Heaven's In Here: Tin Machine
[Tin Machine cover art courtesy of allmusic.com]
Tin Machine [EMI-1989]
Live: Oy Vey, Baby [Victory-1992]
After his groundbreaking and highly varied work in the ‘70s, David Bowie started the ‘80s by following the noted Brian Eno-produced album trilogy—Low, Heroes, and Lodger—with Scary Monsters, arguably his last classic album. He would end the decade that brought him deserved superstar status (via the blockbuster Let’s Dance album, in particular) by choosing the one option this chameleon-like artist had yet to embrace: to become an equal member in a four-piece rock band. It was also the last time Bowie would find himself ahead of the musical curve.
Joining forces with American co-horts—stunt guitarist Reeves Gabrels and the former Todd Rundgren rhythm section comprised of Sales brothers Tony and Hunt, on bass and drums, respectively—Tin Machine debuted with a self-titled, raunchy, bluesy, heavy-hitting record that deftly quotes and insinuates elements of the previous 25 years of guitar-based rock music. (We’re looking at you, Reeves.) It not only earned positive reviews but also predated the raw, unadorned music that followed in the wake of the Seattle-based grunge explosion of the early ‘90s. Loaded with gems, the album rocks hard (“Heaven’s In Here”, “Under the God”, “Pretty Things”, “Video Crime”, the title track) but doesn’t forsake catchy melodies for power (“Baby Can Dance”, the Who-influenced “Bus Stop”) and includes one of Bowie’s most beautiful love songs: the trippy, near-psychedelic “Amazing”, as well as quite a few instances of social commentary. (The cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” does not improve one bit on the original, but then again it wasn’t much to begin with.)
Surprised and baffled by Bowie’s new band and the perceived shift in his seemingly established aesthetic, a few detractors were aghast: noted critic Ira Robbins of the Trouser Press Guide called it “blunt, vulgar, violent, ephemeral and derivative” and accused Bowie of using Tin Machine as an excuse “to revisit his past under cover of an autonomous timeline (thereby escaping accusations of regression)”. All of this may or may not be valid, but in the end, like all albums ultimately do, Tin Machine speaks for itself. And the quite pleasing, roaring sound it makes comes across loud and clear.
After a long and storied career, it’s safe to assume that one other thing Bowie did not foresee encountering was the possibility of a sophomore slump: Tin Machine II is both a tad under-cooked and a little more commercially-inclined than its predecessor, consequently falling short of the debut’s power and consistency. It is in no way a dud, however: “Baby Universal” is a catchy rocker; first single “One Shot” was a minor hit that could’ve easily been on Scary Monsters; the majestic balladry of “Amlapura” is a welcome change of pace, reminiscent of “Amazing”; and closing track “Goodbye Mr. Ed” is arguably the best thing on the album. (The hidden track “Hammerhead” is not bad, either.)
As if Gabrels’ six-string firepower wasn’t enough, the band brought along British rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Kevin Armstrong to augment their live sound (on stage Bowie stuck to singing and occasionally playing saxophone), which can be appreciated on Oy Vey Baby, its title a cute pun on U2’s 1991 comeback album. It must be stated here that despite its inspired moments (“Amazing”, “Goodbye Mr. Ed”, and the 12-minute “Heaven’s in Here”) Oy Vey is not the place to start when inquiring about Tin Machine; for the most part, it fulfills the simple function of demonstrating how the band sounded live. A worthy purchase if the band's studio recordings strike your fancy, though. (Fans of guitar heroics are sure to find much to like.)
It has been said that Bowie’s core audience never embraced the band and allegedly made their distaste quite known. (The pinnacle of this dissatisfaction was evident when the band’s roadies actually resorted to wearing t-shirts that read "Fuck You, I LIKE Tin Machine.") For whatever reason, Bowie considered the experiment over and resumed his solo career shortly thereafter, bringing along Gabrels on a partnership—including Tin Machine—that lasted over a decade.
Definitely worth checking out, this brief detour—Tin Machine lasted a mere 4 years together—is recommended to those interested in the various incarnations of The Thin White Duke. Some of it, after all, is amazing.
Availability: Tin Machine has since been remastered, while II and Oy Vey, Baby are currently out of print. (II is actually a quite sought after collectible, especially the American version with the uncensored album cover.) Bowie hinted in the mid-90s something about the possibility of releasing a box set's worth of the band's unreleased material, including what was to be Tin Machine III, but has remained mum on the subject since.