Fuck You, I Like Tin Machine

Published on November 29th, 2008 in: Issues, Music, Retrovirus |

By Christian Lipski

“The Irish are the blacks of Europe,
and Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland,
and the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin.
So say it once, say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!”
The Commitments

tin machine group

Much like the characters in The Commitments, fans of unpopular music can be made to feel marginalized by the great majority. But just as the James Brown song referenced above says, the marginalized can feel proud of who they are. I won’t go as far as to say that Bowie fans are the blacks of the music world, but they’re certainly not in the majority. Tin Machine fans, however, are certainly the blacks of the Bowie world, and Tin Machine II fans are the blacks of the Tin Machine fans. So let me say it loud. . . well, you get the point. The title of this piece is taken from shirts that the band’s tour crew had made up to counter the near-universal criticism heaped upon the band and its output, and pretty accurately sums it up for me.

Tin Machine was formed so that David Bowie could work within a band setting. He had been a solo artist since the mid-1960s, and never really had the experience of collaborating with equals in a band. He had been working with guitarist Reeves Gabrels on some potential Bowie solo material, so all they needed was a rhythm section, which they found in the Sales brothers, Hunt and Tony, who had played with Iggy Pop and so were well known to Bowie. “Check out Lust For Life,” Bowie reportedly told Gabrels, “I’ve found the rhythm section!” (1) Thus began Bowie’s brief sojourn into collective songwriting.

The 1989 debut album, self-titled, reached #28 in America (#3 UK), most likely due to the novelty and the publicity of Bowie proclaiming that he was just another member of the band. One night driving home from a late class I heard “Under the God” on the radio and flipped. It was visceral, louder than Bowie had been since the early 1970s. I bought the CD when it came out, and read the lyrics while sitting in the car–I didn’t have a car CD player, so I had to wait until I got home to listen. It’s a raw album, far removed from Bowie’s 1980s releases with their slick, perfect production.

tin machine II rear
Note Hunt Sales’ back tattoo:
It’s My Life

Hunt Sales is a demon on the drums, which have an organic, live sound to them. This is not a session drummer trying to please his boss without overshadowing. This is a lunatic who wants an equal voice and gets it. His insanity is easily matched by Gabrels’ twisted guitar. Reminiscent of earlier Bowie sideman Adrian Belew, Gabrels wrings noises out of his guitar that simply should not be. Tony Sales’ bass is constantly moving below the surface of the song, hunting, like a shark or a U-boat. I saw the band perform on TV at an awards show, and was impressed by the energy that these old coots were putting out, even in tuxedos (which in a way made it better).

It’s a loud and raw album, thanks to the rest of the band, but it’s not my favorite. The lyrics can get a bit, uh, spontaneous due to Bowie’s effort to keep the songs fresh. “They’re just a bunch of assholes/With buttholes for their brains” is good for its shock values, but honestly it’s not that great. “Crack City”, the song it’s from, is more interesting musically than lyrically. “Under the God” is perhaps the best track, followed by “Baby Can Dance” and “Pretty Thing.” I love this album for the change of pace it provided for Bowie, and for its sheer passion.

tin machine pass

The band took a short break to allow Bowie to complete his Sound + Vision greatest hits tour before returning to the studio in 1991 to record Tin Machine II. I consider this to be a far better album than the debut, most likely for the very reasons that everyone else dislikes it. It’s more sophisticated, more polished, but without being a return to Bowie’s previous sound. The rest of the band are still present, still making their voices heard, but with perhaps more cohesion. As a whole, it’s not as frenetic as Tin Machine, which is lamentable, but at times it does approach the previous level of energy.

“Big Hurt” is one such time, with Hunt providing a percussive assault behind Gabrels’ wall of noise while Bowie sounds like a desperate mental patient. Which I mean in the best possible way, and “even a glass eye in a duck’s ass can see that” as he says. On the slower side, “Betty Wrong” is by far my favorite track, although there are many that I hold in high esteem, including the singles, “Baby Universal” and “One Shot.”

The songs are catchier, I’d say, without losing the individuality of the players. The lyrics are slightly more crafted without being overly contrived. And wonder of wonders, Bowie lets another vocalist sing on not one, but two songs out of eleven. Drummer Hunt Sales get to step up on two tracks that I love, “Stateside” and “Sorry,” the former a grinding shuffle and the latter a keening ballad. He doesn’t have the most commercial voice ever, but like his drumming, Hunt knows how far he can push it out of line and still bring it back in time.

tin machine live

I saw the band live for their It’s My Life tour supporting the second album, and it was fantastic. I was impressed that Bowie performed no Bowie solo tunes whatsoever, being faithful to the band he was in. They did do covers, though, including The Pixies’ “Debaser” and “Go Now” by The Moody Blues. You could tell that Bowie was enjoying himself, allowing other personalities to share the spotlight with him. A live album was released in 1992 with the tongue-in-cheek title Oy Vey, Baby, a response to U2’s Achtung Baby.

But nothing lasts forever, and as the rock star tired of being an ordinary band member, the band itself ceased to be. Bowie continued to collaborate with Gabrels for several solo albums and tours, but there was no more to be heard from the little band that could. I still consider the Tin Machine Years to be important ones in Bowie’s career, and arguably they were responsible for the rocker’s return to the concept of rock, of spontaneity, of saying, “fuck you” to what’s expected.

Yeah, I’m proud. And I hope that Tin Machine is as well.

1. David Buckley, Strange Fascination – David Bowie: The Definitive Story, (1999).

5 Responses to “Fuck You, I Like Tin Machine”

  1. K. Telle:
    December 1st, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    I may disagree with you. but I will defend to the slightly uncomfortable your right to say it. I have to admit I only listened to the debut once, and avoided the follow up like I do most mid to late 80s Bowie, but I sure did enjoy this article!

  2. Popdose Flashback: Tin Machine, “Tin Machine” | Popdose:
    March 2nd, 2009 at 8:30 am

    […] out to change that, part of a growing blog movement along with other like-minded folks such as Christian at Popshifter who are finally giving Tin Machine the credit it […]

  3. mojo flucke, Ph.D.:
    March 4th, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    VIVE LE MACHIN de TIN!!! Got that right. Is that actual French I just wrote?

  4. Xtina:
    October 26th, 2009 at 12:24 am

    I always liked what I heard in the Sales brothers and felt that they should have gone further than they did. Bowie had a great sound when he worked with them, but I love them for who they are, their sound, which is unique and gives me goosebumps.

    I hope they are scoring movies (if they want to) and getting their sound out in other ways. Vive Sales.

  5. Stanley Patel:
    January 31st, 2013 at 5:12 am

    There is only one critic YOURSELF ….and looking back now it seems very strange why people did not like Tin Machine….I thought Let’s Dance/Tonight/Never Let Me Down had a few moments but Not good enough . Tin Machine 1 was good I love Pretty Thing Bus Stop & Baby Universal off Tin Machine 2 . just listen for yourself

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