When David Bowie found himself in a creative funk in the wake of the disappointing album Never Let Me Down, he built himself a machine. The Tin Machine. The parts were Reeves Gabrels and Kevin Armstrong on guitars, and Soupy Sales’ sons, Tony and Hunt Sales, as his rhythm section. Barry Walsh revisits the results, with a little help from Armstrong and producer Tim Palmer, for PKM.
by Barry Walsh
“Raging, raging, raging
Burning in my room
C’mon and get a good idea
C’mon and get it soon”
– ‘Tin Machine’, lyrics by David Bowie
By 1988, rock icon David Bowie was running dangerously low on the cultural cachet he had amassed over two decades of audacious innovation and reinvention.
With the world-beating success of his peroxide-blonde era, marked by the multimillion-selling Let’s Dance album and its accompanying “Serious Moonlight” tour five years behind him and his most recent efforts—the commercially disappointing and creatively subpar Never Let Me Down and the ambitious yet overwrought Glass Spider tour—both receiving critical drubbings and dwindling revenues, Bowie was, as the 1990s beckoned, drifting back to a place he hadn’t occupied since the mid-1960s: irrelevancy.
As had happened at other points in his career—see Mick Ronson and Carlos Alomar in the 1970s—a lifeline came in the form of a relatively unknown guitarist. In this case, Bowie stumbled across Boston native Reeves Gabrels, the then-husband of the publicist for the Glass Spider tour. While Gabrels and Bowie spent a fair amount of time hanging out backstage during the tour, the low-key guitarist didn’t mention he was a musician. But upon eventually hearing a tape of Gabrels with his band, Bowie suggested working together. It was the beginning of a relationship that would stretch over a decade, and would serve to drag Bowie back from the brink.
The first fruit of the relationship was an angular, avant-garde rendition of “Look Back in Anger”, a track that originally appeared on 1979’s Lodger, recorded for a project with Canadian choreographer Edouard Lock’s La La La Human Steps. Following that experiment, Bowie and Gabrels decamped to Switzerland, where Bowie had one of his residences, and worked in more material—songs that were decidedly an about-face from the programmed pop of his previous album.
“The idea,” Bowie told Rolling Stone’s David Wild in 1991, “was really good songs played with lots of aggression.”
Up and coming British producer and engineer Tim Palmer, then in his mid-20s, was contacted by Bowie soon after the work began on the new songs, upon the recommendation of Billy Duffy from The Cult. But the talk then wasn’t of a band project.
“From my initial conversation with David, I learned that he was in the early stages of working on a new album,” Palmer tells Please Kill Me. “He was already collaborating with Reeves, who was unknown to me at this point, and they were writing and demoing ideas. He asked if I would like to join them in Switzerland and as you don’t ask somebody like David Bowie to send demos first, I immediately agreed to fly to Mountain Studios.
“At this point, the concept of a new band project called Tin Machine was not even an idea that was floating around, this was going to be the new David Bowie album. I told David that I had recently been listening to Lodger and he felt that this was ironically appropriate.”
The next piece of the puzzle came in the form of the rhythm section. Perhaps sensing that the material would require a certain muscularity, Bowie drafted Tony and Hunt Sales, the rhythm section from Iggy Pop’s Bowie-produced Lust for Life (1977) as bassist and drummer, respectively. From there, one more musician was brought into the fold: guitarist Kevin Armstrong, who worked with Bowie for his set at Live Aid and subsequently for the recording of his title song for the Absolute Beginners film. Armstrong was brought on as rhythm guitarist, a role that Bowie originally intended to fill.
The first recording sessions at Montreux’s Mountain Studios saw the musicians sussing each other out in cramped quarters—Armstrong says the studio had “the atmosphere of somewhere that had been ‘tacked on’ to the Casino in order to record bits of the annual Jazz Festival.” But the proximity allowed for the players, recording live off the floor for the most part, to feed off each other and added to some of the songs’ more improvisational moments. Album opener ‘Heaven’s in Here’ is a case in point, moving from a slinky blues riff to a thundering climax that stops just short of cacophony.
Sessions eventually moved to the slightly more welcoming Compass Point studios in Nassau. “Compass Point in The Bahamas was nice but very remote, so if you needed anything from the mainland it took days to arrive,” recalls Palmer. “The other studio at Compass Point had swiped the lion’s share of microphone stands, so I ended up hanging some mics on strings from the ceiling. It worked pretty well, actually.”
At some point during the recording process—although stories vary as to when—it became obvious to Bowie that the music being made was that of a band, and not a rock star with session pros in tow. And although Gabrels, who at this point was a confidante as much as a friend, had his doubts about the idea, he eventually relented.
“It was about a week into things that David said, ‘Look, you guys don’t listen to me. I’m not really directing this. We’re all collaborating, so this should be a band,’” Gabrels told Rolling Stone’s David Wild in 1991. “And at first I was torn, because I’d gotten excited about the idea of us playing on a David Bowie album. But because of the way this group functions and the way things get written, it would be a lie to say it was anything other than a band.”
“It was a band record and had a very deliberately wild edge,” says Armstrong over email. “I think David and Reeves well understood that it’s better to capture a mood when the lightning strikes. If you overwork it, you can lose some edges. Everything I ever did with David was done quickly and fairly spontaneously. He wasn’t ever one for long, brow-furrowing conversations about the work. We just lashed it down until it sounded good and then stopped there while it was still exciting. It’s not fucking Steely Dan, is it?”
“As the recording engineer, I had to be very fast getting sounds as often they were happy with the first take and didn’t want to do another,” recalls Palmer. “At times it was pretty chaotic but in a good way. On one song you can hear the guitar sound change as the take proceeds as I am still dialing in the sound. If unhappy with his drum headphone balance, Hunt, rather than ask me to adjust, would just pull the relevant microphones closer to his drums! I remember after one great vocal take David wanted to fix one line in a bridge section. I offered to drop the tape machine into record to fix that one small section, but he said he would rather just sing the whole thing again. He was actually that good.”
While punch-ins were avoided, given the different personality types at play during the sessions, perhaps it was miraculous that punch-ups were absent as well. Gabrels and Bowie shared a passion for art and obscure, experimental music while the Sales brothers were true adherents to rock & roll and the accompanying lifestyle.
“At the core of it was David and Reeve’s burgeoning creative relationship which was often taking place off to one side when they spent time together,” offers Armstrong. “Then you had the volatile sibling relationship of Hunt and Tony, who kept up a barrage of incessant, coarse humor and brotherly rivalry, which definitely affected everyone. They were loud and rude and in-your-face while Reeves was quiet and studious and slightly pained by the brothers.
Everything I ever did with David was done quickly and fairly spontaneously. He wasn’t ever one for long, brow-furrowing conversations about the work. We just lashed it down until it sounded good and then stopped there while it was still exciting. It’s not fucking Steely Dan, is it?
“I got on with them all and enjoyed the personal dynamic,” he adds. “It was always fun to be around and we were all largely supportive of each other. I think David liked the tensions too. There was a lot of good old American testosterone in the air but we laughed out loud a lot.”
“I must admit that I found the idea of the whole band ‘democracy’ a bit of a sham,” says Palmer. “What was true was that all of the guys were adding their own personalities to the sound of the album… I mean, let’s not forget Hunt and Tony were the thunderous rhythm section on Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life. It doesn’t get much better than that.
“I really enjoyed working with Reeves Gabrels and Kevin Armstrong because they were masters of their craft,” he continues. “The sounds that Reeves managed to extract from his guitar were unique, his knowledge of all things guitar is encyclopedic. Kevin’s playing really gave space for Reeves to let loose on the more crazy guitar textures and solo work but Kevin always held down the melodic structure and groove.”
As one who worked like some sort of musical and cultural alchemist throughout his career, perhaps Bowie thought the mix of heady, left-field musicianship supplied by Gabrels and the stampeding swing of the Sales brothers would create yet another frisson-inducing atmosphere within which to add his lyrical and melodic stamp.
To a degree, he was correct and perhaps as on point as he was when he brought a Texan kid weaned on blues, Stevie Ray Vaughan, along for his foray into New York-infused R&B via Let’s Dance. At its best, Tin Machine approached the world-weary lyrical sentiment and abrasive, propulsive sonic style of what many consider to be the last great Bowie record, 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).
There’s the elegiac ballad ‘Prisoner of Love’, which could be seen as a love song to a significant other but with its words of warning against the perils of excess could very well have been a cautionary tale directed at his young son, Duncan (“I’ve seen the best minds of my generation/Laid out in cemeteries and crematories/Just stay square,” he sings in the fade out, with a tip of the hat to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in the process). ‘I Can’t Read’, meanwhile, simmers and seethes, with Bowie flatly intoning a day in the life of someone utterly disinterested in living. Again, the lyric is open-ended enough to suggest myriad possibilities for the subject – is it a kid whose mind has been effectively numbed by hundreds of cable channels? Or, with a chorus refrain that could be either “I can’t read shit” or “I can’t reach it”, is it Bowie himself, revisiting the ennui he previously documented in 1977’s ‘Sound and Vision’ from Low (which featured the line, “Pale blinds drawn all day/Nothing to read, nothing to say.”)
And while you can hear nods to Sonic Youth, Pixies and Glenn Branca in the band’s frequent use of the “loud/soft/loud” dynamic trick and Gabrel’s flights into atonal fret frenzy, often, the influences seem to harken back to a range of Sixties and Seventies acts, sometimes jostling against each other in the same song. Take ‘Crack City’, which lifts from Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’ for the opening before segueing into a warped approximation of ‘Wild Thing’. The blink-and-you’ll-miss it brevity of ‘Bus Stop’ channels ‘New Rose’ by The Damned and marries it to a wry lyric that Ray Davies could’ve penned.
“Musically, I think the albums had some fabulous songs that rekindled my hope in the Thin White Duke,” says Palmer, citing ‘I Can’t Read’ and ‘Baby Can Dance’ as two favorites. As many critics and fans are quick to point out, the album predates the arrival of Nirvana’s Nevermind – and by extension the grunge movement – by a couple of years. But while Tin Machine apologists may see that as evidence that once again Bowie was in his rightful place as an iconoclastic trendsetter, in truth, both Bowie and Kurt Cobain were probably equally in thrall to Black Francis and his Pixies, and if it’s anyone we should thank (or fault) for the arrival of grunge, it’s them.
Either way, while the band garnered plenty of ink in advance of the album’s release, and an assortment of positive reviews upon its release, Tin Machine – the album and the band – didn’t take flight commercially, at least when compared to his pop-friendly previous three albums. In the U.K., it entered the album chart at a respectable No. 3, with lead single ‘Under the God’ hovering just outside the top 50. In the U.S., meanwhile, the single fared better, making it to No. 4 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart, while the album scraped the top 30 at No. 28.
While one would think that Bowie probably didn’t undertake the move with chart placements in mind – the uncompromising nature of the music and the insistence on selling it as a band project and not a new David Bowie album suggests as much – it was still an act signed to a major label, and such acts are required to meet certain commercial benchmarks to remain on the roster, regardless of who is singing lead.
“I remember when the ’suits’ from the label were coming for their first and only listen in New York,” says Palmer. “David was aware they may not be enthralled as they were hoping for Let’s Dance 2. We set up some huge monitors in the studio for the playback and really cranked up the volume. The look on their faces was priceless. They didn’t get Let’s Dance 2 – it was more like World War 3.”
Following an impromptu and unannounced live debut at a small club in Nassau while the band was recording at Compass Point, Tin Machine undertook a small, 12-date tour, with Armstrong on board as rhythm guitarist. Production values were at a bare minimum – no giant, glowing spiders on this jaunt – and the venues for what was billed as the “It’s My Life” tour were intentionally on the smaller side, with the average room capacity in the 2,000-seat range. Critical reaction was mixed, depending on whether the journalist was viewing the show, and Bowie’s latest turn, through a Seventies, Ziggy Stardust lens, or through the poppier Eighties incarnation.
“The audiences gave it a mixed reception as it could be a quite uncompromisingly loud and messy band live,” recalls Armstrong. “They all loved seeing David perform obviously, but It was probably the most unpredictable thing he had ever done live. Hunt and Reeves could definitely go off at all sorts of mad angles.”
And while Bowie and his band mates may have been inspired by the loud, avant indie making waves across college radio at the time, purveyors of that sound weren’t necessarily reciprocating.
Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore shared his criticisms of the Tin Machine project with Bowie biographer Marc Spitz in 2009’s Bowie, “When I first saw Tin Machine, I thought, ‘Okay, they’re well-dressed men playing this angular, sharp-edged indie rock sound. The thing that I didn’t buy into – this isn’t happening because you guys play too well… it’s okay to a degree but it was putting on the airs that it was an indie rock band and it was hardly that. I felt a little affronted by it.”
David was aware they may not be enthralled as they were hoping for Let’s Dance 2. We set up some huge monitors in the studio for the playback and really cranked up the volume. The look on their faces was priceless. They didn’t get Let’s Dance 2 – it was more like World War 3.
“I can fully understand that fans were confused about the band and David’s method at the time,” says Armstrong now. “I was too. I never really warmed to the music then in the light of everything I’d experienced of David’s music before, but I agree that it was prescient and did point the way for a number of big rock bands that came after it. When I hear a Tin Machine song now, I hear it differently than I heard it at the time. There are some really great Bowie songs there. ‘Prisoner Of Love’ I heard the other day and loved it.
“The thing is, to be an artist you’ve got to put it out there and be prepared to fall on your arse because you never know how it’s going to be received and if you put that consideration first, then it’s going to prevent you from experimenting,” he continues. “You have to respect the intention and see how history treats it, for better or for worse.”
Armstrong has recently revisited his past with an eye to the immediate future with a solo album, Run, which features compositions he co-wrote with Bowie in the Tin Machine days. These include ‘Now’, which never made it onto a Tin Machine album but was reworked years later to be the title track of 1995’s Outside, which saw Bowie reunite with Brian Eno for the first time since 1979.
Palmer, who went on to work with Pearl Jam on their world-beating debut Ten and U2 on their “comeback” album All That You Can’t Leave Behind, is now based in Austin and operates a studio there, mixing projects ranging from jazz to pop to metal. Also in Austin is Hunt Sales, whose new band, The Hunt Sales Memorial, released a blues-soaked album this year, Get Your Shit Together. On the album, Sales – who has been remarkably candid about his years of substance abuse and recovery – tackles those issues and more with honesty, humor, and the drums mixed loud.
Brother Tony Sales, meanwhile, followed up Tin Machine with a stint in a supergroup comprised of what can best be termed as an eclectic cast of characters. The Cheap Dates were Harry Dean Stanton, Slim Jim Phantom of the Stray Cats, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, former Doobie Brother and missile defense consultant.
Reeves Gabrels, meanwhile, has joined his former bandmate as an inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as a current member of The Cure. After dropping out of the Bowie fold following the recording of 1999’s more AOR-oriented Hours, he came back into the picture in 2018 to re-record guitar tracks for 1987’s Never Let Me Down as part of the Loving the Alien box set. The revamped tracks add a darkness and sonic depth to the material, much more in keeping with the weightier lyrical content that was effectively overshadowed by the synth pads and clattering drum machines of the original mix.
Perhaps the last word on the successes and failures of Tin Machine – the album and the band – should go to its de facto leader who, while seeing the need to pull the plug on the project following the release of a live recording, 1992’s Oy Vey Baby, ultimately saw the band as a necessary route towards reinvention and personal redemption in the latter stage of a career that ended far too soon.
“I’m not sure people will ever be sympathetic to it entirely,” Bowie told Addicted to Noise journalist Mark Brown in 1997. “But as the years go by, I think they’ll be less hostile. I think it was quite a brave band and I think there were some extremely good pieces of work done. And I think they’ll kind of show themselves over time.