Category Archives: music

Music. Reviews. Reminiscences.

Idolization of Generation X

Overshadowed by early MTV darling Billy Idol’s enormous success in the 1980s, his band from the mid to late seventies, Generation X, gets overlooked in the history of punk music. Many argue that the reason for this exclusion is simple: that Generation X was more of a rock and pop band than punk. Unconcerned for the most part with politics, not interested in being anti-establishment, and unwilling to reject the music that came before them, Generation X was a band forever in the process of becoming something, but breaking apart before they fully ever became anything.

Billy Idol and Siouxsie Sioux
Billy Idol and Siouxsie Sioux, part of the Bromley Contingent

Generation X began as many punk bands did: inspired by the Sex Pistols. William Broad, a 21-year-old guitar playing university drop-out  was part of the infamous Bromley Contigent. Along with drummer John Towe, he placed an ad in Melody Maker, and was fortunate to find Tony James, a bass player, and Gene October, a singer. They formed a band called Chelsea, but very soon thereafter encountered tensions when October thought the sound of the band too anemic and lightweight. October left, and Broad, now calling himself Billy Idol, dropped the guitar and stepped up to the mic. Guitarist Bob Andrews was hired, and the foursome began playing gigs late in ’76: first at London’s Central School of Art & Design and soon thereafter at the Roxy. Calling themselves Generation X, it was clearly Idol’s and James’ band, and they soon turned from playing cover songs to original material. Supporting bands like the Police and the Jam in the spring of ’77, it was only a matter of time before they gained the attention of the music press, and subsequently, record companies. The summer saw them record their first single, “Your Generation.” Some personnel changes later, they would soon find themselves that Fall on Marc Bolan’s television program, along with Granada TV and even (as the first punk band ever to perform on) Top of the Pops. It was a whirlwind of a year, as popular culture began to embrace the punk sound on both sides of the Atlantic.

But Generation X were distinctly different from their contemporaries. They had neither the raw energy of the Damned or the spirit of the Clash. Nothing so unique as The Ramones. No semblance of the derision of The Dead Boys. They didn’t inspire the worldwide love / hate of the Sex Pistols, and they were far from the “new wave” of music emerging from bands like the Police, the Cure, Talking Heads and Television.

Instead, they stood somewhat alone as a band of relatively popular pretty-boy press darlings with moderate sales success (their single Day by Day, for example, only charted at #36 in the UK).

Indeed, even their name showed a lack of identity and a distance from their contemporaries. Idol claims he took the name from a book in his mother’s house: a 1965 study of popular youth culture by British journalists Jane Deverson and Charles Hamblett that contained interviews with mods — disaffected anti-establishment youth that took inspiration from bands like Small Faces, The Who, and The Pretty Things. Generation X would cover John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth,” and reference a love for the Beatles and the Stones in “Ready Steady Go.” Later in life, in his autobiography, Idol would write that “Tony and I increasingly looked to the Who as a guide when attempting to suss out our development.” It would seem Generation X was a punk band mostly by association, playing a blend of melodic pop and rock while using punk rock’s speed and heavily distorted bar chords. In that same autobiography, Idol reveals how Tony James played him Bruce Springsteen. His “Jungleland” would inspire the narrative style of Generation X’s “Kiss Me Deadly.”

Generation X (self-titled), 1977
Generation X (self-titled), 1977

Unlike most punk bands, arguments and drugs (though they played a part) didn’t do Generation X in. It was the music. The decline in the quality of their music did not sit well with the record company. They followed up a brilliant and successful initial release (self-titled, in 1978) with an inferior sophomore effort: Valley of the Dolls in 1979. A further fizzle would be their swan song: Kiss Me Deadly, in 1981. Renamed to Gen X in order to reflect a change in sound influenced by both Goth and the New Romantics, the band experienced more personnel changes, and lost whatever pop-punk magic they had. Even the album’s name was a throw-back to former glory, as the track appears on their first release, but not this last. This final, forgettable LP, however, did contain a song that Idol would later use to build his solo career: “Dancing with Myself.”

Was Generation X just a springboard for the juggernaut of rock, glam, and MTV-friendly punk that was Billy Idol? Without Tony James, the success that the band did have in that golden year of 1977 would arguably never had happened. Billy Idol might have never been. But the lessons he learned about taking the best of rock, pop, glam, new wave, new romantics, and, yes, punk, served him well into the eighties and beyond.

In Defense of Tin Machine

Tin Machine
The Sales brothers, Reeves Gabrels, and David Bowie 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 ; 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, 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.