David Bowie: How Tin Machine Saved Him From Soft Rock
David Bowie was always an artist prone to changing artistic direction and making grand statements. But even by his standards, it was surprising to hear his announcement in 1989 that, after decades as a solo artist, he was forming a band.
That band, Tin Machine, featured Tony Sales on bass and Hunt Sales on drums – both of whom had played with Bowie in Iggy Pop’s backing band (you can hear the racket they made on Iggy’s TV Eye Live 1977 album). On guitar was a relatively unknown guy named Reeves Gabrels, who pretty quickly ascended to “Guitar God” status. Their debut album — released on May 22, 1989 — took him from the middle of the road to way edgier territory and put him on an adventurous artistic path that lasted for the rest of his career.
By the end of the ’80s, Bowie — a trailblazer in the previous decade — was firmly entrenched in a sort of adult soft rock purgatory, with artists like Elton John and Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger. These were legends who were making more mature music for an aging fanbase; they all added great songs to their discography, but they weren’t breaking new ground. Bowie’s 1983 album, Let’s Dance, put him at the center of pop’s mainstream and remains his most commercially successful album, thanks to the title track, “China Girl” and “Modern Love.” But the two subsequent albums — 1984’s Tonight and 1987’s Never Let Me Down — didn’t match the success of Let’s Dance and left Bowie feeling uninspired.
I spoke with Tin Machine’s Reeves Gabrels in 2017 about his career with Bowie; he told me that they met during the infamous “Glass Spider” tour, promoting the Never Let Me Down album. “He didn’t actually know that I was a musician in ’87 when I met him,” he said. “My then-wife was working for him as his press person during the American leg of the ‘Glass Spider’ tour. I had no business being there, but I had an ‘all access’ pass, and nothing to do. He also often had nothing to do, other than wait for soundcheck or showtime. He and I ended up hanging out in his dressing room until it was time for him to play.”
At the end of the tour in the fall of 1987, Gabrels’ wife gave Bowie a tape of one of his bands. “I never said anything to him about playing guitar,” he recalls. “He thought that I was a painter or a graphic artist. After the tour ended, we moved from Boston to London. After we got there in January of ’88, I was walking around London hanging up posters to give guitar lessons. It started raining, and I was soaking wet, but I didn’t bring enough money with me to take the tube back. So I walked through London in the pouring rain. I got home and I started working on some guitar stuff. The phone kept ringing; we didn’t have an answering machine. The third time it rang, I picked it up and was like, [angrily] ‘Hello?'”
“‘Hi, this is David.'”
“‘You know, David Bowie, we met, you were out on tour with us when your wife was working for me.’ I didn’t believe it was him, I thought it was a friend who did a fairly lame David Bowie impression. He said, ‘I was listening to a tape of yours, and you sound like the guitar player I’ve been looking for.’ And I said, ‘OK, who the f— is this?'”
“He laughed and said, ‘Remember, we watched Fantasy Island together in my dressing room in Los Angeles.’ And we had done that. We had the volume down and made up our own storyline. So I said, ‘Man, I’m sorry, I didn’t expect that you’d be calling.'”
“And he said, “What are you doing this weekend?'”
“So, I went to his home in Switzerland where he was living. And then we started working on some music together, and we didn’t know what it was going to become. There was no talk of a band. But he told me how unhappy he was with where he had ended up, post-Let’s Dance. Let’s Dance was fun for him, but because that suddenly became his biggest hit ever, the record company wanted him to reproduce it. He said, ‘I tried to give them what they wanted twice [with Tonight and Never Let Me Down], but my heart’s just not in it, and it’s killing me.'”
But Bowie noted that his contract actually gave him complete artistic control of his output. So the guitarist gave the legend some advice. “I said, ‘If you’re not happy, you can change it. You just have to have the courage of your conviction. You’re going to have to be able to take being abused by the press if they don’t like that you’re doing something different.’ And I remember hearing him say that it seemed simple to me but was complicated to him. And that was a transition point for him.”
But clearly Gabrels had Bowie’s attention; both because of his playing and his personality. They were both listening to music that was much edgier than what Bowie was playing. “I had a Led Zeppelin bootleg that I listened to a lot, and he had a Cream bootleg that he listened to a lot. We were both listening to old Miles Davis stuff. He was listening to Strauss and I was listening to Stravinsky. We both were listening to Glenn Branca and the Pixies and Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. It just had a kind of ‘bromance’ quality to it.”
Of course, that relationship developed from friendship to being bandmates, which wasn’t what Gabrels had in mind. “I was actually against the band idea because I had been in bands,” he recalls. “My experience at the time was basically indie bands in Boston. I’d played the northeastern country circuit and the northeastern chitlin circuit. In 1985, I played a hundred and seventy something weddings. I had done the Malcolm Gladwell ‘outliers’ thing: you know, the theory that you had to spend ten thousand hours on something to do it well. But I guess David recognized something in me, and we got along really well. The first month that we were working together, we watched all of these obscure Monty Python things that he had collected and [BBC sitcom] Fawlty Towers, and I went through his wine cellar. It was just he and I at his house, and we had a great time. But then the Sales brothers came in and I immediately noticed this sort of ‘band-ish’ chemistry between them. The Sales brothers had a telepathic way of playing together.”
“The best bands are benevolent dictatorships. My world was quite small at that point, but in my mind, if you were going to be in a band, you were going to be in close quarters with everyone in that band. And then you were basically taking on all of their family issues and personal psychological disorders as your own. Originally we were going to work with Terry Bozzio [the former drummer of Missing Persons, who had also played with Frank Zappa] and Percy Jones [the bassist from jazz fusion band Brand X] as the rhythm section. And then he called me up and left me a message, and said, ‘I was just in L.A. and I ran into our rhythm section.’ And then when I met the Sales brothers, they were crazy and wild. I didn’t really want to be in a band with the Sales brothers! I was in art-rock bands, and I was more intellectual and brooding. I was that cliché. And they, in their youth, were the ‘destroy-the-hotel-room’ types. And I thought, ‘This is all well and good,’ but I guess I really wanted to be the guitar player on a David Bowie album, not in a band with him.”
Bowie, however, had a different perspective. “So David comes in one day and says, ‘I was thinking, this should be a band. You guys don’t listen to me anyway, you just do what you want to do, so why don’t we make it a band?'”
“I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know: these guys seem a little crazy.’ So it became a band, as opposed to being David Bowie’s backing band.
While the public was surprised to see Bowie as a band member, Gabrels said that Bowie knew that he was always a bit ahead of his time. “David had a rejection letter for Low from RCA Records on his wall and they suggested that he go back to Philadelphia and do something more like Young Americans. He said, ‘They might hate this [Tin Machine] now, but in twenty years they’re going to love it!’ We were grunge before it became a thing. Nirvana asked [Tin Machine producer] Tim Palmer to make the record that became Nevermind, and Tim mixed Pearl Jam’s Ten. He said that one day he walked into the studio and they were playing [Tin Machine’s] ‘Heaven’s In Here.'”
Once he got used to being in Tin Machine, he took the band very seriously. In 1990, Bowie went on his Sound + Vision tour, promoting the reissues of his catalog, playing his hits in huge venues. He invited Gabrels to be his guitarist on what was surely a lucrative tour. “I said, ‘If we’re really working on making it clear that Tin Machine is a band, that doesn’t seem like a smart move for me, or for us.’ What a strange sense of focus I had at age twenty-nine that I said ‘No’ to playing on a David Bowie tour!”
The band lasted just one more album — 1991’s Tin Machine II — before Bowie returned to his solo career. Gabrels stuck with him, first guesting on 1993’s Black Tie, White Noise, and then becoming a full-on collaborator with Bowie again on 1995’s Outside, 1997’s Earthling and 1999’s Hours. By 1999, Gabrels was beginning to disagree with some of Bowie’s decisions. But he was now an employee, not a bandmate. One big disagreement: Bowie wanted to have the R&B group TLC sing backing vocals on the first single from Hours, “Thursday’s Child.”
“I was like, ‘TLC? I stopped listening to you when you sang with Bing Crosby!‘” Gabrels recalls. “‘I was so pissed off I didn’t buy your next two albums! Now we’ve acquired the audience that we wanted, and you’re gonna put TLC on the record, and [the fans are] going to say, ‘F— him!’ And I know better singers than that!'”
Gabrels actually got his way: his friend, Holly Palmer, ended up singing on the track and eventually joined Bowie’s touring band. But the disagreement exposed deeper problems.
“I was David’s friend, and his guitar player, musical director, co-producer, but I was also a fan. I felt like I was protecting his ‘thing.’ I wanted to make sure he stayed cool and stayed connected. He was a voracious chaser of new things. But not every new thing [should be chased].”
He continues: “His circle of friends was more in his age group and they were listening to Luther Vandross and things like that… and I wasn’t. He actually made a comment to me at one point, ‘I want to make music for my generation.’ And I said, ‘You always just made music that you wanted to make, and if you want to make music for your generation, you’re ten years older than me. So where does that leave me in this equation? I don’t know how to produce that. I don’t know how to help you if that is the new criteria.’ The whole thing started to feel claustrophobic to me. I knew from January of ’99 that there was a long road for me to leave him, without leaving him hanging.”
He notes that he groomed his eventual replacement, multi-instrumentalist Mark Plati, to take over as musical director. “The last show that I did with him, VH1 Storytellers [recorded in 1999, released commercially in 2009], that was when I was trying to stage my departure, I asked Mark Plati to come in and play acoustic guitar, I wanted David to get used to him. I put Mark next to David where I used to stand. I cannot remember whether that was conscious or unconscious.”
“I had played stuff on a single for The Cure [the song “Wrong Number”], I had done some stuff with Nine Inch Nails, all because of my connection with David,” he says. “I will forever be in his debt. But I was running out of ideas for him. I was afraid that if I stayed, I would become a bitter kind of person. I’m sure you’ve spoken to people who have done one thing for too long, and they start to lose respect for the people they work for, and I didn’t want to be that guy. The most logical thing for me to do at that point was to leave and do something else.”
“I departed under good terms, but then it got weird, and then we resolved all that around the time of his bypass surgery. The friendship didn’t become as conversational as I would have liked, but I think it has more to do with the people around him than it does with him. But on the other hand, just because you weren’t talking to him, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t thinking about you.
One of the funny things he used to tease me about was, ‘When I die, you’re going to make a ton of money,’ because we wrote, like, forty-eight songs together. I wish we could have an afterlife conversation about that one just so he could gloat. ‘See! I was right!’
I remember when I found out about 2:30 in the morning on a Sunday that he’d passed, I was laying in bed, my partner woke me up; she’d heard from Duncan [Bowie’s son]. I just kind of laid in bed and I started laughing. She said, ‘Why are you laughing?’ I said, ‘Because we had so much fun.'”
In honor of their debut album’s anniversary, Tin Machine releases the below video, directed by Julien Temple, recorded at New York City rock club the Ritz in April of 1989. The film was originally issued as part of a very limited promotional box set, and has remained unreleased commercially until now. The show is now available as a digital download.
Reeves Gabrels is currently a member of the Cure; they’re currently on tour, and you can see their show from the Sydney Opera House in Australia on May 30, which will stream live. Check out their tour dates here.