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Music. Reviews. Reminiscences.

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 (http://www NULL.davidbowieworld; 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, 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.


Taste, Culture, and Balance: The Work of Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin has been called “the most important producer of the last 20 years” by MTV. Time Magazine listed him among the 100 Most Influential People of 2007. He has worked in such diverse areas a hip-hop, classic rock, heavy metal, and country. Yet his stripped-down approached to music production — one that focuses on artists and not artifice —is a signature sound that crosses all genres of music. And it makes him one of the most sought-after producers in the music business.

Rick Rubin with Jay-Z
Rick Rubin with Jay-Z

Johnny Cash. System of a Down. Jay-Z. Adele. The Dixie Chicks. Rarely would those acts be placed in the same article together, let alone worked with in a studio by a man who helped redefine each of their sounds. But that is quintessential Rick Rubin. Not defined by limitations of genre or confined to what’s popular on the charts, Rubin has spent the last thirty years getting the best out of artists by having them step outside of comfort zones, strip down to essentials, and open up with an honesty that few, if any other producers could obtain. In the process, he has, consciously or not, challenged the status quo.

“I don’t know anything about music,” he told Esquire Magazine (https://www NULL.esquire in 2007. “My job has very little to do with music. It has more to do with taste and culture and balance.” A difficult combination to quantify taste, culture, and balance would seem to suggest that Rubin is part fan and part philosopher. He knows what he likes to hear, and senses what the rest of us want as well. His is not a music landscape of similar-sounding acts that define a genre, but an ideal where the most talented artists are able to sound their best in a studio where Rubin can bring out the best in them. His methods are often considered unconventional — especially when it comes to stripped-down instrumentation and full-presence with little effects of an artist’s vocal — but the results are unquestionable.

Beastie Boys & Rick Rubin
Beastie Boys & Rick Rubin

His career started with LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Run DMC. Following the foundation of Def Jam records (from his NYU dorm room) in 1984, Rubin —with eventual help from Russel Simmons — tapped into a cultural revolution where rap had become the music of the streets, and a generation of kids, from New York City to suburban America, were hungry for it. These acts were outsiders, and Rubin found a way to raise their relevance by doing little more than giving them crisp instrumentation over which the impact of rapped lyrics could be clearly heard. But it didn’t begin and end with rap; Def Jam found other disenfranchised acts that had difficulty getting attention from other labels. Most notable was Slayer, a metal band that was a huge departure for the label, and the Cult  — whose 1987 Electric transformed them into a stripped-down, kick-ass rock ‘n roll band from which Rick cultivated songs like “Love Removal Machine (https://www”

In 1988, Rubin quit Def Jam and headed to Los Angeles, where he founded Def American (which would eventually become American Recordings in 1993 — after Rubin rejected the then cultural implications of the word “Def”). Continuing his success with heavier rock bands, Rubin turned to Danzig. And that opened the way for more traditional rock bands like The Black Crowes, whose 1990 album gave American their first major success, and whose follow-up, 1992’s The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, gave the label its first #1 album. There was hip-hop, too: Sir Mix-a-lot got a lot of attention for “Baby Got Back,” that same year.  He also gained notoriety for the meteoric rise of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose firth studio album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991) — produced by Rubin — gave the band their first hit “Give it Away (https://www,” a song that won a Grammy Award in 1992 for “Best Hard Rock Performance With Vocal” and became the band’s first number one single on the Modern Rock chart. Rubin’s association with the Chili Peppers would go on to be one off the more successful of his career.

Rick Rubin with Johnny Cash
Rick Rubin with Johnny Cash

The other association with an artist — and the one for which Rubin may best be remembered — is his work with Johnny Cash. Cash, coming out of a lost period where his record company had dropped him and his relevance had seemed long past, was encouraged by Rubin to record many of his old songs (like “Delia’s Gone”) alongside covers of works by Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, Leonard Cohen — even Glen Danzig. These “American Recordings” would be released throughout the nineties and into the new millennium, outliving even Cash himself with two albums released after his death (American V: A hundred Highways and American VI: Ain’t No Grave).

It is with Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” (in 2002) that both the man in black and the man with the beard each may have found the most powerful and profound recording of their respective careers.

For Rubin, it is a career that took him well — successfully well — into the new millennium. And found him working with one of the most charismatic and popular artists of the last twenty-five years: Jay-Z. Their collaboration, The Black Album (2003) produced a song only second to “Hurt” in its mastery: “99 Problems.” Rick’s suggestion that “99 Problems” start a-cappella was a masterstroke.

Rubin’s methods may not always be met with instant positive reaction from artists; many struggle with his opinions. As Billboard reported (https://www NULL.billboard, Adele had to re-record and reconsider elements of 25 because of Rubin’s advice. But she acquiesced, and all parties now seem happy about it. Arguably, it’s the push and pull he has had with many artists that have helped them produce their best work.

Over the course of thirty plus years, Rick Rubin has had his hand in one way shape or form in over 200 releases by radically diverse artists. Too many to document here, his production discography can be found (like most things!) on wikipedia (https://en NULL.wikipedia Most recently, he has helped Smashing Pumpkins dig deep to find their purest alternative rock roots on “Solara (https://www,” a song set to appear on one of their planned upcoming LPs.

Who will he turn to help transform next?  To paraphrase his own words, it would most likely be an act of taste, important to culture, and one in need of the balance that only Rick Rubin as producer can bring.