I mentioned a few days ago that I thought there were enough good songs on the two Tin Machine albums for one good album. Around the time I wrote that, I was listening to the podcast, Fantastic Voyage, which feature two guys talking about Bowie. They had done several episodes on Tin Machine culminating in a “best of” episode. The trick with Tin Machine is that with only two studio albums, and one official live album, I’m not sure what the difference is between coming up with a “best of” as opposed to what I’m trying to do. Well, one difference is that the guys on the podcast had different opinions than my own about individual songs. For instance, they really didn’t like, “A Big Hurt,” which I do. Anyway, below is what I think would have made a single, really good album. I’ll explain why after the list:
1. “Heaven’s in Here”
2. “Tin Machine”
3. “Prisoner of Love”
5. “Bus Stop”
6. “Pretty Thing”
8. “Shopping for Girls”
9. “A Big Hurt”
10. “Goodbye Mr. Ed”
11. “Hammerhead” (instrumental)
OK, so “Heaven’s in Here,” “Prisoner of Love,” “Amazing” and to some extent, “Amlapura” are, for lack of a better of of putting it, normal songs. The are relatively slow paced, melodic and atmospheric. I could easily imagine any of them on a Bowie solo album. If you simply heard them, you wouldn’t come away thinking of Tin Machine as a proto-grunge, hyper-masculine spiffed up garage band.
The band named itself after the song, “Tin Machine,” not vice versa. There’s enough of the band’s identity wrapped up in this one song that it kinda has to be included. Plus, it’s catchy and has some of the social commentary that characterizes the first album, but is a little more subtle about it than some of the later songs. One such more overt song is, “Pretty Thing,” which on its own is maybe the least enjoyable song on this list, but I have always heard it as connecting this band to Bowie’s past and future. Bowie famously used the term, “Pretty Things,” in “Oh ! You Pretty Things” (1971) and later would use the term in, “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” (1999). I think of the Tin Machine song as part of a continuum in which the Pretty Things are basically hedonists who throw caution to the wind and enjoy their youth while driving their mammas and papas insane, but then become degenerates by the time of the Tin Machine song and are worn out by the time of the later song. Or something like that. Anyway, of the preachy songs from the first Tin Machine album, this one has the most depth (Bowie himself might have taken issue— he really liked, “I Can’t Read,” which doesn’t make my list).
“Bus Stop,” “A Big Hurt,” and “Goodbye Mr. Ed” are the type of frantic, energized songs Tin Machine is known for, but they avoid being either overt or overly long. “A Big Hurt” is not at all universally popular, in part because its lyrics, which on their face seem like a juvenile attempt to be shocking (this one often gets singled out— “Even a glass eye in a duck’s ass can see that”). I don’t see it like that. Tin Machine is angry about something. “A Big Hurt” doesn’t try to channel that anger into social commentary, it’s just an expulsion of frustration. Bowie’s vocalization and choice of words suggest that he’s lost control. He’s sputtering mad and can’t fully articulate what he’s mad about. “Goodbye Mr. Ed” is less frantic and more intricate, whereas “Bus Stop” might be the shortest of all of Bowie’s songs and doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning at all. The thing all three have in common is energy and a vague sense of frustration with the state of the world. At essence, that’s what I think Tin Machine is about.
“Shopping for Girls” might be Tin Machine’s very best song, though it’s tough to hear. The challenge isn’t so much that the music is unpleasant, but the topic is— child sex traffic. There’s a story about what inspired the song (which has to do with some journalism by guitarist Reeves Gabrel’s wife). It is easily a topic that Bowie and the band should have stayed clear of, but they pull it off. It’s respectful and layered and certainly not exploitative.
I end the list with the same song fragment that ends Tin Machine II, “Hammerhead.” “Hammerhead” is a brief, instrumental hidden track that exists as a full song elsewhere. Leave it as an instrumental — it’s a good choice to punctuate the end of the album.
These are not the only Tin Machine songs that I like, but I think this collection would have held together better than the two individual albums. Tin Machine is not Bowie at his pinnacle, but as I was reminded after recently listening to his debut album, the band is far from Bowie’s worst moment. Reconstituted, I actually think there’s quite a bit to like.