Tin Machine: 1989

This week marks 30 years since Tin Machine wrapped up their first year of activity with a low-key gig at Moby Dick’s in Sydney, Australia (4th November 1989).

In the previous 12 months, they’d recorded and released their first album, written and recorded most of the second album, and toured extensively.

Any true Bowie fan must surely like elements of Tin Machine, or at least appreciate the career-reviving value of the band. After all, he was reportedly seriously considering giving up music at the beginning of 1988. My muso college mates and I had an instant kinship with Tin Machine, picking up particularly on the Jeff Beck and Hendrix influences. Never Let Me Down had completely passed me by but this felt instinctively like the natural followup to Scary Monsters.

Bowie first hooked up with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, whose wife Sarah had been a press officer on the US leg of his ‘Glass Spider’ tour. But who should join them on bass and drums? There were mentions of Percy Jones and Terry Bozzio, but they settled on the street-tough Sales brothers, of course previously known to Bowie as the rhythm section on Iggy’s Lust For Life (Bowie suddenly remembered what he had signed up for when drummer Hunt apparently strode into the first rehearsal wearing a ‘F*ck You I’m From Texas’ T-shirt…).

One of the first things the assembled unit apparently did was make a list of the artists that would inform and influence the band’s sound: Neil Young, The Pixies, Cream, John Coltrane, Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca, Bo Diddley, Sex Pistols, John Lee Hooker, John Lennon.

The debut album was recorded quickly (producer Tim Palmer was apparently barely able to get a decent sound before he realised they were in the middle of a take) and released on 22nd May 1989. How does it sound these days? Pretty damn good. Bowie’s singing is as committed as at any time in his career, and the material is sometimes electrifying.

The Mission/The Cult helmer Palmer brings a cavernous drum sound and great guitar layering, finding a most willing participant in Gabrels; ‘Pretty Thing’ in particular delivers a huge wall of sound. Hunt Sales: a rock drummer who swings. He goes double-time if he feels like it. You can’t teach this stuff. It breathes. It slows down, it speeds up. Gabrels sounds brilliant, consistently coming on like a cross between Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp, but with more of a blues feeling.

Back in 1989, it was also absolutely fascinating watching Bowie sublimate himself into a band situation, albeit very ‘artfully’ (one of Gabrels’ proposals for a band name was The Emperor’s New Clothes). He was instructed by the Sales brothers not to over-think his lyrics, but rather to lean on his first instincts. Consequently a few tracks aren’t going to win any #metoo awards but they’re an honest, unfettered portrayal of middle-aged male lust. And why not?

But those tracks are balanced by the tender ‘Amazing’ and politically-charged ‘Crack City’, ‘Video Crimes’ and ‘Under The God’. It’s invigorating hearing David eschewing irony and nihilism in favour of passionate commitment, though he dusts off the old ennui for the brilliant ‘I Can’t Read’.

The album is 20 minutes too long. If it had been shorn of the dire ‘Working Class Hero’, dreary ‘Bus Stop’, turgid ‘Run’ and silly ‘Sacrifice Yourself’, I’d put Tin Machine up there with Scary Monsters as Bowie’s last great rock album.  It’s also largely been forgotten that it was a critical and commercial success, reaching #3 in the UK, selling a million copies and making many writers’ albums of the year.

Weirdly, Bowie bounced straight into announcing his own solo ‘greatest hits’ tour in December 1989, ostensibly to promote the excellent series of Rykodisc CD reissues which had kicked off with the Sound + Vision box set. Quite what his TM bandmates thought of this state of affairs isn’t documented, though Gabrels declined to play guitar on the ‘Sound + Vision’ tour (Belew accepted). Gabrels went off to guest on The Mission’s Carved In Sand instead.

Book Review: Ashes To Ashes (The Songs Of David Bowie 1976-2016) by Chris O’Leary

Another song-by-song study of Bowie’s output is certainly an ambitious undertaking; we already have Nicholas Pegg’s excellent ‘The Complete David Bowie’ and David Buckley’s brief but arresting ‘The Complete Guide To The Songs Of David Bowie’.

But O’Leary is more qualified than most, having run the popular Pushing Ahead Of The Dame website for over 10 years now. And, by and large, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ pulls it off, offering a far more personal, florid take on Bowie’s songs than the aformentioned books.

He makes the decision to discuss the songs not in alphabetical order but, roughly, in the order in which they were ‘conceived’ and/or recorded. While this doesn’t allow for easy reference, an alphabetical title index is included at the back of the book.

The section on Low/”Heroes”/Lodger is excellent, with up-to-date interview material from Tony Visconti and Adrian Belew, and a focus on the city’s geography/history mostly missing from previous Bowie books. And it’s great to see the ‘Baal’ sessions getting the detailed analysis they deserve.

Fascinating items also emerge around Bowie’s late-’80s/early ’90s work, from Never Let Me Down through ‘Pretty Pink Rose’ to The Buddha Of Suburbia, with more detail than usual about the formation of Tin Machine. And it would be hard to find a better study of Bowie’s final two albums, even if they are this writer’s least favourite works of the era.

There are predictable put-downs of Tonight (but an excellent analysis of ‘Loving The Alien’, complete with reading list!), Black Tie White Noise and Tin Machine II (which actually would have been a late-era Bowie classic if it had jettisoned Hunt Sales’ songwriting contributions), and some sometimes weirdly-personal slights.

There are also oft-repeated errors about the Let’s Dance era, like the listing of Tony Thompson’s drum appearances (he didn’t play on ‘Ricochet’ or ‘Shake It’), but O’Leary makes up for it with a fascinating section on the fact that Bowie was actually more of an actor than a singer when he made that album.

Musical appreciation doesn’t seem the author’s strong point – for example, ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ is described as ‘being ‘mostly in E minor, the harmonic murkiness finally resolved with a closing Em chord’. This ignores the fact that the verse’s home key is clearly G major. And he denegrates Hakim’s ‘gated tom fills’ in ‘I Keep Forgettin’,  but they’re actually the dreaded Simmons electric drums. But elsewhere there are interesting, original observations, like the comparisons between ‘Modern Love’ and ‘Lust For Life’.

One thing’s for sure – ‘Ashes To Ashes’ takes one back to the music. Revisiting Scary Monsters in particular was very illuminating in light of the book. So even if one can’t avoid O’Leary’s natural aversion to much of this material, it’s a valuable addition to the Bowie bibliography.

The question is, will one reach for ‘Ashes To Ashes’ for quick reference ahead of the Pegg and Buckley works? Only time will tell (or crawl).

‘Ashes To Ashes’ is published by Repeater Books.

David Bowie’s Stonehenge: The Glass Spider Debacle

David-Bowies-glass-spiderI’m generally a big ’80s Bowie apologist but sometimes even I have to say: What the hell was he thinking?

I was a 12-year-old pop fan when Let’s Dance hit, perfectly placed to love it and its usually-maligned follow-up Tonight. I enjoyed almost everything Bowie did in ’85 and ’86 too, from ‘Dancing In The Street’ and ‘This Is Not America’ to ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘When The Wind Blows’.

But 1987 is another story altogether. Even as a 15-year-old, right from the start I sniffed something dodgy about Never Let Me Down and its accompanying Glass Spider tour. I’ve found a couple of things to love about the former in the years since (especially the great Lennonesque title track) but can’t find anything good about the latter. And the entire debacle is right there in all its glory on YouTube, of course.

Bowie at the Never Let Me Down/Glass Spider Tour London press conference, 20th March 1987

Bowie at the Never Let Me Down/Glass Spider Tour London press conference, 20th March 1987

The show was certainly ahead of its time with its tightly-choreographed, narrative vignettes – just look at Prince’s Lovesexy and Madonna’s Blond Ambition tours for evidence of its influence.

If you’re a big Bowie fan, the opening moments are amusing if a bit tasteless – guitarist Carlos Alomar attempts some ill-advised, sub-Van Halen guitar pyrotechnics while an offstage David repeatedly screams ‘Shut up!’ in ‘It’s No Game’ style.

There then follows an outrageous opening medley featuring a bizarre, lip-synched version of ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ followed by a hilariously hammy spoken word section by Bowie which closely resembles Nigel Tufnel in Stonehenge mode. Is he taking the piss? Usually this question doesn’t cross your mind with Bowie, no matter how much he ‘tests’ his audience, but it does here.

Then there’s a brutal depiction of gang warfare juxtaposed with Bowie’s cheesy, reassuring grin, a typically unsettling mixture of menace and child-like innocence. But he seems generally uncomfortable throughout the show. His attempts at audience interaction are always awkward and nothing links the songs; almost all end in blackout before another lumbers into view.

david-bowieThe Glass Spider tour also features surely the most dated-sounding band in Bowie’s history, with huge, triggered drums, rambling synth solos, garish, unpleasant DX7 factory sounds and lots of cod-raunchy guitar from Alomar and Peter Frampton. This is a far too ‘muso’ bunch of musicians for Bowie. The fanfare of synth horns at the end of ‘Fame’ is just unforgivable.

‘Heroes’ is stripped of all romance and majesty and becomes a jaunty throwaway. ‘Sons of the Silent Age’ coasts in on a nicely Middle Eastern-ish vibe, a huge relief from the bombast, but is nearly ruined by Frampton’s nasal lead vocals. None of these versions come close to being definitive. Also the fact that Bowie only plays four tracks from the Never Let Me Down album just a few months after its release pretty much goes to show what he thinks of it.

Bowie famously burnt the huge stage set in a field at the end of the tour. He must have wished he’d never set eyes on it. But within a year, he’d hooked up with avant-metal guitarist Reeves Gabrels, started work with influential dance troupe La La La Human Steps and embarked on some very interesting new musical adventures.