Feb 16

The Machine Stops

FT16 comments • 1,785 views

tin machine wogan The odd thing about Tin Machine, having finally listened to Tin Machine, is that Bowie’s instincts were dead on. It’s not a mistake at all. He’s listening to the Pixies so he’s in tune with what’s happening in American indie rock; he’s thinking it’s time to strip back the production and make rock music, he wants to make something a bit more confrontational and instinctive… these are all exactly the right ideas for the moment. And yet when he comes to act on those instincts and form his band he ends up with a record of skronky blues rock and some of his worst ever lyrics. Of course you can say he picked the wrong collaborators, but it’s not just that. It really underlines the horrible gulf between knowing what the right move is and actually pulling off that move.

In general when people think about getting older, losing your edge, etc, they would assume that executional competence improves with experience but that the ability to stay in touch, know what to do, falls off. You get better at things but you lose a sense of what’s relevant – which creates a strain of typical middle-aged resentment: how come I, with my vast experience, am ignored in favour of these know-nothings. But I think it’s just as likely to be the other way around. The instincts stay sharp – get cannier, even. It’s turning them into something worthwhile that becomes harder and harder.

If the “Imperial Phase” – the point in your career or life when everything you do seems to come off, where your mistakes really do end up as hidden intentions – is real, then we can imply the existence of its opposite. The Imperial Phase’s shadow, the part where nothing quite works right. The good ideas that turn leaden when you realise them. The prose that grinds instead of flows. The clothes that looked great on someone else. The incisive intervention that’s received as meddling. The shots that don’t come off. That you look a fool for attempting.

Most of the time this decay phase goes unseen, for obvious reasons. Attention is a scarce commodity, so is charity. People turn away. If the phase ends, who is still there to know it? But what we see in Bowie is someone whose Imperial Phase was so inspiring for so many that the amount of goodwill it generated turned out to be inexhaustible. He got as many chances as he needed. He could be written off, but not written out. So you can endure the decline alongside him, instead of just passing by, and then you can see if and how he gets out of it. This is an important thing; the value of tin is higher than it seems.


  1. 1
    Mike C on 4 Feb 2016 #

    Great article. Really agree with most of your ideas. I do think the better Tin Mach moments get overlooked or denied as they are pearls amongst, well, lesser ideas!

  2. 2

    (reposted from FB)

    i haven’t revisited tim machine very recently but i did listen a LOT to earthling a couple of weeks ago (as i had a review of a single from it to write up on the singles jukebox): and suddenly started realising — quasi-bunny alert — that i was making sense of it as a kind of commentary on (and even gleeful critique of) britpop and related then-contemporary phenoms… and not just making sense of it, but getting quite a lot from it — i probably need to write up my BIG THEORY/CLOSE READING at greater length sometime (“sometime”) to get into the nittygritty convincingly, but it does make me wonder (you little wonder you) if TM maybe doesn’t work better if read as being subtly at ODDS with what it seems to be imitating (as eg bowie’s version of soul in the mid-70s, or indeed his version of neu! and harmonia in the late 70s)

    however i have not tried the experiment and may not do so soon

    adding: the recent revelations re s.sutherland’s attempt to be the eno to late 90s bowie’s bowie, substituting third-tier shoegaze for motorik (and himself for eno LOL) kinda amplified this reading of earthling: as bowie’s oblique but highly amused response to the proposal (basically saying “you so don’t get me, do you, puny editor-shaped human”)

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    Pete Baran on 4 Feb 2016 #

    The Elba phase? The Death Of Albert Phase? The Nero Phase?

  4. 4
    thefatgit on 4 Feb 2016 #

    The unperial phase?

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    MikeMCSG on 4 Feb 2016 #

    Depressing but true.

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    Phil Sandifer on 4 Feb 2016 #

    Without disagreeing with your conclusions, I wonder if Tin Machine is a weak example here. For one thing, Bowie had been misfiring since Tonight, and Never Let Me Down shows an artist with busted instincts as much as anything. For another, much of what goes wrong with Tin Machine really can be pinned to the particulars of the collaborators – the externally imposed rule against revising lyrics after the first draft, in particular, explains no shortage of the album’s failings.

    But the largest problem that Tin Machine has, I think, is that it’s the bit of Bowie’s period where a case for decanonization can be made. You can hate Tonight all you like, but you can’t actually declare it not to count as a Bowie album. And so Tin Machine gets to be the scapegoat for a bad run despite in reality being the upward bend of the decay phase, where Bowie at least got his instincts back together if not yet his execution.

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    Tom on 4 Feb 2016 #

    #6 I agree! (Well, I think Never Let Me Down has more of interest in it than many think, but it’s still obviously part of this). I should have specified that the phase included NLMD too. And Tonight – which is ALSO in Bowie’s US imperial phase – so the two ideas are opposite but not exclusive.

    (One of the things I think people get wrong about Imperial Phases – as an aside – is that they are “the good bit” of someone’s career. They aren’t, exactly. They’re the bit where everything you do works – where you can get away with bad decisions as well as see good ones pay off. There’s a reason the Pet Shop Boys’ one ends with “Domino Dancing” flopping, but includes the (pretty awful) It Couldn’t Happen Here film.)

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    MikeMCSG on 4 Feb 2016 #

    # 7 Number 7’s not really a flop though is it ? Surely “Being Boring” stalling at 20 is the better marker ?

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    Tom on 4 Feb 2016 #

    In the sleeve notes to (I think) Introspective, where he came up with the “Imperial Phase” term in the first place, Tennant writes that he knew the game was up when Domino Dancing – the lead single off a new record – charted lower than expected. So I’m taking his word for it! (I think the belief that their days as a dominant pop force were over helped them decide to make a record like Behaviour at all.)

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    Rory on 5 Feb 2016 #

    Great piece, Tom. Your central thesis certainly speaks to this 48-year-old.

    “If the phase ends, who is still there to know it?” I’m keen to see if you find 1990-onwards an upwards swing, as I now do, and as it seems many of the Bowie diehards at Pushing Ahead of the Dame do. America certainly seemed to forget about Bowie after Tin Machine, but I remember “Hallo Spaceboy” and “I’m Afraid of Americans” getting a fair bit of JJJ airplay in Oz, so was aware at the time that he wasn’t to be written off. I bought into the marketing line that Heathen was the true renaissance, but now know that it came much earlier.

    I found this last night, which makes a good case for the period ahead (to be read after you’ve listened to the ’90s albums, perhaps). And also this, which speaks to some of the themes you’ve raised.

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    swanstep on 5 Feb 2016 #

    @Rory, 10. The US didn’t forget about Bowie after Tin Machine, but his impacts tended to be at one remove from the pop charts. E.g. 1, Two tracks from Outside got major play in major, ‘cool crowd’ movies: ‘Hearts Filthy Lesson’ over Se7en’s, rolling-the-wrong-way credits, and ‘I’m Deranged’ over the Mobius-strip, opening and closing sequences of Lost Highway. (I didn’t pick-up Outside until after Lost Highway and because of it, and I was impressed.) E.g., 2, Philip Glass’s Low Symphony (with lots of Bowie and Eno participation and endorsement) came out in 1992/1993 and was very well-received (albeit with a possibly irritating to Bowie sense of his becoming an elder statesmen of the arts). E.g., 3. Touring with Nine Inch Nails in 1995 IIRC was a bit rocky for him but along with marrying Iman in the mid 1990s and living in NYC kept him pretty visible to a wide range of people, and certainly anyone who kept tabs on east coast media. E.g., 4. He got good notices in the US as Warhol in Basquiat (1996) [Bowie and Reed and Cale alike befitted from Warhol having a moment in the mid ’90s with Museums opening etc.]. E.g., 5., Nirvana’s ‘Man who fell to Earth’ cover near the beginning of their Unplugged set was seismic for B’s back-catalogue I’d say. The upshot of all this activity, while no substitute for pop-chart success, was that having ceased being actively cool around the time of Let’s Dance, cool-Bowie whose presence always made anything better was definitely back in the ’90s US imagination.

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    Rory on 5 Feb 2016 #

    You’re right, Swanstep, I’d forgotten about some of those. And “I’m Afraid of Americans” debuted on the Show Girls soundtrack. (Cough.) Actually, that all sounds like the same sort of vibe he had in Oz in the ’90s: kinda cool dude, couple of singles got some attention on alt-radio, but that was about it. But the albums, the albums… look at this David Fricke review of Outside at Rolling Stone. I would have read that at the time, and it would have given me no reason to check out an album actually worth two stars more than he gave it; the album that really was “the best since Scary Monsters“. They were a star short on its sequel, too.

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    Phil Sandifer on 5 Feb 2016 #

    Yeah, the Outside-Earthling era Bowie had a weird impact on the US by dint of the 1995 tour with Nine Inch Nails, which, like Labyrinth, served to create an audience for which Bowie was very seminal that doesn’t quite follow from any other point in his career. That tour was absolutely legendary for those who saw it. You had Nine Inch Nails at the top of their game, a phenomenal transition between the two bands (not just as a bit of stagecraft, but as a set list: Subterraneans, Scary Monsters, Reptile, Hallo Spaceboy, and Hurt), and then Bowie having to perform like mad to keep the NIN audience from drifting out and leaving him only with a bunch of Bowie fans who would pissed off that the set list didn’t include any of the hits. It wasn’t an impact that happened on the charts, but it was a genuinely large impact all the same.

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    DietMondrian on 8 Feb 2016 #

    #3 #4 Tin Mining

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    Matthew K on 9 Feb 2016 #

    The “Commonwealth Phase”, p’raps?

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    Mostro on 25 Mar 2016 #

    The Tin Age?

    (Hmm. Why do I get the suspicion that I was only the first to suggest this because everyone else had already dismissed it as being a little *too* obvious?)

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