p. 153), stopped documenting his albums. Having said that, this album represents moments of impeccably slick production, excellence culminating in the seamless pop icon Blue Jean. Indeed, Tonight fairly defines the self-conscious interplay of tasteless narcissism and artistic pursuit (that’s a compliment).

However, a closer scrutiny of the individual tracks leaves us wanting for an album worthy of the Bowie oeuvre. The songs combine the would-be sublime with the loud ordinariness of a moribund fad. Tracks such as Loving the Alien mix orchestral strings in the background in a fashion already exhausted by E.L.O. and Bowie chooses to ride the “leaden white reggae” wave headfirst into oblivion (Trynka, 2011, p. 408).

On Tonight, lacklustre guitar riffs by the otherwise stupendous Carlos Alomar remain a sad indictment hung on Bowie. Tonight plummets his hard-won mega-stardom into the absolute mediocrity of an absolute beginner (neither was his reputation rescued by his subsequent album, Never Let me Down, which in Bowie’s own words was “apocryphally awful”: plastic emotion succumbing to pure schmaltz). Perhaps, on track two of Tonight, Bowie was offering himself advice by repeating the affirmation: ‘Don’t look down’, as the resurgence of his monolithic cocaine addiction propelled his personal paranoia to sheer megalomania.

Where are the incisive lyrics so prevalent in Scary Monsters? Where are the sublime melodies which saw seasoned musicians such as Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Marc Bolan consulting with a 23 year old Bowie in 1970 (Vizard, 1990)? Some say his cocaine addiction all but wiped out his former genius: a phenomenon Bowie likens to having Swiss cheese for a brain: far from decrying this fact, Bowie celebrated it when he appeared on Parkinson (2002) touted as the “Peter Pan of Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

Bowie’s version of God Only Knows is not only embarrassing, it’s one of the most disingenuous tracks in rock history. The delivery, in the words of biographer Paul Trynka, is akin to a “pub singer punting for wedding and bar mitzvah jobs” (2011, p. 408). In this sad, crooner version of The Beach Boys’ 1966 classic, jaunty epistle, Bowie experiments with his ever deepening vocal delivery: a rumbling, bass register assisted by decades of chain smoking. This quality would be exploited to far greater effect on Heathen (1999) as he had done on Diamond Dogs (1974) and Let’s Dance (1982). On Tonight’s God Only Knows, however, everything from sentimental strings to turgid tempo, the ‘big sound’ rim-shot drums to the super-charged romanticism announces that this was simply a bad choice. With this version (and to his credit), Bowie’s tongue is firmly wedged in his cheek, but the delivery is so cringe-worthy nobody seems to have noticed the irony. The song begins as saccharine-schmaltz with a semi-shouted Sprechgesang quality weaved in for good measure then descends to pure bathos. With God Only Knows, Bowie outdoes the stain on Across the Universe: his previous highpoint of pure awful on Young Americans (1975) (when teaming up with John Lennon on the inspired Fame – an iconic track not even the pretentious 1990 remix could overshadow).

The eponymous track, Tonight, features steel drum and marimba rhythms (supplied by Canadian, Guy St. Onge) and played without the authenticity of Jamaican verve, even though Mr Bowie is ‘familiar’ with Jamaican culture (particularly Jamaican women) since his teen years in South London directly after the Second World War. There are, however, some exemplary backup vocals on this track, which also constitutes a beautiful synchronicity of timbre between himself and Tina Turner (the grandma and grandpa of rock together!).

After the haunting excellence of China Girl on Let’s Dance (even though Bowie ultimately despised his version), Bowie attempts again to resurrect some of the genius performance from Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot on Tonight’s next track Neighbourhood Threat. Regrettably, Bowie fails to achieve the ‘messed-up’ resignation of Iggy (even though Bowie had produced Pop’s album during a period of unmitigated creativity in Berlin: 1975-1977). Bowie himself declared the song ‘disastrous’, mentioning a plethora of different musical styles tried and failed in attempting to resurrect the song. To Bowie’s credit, however, this desperate anthem of street survival, Neighbourhood Threat, contains some perfect scintillation of bass guitar and drum combinations, notably, this time-tested pop music convention kicks the song off immediately. This effectively reinvents the song in a new genre, which is no small feat. In the past, my friends spent many a debauched night playing song-for-song: Bowie-Pop-Bowie and debate the merits of the differing versions (Iggy invariably won!) Neighbourhood Threat oscillates between glossy disco backing singers and three-chord guitar riffs including inspired contrapuntal movements between competing melodies as Bowie peels off: “Will you still place your bets, on the Neighbourhood Threat?

And so we arrive at Blue Jean: the listener sighs, ‘at last!’ as the album really takes off. This song represents all that could have been on this lively, but flawed album. The hit-parade anthem Blue Jean employs a characteristically remote vocal delivery, yet remains a capricious interpretation, sporting lyrics such as: “She’s got a turned up nose”. This is counterbalanced against an impassioned screaming of: “Sometimes I feel like. Dancing with Blue Jean. Somebody send me!” Senseless lyrics though they may be, the subtext of being out of your head in love with someone bad for you fairly drips from the vinyl (yes, vinyl, which dates-stamps this particular critic irrevocably). Indeed, even the deliberately fake, ‘cracked actor’ vocal rift finds its perfect place in this hit tune. The driving double-time beat of the verse leads seamlessly into the middle eight and chorus. The hit retains a genuine improvisational quality floating over the slick arrangement: the superb placement of shrieking, grunting saxophone riffs (played by the man himself) sets off the exemplary guitar solo played lovingly by long-time Bowie axeman, Carlos Alomar.

Wouldn’t it be sublime to leave this album at this point so we won’t even have to mention Tumble and Twirl, with its impulsive 6/8 time signature and gurgling, hyper-romantic Robert Smith-type vocal delivery? The song (and alas most of the album) reminds us of the tragedy of conscious postmodern caprice believing its own hype. Indeed, I Keep Forgetting (Leiber and Stoller’s reworking of Chuck Jackson’s original), and Dancing with the Big Boys makes the listener want to rip the album off the player and put Scary Monsters back on (lest we keep forget that Bowie was once the giant of progressive, edgy popular music). With a decisive rim-shot, the album ends: the big brass nightmare is over and we are left in a welcome abyss, where the absence of noise is somehow meaningful by comparison. Is the album too clean – did he not smoke enough ganja to render effective, dirty reggae (it was, after all, not his drug of choice (Leigh, 2014))? Was it all just a waste of space and vinyl and unsmoked ganja?

Yet I resist the urge to do just that and, as I cogitate the theme of this collection: Album Rescue Series, I must acknowledge that it is the very genius of Bowie’s former glory that raises the bar for the artistic and commercial success of such a venture. Ironically, this means he is judged harshly by fans and critics. Indeed, the album represents a clash between commercialism and artistry. On reflection, the advancement in engineering is exemplary; the sound is clean and seamless to the very edge of technological capacity in the 1980s. We must pay homage to Bowie for venturing even further into new terrain creating a synthesis of reggae and white cynicism, for maintaining a modicum of intelligence within the lyricism. In the notoriously shallow zeitgeist of the 1980s it stands out as experimental (within tight, commercial parameters) and colourful. Perhaps his old buddy Christian Bale should play this album during his scathing (ironic) indictment of 80s pop in American Psycho (2000).

Bowie has, and will always have, extensiveness and inclusiveness in his music – ever increasing range vocally, musically and inter-disciplinary influences: far from a mere follower of the market. We must acknowledge that the contemporaneous market had painted Bowie into a corner. The pressure to emulate the commercial success of Let’s Dance or the artistic excellence of Scary Monsters must have represented extraordinary insecurity for this mega-star. The music on Tonight is crisp, inventive, unique and (largely) unpredictable. Bowie is to be praised for continuing his experimentation with musical styles beyond mega-stardom. Thus, within David Bowie’s musical milieu, Tonight is an album definitely worth playing. Although other Bowie albums might be written off, there is, in Tonight: sweat behind the market positioning; pain behind the commercialism; excellence in the production; and sheer balls in the risk.

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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. David Bowie ‘Tonight is written by Dr Ian Dixon, our first in a series of 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)