When David Bowie’s Reinvention Derailed on ‘Tin Machine II’
Tin Machine started as a moment of inspiration for David Bowie, a tough rock band that broke his logjam of overwrought late-'80s disappointments – but it quickly became something else.
"I had to kickstart my engine again in music," Bowie told Uncut in 2013. "There’d been a wobbly moment where I could quite easily have gone reclusive and just worked on visual stuff, paint and sculpt and all that. I had made a lot of money: I thought, well, I could just bugger off and do my Gauguin in Tahiti bit now. But then what do you do – re-emerge at 60 somewhere? So, I look back on the Tin Machine years with great fondness.”
Still, there's no getting away from how quickly his latest reinvention fell apart.
Never huge sellers, Tin Machine had nonetheless created significant buzz in media circles with their Top 30 self-titled 1989 debut. In keeping, Tin Machine II arrived on Sept. 2, 1991 with no small amount of hyperbolic, if ultimately wrong-headed fanfare. They were introduced as "the future of rock 'n' roll" at a preview concert, when in actuality the band's own future was very much in doubt.
Bowie had returned, after a hugely successful solo tour focusing on his old hit songs, to a situation coming apart at the seams. Personal problems, a change in venue to bucolic Australia for sessions work and the pressure of going forward without a recording contract – Bowie had split with EMI over his insistence on remaining with Tin Machine – seemed to dull their collective edge.
"It was like, 'David, are you really sure you want to do this band thing and you don't want a solo contract?'," Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels told the Hartford Courant in 1991. "So the weight was really on him. And David's commitment was such that he said, 'Fine, Tin Machine and I will go and find another label.'"
Watch Tin Machine Perform the Hugh Padgham-Produced 'One Shot'
Of course, it wasn't that simple. Tin Machine ultimately signed with the fledgling Victory Music label, which would be shuttered in a few short years, and then headed back into a Los Angeles studio with the overly sleek Hugh Padgham to produce additional material. Drummer Hunt Sales inexplicably took over lead vocals for two of the tacked-on tracks, while Gabrels' knifing, but melodic style of play suddenly become more ethereal.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tin Machine II ended up as an unfocused, too-conventional amalgam. Tin Machine pushed back against a growing mound of poor reviews, even as the album stalled at No. 126.
"I think probably there's less physical aggression," Bowie admitted to the Courant. "I think aggression is still there in the lyrics. I think the whole style of playing has become more interior, and I think that's because we moved out of our safety zone."
Even so, there was no denying the momentum lost. "It's music we all miss hearing on radio," Bowie told the Baltimore Sun in 1991, before Gabrels interrupted. "And still do," he said, directly referencing Tin Machine's lack of airplay.
Tin Machine held together through another tour, then eventually dissolved. “They charged me up. I can’t tell you how much," Bowie told Uncut. "Then personal problems within the band became the reason for its demise. It’s not for me to talk about them, but it became physically impossible for us to carry on. And that was pretty sad, really."
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