Remember When: David Bowie Formed a Band and Got Loud with Tin Machine

Many rock and roll heroes from the 1960s and ’70s made overt moves to get back in pop music’s good graces in the second half of the ’80s. Ever the contrarian, David Bowie zigged when everybody else zagged, forming a band called Tin Machine that played cacophonous, challenging rock that was never going to fit on Top-40 radio.

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What spurred Bowie to make this decision? How did Tin Machine come together? And what are we to make of the two albums they released now that we have the perspective of 35 years to look back? Let’s take a look at this fascinating, oft-forgotten detour in David Bowie’s magnificent career.

A Sudden Band

David Bowie wanted pop stardom, until he didn’t. Emerging from a period of critically acclaimed but somewhat inaccessible music in the late ’70s, Bowie decided he wanted to charm the MTV generation. Mission accomplished with his 1983 album Let’s Dance, at least at first. But that album created a kind of hangover period, one where Bowie started making music based on the expectations of the fans he’d gathered with hit singles like “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love.”

Bowie claimed after the fact he was so disgusted with the state of his career circa 1987, when he conducted his garish Glass Spider Tour, he considered walking away from music. That’s when he met Reeves Gabriels, a guitarist who didn’t have a long list of credits, but did sport a demo that intrigued Bowie.

When the two started making music together, Gabriels figured he might be hired as a player on Bowie’s next album. But Bowie was thinking something more drastic, as he heard in these early efforts music that was tailor-made for a rock band. He hired the Sales’ brothers, Tony on bass and Hunt on drums, a pair that had played with Iggy Pop and were the sons of the slapstick comedian Soupy Sales. In this manner, Tin Machine was formed.

Raucous Recordings

Bowie also made the early decision that Tin Machine wouldn’t simply be a glorified backing band. Instead, ideas for recording and songwriting would be welcomed. Gabriels persuaded Bowie to stick with lyrics that were written as songs were being recorded, rather than having him go back and edit. Seeking a bombastic, unpolished sound, the band recorded songs live in the studio with as few overdubs as possible.

A bearded Bowie introduced Tin Machine to the world at an awards show in May 1989. That same month, their self-titled debut album arrived. While some critics loved it, many others were dumbfounded by the turn taken by Bowie.

His record label didn’t like it either. Bowie did a solo tour in 1990 to fill up his coffers, but his offer to make another Tin Machine album wasn’t welcomed by EMI, his longtime label. He had to shop Tin Machine II around before it was picked up by Victory Records.

Unfortunately, with the novelty of the situation now worn off, the second album didn’t get the same kind of exposure. It also didn’t help that the album was much weaker than the first, as the songs became an indistinguishable blend of hectic rock. And that was that: Bowie announced the dissolution of Tin Machine in 1992.

The Legacy of Tin Machine

That first Tin Machine album is a powerhouse, and it’s more melodic and varied than you might remember. Bowie’s unvarnished fury on “Under the God” still stings, and songs like “I Can’t Read” and “Video Crime” flash some of the enigmatic brilliance of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, albeit with a harder edge. The second album doesn’t come near it, quality-wise, although it’s loud enough to clear out your sinuses, if nothing else.

Tin Machine ultimately deserves credit for seeming to re-energize David Bowie’s musical ambition. In interviews years after the fact, he explained how the band restored some of the urgency and joy of making music for him. And he certainly never rocked harder, even if he had to sacrifice a little nuance to get to that point.

The fact that the rest of his catalog following the two Tin Machine albums was so varied and hard to pin down could be in part because of the uncompromising methods and mindset he developed during that period. This quartet was quite a potent machine, after all, even if they weren’t quite built to last.

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Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images

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