Graded on a Curve:
Tin Machine,
Tin Machine

Can you really blame me for skipping this band? By 1989, the year of this album’s release, I’d long since written off David Bowie as a dead loss forever, refusing to forgive him for the commercial swill he’d lowered himself to on 1983’s Let’s Dance. Frankly, I felt he’d jumped the shark, and I saw no point in checking out what looked like a cornered end move by an artist in inescapable creative decline. He’d formed a band? Without his name attached to it? Weird. And big whoop.

But I was wrong. I can hear that now. Listening to Tin Machine, the debut LP by the band of the same name, it’s turns out there were plenty of good reasons to check out Bowie’s odd ego-dissolve into a semi-democracy with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and the sibling rhythm section of Tony Sales (bass) and Hunt Sales (drums). The biggest reason is that Tin Machine marked Bowie’s welcome return to making a big noise rock’n’roll style. And the noise is both real and welcome—Reeves Gabrels knows how to make a guitar squeal, and I haven’t heard so much wonderful dissonance from Bowie since Mike Garson was attacking the piano on 1973’s Aladdin Sane.

Squalls of feedback! That’s what Gabrels bequeaths us on such jaunty bashers and crashers as “Heaven’s in Here,” “Prisoner in Love,” “I Can’t Read,” and really, are there any tunes on this album (besides the loud but sweet love song, “Amazing”) on which Bowie and Company don’t crank up the volume and fight for their right to be the loudest damn band at the party? I approached “Baby Can Dance” with trepidation—it brought back traumatic memories of “Let’s Dance”—but it’s a brutal howl of a song and—like most of the songs on Tin Machine—boasts a catchy melody to boot. Bowie has said that Tin Machine played an important role in his musical rejuvenation—a chance to win back some artistic credibility, which he’d recklessly squandered by putting on his red shoes and dancing the blues. And he did it, it’s interesting to note, by moving backwards in a way—to the big guitar noise last heard on 1976’s Station to Station.

Tin Machine has its weak moments—the band’s funk metal take on John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” does nothing for me, and not because I’m a fan of the original. (I’m not.) “Pretty Thing” has an interesting stop and start motion to it, but it doesn’t have much more going for it, while the superheavy “Video Crimes” just kinda sinks under its own immense weight, despite Gabrels’ impressive guitar pyrotechnics. And all the galloping in the world doesn’t bring band anthem “Tin Machine” first across the finish line.

But the winners—and I count eight of them—are worth cherishing. “Heaven’s in Here” opens on a big sixties guitar riff and proceeds to morph into a pretty darn good Bowie tune, while “Crack City”—I’ll give you two guesses what its about—actually lumbers into Troggs territory. “Under the God” mixes Sex Pistols velocity with a fetching melody and gives Bowie—who caught shit in the late seventies for some of the things he had to say about English fascism—a chance to redeem himself. “I Can’t Read” brings the noise, and is a sonic treat. Robert Christgau said of Tin Machine that “in his corporate, iconic way, D. Bowie is sincerely trying to impress consumers,” but I don’t hear any commercial condescension in “I Can’t Read” or any of the other songs on Tin Machine. As for “Prisoner of Love,” it’s anthemic, totemic—Bowie at his romantic best. It rises and crests, and moves you in the process, and I can’t hear it without thinking, “Welcome back.”

Tin Machine offers more great tunes—“Bus Stop,” for instance, is a nasty little slice of Clash-like punk—but the bigger point to be made here is that David Bowie, if not at not at the height of his powers, is definitely not the crass panderer who sold his soul on Let’s Dance. He’s making music on his terms again. In 1996 he said, “For better or worse [Tin Machine] helped me to pin down what I did and didn’t enjoy about being an artist. It helped me, I feel, to recover as an artist… I’m working to my own criteria. I’m not doing anything I would feel ashamed of in the future, or that I would look back on and say my heart wasn’t in that.”

Bowie being Bowie, Tin Machine couldn’t last—more than any other artist I can think of, the essence of Bowie is ch-ch-ch-changes. But despite what I believed at the time, Tin Machine was anything but another flailing step by an artist in creative freefall. It was the work of an artist getting back on his feet. And there’s a world of difference between the two.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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  • dan_oz

    Accurately rated.

    I’m not sure if we’ve discussed Accurately rated bands before…

    http://www.spin.com/2004/12/give-me-centrism-or-give-me-death/

    …a moderately amusing article but an important concept.

    A fun example…

    ” Blue Öyster Cult: The BÖC song everyone pays attention to is the suicide anthem “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” However, that song is stupid and doesn’t use enough cowbell. The BÖC song almost no one pays attention to is the pro-monster plod-a-thon “Godzilla,” and that song is spine-crushingly great. So, in the final analysis, Blue Öyster Cult is accurately rated-by accident. This happens on occasion; look at Scottie Pippen”.

    Supplementary fun Tin Machine facts:

    Hunt & Tony are the sons of Soupy Sales; They were the rhythm section for Iggy’s classic Lust for Life era band; When approached by Bowie to to form a band one of them asked “You’re not gonna makes us wear fucking clown suits are ya”?

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