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Week 73 | Tin Machine (1989)

“Tin Machine” was the first Bowie album released since I had become a fan.  There’s some irony in that because the catalytic event that made me a fan was my attendance at a Bowie concert in Toronto, in 1987, as part of the Glass Spider Tour.  Glass Spider was Bowie’s big-production spectacle, in support of, “Never Let Me Down,” which was the critical nadir of Bowie’s career as a pop star.  Many of the retrospectives I have read following Bowie’s death identify his previous album, “Tonight,” as the creative low point in his career.  As I recall, however, at the time, “Tonight” got something of a pass but “Never Let Me Down” was a critical flop.  The tour was well-attended (I was at a stadium show) but also not loved by critics.  To me, however, it was spectacular.  I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to like, “Tonight.”  I wasn’t really thrilled with, “Never Let Me Down,” but I was anticipating, “Tin Machine,” with great hope.

My life had undergone a major change by the time I bought the album— in the form of a cassette tape that I still own (though can’t play because I have no working device that plays tapes):  I was in college.  Bowie had undergone a major change, too— the stylistic shift from “Never Let Me Down” to “Tin Machine” was the most dramatic in a career noted for frequent stylistic changes.  In a sense, the album wasn’t even a Bowie album— the conceit of the band, Tin Machine, was that it was a group of equals.  It wasn’t “David Bowie and Tin Machine”— it was just, “Tin Machine.”  Bowie’s name didn’t even appear on the album cover (his attempt to hide became ridiculous by the second Tin Machine album cover, on which neither his name nor face appeared).  

This was a moment for me.  Before, “Tin Machine,” Bowie’s catalogue was locked into my consciousness.  I didn’t experience anything before as new when it actually was new.  Sure, I probably became vaguely aware of his past couple of albums around the time they came out, but I wasn’t really paying attention.  By the time I was listening to, “Tonight,” it might as well have been, “Space Oddity”— I had been listening to that too for about the same amount of time.

But I had waited for, “Tin Machine” and everything that came after.  I waited, the album would come out, I’d listen to it over and over, inevitably I’d like it, inevitably it would be reviewed as Bowie’s best since, “Scary Monsters” (this was really the first album to get that label), and inevitably it would fade in time for the next album that would go through the same cycle.  To be clear, these albums, “Tin Machine” included, did not fade for me, but, “Never Let Me Down” is a wall— on one side of that wall are a string of albums, almost all of which contributed at least a few songs each to what has become the cannon of rock music standards.  On the other side there are a roughly equal number of albums, all of which are at least pretty good, but none of which contain songs that are widely known to anyone who doesn’t actually own the albums (with the possible exception of, “Blackstar”… its still too early to know for sure).  

“Tin Machine” is of the small group of Bowie albums that I think would be thought of differently had it been released at a different time.  Had the album switched place with the earlier “Lodger,” or the later, “The Next Day,” I think either of those albums would be regarded in the same way, “Tin Machine” is today and vice versa.  But that actually couldn’t have happened— not with the exact same album, anyway.  With its references to crack, video, and Madonna, “Tin Machine” is Bowie’s most temporal album (well, maybe Madonna transcends the moment).   

So, “Tin Machine” reflects a point in time.  For me, I liked it then because it was new Bowie.  I recall reviews comparing it in a positive light to Bowie’s immediate previous two albums.  But both qualities do not hold up over time- it is no longer new and that it was released after, “Never Let Me Down,” is irrelevant today.  While I have affection for, “Tim Machine” and listen to it from time to time, Bowie made better music before and after.

Bowie had to work something out.  He seemed angry with the world and angry with himself.  I recall a “Rolling Stone” review of the album, which focused on Bowie’s anger.  He took it out on a series of social ills with loud and preachy songs about crack, fascism, violent videos and more.  On top of that, he added a cover of John Lennon’s, “Working Class Hero” (couldn’t he have covered a Beatles song instead?) To me, these songs are too overt, and sound odd coming from Bowie, who was never really in a great position to be moralistic.  

Bowie was not new to writing songs that touched on social issues.  At his best, the songs are ambiguous.  “Fashion” has something to do with political extremism.  “China Girl” seems to have to do with imperialism.  But Bowie doesn’t spell it out with those songs. Yet he leaves little to the imagination with most of the “Tin Machine” songs.  That takes some of the fun out of it.  Plus, there are better uses of Bowie’s voice than repeatedly screaming, “I can’t read shit, I can’t read shit.” 

The themes of the album are telegraphed by the title track, in which Bowie pleads, “take me anywhere; somewhere without alcohol or goons with muddy hair.”  I like the title track more than some of the others, but I have always been a bit confused about the focus on the term, “tin machine.”  That’s the band name, the song name and the name of two albums.  Why?  What is a tin machine, anyway?  Tin seems to be a weak material for a machine.  Its pliable and common, but it isn’t a strong metal.  Is that supposed to say something about the band?

Nonetheless, there’s more I like about “Tin Machine” than dislike.  I have the positive association with my initial experience, and despite its flaws, the music is not bad.  I very much wanted to see Tin Machine in concert— the band usually performed at small venues.  But I kept missing the band and never saw them live.

After Tin Machine broke up, Bowie pretty much stopped playing songs from this album.  The one exception that I know of is, “I Can’t Read,” which he performed on “VHS Storytellers.”  While not my favorite Tin Machine song, I do think there’s enough from this album that could have transferred into his regular repertoire.  While I never got to see Bowie perform these songs, I did see band co-founder and guitarist Reeves Gabrels perform my favorite Tin Machine song, “Bus Stop” live at a small venue.   

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