In Defense of Tin Machine

Tin Machine
The Sales brothers, Reeves Gabrels, and David Bowie. A return to a four-piece band in 1989.

The undeniable genius of David Bowie has often been attributed to his ability to never rest on his laurels . Often referred to as rock’s chameleon, he was able to constantly reinvent himself over five decades with numerous, elaborate tours, a handful of films, and over twenty-five studio albums. Yet one period of his career is often seen as a misstep by fans and critics alike: his late eighties / early nineties turn as front-man of the band Tin Machine.

With guitarist Reeves Gabrels and Soupy Sales’ sons Tony and Hunt as its rhythm section, Tin Machine allowed Bowie to surround himself with an organized noise far from the studio polish and lackluster lyrics of his other eighties’ outings. Out of the gate with the raucous release of their first single, “Under the God,” the project couldn’t have come at a better time in his career. Casting off the safe and often silly Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987), the eponymous Tin Machine (1989) had an attitude and edge that had been missing from Bowie’s music for quite some time.

But many in the press were not kind. “A quickly tiresome rich man’s plaything,” wrote Dave Ferman from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Sit down, man, you’re a fucking disgrace,” ended Melody Maker’s review of 1991’s (admittedly less than stellar) Tin Machine II.  Mark Coleman, in the Rolling Stone Record (later “Album”) Guide rated both Tin Machine records two and a half stars, noting that “[the] albums are long on thunder and short on actual tunes.” He didn’t even bother to mention their third release, the abysmal live Oy Vey, Baby from 1992.

But Bowie didn’t seem to care about the critics, and would insist that the public would eventually come to love Tin Machine. “We’ll be listening to the first album in a few years and re-evaluating [it],” he said in a 1993 interview with NME. By then, tastes had turned. The world had heard Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991, and grunge had taken the rock world by storm. But Tin Machine? It just never caught on.

One could argue that Tin Machine was just a few years ahead of its time. “We were grunge before it became a thing,” said Reeves Gabrels in a 2017 interview (http://www NULL.davidbowieworld NULL.nl/david-bowie-news-of-the-world/david-bowie-a-look-back-at-his-90s-era/); curiously, he recalls a story where Tim Palmer, producer of Tin Machine’s two studio albums, told him Pearl Jam was listening to “Heaven’s in Here” (the opening track on Tin Machine’s 1989 debit) during their time working on Ten (which, along with Nevermind and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, is seminal grunge from 1991). Palmer would mix Ten, and it’s not a stretch to say that a similar (but more mellow) tone can be heard when the guitar lick on “Heaven’s in Here” is played side by side with the up-tempo “Evenflow.” Just as Bowie had claimed to be influenced by the Pixies during this time (and, most likely, other, harder, alternative bands of the period), those same bands were Bowie fans. It’s musicians feeding off of other musicians — as musicians always have and always should.

Why then the vitriol for Tin Machine if it was an influential late eighties precursor to a movement that transformed the nineties? Perhaps the public at large still wanted the clean-cut man in a bright yellow suit who sang “Modern Love” just six years earlier — not this new man in black covering Lennon’s “Working Class Hero.” They weren’t ready for a scruffy white duke fronting a four-piece. They couldn’t handle the stripped-down skepticism of a religious experience in a song like “Bus Stop.”

By 1993, Tin Machine imploded, most likely due to sales — sales of the albums, and/or Hunt Sales’ increasing drug addiction. It didn’t matter. Bowie was ready to move on. He would wed Iman, release Black Tie White Noise (a return to his softer side), and eventually find his way to his next inspiration: drum and bass, electronica, industrial rock, and Trent Reznor. The latter would help reinvent Bowie’s sound through his next two albums: Outside (1995) and Earthling (1997). On both, Reeves Gabrels would play.

In an interview from 1997 (https://www NULL.electronicbeats NULL.net/from-the-vaults-david-bowie-i-am-he-who-quotes-i-am-the-sponge-that-absorbs/), Bowie would be asked about Tin Machine, and his perspective is telling. Tin Machine was first and foremost, a band. A rock band. Not a solo endeavor. It was “a return to the embryonic fundamentals of rock music, simply in order to clear my head for a while,” he said. Why? “In order to breath life into my being as a musician again.”

Whether or not Tin Machine was among Bowie’s better works is immaterial. It was a chance for the artist to rediscover the “fundamentals of rock music” that he had lost somewhere along the way in the early eighties.

Bowie would go on to produce five more albums after ’97’s Earthling, taking a long deserved ten-year break from music after 2003. He had suffered a heart attack, and while not the primary reason for removing himself from the spotlight for a decade, it was reason enough to spend more time with family, enjoying a simpler, quieter life.

Some will say that his final two works, The Next Day (2013) and Blackstar (2016) are among the best albums he ever made. The latter would be unlike anything that came before, prescient in its themes of mortality, but all the while musically adventurous — heavily immersed in the language of jazz with Bowie displaying a vocal range that is at times, sweet and sullen, and others, staccato and almost cruel. It was sheer brilliance.

He would succumb to liver cancer two days after his 69th birthday — the day Blackstar was released.

Known for having famously once said “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring,” David Bowie has moved on from this world. But he has left us with a catalog that will be discovered and rediscovered by many generations to come.

Among those discoveries deserves to be Tin Machine. It may have been many things, but it was never boring.

 

 

Michael Reeves & Vincent Price: The Push and Pull of Witchfinder General

Michael Reeves and Vincent Price
Michael Reeves and Vincent Price

It will be fifty years this week since the death of British director Michael Reeves at the age of 25 from an accidental alcohol and barbiturate overdose (that some have argued was suicide). Having only ever finished three films, his greatest achievement is inarguably the work he completed just a year before his death: 1968’s Witchfinder General. Starring Vincent Price in the title role as seventeenth-century witch-finder Matthew Hopkins, the film seems to polarize fans of the genre. Much has been written about the contentious relationship between the two; and it is clear that were it not for their clashing personalities and opinions, the film would not be remembered as it is — a horror movie / pseudo-historical drama that passionately divides its audience into those who love it, and those who hate it.

Witchfinder General, UK quad poster
Witchfinder General, UK quad poster

Receiving mixed, if not outright hostile reviews upon its release (noted writer Alan Bennett called it “the most persistently sadistic and morally rotten film I have seen”),  Witchfinder General (retitled for an American audience as The Conqueror Worm) certainly also had its share of praise, particularly from noted publications like The Times and the Observer and the Monthly Film Bulletin.

Over the last decade or so, many have trumpeted the movie’s merits. J. Hoberman of The Village Voice, for examplewrote in 2005 that it is “contemporary, and even frightening, in its evocation of cynical Puritanism and mass deception.” Aficionados of cinematography note its subtle use of color to reflect mood. Horror movie fanatics cite its realistic depictions of violence as years ahead of its time. And many Vincent Price fans — even Price himself in hindsight — consider it his best work.

But it is also criticized for its extremely serious tone, bleakness, and, at times, unabashed sadism.

FACT VS. FICTION

Matthew Hopkins
Matthew Hopkins,taken from 19th century print at Pepysian Library, Magdelene College, Cambridge

Set in England during the English civil war, Witchfinder General is a fictionalized account of the deeds of Matthew Hopkins (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Matthew_Hopkins). Hopkins (c. 1620 – 12 August 1647) was believed to have been responsible for the death of hundreds of alleged witches over a period of just two years. He was prolific in his profession and apparently quite proud of it, granting himself the title Witchfinder General (a title never bestowed on him by Parliament).

The films depicts Hopkins as a man of questionable motive and morality who goes from village to village, rooting out supposed evil, and punishing those he deems to be in league with the devil. It is only the innocent that suffer (as they did historically). And Hopkins is revealed to be corrupt, using his power and influence to gain wealth and social status. In a world of superstition and fear, he is the true evil.

Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins
Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins

Price infuses the character with sinister iniquity, and imposing, yet understated delusions of grandeur. This is not the Vincent Price of William Castle’s The Tingler (1959) or Roger Corman’s early 60’s campy Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. This is Price, the dramatic actor. And, on many levels, it works rather effectively.

THE PUSH AND PULL

Reeves had apparently envisioned Donald Pleasance in the role. From the start, he did not care for Price, and refused to meet him at the airport. “Take me to your goddamn young genius,” Price reportedly said to Philip Waddilove, the film’s co-producer, who went in the director’s stead. According to Benjamin Halligan, in his 2003 biography simply entitled (https://books NULL.google NULL.com/books?id=qQPNCIkmnsYC)Michael Reeves (https://books NULL.google NULL.com/books?id=qQPNCIkmnsYC)when the two first met on set, Reeves told Price that “I didn’t want you, and I still don’t want you, but I’m stuck with you!”

The tension had only just begun. In his book Nightmare Movies, author Kim Newman reports that during principal photography Price refused to watch dailies. He and Reeves argued about action sequences — including the director’s insistence that Price fire a pistol from horseback, a stunt that resulted in the actor being thrown from the horse. Price constantly ignored Reeves’ suggestions, resenting the director’s inexperience and youth. He once told him: “I’ve made 84 films. What have you done?” Reeves replied: “I’ve made two good ones.”

As a result of the friction, Price’s frustration (and his inebriation, as he reputedly came to the set drunk on more than one occasion) gives the role a dismissive tone that suits the character well. He may not have liked the single-minded director, but Reeves undeniably gets a fantastic performance out of his unhappy actor,

After the film’s release, Price wrote Reeves a letter, telling him that he finally understood what the director was trying to do, the kind of performance he was after. In later years, Price would go on to praise the director, and the movie. In Wheeler Dixon’s Collected Interviews: Voices from Twentieth-century Cinema, Price is quoted as saying “[Reeves] was very unstable… difficult, but brilliant.” (https://books NULL.google NULL.com/books?id=JWywnr1dNucC&pg=PT180&lpg=PT180&dq=He+was+very+unstable NULL.+Difficult+but+brilliant+Michael+Reeves&source=bl&ots=Uu535aXAgJ&sig=ACfU3U1ne8Jr3JdZY-LN6Ta09pp70dXfWw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwirw6vKwKrgAhVSnuAKHegdC9AQ6AEwC3oECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=He%20was%20very%20unstable NULL.%20Difficult%20but%20brilliant%20Michael%20Reeves&f=false)

It would seem that Reeves pushed Price. And Price pushed back, dragging the entire production with him. It’s a palpable pull between the two — one of some considerable gravity, as Price turns in and Reeves pulls off a character of depth and menace. It is a push and pull that many who watch the film similarly feel— an attraction and repulsion that is often the litmus test of the best of horror films. Witchfinder General passes — ever surpasses — that test.

LEGACY

Writing for the The British Film Institute’s “Film Forever” website, Adam Sovell recently extolled the film’s virtues (https://www NULL.bfi NULL.org NULL.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/witchfinder-general-michael-reeves-vincent-price), exploring its themes of “pastoral violence” and “weaponised belief.” Quite artsy and intellectual for a horror film full of torture and depravity.

In 2015, the Boston Society of Film Critics awarded Witchfinder General a special prize as one of a handful of “Best Rediscoveries.” (https://bostonfilmcritics NULL.org/2015-special-awards/) On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a critic’s rating of 88% fresh (https://www NULL.rottentomatoes NULL.com/m/the_conqueror_worm).

Indeed, it is worth seeking out. A blu-ray version (https://www NULL.avforums NULL.com/review/witchfinder-general-blu-ray-review NULL.1714) was released in 2011 (note for Americans: the extras apparently do not play on Region 1 players). A wonderful 5 disc Vincent Price DVD collection (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Vincent-Price-Collection-Abominable-Witchfinder/dp/B000SK5ZFM/ref=sr_1_4?keywords=vincent+price+collection&qid=1549652210&s=Movies+%26+TV&sr=1-4) released in 2007 includes the film, but it does not include all of the extras on the blu-ray. What is included, however, is a very good commentary by co-producer (and airport shuttle driver) Phillip Waddilove (along with Actor Ian Ogilvy), and a very good, half hour documentary about Michael Reeves.

In the commentary, Ogilvy says the film’s abrupt and bleak ending — lauded by critics as an artistic statement well ahead of its time — was a happy accident. Turns out Price had to get to New York to star in a musical, so the filmmakers ran out of time to shoot the last three pages of the script. Good that they did. A “happy ending” just wouldn’t fit such this film.

Like Michael Reeves’ life, the end of Witchfinder General leaves one wondering what might have been — and if would we even be talking about it fifty years later had it all not gone down the way it did.