Tin Machine album coverWritten by: David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels
Recorded: February – April 1989
Producers: Tin Machine, Tim Palmer
Engineer: Justin Shirley-Smith

Released: 22 May 1989

Available on:
Tin Machine
Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby
VH1 Storytellers
Something In The Air (Live Paris 99)
Is It Any Wonder?


David Bowie: vocals, guitar
Reeves Gabrels, Kevin Armstrong: guitar
Tony Sales: bass guitar, vocals
Hunt Sales: drums, vocals

‘I Can’t Read’ was written by David Bowie and Reeves Gabrels for the first Tin Machine album. It was re-recorded during the Earthling sessions in 1997.

This is a song from a very different period, one full of remorse and agony, I expect. It’s when jobs go wrong and home doesn’t really feel warm any more, and you don’t need anybody – you don’t even pretend you do – and you end up in this kind of state.
David Bowie, 20 October 1996
Bridge School Benefit concert, Mountain View, California

The song was recorded live in a single take at Compass Point Studio in Nassau, the Bahamas.

We recorded it in an hour and Tim mixed it in 45 minutes. It was written when David and I and Gary Oldman took his boat to Venezuela, but only made it as far as Grenada. We took the little four-track cassette and sketched out that song. David took a Polaroid picture where I look like I’m just standing in front of the cassette recorder in the oak conference room, but if you look closely, the horizon is at a 90-degree angle and my feet aren’t touching the ground, because we were in rough waters. Gary was throwing up – he wasn’t really an ocean-going fellow.
Reeves Gabrels
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

We were at Compass Point studio, which, at that time, was in some decline. It was really great, with a lovely atmosphere. The band stayed in Robert Palmer’s place and I stayed in a beautiful cottage 100 yards down the beach, on my ow, in this kind of colonial building. I think the previous occupant had been Damian Marley. It was lovely. There were tropical rainstorms and swimming in the sea with dolphins.

‘I Can’t Read’ was worked up there. It’s one of my favourite songs from that record. It’s very reflective, but is really the sound of us, the chemistry of those players together, making something spontaneous. It might’ve been written before, but it was the first time it had been played by the band. And we did it literally minutes after a massive tropical downpour in the evening, when we’d all been off to look at these frogs. It was definitely an electric atmosphere when we did it.

Kevin Armstrong
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

While the Tin Machine album was, at its worst, uninspired lyrics over equally leaden rock backing tracks, it did occasionally scale the heights. ‘I Can’t Read’ is one of the record’s highlights, and would not have sounded out of place on 1.Outside or Earthling.

Although Tin Machine were often pilloried in the media, Bowie steadfastly remained in their corner. During a 1995 interview with the NME to promote 1.Outside he highlighted ‘I Can’t Read’ as one of his finest creations.

Tell you what, you do me a favour, when you go back to your record player, try and find a copy of Tin Machine and listen to a tune called ‘I Can’t Read’, listen to that one, will you? I don’t ask you to listen to any of the rest, just listen to that one song because I think that song is one of the best I have ever written. I really do!
David Bowie
New Musical Express, 25 November 1995
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