Wild Mercury Sound

Revealed ! The terrible necessity of Tin Machine

John Mulvey

Hard to know what to play this morning. My ears are still ringing from a massive night in the company of The Hold Steady, who played an astonishing gig in a Hoxton bar. As I left, Allan was deep in conversation with their singer, Craig Finn. I'm sure he'll be writing something on his blog about it later. In the meantime, I've found a new David Bowie comp called "The Best Of Bowie 1980/1987" in this morning's post and, perhaps out of wilful perversity, I'm playing it now.

It starts OK, frontloaded with the good stuff (from "Scary Monsters") and the commercial stuff (from "Let's Dance") - not much scope for searing critical re-evaluation here. But where this curious comp gets interesting is in the second half. It's the story, effectively, of why Bowie decided to form Tin Machine. Because, rotten as Tin Machine were, at least they had a focus, a point of sorts.

This, though, is a portrait of a bored dilettante. Bowie's always been a magpie, but his genius is to invest other people's ideas with a rare charisma and and an infectious enthusiasm. Here, he wanders from one track to another with a sort of disconsolate pragmatism.

And, amidst the will-this-do takes from Tonight and Never Let Me Down (albums even he dislikes), Bowie's authentic mid-period voice emerges on a slew of soundtrack commissions like "When The Wind Blows" and "This Is Not America": strikingly mournful, weary of his own skin, sounding far older than he does now. This is not particularly good music by any standards, let alone those of Bowie, but it is weirdly compelling.

He only really sounds remotely engaged on an austere Brecht tune ("Drowned Girl") and the ludicrous synth-gospel of "Underground" (from, lest we forget, the soundtrack to "Labyrinth"). Clearly, when you're playing the Goblin King, the logic of knocking out Pixies covers with some guys in suits suddenly becomes very, very appealing.


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