“What the fuck's up? Is somebody going to talk to us?”
When Tin Machine bassist Tony Fox Sales uttered these words in front of 300 befuddled journalists in a room in Paris in the spring of 1989, he intended to break the ice at one of the most uncomfortable press conferences in music history. Tony – along with his drummer brother, Hunt, relatively unknown guitar alchemist Reeves Gabrels and a singer/second guitarist who just happened to be music megastar David Bowie – had arrived in front of the media in attendance to promote the band's eponymous debut album. But instead of receiving immediate and enthusiastic interest, the foursome faced five minutes of silence before Tony's words kicked the crowd out of its collective stupor. Although none of the band members knew it at the time, this scene perfectly summed up Tin Machine's entire existence.
“It's fascinating what happened,” recalls Tony years later. “[The journalists] didn't know what to say, and they didn't know how to interview us. There were so many questions that could have been asked, but it was always the same stuff. It was like, 'Why do you want to be in a group?' There was so much that could have been asked of a guy who was as talented and well known as David.”
To be fair, the writers and other tastemakers had a lot to take in when the band walked through the door. What was David Bowie, easily one of the most successful Rock artists in history, doing making raw, experimental noise best suited for a dirty dive on the Bowery when he could very easily play immortal hits at the Garden? Did the formation of Tin Machine mark the end of David Bowie's career as a solo act? Why did he – a star who nurtured the early careers of Luther Vandross, Stevie Ray Vaughan and David Sanborn and clearly had his pick of any A-list player he wanted – start a band with a no-name six stringer from Boston and a rhythm section whose best-known moments were more than a decade old?
In order to understand how much of an incendiary curveball Tin Machine really was in 1989, you need to consider where Bowie was in his career at the time. Although the '70s maverick succeeded in reinventing himself as a bona fide Reagan-era Pop star with 1983's Let's Dance, the ensuing years saw Bowie's creative endeavors yield uninspired results. While it has its moments (the still-solid “Day In Day Out,” for starters), 1987's Never Let Me Down is largely seen as the singer's nadir. (For example, Rolling Stone infamously called the album “a bit of a mess.”)
“David had gone through a whole period where instead of being in league with Eno and Fripp and people like that, he had fallen in with Tina Turner, Rod Stewart and Phil Collins after Let's Dance,” offers Gabrels, who first met Bowie during the Glass Spider Tour in support of Never Let Me Down. “There's a fine line between Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, but it's a very clear one.”
By 1989, the 42-year-old Bowie was looking to recharge his excitement for making music. But what could possibly be next for a man who had already transitioned through multiple personas on stage and on record? That question was answered that spring, when he took his name off the marquee completely and became just one of four members of a band. David Bowie wasn't the star of Tin Machine's first album; he was the singer and second guitarist. Nothing more, nothing less.
“It wasn’t a David Bowie record, okay?” offers Hunt Sales. “The Tin Machine thing was a band. We’d go to work every day; we’d go to the studio and write and record. At the end of each day, we’d sit back to listen to what we had. As it unfolded, everyone was more surprised, and on the next day more surprised than the day before.”
Appropriately enough, Tin Machine began only hours after the final date of Bowie's Glass Spider jaunt. At 2am during the tour's wrap party in Los Angeles, Tony - who had known the singer since the mid '70s – felt an urge to stop by and say hello.
“[David] was sitting there by himself, and I walked up to him,” he remembers. “I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years. He said, 'I was just thinking of you. I was just thinking about getting a band together... and here you are.' I said, 'So, let's do it! Should I call the drummer?” He said, 'Yeah, you better call the drummer.' A week later, we were in Switzerland cutting the album.”
According to Tony, Bowie's mission for Tin Machine was simple: “The very first thing out of David's mouth to me was, 'Let's ruin Rock 'n' Roll.'”
More Surfer Rosa than Scary Monsters, Tin Machine's debut is a noisy, often dark and always exhilarating listen driven by the quartet's love of then-underground American Alternative Rock acts. (Tin Machine covered The Pixies' “Debaser” live, while Gabrels' vibrator-as-plectrum wailings were reminiscent of the guitar cries of early Swans.) Bowie curses, Gabrels shrieks away and the Sales Bros. crash through the proceedings with the same street-level intensity the duo brought to Iggy Pop's “Lust For Life.” (Even relatively conventional tracks like the Bluesy opener “Heaven's In Here” were mixed far too heavy for American commercial in those days.) Tin Machine was not an album; it was an assault.
“I haven't really seen or read lyrics to other songs that were quite as targeted as what we had for that first album,” offers Tony. “We were talking about drug, sex addition – all kinds of addiction. Deep, injured stuff. We were touching on things that people didn't want to talk about... It went over a lot of people's heads. I felt we were reflecting what was really going on, but most people would rather be anesthetized.”
For the bassist, joining forces with Bowie (and Hunt, for that matter) for the Tin Machine project was an opportunity to settle some unfinished business with the former Thin White Duke. In 1977, the Sales Brothers (already established in the industry as a go-to rhythm section thanks to their work on Todd Rundgren's early solo releases and the Iggy Pop/James Williamson album, Kill City) joined Iggy Pop's touring band, which at the time featured Bowie on keyboards.
“Iggy had run into Bowie, and Bowie wanted to work with him, so he moved to Berlin,” Tony explains. “A couple of months later, we got a call from Iggy saying he had played the Kill City album for David, and David wanted to know who those two black guys were [singing]. Iggy said, 'That's the Sales Brothers.' David said, 'You've got to get them over here right now.'
The three musicians hit it off immediately.
As Tony says, “At soundchecks, David, Hunt and I would fool around with different pieces of music that were actually finished. That was the beginning of Tin Machine. It was sort of Jazzy, Bluesy. None of us were young kids [at that point]. We pulled all of our resources together.”
The Iggy Pop era was an exciting time for Tony and Hunt. The sons of legendary entertainer Soupy Sales, they began their music career in the mid '60s with the teen novelty act Tony And The Tigers. After scoring a variety of TV appearances and a minor hit with “Summer Time (Is The Best Time For Making Love),” the pair moved on to explore the more mature side of music. After recording two albums with Rundgren (and after Hunt's stint in the group Paris with former Fleetwood Mac guitarist/singer Bob Welch and original Jethro Tull bassist Glenn Cornick), they worked with Pop at the suggestion of Tony's buddy, former Stooges guitarist Williamson. In addition to proving to be a great combination personality-wise, the Pop/Bowie/Sales Brothers lineup clicked sonically. The album that resulted from the union, 1977's extraordinary Lust For Life (which Tony says was cut and mixed in Berlin “in about two weeks”), remains one of the strongest titles in Pop's catalog.
Of course, this was the '70s, and the revelry felt among the musicians behind Lust For Life was regularly fueled by liberal amounts of cocaine. The indulgence got finally spun out of control one night in 1979, when a drugged-out Tony was involved in a near-fatal car accident that left him in a coma for several months.
“I was pronounced dead, with a stick shift in my chest,” he shared in 2005. “When I came out of the coma, I was told I was going to die. It changed things a lot for me... certainly with my working with anybody for a long time. David came to see me and asked me when I'd be able to be on the road! I said, 'Well, look at me, man!' I weighed like 80 pounds or something.”
After a lengthy recovery, Tony resurfaced circa 1984 as a member of Chequered Past, a short-lived supergroup with Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), Michael Des Barre (Silverhead) and former Blondie members Clem Burke and Nigel Harrison. While the band's lone self-titled album came and went with little fanfare (and, as Tony puts it, “everybody got sick of working with each other”), Bowie's career hit its highest commercial peak. An increasingly weary Tony walked away from the business in favor of a life in carpentry, never giving music more than a passing thought until he crossed paths with Bowie again years later.
The formation of Tin Machine was also meaningful for Tony's kid brother.
“We had three people in that band who were singers; we had people who had made lots of records,” says Hunt, whose other work at the time included producing and playing drums for the California band Tender Fury. “Between my brother, David and me, we had people who had been working since the ’60s, making records for a long time. So when you put all that together, you’re gonna come up with something.”
The fourth piece of the puzzle, Gabrels, was already in place and collaborating with Bowie on fresh ideas by the time the Sales Brothers entered the picture. Unsurprisingly, Hunt and Tony immediately left an impression on him.
“The Sales Brothers reminded me that at least 50 percent of Rock 'n' Roll is below the belt,” he says. “It's not about execution; it's about the feel of it.”
All these years later, Gabrels' willingness to embrace the esoteric continues to be of interest to Tin Machine's timekeeper.
“I’ve worked with a lot of different guitar players and I’ve seen a lot of different guitar players, and I’d say that Reeves has always strived to do something with truth in it,” Hunt observes. “It’s all been done before, so what are you going to bring to the table to put a little bit of a twist or spin on it? I feel that he has done that. He’s trying to do something a little bit different.”
Naturally, creating “something a little bit different” led Tin Machine to impress as many people as they confused. Tony says that Trent Reznor (who later toured with Bowie in the '90s) once told him that Tin Machine was his favorite band, while the group's amped-up take on John Lennon's “Working Class Hero” got the official thumbs up from Yoko Ono. (Tony says that after she heard the track during a visit to the studio, she turned to the band and said, “If John did Punk, it would sound like this.”)
Despite receiving considerable praise from their peers, Tin Machine never truly captured the imagination of the general public – including the vast majority of Bowie's stadium-filling '80s audience.
“We made music that we thought was going to hang with people we liked at the time, which was Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and especially The Pixies,” offered Gabrels in 2000. “If you look at their album sales, I don't think any of those bands have sold over 250,000 copies in America. The first Tin Machine record came out at a time when unless you were selling at least six million copies, your album was a failure. Plus, we took Michael Jackson money for a Pixies album, which is only going to piss people off.
“In the English and European press, everybody was saying, 'The commercial failure of Tin Machine,'” he adds. “I couldn't give a shit. If it's an artistic success and a commercial failure, I'm fine with that. I wanted the statement more than I wanted the money.”
Was Tin Machine simply too weird for mainstream audiences in 1989? Was Bowie's career too Pop-centric at the close of that decade to allow for the same kind of freewheeling twists and turns he took in the '70s? Regardless of how some listeners might answer these questions, a quarter-century of hindsight leaves Tony Sales incredibly proud of what the band created.
“It really did work,” he insists. “It worked on stage, and it worked on record. Of the hundreds of interviews we did, people just wouldn't accept it. They just didn't know how to accept David as a person and not as some kind of icon or image.”
Despite Tin Machine often being viewed as a square peg in a round hole, Hunt looks back at the magic generated by this special combination of friends and musicians with great fondness.
“I enjoyed playing with Reeves, and I enjoyed playing with my brother and David,” he shares. “We all get along; we all really loved each other.”
Above all, Tony believes that the first Tin Machine album allowed his old friend the chance to regain the spark that originally ignited his long and celebrated career.
“Tin Machine raised David's consciousness,” he says. “It gave him permission to be a person again rather than the image. I don't think he was lost, but it gave him permission to come back down to Earth. I think it's even reflected in the music that he did after that. He personalized a lot of his material after that, instead of being a character.”
“I think in the back of David's mind, his hope was that we would dispel any future expectations, and have fun doing it,” adds Gabrels. “And we did.”
Author's Note: The above feature is a small sample of a much larger in-progress chapter on Tin Machine's first album that will be featured in my upcoming book, Albums that (Should've) Changed the World. The quotes from the Sales Bros. were taken from exclusive interviews I conducted with them in 2005; Gabrels' quotes are taken from an interview I conducted with him in 2000. Watch this website for news and updates on the Albums that (Should've) Changed the World project.
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