Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
After the relative lack of commercial and critical success for Never Let Me Down, and the extravagant Glass Spider Tour that followed, it wasn’t surprising that David Bowie decided to simplify things for his next project. No one could have predicted, however, that after more than 20 years as a solo performer, he would choose to form a band where all four members would share in the songwriting and decision-making. The resulting band was Tin Machine, which consisted of Bowie on rhythm guitar & vocals, Reeves Gabrels on lead guitar, and brothers Tony & Hunt Sales on bass & drums (and vocals), respectively. The Sales brothers were the sons of legendary TV comedian Soupy Sales. Before revisiting this era of Bowie’s career, I wasn’t aware that they were the rhythm section on a few early Todd Rundgren albums, as well as the Bowie-produced Iggy Pop album, Lust For Life. Since Bowie and Iggy were close friends and collaborators during the ‘70s & ‘80s, it’s not surprising that they eventually shared musicians.
I remember when Tin Machine (1989) was released. I wasn’t a big Bowie fan, nor was I listening to much noisy rock music at the time, so I skipped this album (and it’s follow-up) for a long time, but when I eventually gave in and purchased them a few years ago, I was amazed by how melodic much of the music was. Listening to them again numerous times this past week, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of this music I enjoyed. Album opener “Heaven’s In Here” isn’t far removed from the blues-rock of Stevie Ray Vaughan, with a loping shuffle rhythm and some bluesy guitar work from Gabrels. He eventually shows his quirkier style in the solo, mixing blues with a slashing, angular, metallic approach. “Tin Machine,” essentially their theme song, is a fast-driving rocker with a celtic guitar sound that reminds me of Big Country (one of my favorite bands, as my regular readers already know). Bowie’s voice here is huskier and more rockin’ than usual. “Crack City” begins like Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” then morphs into a “Wild Thing” (The Troggs) vibe. This is a bit of a headbanger, with possibly his most raw and rocking vocals ever. The dark imagery and heavy tone reminded me of his Diamond Dogs album. The dark imagery continues on “Under The God,” a steady, heavy rocker with Bowie passionately belting out lyrics like “White trash picking up Nazi flags” and “Toxic jungle of uzi trails.”
Their version of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” borrows the guitar hook from The Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You” (via Rod Stewart & The Faces), and has excellent dynamics and a nice groove that’s not usually associated with this song. It’s followed by “Bus Stop” (not The Hollies song), a brief but excellent Clash-esque rocker with Bowie singing in an exaggerated cockney accent. “Video Crime” stands out from the rest of the album with more of a mid-80s production, much like the records Lou Reed recorded during that era. It’s a screed against modern society, TV news, etc., a theme that’s popped up in his work numerous times. “Run” is slower paced, a midtempo love song (“I run run run…without your love”) with some solid guitar work. The songs I haven’t mentioned all feature solid playing from the band, but at 14 songs and nearly an hour, the almost non-stop sonic assault causes a little bit of ear fatigue by the end. Still, I like it a lot more than I ever expected to, and if I were compiling a career-spanning anthology, several of these songs would be included.
For their follow-up (and swan song, not counting the live album that I don’t own), Tin Machine II (1991), they displayed a wider dynamic range but didn’t deliver quite as strong a collection of songs as the debut. After the cool-sounding but bland album opener, “Baby Universal” (a straight-ahead hard-edged rocker), they bring a lighter pop edge to “One Shot.” The bass line during the bridge recalls U2 at their best, while the rest of the song has a Smithereens vibe with cool guitar squalls from Gabrels. Their version of “If There Is Something,” originally by Roxy Music (whose catalog I covered last year), is big, booming & explosive, with some powerful vocals by Bowie. I’m glad I got to know the original version first, which helped me to appreciate what Tin Machine brought to theirs. “Amlapura” is a great song, with acoustic guitar-picking and strumming, recalling the best of Bowie’s early ‘70s work. Apparently the title is a reference to a town in Bali, Indonesia, and he sounds inspired by a visit there (“…never saw in all my life a more shining jewel”). “Betty Wrong” has a steady beat and atmospheric music that wouldn’t have been out of place on the Tonight album. It’s actually a nice love song (“I’ll be your light when the shadows fall down the wall”) and features a tasty guitar solo by Gabrels.
“You Can’t Talk” is one of the catchiest songs on the album. It’s short & sweet (less than 3 minutes), with a great propulsive bass-driven groove. Drummer Hunt Sales actually sings lead on two songs: “Stateside” and “Sorry.” The former is a standard 12-bar blues, but I really like his voice here, which has elements of Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave) and Buddy Guy. It’s a simple song with solid musicianship, yet it’s funny to hear Bowie in a supporting role. I imagine that many fans hate this song for just that reason. The latter song is a spacey, mellow number with some really nice acoustic guitar. “Goodbye Mr. Ed” closes the album with Bowie again lamenting modern society (“Some things are so big they make no sense; Histories so small, people are so dense”), with a mildly anthemic musical backdrop. There’s also a minute-long hidden instrumental track called “Hammerhead,” a raging rocker with great bass & guitar. It’s a nice way to finish off the record. As I stated above, this album doesn’t match up song-for-song with the first album, but in some ways it’s a more pleasant listening experience. I don’t think either of these albums has a great reputation among fans, but other than the fact that they’re a lot louder & harder-edged than any of Bowie’s previous work, there are plenty of top-notch songs to be found, and I’m glad I took the time to uncover them.
After the dissolution of Tin Machine, Bowie chose to collaborate again with Let’s Dance co-producer Nile Rodgers. Instead of that earlier album’s marriage of modern R&B with rock & blues, this time the more modern R&B was paired with techno/club music, jazz and new jack swing. Let me state that, with the exception of jazz, I’m not very familiar with those other genres. I will most likely use the words “club,” techno,” “house” and “electronica” interchangeably, and I welcome you to correct me if my specific genre references are incorrect. New jack swing, which is a mixture of funk, hip-hop, electronica and traditional jazz, was never a style I embraced, although I like some Tony! Toni! Toné! songs so I’m not completely averse to it.
This new Bowie-Rodgers collaboration was Black Tie White Noise (1993), and sonically it’s a million miles away from pretty much anything he previously recorded. It took me a while to get past the production choices and focus on the songs, but once I did I enjoyed this album a lot. The only song I remember from its initial release is “Jump They Say,” which is still a highlight for me. The techno sound works extremely well on this one, with a great driving groove. Jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie (no relation) blares away here, as he does on numerous songs. The title track, “Black Tie White Noise,” is a duet with Al B. Sure, and it’s a pretty & soulful song under that production gloss. I initially thought it was a love song to his new wife, the Somali-American model Iman, with commentary on interracial marriage, but it’s actually a response to the Rodney King verdict and subsequent L.A. riots. I really love the melody at “Putting on the black tie, cranking out the white noi-oi-oise.” His marriage to Iman was the focus of the two songs that bookend the album, “The Wedding” and “The Wedding Song.” The former is an instrumental with a slow programmed techno groove, reggae bass and horns that recall the British ska revival bands of the late-‘70s/early-‘80s (ie. The Specials; Madness). The latter uses the same groove as the opening track, adding lyrics that are like his wedding vows set to music (“Heaven is smiling down, heaven’s girl in a wedding gown”). That man is a true romantic.
The electronic instrumentation on “You’ve Been Around” hides a pretty cool tune, which reminded me of some of his late-‘70s songs like “Look Back In Anger.” I love the futuristic funky version of the Cream song “I Feel Free,” which features Bowie’s old Spiders From Mars pal Mick Ronson on guitar, their last collaboration before Ronson’s untimely death in 1993. I enjoyed the playful melodic hook repeated throughout “Miracle Goodnight,” as well as the call-and-response vocals between two Bowie voices in the chorus. It also has a nice little jazzy guitar solo (by Nile Rodgers?). Another favorite here is “Don’t Let Me Down & Down.” It’s a slow jam, similar to what Simply Red was doing in the early-to-mid ‘90s, with a pretty Lester Bowie trumpet solo. I love the way his vocals kick it up a notch in the final verse. The most new jack swing song on the album has to be the instrumental “Looking For Lester,” featuring solos by Bowie (sax), Lester Bowie (trumpet) and Aladdin Sane’s secret weapon, Mike Garson (piano). The ballad “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” is a standout track, not just for the gospel feel, but also because of the organic instrumentation. It’s almost like this song was meant for another record, but this album wouldn’t be the same without it. I didn’t immediately warm to the sounds of this record, but looking past the of-its-time production, I ended up liking a lot of these songs. U2 may have incorporated these club music sounds at the time to greater commercial success, but from a songwriting standpoint, the album is not as much of a departure for Bowie as it initially seemed, and probably should’ve been more successful.
Later that same year, Bowie recorded music for a 4-part BBC series. The soundtrack for The Buddha Of Suburbia (1993) was released to little fanfare, and until recently I didn’t own it or know much about it. Based on discussions with several of my readers and a few friends, I decided to buy a copy (the 2007 re-release) since this was a collection of new songs and not just incidental soundtrack music, even though the general consensus is that it’s not a very good (or essential) Bowie album. While I agree that it’s far from his best work, there are enough good songs to make this worth exploring. His main collaborator and co-producer is multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay, who previously worked with Bowie on Never Let Me Down. The song “Buddha Of Suburbia,” which is a lovely acoustic guitar-based tune with light percussion, appears twice. Both versions are almost identical, with strong vocals (especially at “Down on my knees in suburbia, down on myself in every way”), and the only notable difference is that Lenny Kravitz adds some guitar to the second version. “South Horizon” is another winner, a sparse & jazzy instrumental, before changing to a steady electronic beat, with Mike Garson’s typically askew piano playing.
“Bleed Like A Craze, Dad” is a midtempo groovy rock song with a pre-programmed rhythm and nice lead guitar by someone called 3D Echo, as well as the memorable “shine shine shine” refrain. This is about The Krays, the notorious British gangster brothers. The music switches to upbeat ’80s synth-pop on “Dead Against It,” sounding a bit like The Psychedelic Furs. His vocals are buried a little too much in the mix, but it’s still a good song. One of my co-workers noticed a similarity here to the music of Garbage (who would appear on the music scene a couple of years later), which I can hear now that he pointed it out. “Untitled No. 1” probably should’ve been titled “Sleepy Kapoor” based on that phrase being repeated throughout the song. It’s got a cool percussive groove with a nice ascending keyboard melody. The remainder of the album features moody, atmospheric instrumentals and a couple of decent but unmemorable songs. I doubt any of these songs would make it on my hypothetical Bowie compilation, but I still enjoyed this album a lot more than I had expected.
During the last week, I also revisited the 4-CD box set Sound + Vision (1989), which functioned as a summary of hits & album tracks from his RCA years (through Scary Monsters), with several rarities thrown in to entice diehard fans. Now that I’m much more familiar with the original albums, this collection isn’t as essential for me as it used to be, but since I still don’t own a couple of his live albums (the Ziggy Stardust soundtrack and 1978’s Stage), I appreciated hearing those concert performances. In fact, I will definitely be buying the remastered and re-sequenced version of Stage soon, based on how much I love the three songs included on this box set. There’s also a cool version of the Bruce Springsteen song, “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City.” I love the lush strings on this recording.
In my next post, I’ll be talking about the albums he released in the mid-to-late ‘90s. As I recall, he embraced industrial, drum-and-bass and other techno styles before returning to a mellower, “classic” Bowie sound. I don’t know these albums very well, so I look forward to finally getting to know them. Until then, thanks for reading. I hope to hear from you and get some opinions on the albums discussed above from longtime Bowie fans.
I heard very good things about Buddha of Suburbia – I must get myself a copy.
It’s definitely worth checking out even though it’s not a lost classic, since there are enough excellent songs to make it a worthwhile purchase. My Bowie series was probably the most fun I’ve had since starting the blog, and finding lesser-known albums like this had a lot to do with it. Please let me know what you think of “Buddha…” if/when you hear it. Thanks.
I had to read your take on Black Tie White Noise…I bought this album when it first came out (on CD, actually) and NO ONE was listening to this great album! Black Tie White Noise is a powerful song, and every once in a while it will pop into my head at random. Jump They Say is fantastic and catchy. I just thought I’d tell you how much I enjoyed reading someone else’s write-up on it. 🙂
Thanks Sarca. Ironically, this was one of the few Bowie albums I listened to upon its release, even though I wasn’t a big fan, but after a few listens at the time I had forgotten about it until I revisited his discography for this series. It’s nice to know there are other fans of Black Tie White Noise out there. It’s certainly not my favorite but it contains plenty of excellent songs. Are you a fan of the Tin Machine albums? Those are probably the most divisive records amongst his fans.