Tin Machine and Bowie’s “Uncanny” Shape-Shifting Ability

Following the booming commercial success of his 1983 hit album Let’s Dance, David Bowie found himself in an artistic funk. His two succeeding studio albums, Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987) did not boast the chart-topping of the popularity of the previous record, and left Bowie musically disillusioned. Seeking creative revitalization, the star returned to a model of performance he had not engaged in since the earliest years of his career. Taking a momentary recess from the limelight, in 1988 Bowie acted as one of the founding members for a new rock n’ roll band. With Bowie as the lead singer, the band included Reeves Gabrels playing guitar, bassist Tony Sales, and his brother Hunt Sales on percussion. Though the band survived less than five years together, the group produced two self-titled studio albums, Tin Machine and Tin Machine II, and completed two concert tours. Tin Machine 1.tif

Though the heavy-weight, pseudo-psychedelic rock aesthetic of Tin Machine is starkly different from David Bowie’s preceding pop sensibilities, it is the name of Bowie’s mid-career side-project that I find most intriguing. Stressing the collaborative nature of this four person group, Bowie declined inclusion of his name in the band’s title. In an 1989 interview, Bowie shrugged off the significance or intention of the name, saying, “We couldn’t think of a good name, so we picked from a song on the album.” Gabrels recognizes in an interview for Spin Magazine the potential evocation of other oxymoronic titles, like Led Zeppelin or Iron Butterfly, musing that “the figure in [the song] could be an authority figure. It could be a time machine.” In his dedicated Bowie blog, O’Leary analyzes Tin Machine’s alignment with the tradition of “theme songs” in popular music (i.e., the Monkees) and the “inherently ridiculous” phenomena of a band reciting their own name as a chorus (i.e., “Bad Company.”) In the 1989 interview Gabrels says that the band’s name “worked on a number of levels for us. The archaic—the idea of tin, which is still everywhere: tin cans, when you go to the supermarket; when you walk down the street you find rusting tin. It’s such a supposedly archaic material, but it’s everywhere. Sort of like the idea of us playing this music and not using drum machines and sequencers and things like that. There’s a point at which it connects.”

While Gabrel’s explanation is certainly more compelling than Bowie’s apparent lack of consideration of the matter, I have a hard time believing that the ever-attentive artist would truly allow the band’s public identifier to be chosen so arbitrarily. I will voice here my musings on potential underlying meaning in the name “Tin Machine.”

Perhaps we are to take at face value Bowie’s cues toward the song titled “Tin Machine,” from which the namesake supposedly came. In this instance, the phrase indicates some type of transportation device, albeit it a car, or “some new computer thing/ That puts me on the moon.” This dystopian tune, (a favorite genre of Bowie’s) was presumably written by the singer, though accredited to the band at a large. The disjointed lyrics chronicle various morally disturbing images, and the main character’s desire for a ‘tin machine’ in which to escape the despair of “this psycho-time-bomb planet.” In this sense, the band’s adoption of the name designates the title track as an anthem, hailing the group’s desire for their music to disrupt the artistically inadequate music popular at the time. As Tony Sales told Spin magazine, “[w]e were sick of turning on the radio and hearing disco and dance music and drum machines.” But paradoxically, instead of trying to create something new and unheard-of, the band looked to the past, evoking styles and techniques of the “pure” rock of the 1970s to create a sound they deemed worthy. The name, referencing the “archaic” material, suggests the possibility for a vehicle that takes them not into the future, but into the past.


But still this analysis seems a bit too thin for Bowie’s taste, which almost always point to multi-faceted readings of his work. As I thought more about the name “Tin Machine,” I considered Bowie’s connection with Warhol, and Warhol’s famous tin can paintings from the 1960s. Judith Peraino compares one of Warhol’s early Pop paintings of the Campbell’s soup can with strategies of Bowie’s constructed self-image in her essay, and I think perhaps the comparison could be applied to the title of his mid-career project. Warhol’s painting, which has since become one of the most iconic images of America art, features one of his popular subjects in a slightly different way than his silkscreen prints portrayed it. The painting of the mundane commercial product does not employ the graphic, unnaturally colored style of the prints, but rather contrasts two very different painting styles on one canvas. The label, ripped and peeled back to reveal the can beneath, is flatly portrayed, indicated by outlines and color fills, with no attention to shadow or form. But the tin surface of the can is rendered in an expressive, painterly style, with visible brushstrokes and watery textures. Of course, we can understand the prominent preservation of the word “camp” on the torn label to be an indication of Warhol’s gay sensibilities, as carefully shrouding the painterly reference to the masculinity of Abstract Expressionism. As Peraino points out, “If The Who and Jackson Pollock represent the wild, unkempt energy of bursting masculinity, then David Bowie and Andy Warhol represent the consumers of this masculinity.” Though her essay focuses primarily in Bowie’s self-constructed public image in the Ziggy and Pin Ups years, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to apply this reference to the name of the later Tin Machine. During his work with the band, Bowie certainly turned to a notably more masculine image, in both visual and musical style. Dropping the campy notions he employed in Let’s Dance, the star is seen on the cover of Tin Machine in a clean-cut, black suit, unproblematic in its masculinity. For the first time in his public career, Bowie sports facial hair, in the form of a scruffy, but visible beard. He sings in a deep, unpolished growl on many of the tracks, relinquishing much of his theatrical stage performance.  The music itself turns to the pure-masculinity of hard 70s rock, citing influences from Hendrix and Cream. tm

If in fact, Bowie was on some level referencing Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans, I think that this must be understand as another layer of the star’s criticism of the superficial masculine facade valorized in rock music culture. Warhol’s “prefabricated image (of prefabricated soup)” points to the many layers of ‘prefabricated’ masculinity that are so often glorified in pop culture. Even at the time of Tin Machine’s conception, Spin magazine noted that “[b]y now Bowie is a career chameleon; his talent for changing shapes is just as important as the shapes he’s changed into.”  Bowie’s appropriation of this manly masquerade, indicated immediately by the band’s title “Tin Machine,” points to his uncanny (pun-intended) ability to consciously construct his identity.


One thought on “Tin Machine and Bowie’s “Uncanny” Shape-Shifting Ability

  1. I like your analysis very much. It’s an intriguing argument and I think a compelling one. If one takes the image of the generic can as a metaphor for the hidden authentic self, then that works very well with the stripped down ‘authenticity’ of the tin machine. I know this is out of a left field but I also can’t help but think of another famous paining that seems evoked in this context: Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine. If the band is just anther persona, if the authenticity is just another role to be acted out, then that also works. And, by the way, the twittering machine has 4 twittering heads.


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