Friday, 10 December 2010

Tin Machine

The truth is this - if you have bought just one David Bowie album (or even just a single) recorded after 1990, then you have Tin Machine to thank for that. Despite the fact that the world and his wife seem to regard Tin Machine with a level of disdain that saw the likes of Q deem them the worst band in the world during their original existence (yes, they were deemed more evil than Nazi bands like Skrewdriver, it seems), Tin Machine were an important cog in the David Bowie machine, so to speak. Before Tin Machine, Bowie was drifting aimlessly towards the mainstream - after Tin Machine, he released the astonishing “Black Tie White Noise” and never looked back thereafter.

To understand the formation of the band in the first place, you have to rewind to the 1987 “Glass Spider” solo tour - Bowie’s attempt to regain lost ground, but which pretty soon on, turned into a stadium tour which was close to being both overblown and bloated, yet equally weak-willed and not particularly ground breaking. Midway through the tour, Bowie was introduced to Reeves Gabrels, a guitarist who was married to somebody working behind the scenes on the tour, if I remember correctly. Bowie, somehow, sensed that Gabrels and he were kindred spirits, and sought advice from Gabrels as to what he thought of the last album, and the tour. Gabrels was honest enough to admit that he didn’t think Bowie was operating at the peak of his powers, which came as music to Bowie’s ears - amidst the universal acclaim from the record buying public (but not the critics), here was somebody who knew that, no matter how many records Bowie was selling, it couldn’t hide the flaws on “Never Let Me Down”.

Once the tour was over, Bowie and Gabrels went off to try and work on ideas that would take Bowie away from the mainstream sound he had stumbled into post-“Let’s Dance”. At first, the plans were to simply make a new Bowie solo record, albeit with Gabrels as a vital right hand man, and a re-recorded “rock” version of “Look Back In Anger” was committed to tape in 1988. But Bowie wanted to completely move away from his past. He was concerned that ’David Bowie - Solo Artist’ had become a weight around his neck - he later claimed he felt he had no choice but to include some of “the hits” on the “Glass Spider” tour, despite the fact that he was bored with playing them. So, if he were to simply form a new band, of which he would just be one of the band members, the anonymity would be used to help him break away from his mainstream sound.

And so, two musicians that Bowie had worked with before, Hunt Sales and Tony Sales, were invited into the fold. They, along with Bowie, had formed part of Iggy Pop’s backing band when he toured in 1977 (Bowie played keyboards, and did backing vocals), and a new unnamed four piece were born. Taking their cues from alternative US rock acts like Pixies and Sonic Youth, the songs that the band were writing were far more noisy, aggressive, and vicious than anything Bowie had done for years. The band name was taken from a song that was due to be included on the album (and indeed, did make the final cut), and their debut LP, also titled “Tin Machine”, was issued in May 1989.

The album was issued on EMI America - the label to which Bowie had signed in 1983, and it seems the album existed as part of the solo deal he signed, despite the fact that this album from what was now a “group” project. People’s opinion on the record was divided - whilst many saw the left-field move away from “Never Let Me Down” as a thrilling departure, others were not so sure. Some saw it as a backwards step - Bowie doing an album full of loud guitars, wasn’t this just a modern day “Ziggy” all over again, only with not as good songs? Nonetheless, the album charted quite highly, although long term sales were poor - something to be expected of a record that deliberately attempted to alienate the floating fans who had jumped on the “Let’s Dance” bandwagon.

The decision to stop being a solo artist was extended to the accompanying live shows - by being part of Tin Machine, as opposed to “David Bowie”, Bowie saw this as a perfectly acceptable excuse to play NONE of those old hits, and the band played a huge chunk of the album on stage, interspersed with selected covers to help pad out the set. Furthermore, as this was “Tin Machine” and not Bowie, the gig venues were much smaller than the stadiums Bowie had been playing recently - this was, in effect, a new band after all, and there was a feeling that club venues, not stadiums or arenas, were the sort of venues that the band should be playing. Of course, the Bowie factor meant that these shows sold out very quickly.

The album was issued on LP, Cassette and CD. The LP featured less tracks, with the songs “Run” and “Sacrifice Yourself” being omitted due to space constraints. Each format featured a different photo of the band on the cover, with each band member standing in a different place for each of the three pictures. In the run up to the album’s release, word was out that there was a “new David Bowie album” on the way, and despite the attempts at anonymity, Tin Machine never quite revealed themselves to be a proper band in the way Bowie had envisaged.

After the album had been released, “Under The God” was issued as a single, using a similar cover to that used for the album. “Sacrifice Yourself” appeared on the B-side, with an interview as a bonus track on the “extended play” formats, but the single stalled outside the top 40 - as would all the following singles from the LP. “Tin Machine”, the song, was then issued as the follow up single, as a AA-side with a live recording of “Maggie’s Farm”. Other live tracks appeared as bonuses on the 12” and CD versions, but only the live version of “Bus Stop”, issued on the CD only, has since resurfaced on a reissue, arguably making “Maggie’s Farm” one of the more obscure Bowie related A-sides. More live tracks from the same show, from Paris on June 25th 1989, appeared as B-sides on the CD issue of single three, “Prisoner Of Love”.

The following year, Bowie briefly returned to his day job, indulging in the “Sound And Vision” tour, where he played a greatest hits set - reportedly for the last time. But in 1991, Tin Machine were back in the studio, and made their return in August that year. Their return was met with disbelief by some (the aforementioned Q magazine) but joy by others - the band played a live mini-gig on Radio 1 for the Evening Session, hosted by Mark Goodier, a life long Bowie fan. This, famously, marked the first time Bowie had played any sort of BBC session since 1972.

The band were now signed to London Records, Bowie having apparently been kicked off EMI due to his refusal to record a “Let’s Dance 2”. The first single was “You Belong In Rock And Roll”, issued on a variety of formats, but it was the two CD editions that were of most interest. The “normal” one included a track that would only appear as a brief reprise on the forthcoming album, “Hammerhead”, whilst the second one came in an oversized circular tin, complete with a fold out photo-insert, and included a live version of “Shakin’ All Over”. “Tin Machine II” was released soon after, again with a mix of good and bad reviews, and found itself the subject of much controversy in the US, where the label refused to use the photo of the four nude male statues on the cover as per the UK, and an airbrushed “censored” version was used instead. The album was a bit more “mellow” than it’s predecessor, and although some claim the album included some of Bowie’s weakest ever material, there did seem to be a greater acceptance of the band second time around, helped in part by a slightly more accessible sound.

“Baby Universal” was issued as the follow up single - although the single was issued on three formats including a 7”, it was only the two “extended play” formats that contained exclusive material. The CD, again housed in a tin, but this time of a thinner variety, included an extended mix along with three of the five tracks taped for the Evening Session as B-sides, whilst the 12”, housed in a “normal” sleeve, included the two remaining BBC tracks, and came with a free art print of the censored US LP cover. The band, having dented the top 40 for the first time with “You Belong In Rock And Roll”, were thus invited onto Top Of The Pops to play the new single (the show had, by now, started to invite on acts it assumed would hit the top 40 with their next single), and as a result, it promptly got no higher than number 48!

The following year, the band issued a live album “Oy Vey Baby”, a play on words of the U2 LP “Achtung Baby”. Despite Bowie’s continued insistence that Tin Machine was a band, the record was issued with a sticker proclaiming “David Bowie At His Explosive Best”, an obvious attempt to try and sell the record to anybody still unaware about his involvement in the group. An accompanying VHS was also issued, reflecting the typical band set list at the time (the CD only had 8 songs), and included more covers previously unreleased by the band, including Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You”, which Bowie would eventually tape, in studio form, on 2002’s “Heathen”.

Apart from a few random outtakes surfacing on a handful of Various Artists compilations over the next few years, Bowie decided to return to being a solo act, having obviously been energised enough by Tin Machine to get back into making vibrant and exciting music again as a solo artist. His 1992 comeback single, “Real Cool World”, was a massive leap forward from the “Never Let Me Down” album, and although the group promptly disintegrated, Gabrels would continue to act as Bowie’s right hand man throughout much of the rest of the decade - his contributions to the next Bowie solo LP “Black Tie White Noise” were minimal, but he was part of Bowie’s touring band from 1995 to 1999. Tentative plans for a “Tin Machine III”, according to Wikipedia, were shelved permanently.

Tin Machine material has briefly featured as part of Bowie’s solo career - “Baby Universal” was played during shows in 1996, whilst a re-recorded version of the “Tin Machine” track, “I Can’t Read”, surfaced as a German 45 in 1997. In 1995, Virgin reissued all four “Bowie” albums from the EMI America era with extra tracks, and the live version of “Bus Stop” from the “Maggie’s Farm” CD Single appeared as a bonus track on a reissued "Tin Machine". In 1999, EMI controversially reissued the album with this track missing, and with the album credited as a Bowie solo record. Quite what Bowie or the band thought of this, I have no idea. This edition, to this day, remains the version still on catalogue.

The London Records releases have all been deleted - and not reissued. As such, don’t be surprised to see CD copies of “Tin Machine II” doing the rounds for £20+ on the collectors market, which following the recent re-release of the 1967 “David Bowie” album, makes this now the most obscure of all of Bowie’s studio albums. This is a shame, as “Goodbye Mr Ed”, the song that “officially” closes the album, remains one of the high points of his career.

I have listed below all of the important Tin Machine releases in the UK. Anything not listed, but which does exist, will contain nothing exclusive, and also features less songs than other formats for the same release.


Tin Machine (1989, EMI America MTLS 1044, LP in “Bowie 2nd from right” p/s)
Tin Machine (1989, EMI America TCMTLS 1044, Cassette in “Bowie on right” p/s, extra tracks to vinyl edition)
Tin Machine (1989, EMI America CDP 7 91990 2, CD in “Bowie on left” p/s, extra tracks to vinyl edition)
Tin Machine (1995 reissue, Virgin CDVUS 99, CD with extra tracks from original CD/Cassette release, and “Bus Stop (Live)”)
Tin Machine (1999 reissue, EMI 7243 521 9100, CD with extra tracks from original CD/Cassette release, credited to “David Bowie”)
Tin Machine II (1991, London 828 272 2, CD)
Oy Vey Baby (1992, London 828 328 2, CD)


Under The God/Sacrifice Yourself (1989, EMI America MT 68, 7”, also available on Cassette)
Under The God/Sacrifice Yourself/The Interview (1989, EMI America CDMT 68, CD Single, “The Interview” I believe contains no music, also on 10” or 12”)
Tin Machine/Maggie’s Farm (Live)/I Can’t Read (Live) (1989, EMI America 12 MTP 73, 12” in fold out poster bag)
Tin Machine/Maggie’s Farm (Live)/I Can’t Read (Live)/Bus Stop (Live) (1989, EMI America CDMT 73, CD Single)
Prisoner Of Love (Edit)/Baby Can Dance (Live)/Crack City (Live)/Prisoner Of Love (1989, EMI America CDMT 76, CD Single)
You Belong In Rock And Roll (Edit)/Amlapura (Indonesian Version)/Stateside/Hammerhead (1991, London LONCD 305, CD Single 1)
You Belong In Rock And Roll (Extended Mix)/(LP Version)/Amlapura (Indonesian Version)/Shakin’ All Over (Live) (1991, London LOCDT 305, CD Single 2 in circular tin with fold out insert)
Baby Universal (7” Version)/Stateside (BBC Version)/If There Is Something (BBC Version)/Heaven’s In Here (BBC Version) (1991, London LOCDT 310, CD Single in circular tin, “Heaven’s In Here” edited down from original broadcast version)
Baby Universal (Extended)/A Big Hurt (BBC Version)/Baby Universal (BBC Version) (1991, London LONX 310, 12” with free art print)

Next month, we shall look at the start of Bowie’s startlingly brilliant post-Tin Machine years, on an album by album basis.

Further reading:
Fan site with illustrations of worldwide releases:

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