After the Glass Spider Tour juddered through 1987 to a miasma of mixed signals, Bowie took some time off the following year for a re-think. I had not bought any of his contemporary albums by 1988 for as long as I had been buying them previously. I wondered if he would ever return to making music I could accept. His 70s legacy stood as tall as ever but I could not help but notice that only a few years after “Let’s Dance,” all of Bowie’s [classic RCA] albums on CD were allowed to go out of print. My copy of “Fame + Fascination” would be the only David Bowie CD I would own for some time. Bowie sightings in the CD bins became hyper-rare events, sadly. That’s what I got for dawdling around, buying contemporary music with my entertainment dollar instead. Fortunately, by the next year, Bowie had chanced to meet Reeves Gabrels.
What was beautiful was that Gabrels was a guitarist whose wife was doing PR for Bowie at the time of the Glass Spider tour. Gabrels was there for some of it and clicked behind the scenes with Bowie socially, who enjoyed his company and conversation. Gabrels never let on that he was a guitarist during this time. Instead they discussed what Bowie was doing and Gabrels made no bones about finding it wanting. It was up to Gabrels’ wife who later gave Bowie a tape of his playing. When Bowie was invited to play some music live in 1988 for dance troupe La La Human Steps, he called up Gabrels and they worked up a seven minute re-think of “Look Back In Anger” that gave Bowie a lightbulb experience after this.
The guy who had been haranguing him about what he was doing with his life just might be the guy to help pull him from his creative doldrums. Bowie then conceived a new band built around himself and Gabrels on guitar. Old hands the Sales brothers from Iggy’s past would be a hot rhythm section. The band coalesced quickly and by Spring of 1989, word was bubbling up that Bowie had formed a band and that it would not be Bowie + sidemen but an actual group, but what would it sound like?
I had heard the stories, but after years of lame Bowie music, I was now skittish. I would need to hear some of this stuff first, before running out and buying a copy. To this end, whoever was in charge of promo for Tin Machine wisely bypassed the traditional music video script. What they did for Tim Machine instead was exactly what I needed to see/hear at that point. A twelve minute medley was filmed instead with 6-7 tracks excerpted instead of one song. Nice. Gun-shy ex-Bowie fans needed a lot of convincing I would think, by this point in time, and this approach really put the cards on the table. I saw this on Night tracks [the TBS weekend late night MTV-like programming block] and went out immediately and bought the album. It was my favorite album of 1989; a stunning riposte to the insipid and depressing end of the 1980s as well as Bowie’s part in that disappointing decade.
First of all, this was a ROCK album. None of the digital synth chaff that filled the albums I’d sat out was in evidence. Avoiding Yamaha synths and drum machines was exhilarating for my ears to hear. These were tools that aided Bowie in straying from his path. The album was marked by a primary aggression directed against all sorts of interesting targets. I particularly enjoyed the anti-racist screed “Under The God.” They really sounded like they meant it here. There were occasional lighter moments of beauty, but for the most part, this was the toughest sounding Bowie album since “The Man Who Sold The World,” though it would still be several years until I heard that one. I bought most of the singles from this one on UK CD5 format. I was finally back in the Bowie swing of things and not a moment too soon. I had begun to grow weary of writing him off.
Next: …The Catalog returns and leaves