Released today in 1989: Prisoner Of Love

EMI USA MT76

EMI USA MT76

Prior to the release of the first of David Bowie’s Tin Machine albums in 1989, Q magazine was invited to what the Americans call a “playback” – a listening session with the press and the artist present. “This situation could prove uniquely embarrassing should the album – as Bowie’s last two LPs, Tonight and Never Let Me Down, with their blustery pomp, cod-reggae ‘treatments’ and twaddlesome lyrics have intimated – turn out to be a whimpering artistic failure,” Q confided. “Indeed, because of these two records, the latter promoted by the ludicrously overblown Glass Spider tour, Bowie’s career had reached an impasse so sticky it necessitated a hasty acquaintance with the drawing board.” Bowie confessed that he was nervous before the session began, and expressed relief when it over: “Phew! That was like having an argument with your girlfriend in front of a crowd of people.”

In the interview that followed, Q asked Bowie if Tin Machine was a brief indulgence or a long-term project. “There’ll be another two albums at least,” he said. [There were exactly two in fact: one more studio album and a live one.] “Oh yes, this will go on for a while. [Till 1992, as it happened.] While we’re all enjoying playing with other so much, why not? The moment we stop enjoying it, we’re all prepared to quit. I’m so up on this I want to go and start recording the next album tomorrow.” The inference was that Bowie was enjoying being part of a group, but was aware that at some point his ‘solo’ career would resume. Tin Machine was very different from a lot of his previous output: a much harder, aggressive rock sound than recent material and lyrics that were in part playful, in part angry and in part vaguely political. Q asked: “There’s a couple of lyrics that leap out. Could you explain them? The line in the song Pretty Thing: ‘Tie you down, pretend you’re Madonna.’ (Bowie laughs.) ‘Hey, we were hanging out with Sean [Penn] and he told us a few things! You know what I mean? Nah. It’s a throwaway. I was just trying to think of a … it’s such a silly song anyway.’”

The key question Q had for him was, what criticism was he expecting about this new band, their new album, and this latest phase of his career? “There’s going to be a whole bunch people who’ll say it’s just not accessible,” he said – something that had been said about several of his projects through the decades. Here’s what the British music press actually had to say. The reviews ranged from the bad to the cautiously optimistic.

Sounds wrote the album off with a rating of 1½ out of 5: “This is not the guerrilla warfare it purports to be. Nor is it the heavy metal half-nelson David Bowie’s been promoting in the colour supplements. And no way, Josephine, is it the resurrection of the newly-bearded one’s long, strange career. Bowie’s much heralded ‘new band’ plays some of the most heinously tasteless music you’ll ever hear… Lyrics? Don’t talk to me about lyrics. Bowie’s concerned. He’s into social docu-drama at the moment…” NME’s headline was ‘Tinned Ham’ and its rating was 4 out of 10, but it admitted that it was “a bastard bitch of burning vinyl that will have you changing your mind about it every time you give it a spin”. Ever cynical, it concluded that “what Bowie has done with Tin Machine is he’s looked at what sells on a global scale – vicious rock – remembered that when he was at his height commercially and critically he was often doing the same thing, and has gone back to the root of money. So much for the context… average fare.”

Record Mirror noted that the concept of Tin Machine had not come out of nowhere. “Tin Machine is a 12-year-old collaboration that has only just evolved – an idea Bowie had with Hunt and Tony Sales when they worked on Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life album. Reeves Gabrels came later, So, Four Men, A Hendrix Riff And A Drum Kit were formed, bonded together by one thing – musical nostalgia. They called themselves Tin Machine, which is a good name really because the music trudges along mechanically in a kind of soft metal mould. The result is an idea based on even older influences ending up as a dusty trip down self-indulgence street…” The album received 3 out of 5, a reasonable rating, but the review ended with “Thanks David, but no thanks.” The general tone of the review from British Rolling Stone was similar, although it scored the album slightly higher, with a 3½ out of 5. “Frankly, Bowie belabours the obvious on much of Tin Machine. Yeah, life is a bitch. The future looks grim. Your idols are bound to turn into whores if the temptations are great enough. And yeah, there is plenty of music out there today which sucks big time. (Did someone mention Never Let Me Down?) But some of the best songs on Tin Machine are about not giving up, about finding the will to love and survive. And the rest of the best transcend their grim lyrics with the electricity of performance. If Tin Machine is a hit-and-miss proposition, there are still enough direct hits to send you, as Bowie puts it in Under The God, “one step over the red line/ten steps into the crazy”. And with ‘crazy’ like this, you can put up with anything.”

Melody Maker provided the most favourable overview, urging listeners not to dismiss the collection lightly. “Delve deeper, stick with it, and the realization dawns that there is greatness here. It comes in flashes at first… when Tin Machine is great – which it frequently is – the songs contradict the metal/reality equation, forget the strategy and get lost in Bowie’s private mental movies… Tin Machine is a triumph in that it illustrates there’s still imagination and desire burning inside a man who we’ve really no longer any right to expect it from. Whether it serves as another cul-de-sac or an opening elsewhere is, of course, the next mystery.”

NEW SINGLES on sale from Oct. 30
1981
The BELLE STARS (Jennie Mathias) Another Latin Love Song (Stiff BUY130)
Clark DATCHLER You Fooled Him Once Again (Blue Inc INC14)
DEXY’S MIDNIGHT RUNNERS (Kevin Rowland) Liars A To E (Mercury DEXYS7)
IMAGINATION (Leee John) Flashback (R&B RBS206)
JAPAN Visions Of China (Virgin VS436)
PRETENDERS I Go To Sleep (Real ARE18)
STRAY CATS You Don’t Believe Me (Arista SCAT4)
TEARS FOR FEARS Suffer The Children (Mercury IDEA1)
ULTRAVOX (Midge Ure) The Voice (Chrysalis CHS2559)
1989
Jimmy SOMERVILLE Comment Te Dire Adieu (London LON241)
SWING OUT SISTER Forever Blue (Mercury SWING8)
TIN MACHINE (David Bowie) Prisoner Of Love (EMI USA MT76)

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