Written in 2003 for a MOJO special edition on David Bowie. Obviously, nobody else wanted to write about Tin Machine, for shame. For me, Tin Machine seemed like one of the more interesting phases of Bowie’s career because nobody had really examined it. Well, OK, “examined” is over-egging it a bit, as this was just two pages, but it did mean I got to ring up the brilliant Reeves Gabrels, who was very generous with his time and extremely honest about the whole project. The Tin Machine story could make a great drama-documentary. Tension. Talent. Controversy. Nice suits. Are you listening, BBC Four?

MOJO Bowie Special Edition, November 2003.


They’re the group that became a byword for rock star folly, but, in hindsight, noise-rock quartet Tin Machine were crucial to Bowie’s career. By Martin O’Gorman.

“I’ve never been worried about losing fans. My strength has always been that I never gave a shit about what people thought of what I was doing. I’d be prepared to ostracise everybody that may have been pulled in by the last album.

By 1987, David Bowie’s critical reputation left much to be desired. Tonight’s lavish production and Never Let Me Down’s contrived controversy, coupled with the overblown Glass Spider tour had Bowie painted as a self-indulgent rock superstar. What next, but to sit at home and count his money?

With a new decade looming, few would have expected David Bowie to form a heavy rock quartet and reinvent himself as simply “the singer”.

Hello, Tin Machine – the most derided period of Bowie’s career. But was it really that simple? Without the venture, sometimes uncharitably dubbed Tinpot Machine, it’s quite likely that his work in the 90s would have turned out very differently…

The Glass Spider had breathed its last in New Zealand in November 1987 and for Bowie 1t represented, If not a full stop, then a pregnant pause. Being at the helm of a travelling circus of musicians and dancers caused the artist undue stress.

“It was great to burn the spider at the end of the tour,” he recalled. “That was such a relief! There was too much responsibility. It was so unwieldy and everybody had a problem all the time… I was under so much pressure.”

Bowie admitted that Tonight and Never Let Me Down had “great material that got simmered down to product level – theres stuff on those two albums that I could really kick myself about. I had to do something where I felt more involved and less dispassionate. I had to, for my own musical sanity. It was either shit, or get off the pot. Bowie needed a new creative challenge; something to fire him up.

“I nearly quit Tin Machine twice to go and study law, but my wife talked me out of it, laughs guitarist Reeves Gabrels, as he prepares to release his fourth solo LP after a decade as Bowie’s main collaborator. “She said she’d married a musician, not a lawyer.”

Jovial, yet keen to set the record straight about the Tin Machine years, Gabrel’s work with Bowie allowed him to quit Playing with avant-garde
bands in Boston and bring his adventurous guitar style to the world stage.

“It amazes me when people still describe Tin Machine as unsuccessful,” he says.”Around the time of Earthling, I remember David getting a print-out of the worldwide sales of all his records – Lets Dance was at Number 1, but at Number 5 was the first Tin Machine album.”

Gabrels crossed Bowie’s path when his wife, investigative journalist Sara Terry, gave herself a change of scene by becoming the PR for the American leg of the Glass Spider tour. Gabrels frequently caught up with his spouse and met Bowie on numerous occasions.I never told him I was a musician, because I didn’t want to appear to be an opportunist,” he explains. David thought I was a painter because We used to talk about fine art, or anything, except music. One time, we sat watching Fantasy Island backstage with the sound down, making up dthe plot ourselves.”

Unbeknown to her husband, Terry had given Bowie a tape of some recent work by Gabrels. “David called me and said, Why didst you tell me? You’re exactly what Ive been looking for. I didn’t recognise the voice – it sounded like someone doing an impression of an English accent. I said, Who the fuck is this? It was only when he mentioned Fantasy Island that I realised who it was.”

The superstar thumbs-up soon saw Gabrels getting work with The Mission and Deaf School, but Bowie had grander plans. He asked Gabrels to collaborate on a version of Look Back In Anger for a benefit for London’s ICA in ]uly 1988, accompanying a performance by dance troupe La La La Human Steps.

Bowie was invigorated by Gabrels’ use of electronics in producing an overpowering, “nihilistic” sound, but it occurred to him that he knew
some musicians mat could help him do an even better job…

Tony Sales had met Bowie at a party in Los Angeles in October 1987, where
the star had enthused about “this fantastic guitar player”. Bassist Sales and his drummer brother Hunt were veterans of Iggy Pop’s Berlin-era albums and had played alongside Bowie when he’d unobtrusively taken keyboard duties on Iggy’s 1977 tour. Bowie suggested they form a group. Tony replied: “Shall I call the drummer?”

“I didn’t want David to form a band,” says Gabrels, who obviously anticipated the pitfalls that awaited anyone who tried to play second fiddle to Bowie. “Because I knew what people would think. I didn’t want to be considered the Wings part of Paul McCartney and Wings.” Nevertheless, Bowie’s wishes prevailed.

With the personnel in place, a nervy meeting took place at the legendary casino in Montreux, Switzerland.The Sales brothers had attitude, says Gabrels. “They’d been famous even before Bowie, when they were in a garage band called Tony And The Tigers. So when I arrived, there was this attitude of ‘Who the fuck are you?’

“Hunt had a buck knife tucked into his belt and a T-shirt that said, Fuck You, Im From Texas.

Two weeks into recording, Gabrels was recording a guitar overdub in the studio, where the only form of communication with the control room was via CCTV. “I couldn’t see them, but I’d have the three of them on the talkback constantly. Hunt would come on and say we needed the part to be more like this, then Tony would say he’d want it more like that. Up until then Id been gracious, but I finally walked over to the camera and stared right down the lens and said, Thank you for your ideas… but first I’d like to try it my way Then – and only then – will I welcome any input. When they came back on the talkback, they were all cackling.”

“I was very nervous that it might not work out, Bowie recalled. It was throwing myself into a group format, which is something I hadn’t done… forever, really. To have other members of the band making decisions was difficult. Luckily, with Gabrels in the camp, there was a balance between the raw instinct of the Sales rhythm section and the more cerebral approach of the guitarist and singer.

“We both had that art school background.” says Gabrels. “David would say to me, ‘We need a Lichtenstein guitar solo there, rather than a Jackson Pollock’. And I’d know exactly what he meant.”

All four soon realised that something exciting was happening. “We didn’t know what it was going to be,” said Tony Sales at the time, “but we figured that it just had to be hopper than what was going on.” And for Bowie, it was hipper in spades. The world first heard o Tine Machine with a startling video for Under The God. for some Bowie-watchers it was apparent that their idol had undergone some traumatic mid-life crisis. The clip, shot live at the Ritz Club in New York, featured sone frantic choreographed stage-diving from local punks.

As the kids flung themselves at each other, Bowie hollered a torrent of invective, while the band thundered through a barrage of guitar theatrics. Bowie’s lyrics had a social awareness that he’d not demonstrated for some time, mainly because he was encouraged by the band to go with his gut feeling rather than tinker too much with his initial ideas.

“Skin dance back-a-the condo, skinheads getting to school; beating on blacks with a baseball bat, racism back in rule…” Blue Jean this wasn’t. It was more Dead Kenendys. As Gabrels says, Tin Machine was “deliberately antagonistic. We Went out there to make a mess.”

Bowie wanted Tin Machine to be perceived as a proper band, despite sneers from the press. “The guys surprise me all the time, mostly by what they say,” he gushed in one interview. “Its quite gang-like, in that there’s a kind of buoyancy The overwhelming responsibilities of the Glass Spider tour were also put to one side for a democratic approach. “I was designated ‘contact person’ for all things financial when the management needed a decision, reveals Gabrels. “That in itself Should make it clear to even the sceptics that Tin Machine was a band…. If a legal document on file with the US government isn’t enough.”

Issued in May 1989, Tin Machine (the title as streamlined as the band’s sharp-suited image) was a loud, swaggering record, full of Gabrels’ showy guitarmanship and a ballsy cover of Lennon’s Working Class Hero.

“This is almost dismissive of the last three albums,” Bowie told the press, barely concealing his glee that he was being controversial again. “There’s going to be a whole bunch of people whole say its just not accessible. I guess its not as obviously melodic as one would think it would probably be.”

For many critics, it was hard to divorce Tin Machine from the Bowie of old. David Fricke in Rolling Stone memorably described the record as “Sonic Youth meets Station To Station… Tin Machine effectively reconciles the bracing noise of a full-tilt electric band with the nuances of Bowie’s writing craft.”

Q magazine also welcomed the reinvention. “The man himself sounds more at one with his music than at any time since the days when the back pages of music papers carried ads for six-pleat Bowie pants,” enthused Paul Du Noyer. It’s easy to forget how good the album sounded after years of creative disrepair.

Bowie brieHy put the project on hold in 1990 for the Sound + Vision greatest hits tour – a contractual obligation that Gahrels refused to become involved With, feeling that it undervalued the Tin Machine project.

Before the hiatus, the majority of Tin Machine II was recorded in Australia between September and December 1989 The turbulent events of the period, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, worked their way into the new lyrics, Gabrels harrowing Shopping For Girls brutally examined the exploitation of children in the developing world – a subject inspired by his wife’s work.

Other lyrics anticipated Bowie’s 90s work, particularly the Hawkwind-inspired Baby Universal that reads, “Hallo humans, can you feel me thinking?” The record included another cover, Roxy Music’s If There Is Something, and further writing contributions from the Sales brothers, with Hunt taking lead vocals on the US-baiting Stateside.

But critical reaction was less enthusiastic for Tin Machine II. Q called it “frustratingly unmemorable”, despite it having a more refined sound than its predecessor. The final insult came when many US stores refused to stock the record because some traditional nude Greek statues were depicted on the cover. As a compromise, their genitals Were unceremoniously airbrushed away.

Undaunted, the band embarked on a mammoth world tour in Qctober 1991, eventually Winding up in Japan four months later. Gabrels relished the fact that Tin Machine attracted much derision: “I enjoyed the way we became almost a cult item. That’s why we sold the t-shirts that said, Fuck You, I HEART Tin Machine.”

Even more confrontational was his use of a sex-shop vibrator on his guitar – all the better to get unusual “textures”.

“Everyone in this band has something they want to say musically,” Bowie explained to International Musician during the “Hunt may suddenly turn the beat around and your instinct is to say, That’s not how it goes. So you sit on your opinions. Suddenly, you find the band has turned around on itself and is doing something it wouldn’t have been doing 10 minutes before. When that flow stops, that’s when the band will stop.

And stop it did. Tony Sales was attending AA meetings and, according to Gabrels, reliability became a thorny issue. “But,” he emphasises, the split was down to the simple fact that the band had four radically different personalities rubbing up against each other to the point of great irritation and [was] surrounded by people on the outside by people who wished it would go away.”

Significantly, Bowie’s accountants were on his back. “A small room packed with people is a cool thing, but it’s not economical,” Bowie explained recently. “I was paying for that band to work, and I was gradually going through all my bread; and it became time to stop. I had to build my audience back up again.”

This accusation upsets Gabrels, who asserts that each member managed their own expenses. “The Sales brothers wanted limos, but they had to pay for them out of their own pockets,” he remembers. He also recalls a member of Bowie’s management bemoaning the fact that Tin Machine “devalued” the Bowie legacy. In fact, the project effectively helped Bowie get out of his EMI contract, as the label preferred to cancel the agreement rather than have another Tin Machine album.

By spring 1992, the band was no more. A cursory live album, Oy Vey Baby, appeared featuring overlong workouts of tracks such as Heaven’s In Here recorded on the world tour. There was little mourning.

But for David Bowie, the experience had been valuable. “It’s given me a feel for what I want to do again as a solo artist,” he explained. Tin Machine may have been crucial in wiping the slate clean after the gaudy 80s excesses, but it also opened the gateway for the New Improved 90s Bowie.

Tin Machine proved again that Bowie could take risks. It was the bravest thing he’d done since killing off Ziggy Stardust, seeing out the 80s with the most cutting-edge music he’d written for years, reacting to rising bands such as Sonic Youth and the Pixies and in some ways anticipating the rise of grunge. By dipping his toe again into uncharted waters, Bowie retained his reputation as interpreter of the Zeitgeist, just as he did in the late 70s. Tin Machine killed off Bowie The Superstar and replaced him with Bowie The Artist. For that, and some cruelly underrated records, we should be grateful.