In the studio
Having spent much of the 1980s delegating musical performances to producers and session musicians, Tin Machine allowed David Bowie to wipe the musical slate clean.
After Let’s Dance, I succumbed, tried to make things more accessible, took away the very strength of what I do. Reeves shook me out of my doldrums, pointed me at some kind of light, said, be adventurous again. And it broke down all the contexts for me. By the time it was over, nobody could put their finger on what I was any more. It was: what the fuck is he doing?! I’ve been finding my voice, and a certain authority, ever since.
Uncut, October 1999
And although he was the band’s frontman, Bowie was keen to stress that he was working as an equal – despite taking a dominant role in interviews and promotional appearances.
The consensus was that they thought it was a huge hype, because I was saying I was ‘part of the band’. There was nothing I could do or say to convince people, but I was just part of that band. I can’t say it louder. When I made the decision that we were going to carry on as a band it was really run on democratic lines. I was part of the band. And a lot of people didn’t like that and I never understood why. It had always been accepted when I was playing piano with Iggy in the ’70s – no big thing was made of it.
The Word, October 2003
The initial Tin Machine sessions took place at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland, from August to October 1988.
It was decided that Tin Machine would be a back-to-basics rock outfit, with spontaneity and a live sound being important. A wall of amplifiers was set up along one wall of the studio, facing a podium upon which Hunt Sales’ drum kit was stationed.
He is the loudest drummer I have ever worked with in my life. I almost went deaf within the first couple of days. The power and the volume was simply super human.
Starman, Paul Trynka
The Tin Machine sessions were produced by Tim Palmer, who had been recommended to Bowie by the Cult’s guitarist Billy Duffy.
Palmer had positioned a number of microphones around the studio, to capture the band’s live sound. On Kevin Armstrong’s first day in the studio, in week two at Mountain Studios, the band wrote and recorded the song ‘Heaven’s In Here’.
Bowie: There was that strange period of feeling each other out in Switzerland. Did you sense that? It was in the first week. Once we’d decided to go for it we went to Montreux, because we could all get away from the shit that we were up to our necks in and go and be alone while we decided how we’d work together. And for the first week there was this kind of… sparring.
Gabrels: No, not sparring. I’d not met Tony and Hunt at this point and I’d heard that they had weird attitudes and everything.
Tony Sales: The only weird attitude we had was you, buddy!
Gabrels: When I first got there, Hunt has got a knife on his belt and he’s wearing a T-shirt that says, “Fuck You, I’m From Texas”. So I think, Oh shit. And whenever I played something they’d say, No, you play it like this, kid. And after a week of being a nice guy – walking that fine line between ignoring what people were telling me and being gracious about it – I did it how I wanted.
The songwriting was kept as immediate as possible, with Bowie improvising many of his lyrics on the microphone. According to Gabrels, “There was a lot of resistance on our part to him going back to a lyric and re-writing what was essentially gut-writing.”
I’d not thought of that. That’s it! I hadn’t even thought about that. That’s true. They were there all the time saying, Don’t wimp out, sing it like you wrote it. Stand by it. I have done and frequently do censor myself in terms of lyrics. I say one thing and then I think, Ah maybe I’ll just take the edge off that a bit. I don’t know why I do that. I’m English. Maybe I just felt it was a bit impolite or something. I don’t quite know where that comes from but it’s almost like something somewhere in me doesn’t want to offend. I’ve always been like that.
Q magazine, June 1989
The Tin Machine recording sessions continued from 6-27 February 1989 in Nassau in the Bahamas. While there, Bowie stayed at Robert Palmer’s beachfront house.
We finished the first batch of sessions in Switzerland and decided to reconvene in Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas a few months later. We also decided to mix the record in New York. In the sessions at the Compass Point Studios in Nassau, the environment was completely different. We were all living in beach huts right by the water’s edge, and it was very hot. In the studio, it turned out that we were short of microphone stands because Status Quo had them all next door!
Strange Fascination, David Buckley
One studio guest was Sean Lennon, whose father John had recorded with Bowie on the Young Americans songs ‘Fame’ and ‘Across The Universe’. Tin Machine recorded a version of the former Beatle’s song ‘Working Class Hero’ for the album.
During the Compass Point sessions, Kevin Armstrong was informed that he would not be a full member of Tin Machine, but would be demoted to a background musician. Although the guitarist found the news “totally crushing”, he remained with the band, and worked with Bowie on subsequent projects.
I thought some of the best work didn’t make it to the first record. I think David was deliberately trying to go for a fucked-up sound. If it was too safe or polite, he’d dump it.
Starman, Paul Trynka
Tin Machine’s debut live show also took place in the Bahamas. One evening they approached a band playing a small bar in Nassau and asked if they could borrow their equipment. As they took to the stage, the audience of stunned tourists could barely believe they were witnessing an unannounced David Bowie live show.
We weren’t announced, we just walked up on stage and you could hear all these voices whispering, That’s David Bowie! No, it can’t be David Bowie, he’s got a beard!
Q magazine, June 1989
Final overdubs and mixing took place at New York’s Right Track Recording in March and April 1989.