Released: 22 May 1989
David Bowie: vocals, guitar
Reeves Gabrels: guitar
Kevin Armstrong: guitar, Hammond organ
Tony Sales: bass guitar, vocals
Hunt Sales: drums, vocals
Tin Machine recorded a version of John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’ on their debut album.
The song originally appeared on 1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Lennon’s debut solo album was mostly written in the aftermath of the Beatles’ break-up, and in the wake of Lennon undergoing Primal Scream therapy to deal with childhood trauma.
That’s always been a really favourite song of mine. I like that first John Lennon album a hell of a lot. I think all the songs are really beautifully written and, again, very straight from the shoulder. There’s an honestly in the lyrics there. And that particular song, I thought, would sound great as a rock song. It seemed very worth doing.
Q magazine, June 1989
In addition to ‘Working Class Hero’, Bowie recorded Lennon’s song ‘Mother’ – another song from Lennon’s album – in the late 1990s.
During a 1979 BBC radio show, Star Special, in which he selected some of his favourite songs, Bowie included Lennon’s ‘Remember’. Bowie even sang the line “I believe in Beatles” during the Heathen song ‘Afraid’, an echo of Lennon’s famous couplet “I don’t believe in Beatles/I just believe in me” from the song ‘God’.
Bowie’s earliest reference to John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, however, was on 1973’s Aladdin Sane. The opening song, ‘Watch That Man’, contained the couplet “The girl on the phone wouldn’t leave me alone/A throw back from someone’s LP”. This was a paraphrase from Lennon’s ‘I Found Out’, which had the line “The freaks on the phone won’t leave me alone”.
Lennon recorded ‘Working Class Hero’ with just vocals and acoustic guitar, in keeping with the album’s stripped-back sound. In Tin Machine’s hands, however, it was recast as a driving and splenetic rock song, in solid 4/4 time as opposed to Lennon’s 6/8.
It was recorded during Tin Machine’s sessions in Nassau in the Bahamas in February 1989.
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
Sean Lennon, then 13, was among the visitors to the Bahamian sessions, and ‘Working Class Hero’ was partly recorded in his honour.
Bowie: I think he likes it a lot. He’s followed this album almost from the start, from the second week. He’s a big Reeves fan.
Tony: Reeves was giving him guitar lessons while we were putting tracks down.
Bowie: Ah. Sweet.
Tin Machine performed ‘Working Class Hero’ live during their first tour.
A nine-song promotional film of tracks from the first Tin Machine album was made by Julien Temple. It was filmed in the Ritz club in New York City.
The ‘Working Class Hero’ section featured the band performing the show wearing dinner jackets, in front of a deep red curtain. The full film remained unreleased until 2019.
He didn’t talk about his parents much, and there didn’t appear to be much love lost between them. I remember he said once that they hadn’t been there for him, but I think maybe he was slightly embarrassed about them in a way. He came from quite humble origins, and although he never played on this, and rarely wrote about it, when he sang John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’ on the Tin Machine album he did it with such ferocity that you could tell it was sung with real emotion. Everything he had achieved in life he had achieved himself, and he slightly resented his parents for not being able to give him more of a start in life. He was extraordinarily well read, but then he was an autodidact. David really enjoyed his own mind, and he really enjoyed what he could do with it, really enjoyed the places it could take him and the things he could do with it when he got there.
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones