Tin Machine had its beginnings when Sara Gabrels, a journalist who had worked as David Bowie‘s press liaison person during his Glass Spider tour in 1987, slipped her boss a tape of her guitarist husband, Reeves, at the end of the tour.
It was only when Bowie was back at home in Switzerland unpacking after the tour that he found the tape and played it. Before long, Gabrels – a seasoned guitarist with many years spent on the Boston rock scene – got the phone call of a lifetime.
Soon, Bowie and Gabrels were working up an arrangement of Look Back In Anger for a charity performance, as well as writing songs together.
Bowie had known brothers Hunt and Tony Sales for years and had played with them when they were backing Iggy Pop in the late ’70s. As the sons of American television personality Soupy Sales, the pair got an early start in show business, recording a single as Tony & The Tigers when they were children.
Bowie invited the other three to Switzerland where they became a bona fide band. Their self-titled debut album (1989) was an ambitious and often brutal piece of hard rock, offering sharp lyrics, raging guitar and a generally uncompromising edge. It sold approximately 900,000 copies worldwide.
Hardly a disaster, but certainly a disappointment if judged against the sales of Bowie’s own catalogue.
The second album, Tin Machine II (1991), recorded in Sydney, Australia, was a more varied piece of work, with drummer Hunt Sales singing two soul-influenced numbers, and the group demonstrating more musical delicacy on tracks like Amlapura and Goodbye Mr Ed.
Much of the press the band received upon its release, was about the album cover, which featured traditional kouroi statues – Ancient Greek figures with their genitalia exposed (the cover was censored in the US, with the statues perversely neutered). That, and the fact that guitarist Reeves Gabrels played his guitar with a vibrator. He was banned from using it on Top of the Pops so he used an éclair instead!
Tin Machine II was not universally lauded. One review of the album in Melody Maker ended with the memorable phrase, “Sit down, man, you’re a fucking disgrace.” The album did not chart.
Many found the entire concept of Tin Machine ludicrous, seeing the group as a bizarre career move and desperate attempt at credibility on Bowie’s part.
Others found it impossible to accept the – admittedly unusual – proposition that Tin Machine was not David Bowie‘s group, but a group in which Bowie was simply one of the members.