I wasn’t sure I was going to write about this but Bowie came to me in a dream a few days ago and said I must! I’m under orders…
30 years ago this month, on 17 February 1992, Tin Machine played their last ever gig at the NHK Hall in Tokyo. It was the final date of the ‘It’s My Life’ tour.
It had been a period of ups and downs – ups in late October 1991 when Bowie proposed to Iman Abdulmajid in Paris, downs due to the drug problems of one band member (with the initials HS).
Some people never ‘forgave’ Bowie for TM but for many others the band represented his ’80s rehabilitation. I was fascinated from the get-go and for my money it spawned a fair share of classic David (sometimes co-written with Reeves Gabrels) songs: ‘I Can’t Read’, ‘Under The God’, ‘Amazing’, ‘Baby Universal’, ‘You Belong In Rock’n’Roll’, ‘Amlapura’, ‘Shopping For Girls’, ‘Goodbye Mr Ed’.
And it’s doubtful we would have got that brilliant Buddha Of Suburbia/1. Outside/Earthling triptych without TM.
Bowie agreed: ‘Once I had done Tin Machine, nobody could see me any more which was the best thing that ever happened, because I was back using all the artistic pieces that I needed to survive and imbuing myself with the passion that I had in the late seventies.’
True to his word, the band lasted three albums, though Bowie hinted it may have gone on longer had drug problems not reared their ugly heads. But it’s still hard to get hold of the last two records (Tin Machine II, Oy Vey Baby).
Here’s the second, penultimate night at the NHK on 6 February 1992. The sound quality is superb, though the audio cuts out completely around 45 minutes in and doesn’t return.
Gabrels sounds great, Bowie (sporting a ‘Rock Against Racism’ T-shirt) does too and there are some nice bits of ‘amateurism’ including several fudged song openings (Bowie’s guitar tech has very kindly turned down the volume of his 12-string before the start of the gig!). Some of this material was used for the final album Oy Vey Baby.
One can get caught up revisiting the ‘lost’ periods of the truly great artists of the last 50 years – Miles, Neil Young, Bowie, Dylan, Zappa, whoever.
At the moment, it’s Bowie’s late-’80s and early-’90s that particularly intrigue, roughly the period from ‘Intruders At The Palace’ to Tin Machine II.
There was a lot more to the era than Tin Machine. ‘Pretty Pink Rose’, a song Bowie had originally demo’d in early 1988 with members of Bryan Adams’ band (and one later rejected by TM, though one can hear echoes of it in their cover of Roxy Music’s ‘If There Is Something’), generally gets a bum rap but features some classic Bowie moves, like the descending, superbly-sung bridge and ‘secret’ chord also heard in ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘Loving The Alien’.
Bowie rang Belew on 4th August 1989 asking him to play guitar and take the role of musical director on the ‘Sound + Vision’ greatest hits tour. But Belew owed Atlantic Records a solo album, the one that eventually became 1990’s Young Lions. Bowie offered to pitch in with ‘Pretty Pink Rose’. Apparently Belew was initially less than enamoured, but grew to love it.
Belew recorded the backing tracks on 11th November 1989 at Royal Recorders near Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, playing all instruments. He achieves a great garage-rock sound with sprightly bass, Leslie-toned rhythm guitars and some mad lead playing courtesy of a Fender Strat wired with a Kahler tremolo arm that he found could be ‘tapped’ on the neck instead of using his finger tips.
Bowie and Belew recorded their duet vocals (at the same mic – apparently Belew was unexpectedly starstruck) on 15th January 1990 at Right Track in NYC (Bowie recorded his spontaneous vocals for ‘Gunman’ on the same day). Apparently a spoken-word intro was later excised, which featured Bowie intoning: ‘She had tits like melons… It was love in the rain’!
‘Pretty Pink Rose’ was released a single in May 1990 but inexplicably missed the top 40 in both the US and UK, despite regular MTV screenings of the Tim Pope-directed video featuring Bowie and Belew hamming it up with ‘Life And Loves Of A She-Devil’ star Julie T Wallace.
Bowie and Belew also played it every night on the ‘Sound + Vision’ tour, augmented by some great chord additions by keyboardist Rick Fox. It looks like they were having a lot of fun. It’s a cracking song and a lost Bowie classic.
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 on 4 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, particularly picking up 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 realised 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 22 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/Cult helmer Palmer brings cavernous drums and great guitar layering, finding a most willing participant in Gabrels; ‘Pretty Thing’ in particular delivers a huge wall of sound. Palmer discusses the making of the album in this excellent interview.
Hunt Sales: a rock drummer who swings. He goes double-time if he feels like it. He slows down, he speeds up. You can’t teach this stuff. The music breathes. Gabrels plays brilliantly, consistently coming on like a cross between Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp, but with more of a blues attitude.
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’, deafening ‘Baby Can Dance’, 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 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. Hilariously, it also made the Melody Maker’s Worst Ever Albums top 20 list in 1998.
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.
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’.
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.
And 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 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… (NB – one has definitely reached for the book on many occasions since this first reading, so it’s doing its job…)
We’ve looked at some of the good covers of the 1980s before – but how about the stinkers?
Reader: I’m pleased to report that finding them was not an easy task. A quick Google survey of ‘worst covers of all time’ will not reveal many from the ’80s (no, Rockwell’s version of ‘Taxman’ really isn’t that bad…).
But the variety of crap covers is worth noting. In the 1980s, anyone was liable to produce a shocker, from the ageing chart regular to the littlest indie.
Some took them to the toppermost of the poppermost – indeed most of the below were big hits. But of course familiarity breeds contempt…
Most of these efforts, though, smack of both desperation and a dearth of material. The net result is usually a kind of audio shrug. And hey, there’s also that other reliable, recurring theme – the overproduction of post-1985 offerings…
So let the countdown of dodgy ’80s cover versions commence, with this curio:
17. Tin Machine: ‘Working Class Hero’ (1989)
Pointless cover which is one of several fillers on the ‘difficult’ second side of Bowie’s rather good band debut.
16. The Power Station: ‘Harvest For The World’ (1985)
Interesting to hear Robert Palmer challenge himself range-wise but his hysterical vocal and the band’s rather limp arrangement remove all of the majesty of the Isley Brothers’ original.
15. Simple Minds: ‘Sign O’ The Times’ (1989)
Desperately tries to be hip but just comes across as a bit desperate. Jim’s hysterical vocal doesn’t help.
14. Aztec Camera: ‘Jump’ (1984)
Why oh why, Roddy? Some grotty Linn drum programming and an insipid vocal on a pointless Van Halen cover which takes away all the fun of the original. Maybe that’s the point.
13. The Communards: ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ (1986)
I’m reluctant to diss the brilliant Jimmy Somerville but this cover of a Philly classic just drove one to distraction, not helped by the desperately upbeat video.
11. The Housemartins: ‘Caravan Of Love’ (1986)
The concept is a good one – Isley Jasper Isley’s brilliant original was an electro/gospel mashup crying out for an a cappella – but Paul Heaton’s lead vocals and a very unadventurous arrangement scupper this UK #1 from the start.
10. The Flying Pickets: ‘Only You’ (1983)
Yes, it’s the other a cappella song to hit UK #1, but where to start? How about: out-of-tune vocal stacks (and a very unsubtle use of Fairlight vocals) and a chronically unhip bunch of guys? Oh, and it also came out too soon after the Yazoo original.
9. Pet Shop Boys: ‘Always On My Mind’ (1988)
Effective but gross cover, and of course another UK #1 single. Like gorging on cream cake, there’s a brief rush but then a lingering nausea. It’s also arguably the point where the Boys became an ’80s brand rather than a unique songwriting force.
8. Dave Grusin: ‘Thankful ‘N Thoughtful’ (1984)
Sly & The Family Stone’s gospel/funk classic becomes a robotic downer in the hands of the smooth jazz keyboard maestro. Even Marcus Miller’s bass playing can’t save this.
7. Bomb The Bass: ‘Say A Little Prayer’ (1988)
An on-the-nose, in-your-face curio which never convinces. The vocals just set my teeth on edge right from the off. But it still got to #10 in the UK.
6. Bananarama: ‘Venus’ (1987)
5. Rick Astley: ‘When I Fall In Love’ (1987)
This was the 1987 Christmas #2 and, to be fair, it was only Rick’s third single. But it was asking a lot of the lad to take on Nat ‘King’ Cole. And whose idea were the horrible fake strings?
4. Kim Wilde: ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ (1986)
See 6 and 9.
3. Gary Numan/Leo Sayer: ‘On Broadway’ (1984)
This is so bad it’s almost good. But only almost. You can’t help but feel sorry for these two gents whose careers had gone properly arse-over-teacup by this point. Numan fans in particular must have been hiding behind the sofa.
2. Band Aid II: ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ (1989)
Stock Aitken & Waterman were tasked with updating this one, coming up with a pointlessly-reformatted, boil-in-the-bag cover without any of the original’s musical grace notes, though singer Matt Goss gives a good account of himself.
And…badly-played drum roll…the worst cover of the ’80s is…
1. Thompson Twins: ‘Revolution’ (1985)
The Twins go rawk, with disastrous results. It was also the point where they started to believe the hype – always a bad move. Tom Bailey’s lead vocal is a travesty and it’s also a bum note in Nile Rodgers’ production career.
It would be tempting to call Kevin Armstrong the ultimate ‘nearly man’ of 1980s pop – he nearly joined a post-Johnny-Marr Smiths, was nearly a founder member of David Bowie’s Tin Machine, nearly joined Level 42 Mark II, and nearly became Paul McCartney’s right-hand man during the ex-Beatle’s late-decade renaissance.
But that would be unfair on the guitarist; as well as stellar work with Bowie (Live Aid, ‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘Dancing In The Streets’) and Iggy Pop (Blah-Blah-Blah, countless world tours), he has also contributed to classic albums by Prefab Sprout, Thomas Dolby and Morrissey and performed live with Roy Orbison, Sinead O’Connor, Grace Jones, Propaganda and PiL.
This entertaining Pizza Express show was half wonderfully-indiscreet spoken-word memoir and half gig. Decked out in all-black rock-star garb, Armstrong described his initiation into the music world via an obsession with Zappa’s ‘Black Napkins’ and postal-order guitar handbooks, and lamented the current pop scene as ‘just another part of consumer culture’.
He spoke of one life-changing morning in early 1985 when he received the call from legendary EMI A&R man Hugh Stanley-Clarke: an invitation to Abbey Road to record with ‘Mr X’.
Arriving at the famous address, Armstrong was shown upstairs to a tiny demo studio (not the big Beatles-frequenting Studio 1 downstairs) to find a bunch of session players and a smiling, suited Bowie holding an omnichord and uttering the totally superfluous ‘Hi, I’m David!’.
Bowie then proceeded to teach the band a song called ‘That’s Motivation’ (from the ‘Absolute Beginners’ soundtrack) two bars at a time – and they then recorded it that way too.
A few days later, Bowie summoned Armstrong to Westside Studios near Ladbroke Grove for the ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘Dancing In The Street’ recordings (the former with vocals by Armstrong’s sister, then working behind the till at Dorothy Perkins, responding to Bowie’s request for a ‘shopgirl’ to sing duet with him!).
The latter session was of course graced by an absurdly perky Mick Jagger. Apparently Bowie and Jagger spent most of the vocal sessions shouting ‘Let’s ring Maureen!’, their nickname for Elton John.
Armstrong then told great tales of Live Aid, mainly highlighting Bowie’s incredible generosity: fluffing the names of backing vocalists Helena Springs and Tessa Niles during his onstage band introductions (no other solo artist introduced his/her band on the day), according to Armstrong he immediately apologised profusely to the singers as soon as they were offstage.
There were further funny tales of Gil Evans, Iggy and McCartney (who apparently once smoked some unbelievably strong grass with Armstrong, said ‘That’s you stoned!’ to the erstwhile guitarist, then promptly disappeared) and an exceptionally eccentric Grace Jones who allegedly took a distinct liking to Armstrong at a party, taking him by the hand and leading him away for some sexual shenanigans.
Who should intervene but Bowie, grabbing Armstrong’s other hand and whispering in the guitarist’s ear: ‘No you don’t. She’ll have you for breakfast, sunshine…’
In the second half, Armstrong was joined by Iggy bandmates Ben Ellis on bass and Matt Hector on drums to perform songs that he’d played live with all the aforementioned stars.
Efficiently sung and superbly played, it was nevertheless a somewhat humourless set of music that only served to emphasise the difference between a perennial sessionman and born headliner.
But this was still a hugely enjoyable evening, foregrounding a time when music really was transformative. We await Armstrong’s forthcoming memoir with great anticipation.
In which freelance writer Malcolm Wyatt jealously guards his own corner of web hyperspace, featuring interviews, reviews and rants involving big names from across the world of music, comedy, literature, film, TV, the arts, and sport.