Drop a stone in a pond. Ripples will spread out. Cultural events are similar, but sometimes the ripples occur before the stone falls. Facebook, iPhones, and The Lord of the Rings are stones. Myspace, Blackberries, and The Hobbit are ripples. Although important in their own right, they had the misfortune to occur before a similar (but much bigger) thing, and have been swallowed by it within the public mind.
Cassette tapes (and the culture surrounding them) were ripples: the stone would would fall twenty years later. They were ugly plastic rectangles containing about ninety meters of magnetic tape. Music recorded on them usually sounded hissy and noisy (this itself became an aesthetic), but the tapes were so cheap that it was now possible for the average child to copy music. People would tape songs off the radio (complete with hacky DJ voices and commercials), as well as make illegal bootlegs of live bands. This led to a full-blown kulturkampf between tapers and record labels in the 1980s, culminating in the BPI’s often-parodied “Home Taping Is Killing Music” slogan.
While some labels fought cassette tapes, others embraced them. C81 (a compilation cassette released by NME at the start of the tape boom) is an example of the latter, containing twenty-four tracks of British and American “indie” music circa 1981. I’m sure that all the bands involved were branded as sellouts until their dying day.
The tracklisting is as schizophrenic and scattered as any fourteen year old’s mixtape: legends like Pere Ubu and Scritti Politti exist alongside bizarre “art” projects like Furious Pig that apparently did nothing notable except appear on C81. It’s both ethnically and musically diverse, with selections of funk, ska, reggae, dub and so on. Also, whoever put this together clearly wanted to fuck Lora Logic, because she’s on here twice.
As with many compilations, it sprays and it prays. “You won’t like everything, but you’ll probably like something.” I enjoyed the apocalyptic mini-epic “The Seven Thousand Names of Wah!”, the histrionic but understated “Shouting Out Loud”, the Scritti Politti song, and “Parallel Lines”, which is a thesis on everything punk should be: taught, fraught, and small.
But the best piece of music C81 has to offer is Cabaret Voltaire’s “Raising the Count”, which initiates the listener into a kind of electronic Satanic ritual: a black mass powered by 200 watts. The song is as destructively repetitive as a pneumatic drill rammed through your basilar membrane. You will either turn it off in confusion, or get sucked into a hypnogogic state. Cabaret Voltaire had existed for most of a decade by the time C81 came out, and would continue to release music for about twelve more years (although I find their later techno/house music to be less interesting than their early experimental work).
So, good music, and good capture of a particular moment in British musical history. C81 is now most easily acquired in digital form, which was the next evolutionary stage of tape culture. Cassette tapes were ripples, and digital piracy was the stone, doing everything cassettes had done (including killing the music business) about two orders of magnitude more successfully. The record industry profiting off tape trading seems gruesomely poetic in retrospect. It’s as though Louis XVI, before the French Revolution, had invested royal money in guillotines.
For over eleven years, Reality wore a title it was never meant to bear: that of Last David Bowie Album.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Bowie had every intention of continuing recording and touring. But in 2004 (near the end of the grueling 112-date Reality World Tour) he collapsed on stage in Germany, evidently from a heart attack. The beautiful statue that had worn countless layers of paint had suffered an interior crack.
There were no more tours, no more albums. For over ten years, Reality was the end. It never felt like one: it was a small, transitory album, trivial at times, and lacked an identity. It wasn’t a grand, towering tombstone, with HERE LIES DAVID BOWIE etched in stone.
Maybe its battlefield promotion helped it, giving threadbare songs like “She’ll Drive the Big Car” and “Looking for Water” more attention than they deserved. But after The Next Day came out in 2013, Reality fell into its correct place. It’s in the lower half of Bowie’s albums, which is no demerit. It’s also in the lower half of Bowie’s post-70s work, which probably is.
It has good songs, as they all do. “Pablo Picasso” takes the Modern Lovers’ one-chord pony on new and surprising adventures. “The Loneliest Guy” is very unsettling, like a taut and humming spiderweb of Mike Garson’s reverb-soaked piano and Gerry Leonard’s vibrato-drenched guitar. Bowie seems to be drawing from Scott Walker’s approach to songwriting here, turning the soundscape into a huge blank space that crashes sea-shell-like with the sound of its own emptiness.
“Fall Dog Bombs the Moon” is like the last Tin Machine song, very dry and underproduced. The lyrics are both cryptic and heavy-handed, clearly exculpatory of George Bush while not really naming him. I sort of like it.
“Try Some, Buy Some” was originally produced by Phil Spector, and sounds like Regina Spektor. I’ve only listened to it once or twice – a little of this stuff goes a long way.
“Reality” is noisy and quickly becomes unwelcome: it’s like a jam session that nobody has the courage to end. But closing track “Bring Me the Disco King” is another album highlight. It’s another powerful minimalistic song, consisting of Bowie’s voice, Garson’s jazz-influenced piano playing, and Matt Chamberlain’s drum loops. The result is enchanting: it has some of the same magic that “Lady Grinning Soul” had, all those years ago. But then Garson starts vamping all sorts of neo-tonal stuff over the outro (as if trying to recapture “Aladdin Sane”), and a lot of the magic leaves.
And then Reality ends. It was supposed to be yet another stone in a road with no clear end or destination: the road of life. The trouble with such a road is that it can just stop at any moment, without warning, and you have to accept that the final moment has come. For a while, Bowie fans had to accept that this album was his Abbey Road. But eleven years later, a new stone appeared.
Every culture has a beloved national dish that amounts to “take all the leftovers and put it in a pot”. Hours is David Bowie’s version of that, an unfocused collection of tracks from a videogame, an unfinished Reeves Gabrels solo album, plus some other crap, with a production job so lame it ruptured time and space.
Look at the cover. You already know how it sounds. Tepid, breezy, housewife-hooking AOR pop rock with no edge or bite. Bowie tried to get TLC to guest on “Thursday’s Child”. I don’t know what’s sadder: that he seriously had that idea or that it probably would have worked.
“Thursday’s Child” is the first single. It features a lame R&B-inspired backbeat, gratuitous female backing vocals, and greasy, syrupy synths. Someone once said that synths are to American musicians what firewater was to the Native Americans. I agree, and wish they were what smallpox blankets were for the Indians.
“Something in the Air” is six minutes of boredom and glitchy sound effects. I don’t know what Reeves Gabrels is playing on guitar. It doesn’t relate to the music in any way. It’s like they recorded him noodling at soundcheck time and put it on the record. This was Gabrels’ final studio release with Bowie, quitting while he was behind.
“Seven” is an acoustic song with very loud slide guitar parts. Not bad, but anyone could have written it.
“What’s Really Crappening” is Bowie’s infamous “cyber-song”, meaning its recording was broadcast via livestream. There were probably people who racked up a $40 phone bill over their 56ks listening to Bowie make this – they should have watched the video of the dancing baby instead. The lyrics were partially written by a fan, Alex Grant, who won a contest on Bowie’s website. Nobody can find any trace of Grant now. He may have entered the witness protection program.
“Brilliant Adventure” is etc…
You get the idea. I dislike hours greatly, there’s something cold and dead about it that I don’t hear in any of the other “bad” Bowie albums. Even Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine I have odd charm that renders them lovable from a certain perspective, but this has none (and no artistry either). This is a strong contender for the worst thing Bowie ever recorded on a major label.
The digital sampler is one of the great musical instruments of its ages, nearly equal to the electric guitar. Or maybe it’s an anti-instrument – rather than creating music, it takes the music of other people, and fascinatingly tortures it to death.
The Akai MPC sampler is to music what the AK-47 is to firearms – a mass-produced weapon that allowed peasants to get into the game. Not knowing a damned thing about music was no longer an obstacle to making it. Illiterate rappers could slice parts out of someone else’s tracks, reconstruct them into Frankensteinian monstrosities, and play the results to a crowded dancefloor. Sampling culture reveled in taking music out of its natural environment, and shoving square pegs into round holes. It put Beethoven’s Fifth over hip hop beats, and uncool dad rock over souped-up breakbeats. Much of the Mona Lisa’s effect comes from the fact that you must pass through an austere gallery before you see it. It would have a different impact if you saw it in a sewer. Sampling works by the same principle: it allows us to hear old music in a new way, breaking preconceptions and forcing the mind into unfamiliar paths.
Bowie’s 1997 album makes a fetish out of sampling. Most of Reeve Gabrels’ guitar riffs are actually recorded samples. Wild scratchy noises spray like jets of graffiti from an aerosol can: these are saxophones, sped up and glitched in the studio.
It’s also supposed to be a celebration of jungle music, a style he was quite enamored with at the time. In the press, he referred to it as “the great cry of the twentieth century”. On tour he split the set into two halves – a rock set and a drum ‘n’ bass set. Critics didn’t like it, and neither did his fans. After he noticed that most of his audience left after the rock set ended, he defiantly put the drum ‘n’ bass set first for the remainder of the dates. Jungle was pretty trendy and oversaturated by this point, which didn’t do him any favours with the cognoscenti. It was as he’d decided in 2001 that rap-metal was the great cry of the twenty-first century.
Regardless, Earthling is aggressive, cartoonish, excessive, and brilliant at times. Most of the tracks speed along like little mechanical rabbits, flurries of breakbeats trying to throw you out of the groove. “Dead Man Walking” proves itself the strongest cut, with a tough KMFDM groove mixed with introspective lyrics: Bowie is pondering his own sell-by date. “Law (Earthlings on Fire)” is also pretty strong, ending the record on an apocalyptic note. The music seems to be blasting from lamppost speakers while chlorine gas swirls below.
“Seven Years in Tibet” is rather long-winded, featuring a kick and snare sample that seems inspired by Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” (or maybe it is that kick and snare! I’m not sure). The song plods along, with massive gravitas, before exploding into an incandescent fireball of guitars. Bowie was a Free Tibet supporter for many decades: “Silly Boy Blue” on his first LP deals with it, and although he forgot about all those early songs, he never forgot Tibet.
“I’m Afraid of Americans” is more KMFDM-sounding material, with Bowie using synths the way he used Ronson’s guitars in the past, as riffs for him to emote over. The song was a rare chart hit in the United States. For the last time, they had to be afraid of him.
Although the two sound nothing alike, Earthling was made in the same spirit as Low. “How can I make human musicians sound like robots?” Low achieved this with motorik, synthesizers, layered drums, and Brian Eno. Earthling uses computers. For the first time, Bowie was cut on ones and zeros. Right around the corner were BowieNet, Bowie Bonds, BowieBanc, and all the rest.
Earthling is a fascinating example of an album that doesn’t particularly want to be loved or hated, just remembered. There was nowhere to go from here. How do you follow up excess? Even more excess? Bowie course-corrected after this with the stripped back …hours, landing so hard back on earth with that he buried the record in the ground. His subsequent records tended to be conservative and calculating, carefully doling out “experimentation” one pinch at a time. Earthling is a special moment: the final time Bowie truly went mad in the studio.
1. Outside is a masterpiece, Bowie’s greatest work in fifteen years, and barring a nanotechnological rebirth, will be his greatest work in the remaining sum of human years. (Sadly, I don’t believe Blackstar finishes as well as it began.)
But it’s exhausting. “Heroes” charges you up, this album drains you dry. The occasional pop song (“I Have Not Been to Oxford Town”, “Strangers When We Meet”) falls like a sweet berry between filth-stained cobblestones of industrial metal, avant-garde jazz, spoken-word interludes, and atonal ambiance. Sometimes the music seems to be reaching too far, and I feel I’m becoming lost. But when the next chord change hits, things always fall back into place.
Some parts I still don’t understand: in particular, the album concept. Something about ritualistic human sacrifice, a private detective, and characters called things like Algeria Touchshriek and Leon Blank. References are made to the “world wide Internet”, and Richard Preston’s alarming 1994 nonfiction book The Hot Zone. Something seems to have happened to this world, an event that Bowie won’t allow us to know. We’re peering through the window, guessing. We’re outside.
Maybe there’s not even a single concept. Like Diamond Dogs, Outside is a musical patchwork quilt, assembled from the wrack of a few different projects. In 1994, Q Magazine asked him for a “week in the life” type diary. Bowie felt that his real life wasn’t quite as exiting as they were probably hoping, so he wrote a fake diary by one Nathan Adler (this diary is reprinted in Outside’s liner notes). Two years earlier, he’d re-united with Brian Eno, and attempted to form a kind of avant-garde supergroup (much of their work eventually saw release on the internet as the Leon Suite.)
In addition to Eno, Bowie has his most powerful lineup in years. Carlos Alomar is back (holy shit!), as is Reeve Gabrels, whose rhythm tracks are distorted to near Static-X levels. Mike Garson makes a very welcome appearance – if you liked the middle fifty-five bars of “Aladdin Sane”, Bowie just gives him six kilometers of rope on this album. He just lays down solo after solo, on track after track, shredding Bowie’s chord progressions with hailstorms of chromatic notes.
The internet, or “information superhighway” (as it was ponderously called in 1995) is a big influence here. Outside seems married to it, somehow. Here’s a David Bowie FAQ from 1996 or so: it’s interesting to read Bowie’s fascination with computers (the digital art accompanying the Q Magazine story was created by him, somehow). Soon BowieNet would exist.
Picking out great tracks is hard, but I really like four. They come in groups of two, each positioned next to each other on the tracklisting (ignoring a segue).
“A Small Plot of Land” is aggressive, ear-bleeding jazz, paying tribute to Scott Walker and nearly upstaging him. “Hallo Spaceboy” is an industrial dance experiment that makes “Pallas Athena” sound like “All of the Dudes”. “Thru’ These Architects’ Eyes” riffs of Thomas Aquinas’s idea of God being an architect, and takes the album to new, celestial heights. And closing track “Strangers When We Meet” is powerful, dark, and tuneful. A perfect song to end on.
Some Bowie albums are best without their context. Outside is best with it. It’s flotsam from a confused and turbulent time in human’s history, when zero started to became one. Bowie was much better than average at predicting the future, but here we see him caught up amidst manifesting predictions – society unease and turmoil, and a digital pantokrator set to pave over humanity with silicon wafer. The album was meant to have a sequel, called Inside. This never materialised, but the wheels of time still turn, and soon we will see Inside for itself.
So obscure it hardly exists: The Buddha of Suburbia is a quasi-soundtrack to the BBC serial of the same name, based on a book of the same name, written by an author of not the same name (he’s called Hanif Kureishi – “Mr Buddha of Suburbia, Esquire” would be a bad name, although perhaps not as bad as “Zowie”.)
On my first listen, I hated the first song so much that I didn’t listen to the rest for a long time. This was a mistake: “The Buddha of Suburbia” might be adult contemporary glurge, but everything after it is fascinating, and much of it is good.
It’s Bowie’s scrapbook circa 1993, filled with doodles. It’s his most disjointed studio album if you consider it one, the hyped-up penny arcade chiptune of “Dead Against It” is followed by the adventurous world music of “Untitled, No. 1”, which is followed by about six minutes of gentle fuzz and crackling sounds. Some tracks are reworks of the TV show’s music, while others are new. A proper soundtrack to The Buddha of Suburbia still hasn’t surfaced, and likely never will.
The book, from what I remember, was about being a mixed-race Britain, separated from both white and Indian. The songs all exist alone, and can’t be discussed in relation to each other.
“Sex and the Church” is a house track that prefigures Black Tie White Noise. It makes its point – my main problem is that it’s incredibly overlong, and only has about two ideas.
“The Mysteries” is Bowie’s first ambient track since 1981. It sounds similar to Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports, which was created to be both “interesting and ignorable”. An organ builds ominously, like a cloud that never causes rain. Again, it’s very long, but it’s an intriguing experiment.
“Ian Fish, UK Heir” is an anagram of “Hanif Kureishi”, and it’s an even stranger ambient piece that evokes peaceful unlistenability. Sometimes hints of melodies appear in the suffocating carpet of fuzz.
“Untitled, No. 1” is loaded with exotic instrumentation, and Bowie sings in another made-up language. Why no title? Scott Walker released an album in 1984 called Climate of Hunter where most of the songs had no names, they were just “Track Three” and such. This was intentional, he felt that titles would overbalance the songs like poorly-weighted boats – the listener would focus overmuch on the title instead of the lyrics. There might be a similar logic here, as “Untitled” certainly seems too broad-reaching to be pinned down the way “Warszawa” et al can. Chris O’Leary thinks it’s supposed sound like a painting, which is another credible interpretation.
The standout is “Strangers When We Meet”, although you’d never know if you only heard the Buddha version, where the fluffy production robs it of its power. It appears in a much stronger form on 1. Outside, and I still consider it a track from that album.
The final song is “The Buddha of Suburbia” again with Lenny Kravitz on guitar or something. It continues to suck.
In 1967, David Bowie’s recording career began…and didn’t.
Well, it depends. What do you consider a beginning? Metallica’s first album is Kill ‘Em All, but that’s just a Diamond Head imitation. Their signature sound emerged on Ride the Lightning. That’s their beginning. The first Mad Max movie came out in 1979, but it’s just a violent exploitation film: the series truly starts with Mad Max 2. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series begins with hallucinatory fragment The Gunslinger: but the story only truly takes shape with book 2, the Drawing of the Three.
First efforts are usually flawed efforts, contaminated by inexperience, self-doubt, and outside interference. They’re not “real” starts, any more than Michelangelo’s first cast-off lump of clay was his first sculpture. David Bowie probably existed by 1969, and certainly by 1970. But in 1967, the cards were still falling. Whoever this is, it isn’t him. Not yet.
David Bowie is musically bizarre in light of his later albums: fourteen show-tunes for shows that never existed. It never misses a chance to be quirky, chirpy, and naff, the songs are bedecked with organ and keyboard parts, and Bowie (who had just turned twenty) does a fine job of sounding like an elderly sex pest.
It draws aesthetics from music hall, a venerable tradition that was fading in the 1960s, and is now utterly unendurable to modern listeners. I have never met a person who likes music hall. Have you? Do they exist? I’ve met people who claim they’ve seen aliens, but the elusive music hall fan still avoids me.
Music hall featured (and relied upon) stage shows and live performances: it may have been the the 19th century’s equivalent to the music video. The album suffers for its lack of a visual element, and feels a bit flat. No doubt Bowie had planned out short films and mime performances and dancing bears for each one, but then the album flopped. The songs are like colorful little parrots, their plumage covered by a dropcloth. We can hear them well enough, but they’re less charming without their bright feathers.
The music is mostly in good order. Even at twenty, Bowie knew how to put a song together. “Love You ‘Till Tuesday” strides into its chorus with a ritardando that made me say “nice” out loud in the middle of an empty room, which was embarrassing. “Sell Me A Coat” is a catchy ohrwurm, hand-tailored for the single release it never received.
The lyrics are a high point, although they’re definitely more interesting than good. Music hall was “low” entertainment, attracting people gate-checked out of polite society, and it played music to match. Bowie takes full advantage of this and just lets it all hang out, writing anything that will scan, no matter how stupid or awful or anti-social.
“We Are Hungry Men” is a humorous science fiction dystopia about a dictator’s solution to overpopulation. I laughed at the line about people being allotted a cubic foot of air to breath, although the part about China someday having “a thousand million” people didn’t age well.
“She’s Got Medals” is Bowie’s first song to deal with transvestism (“Passed the medical! Don’t ask me how it’s done!”), and “Little Bombardier” takes a nasty turn into pedophilia. The closing track is a spoken-word piece called “Please, Mr Gravedigger”, which tightrope-walks between being ludicrous and genuinely horrific.
There’s a lot of filler and half-songs (and quarter-songs), and I won’t pretend I want to hear things like “Come and Buy My Toys” ever again, but the songs are so diverse it hardly matters. They’re presents under a tree: if you don’t like one, you try your luck with another.
Bowie did the same thing – you can see many possible futures for him, refracted in the facets this strange, strange album. A mime? An actor? A vaudeville hoofer? A hippy? The genius who wrote Hunky Dory? I’m glad he chose the future he did, because it easily could have gone another way. In June 1967, an album came out that would change the face of pop forever. This, however, is not a review of The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but the first David Bowie album.
Black Tie, White Noise is legendary, and not just for having a punchable album cover. When it came out in 1993, it marked Bowie’s return from the wilderness – his first solo album in six years. Just try holding your breath for six years – I bet you can’t do it. You probably won’t even make it halfway.
Bowie spared no effort in trying to tank it. He re-united with Let’s Dance producer Nile Rogers, who recounts baffling self-sabotage inside the studio. A potential smash hit (the Madonna-ripping “Lucy Can’t Dance”) was demoted to a mere bonus track. The final tracklist seems to emphasize the artistic and non-commercial songs, particularly a piece composed for David’s wedding to Somali fashion model Iman.
BTWN is a cold, funky dance record. They pulled 70s disco out of cryogenic suspension, partly thawed it, and added some 90s production elements. The album contains the snappy, bright Cheiron Studios sound that was all over the charts at the time, along with sampled beats and grafts from jazz and swing. At first the album’s sonics impress (as Let’s Dance‘s did), but soon you want to hear distorted guitars, and roughness, and humanity. BTWN is too clean. Actually, it’s germophobic.
A couple of the songs connect with me. “They Say Jump” delves into societal pressure through the metaphor of Bowie’s half-brother Terry, who had committed suicide some years before. It’s the closing parenthesis to “The Bewlay Brothers”. “Nite Flights” is a cover of a Scott Walker song, adding lots of air to what was already a large and generous-sounding arrangement. And “Pallas Athena” is a furious and crushing dance track, woven out of thudding drums and stentorian vocal samples.
The title track is a self-conscious aping of “Fame” from Young Americans. Carlos Alomar’s riff is replaced by a funky slap-bass part, the descending “fame”s at the end replaced by ascending “yow-yow-yows” at the beginning, John Lennon replaced by someone called Al B Sure! (whose career spiraled the drain after doing this collaboration). The half-rapped ostinato (“Black! Tie! White! Noise!”) is quite good, although I could do without the “crankin’ out the white noy-oy-oise” chorus.
The lyrics are McCartney’s “Ebony and Ivory”: a guilty white guy talking about how mankind is a beautiful rainbow, with a black musician dutifully playing Br’er Rastus in his minstrel show. I always dislike these types of songs, mostly they’re never as brave as they think they are. “I’m a face, not just a race!” Bold words in 1993. The lyrics reference the Rodney King riots, but still end with all the usual cliches of black and white man holding hands and becoming one. You know what I’d like to hear? A song that’s about how different we are. That maybe black and white aren’t the same, and we need to come to terms with that in whatever way we can. It would be career suicide, but at least it would be a fresh take on things.
The rest of the album is unmemorable. What artistry it has overwhelmed by a driving sleet of digital breakbeats and pad synths. Bowie’s vocal melodies are slender things, unable to support the weight of the arrangements. To be blunt, I don’t need to listen to Bowie for 56 minutes straight, nor do I need to hear about his wedding. The tacky “modern” elements just emphasise how little of the old Bowie is present on the album.
Comparisons can be drawn to another album, twenty years earlier, when Bowie was also newly married. But where The Man Who Sold the World became a classic, Black Tie, White Noise is sadly the first of many inconsistent and often uninteresting 90s efforts.
There was a fool-me-once quality to Tin Machine’s debut. Overlong, overloud, “artistic” in all the wrong ways, initially it had strong sales (unlike the bass and drums, which had rather the opposite), but the singles gained no traction, and it soon slid from the charts. When Bowie presented EMI with a follow-up, the label refused to release it.
Tin Machine II was finally issued in 1991 by fly-by-night Japanese label Victory Records. This time, nobody indulged Bowie’s vanity project. The press it received was scornful, and the album stalled out at #23 on the UK charts. For six months the band stubbornly toured it to thousand-seat venues, Bowie rapidly burning through his savings in the process. By the end of the tour, Hunt Sales’s drug addiction made it intolerable to go on, and by 1994 the band was over.
It’s a shame, because II is better than I. Time had forged the band into something stronger than their parts: Hunt Sales no longer buries the songs under drum fills, Reeves Gabrels has dialed back the noise, and David shows up with some of his best songwriting in half a decade.
Opener “Baby Universal” is a star witness in the case that the Machine deserved to exist. Driving and punishing: this song has no fat or wasted moments. Curiously, this was written in the earliest days of Tin Machine, before the Sales brothers joined the project. Bowie delivered his best work in a narrow set of circumstances: him and a collaborator, alone. Aside from the Spiders, he rarely benefited from a full band.
Other cuts like “You Belong in Rock and Roll” and “Amlapura” also present David’s maligned new project in a more positive light. The lyrics go to dark places, particularly “Shopping for Girls”, which is about Reeves Gabrels’ encounters with child prostitutes in Thailand (for an article, natch). They’re more diverse: the guitars shimmer and splash rather than just grinding like a rusty gate, and the songwriting has a bit of dynamism to it: it’s flowing water, where TMI was a series of stagnant and scum-encrusted pools.
Which is not to say TMII belongs with the best Bowie albums, or the mid-rank. “One Shot” is just obnoxious, laughably oversung by Bowie, with awful Europop “wooo-hoo-hoo” backing vocals from Tony Hunt. Astonishingly, this was a single. Perhaps Victory wanted their customers to have a beer coaster. “Stateside” is musical irrelevance personified. “A Big Hurt” is an unconvincing dad-rock take on hardcore punk.
The direst moment is “Sorry”, a musical head cold with Hunt Sales on vocals. He sounds terrible, the music meanders, and the whole thing prays to be on a floor of a cutting room variety.
Just as TMII seems to be gassing out, it delivers the greatest song in the band’s existence and the best thing David Bowie wrote in ten years. “Goodbye Mr Ed” is a threnody sung in the ruins of rock. Bowie’s vocals are both haunted and disaffected: the sound of a man demon-haunted for so long that terror has yielded to weariness. The massive ritardando capping each chorus has almost heart-freezing power, and the song ends with a crazy free-time jam from Gabrels and the Hunts. This time, it doesn’t sound comical or self-indulgent.
It wasn’t enough. Tin Machine II flopped, what little attention it got mostly revolving around the dicks on the cover. Bowie didn’t know it, but the 1991 was going to kill his band. Nirvana’s Nevermind (containing a more polished edition of Tin Machine’s noisy sound, and ironically, another cover with a dick) would come out in a few months, and instantly make Tin Machine seem tired and irrelevant. The grunge movement reshaped the musical landscape, burying artists like Tin Machine like fossils in the rock stratum of history. Faced with young and hungry bands from Seattle, there was nowhere for Bowie to go except the door.
Sometimes people survive trauma, only to die in their beds or in an ambulance. Tin Machine ambled on for a few more years, but the death blow happened in 1991. Tragically, that’s the year they made an album proving they deserved better.
David Bowie’s career resembled a story, and in 1983 the story became an outright cliche: he hit triple cherries with Let’s Dance, his career ascended to never-before-seen heights, he flew too close to the sun, his albums became confused and over-calculated parodies of themselves, his old fans rejected him, his new ones moved on past him, everything was falling down around him, he starred in a big budget Fraggle Rock adaptation or something, etc, etc.
Tin Machine was supposed to fulfill the “triumphant comeback” part of the story. Back to the basics! No more synths, and no more selling out! Here comes Bowie, fronting a rock band! If that sounds wonderful, here comes the pain: Tin Machine’s 1989 debut is absolutely awful. It isn’t a reinvention, it isn’t a return to form, and compared to his derided mid 80s work, it’s actually worse in many respects.
The album is smug. This is hip, happening music for hip, happening people, and you can imagine it sneering at the records you’re shelving it with. Twenty years earlier, Bowie wrote “Join the Gang”, a song inspired (in part) by his exclusion from London’s counter-cultural artistic cliques. If they’d known he had this record in him, they’d have ushered him in through the VIP entrance. Tin Machine I is straight outta Gangland.
As mention, Tin Machine’s “hook” is that it’s a band. As with Eminem’s D12, you’re not supposed to notice that it contains one of the biggest stars in music (the cover underscores the point, with Bowie occupying the least amount of space out of the four). His bandmates are Tony and Hunt Sales (of Iggy Pop fame) on bass and drums, and Reeves Gabrels on guitar. Gabrels would eventually become the Ronson and Alomar of the 90s: Bowie’s trusty hired gun, and collaborator on many great songs. Here? SKREEK SKRAWK REE WEEDLE WEEDLE KERRRAAAANGG. There – you’ve heard his entire performance.
Hunt Sales is just irritating, pounding songs into the ground with flurries of 16th note snare fills. On some tracks (particularly the coda of the first one) his drumming approaches outright aural sabotage. TMI‘s music was written in a spontaneous, quasi-improvised fashion: for this to work, the four members need chemistry, and the low-grade telepathy of sidemen who have worked together for a long time. None of that intuition is on evidence here. It’s a three legged race, everyone tripping each other up.
The album’s problems become manifest as soon as “Heaven’s in Here” starts choogling away. Loud, noisy, and boring, it’s one of the worst songs on the record. “Tin Machine” sees Reeves yanking an interesting melodic idea from the upper frets, and Bowie follows it up with…nothing. “Take me anywhere!” How does the cut-out bin sound? “Prisoner of Love” is Dire Straits made dull and nondescript: it’s the musical version of a paving slab. “Crack City” is dumb (in an ironic nod-and-wink way), rocking out with a hard-edged riff and a pretty powerful chorus. Apparently the lyric is based off Nassau, where part of the album was recorded.
Health check: we are now nineteen minutes in, and have heard two good riffs and one good chorus. You call that a comeback? This is pathetic. Those junk Bowie bonds had a better rate of return. Scary Monsters gives you twice as many inspired ideas five minutes after you drop the needle, and at least Never Let Me Down offered up “Time Will Crawl” by now!
“I Can’t Read” is interesting, because it contains all the things that make Tin Machine insufferable (Reeves overplaying, Sales overdrumming, noise instead of coherency)…but it ends up being captivating. Bowie’s vocal is as raw and ugly as a half-bandaged wound as he ponders writer’s block (a topic addressed in “Sound and Vision”, although the two songs have no other similarities). At the end, he comes apart entirely. I don’t know how much of it as an act, but it’s a powerful moment.
The rest of the album blunders and crashes to its conclusion, offering up the occasionally highlight. “Bus Stop” is energetic and fun as hell – an uncharacteristic brush with hardcore punk. “Working Class Hero” can fuck right off. It joins the rare class of songs I literally cannot listen to because they make me angry (the class valedictorian is “Yassassin”, with “God Knows I’m Good” as salutorian and “The Buddha of Suburbia” third in class).
The reason I dislike alt-rock (a style that TMI is heavily inspired by), is that it holds the listener in contempt. You don’t play Nirvana’s In Utero, you’re condescended to by it. It’s smart, you’re dumb, now here’s ten more tracks of underproduced fuzz so you get the point. Bowie’s music was always clever, but it never tried to be better than the listener. “Sweet Thing” and “Warszawa” invited you to understand then. TMI is fifty-six minutes of Bowie and company gurning and giving you the finger.
All the excesses of the grunge era are here, several years too early. Bowie didn’t even fully succeed in escaping his pop persona, after EMI sulkingly released the album with stickers advising buyers that it was made by the guy who did Let’s Dance.