During the late Eighties, David Bowie was one of the world’s most successful pop stars. But he wasn’t exactly thrilled about it. “It was great I’d become accessible to a huge audience, but not terribly fulfilling,” he said at the time. “It seemed so easy.” Hoping to jump-start his creativity, Bowie invited Reeves Gabrels, a Boston-based guitarist he had met during the Glass Spider Tour, to visit his home in Switzerland. Gabrels helped Bowie craft an extended version of his 1979 song “Look Back in Anger” for use in a 1988 dance performance, and the two men began plotting an edgier course for Bowie’s future.
Gabrels recalls Bowie phoning him from Los Angeles a short while later and excitedly announcing, “I found our rhythm section. Listen to ‘Lust for Life’!” The singer had bumped into Tony and Hunt Sales, the bassist and drummer on that 1977 rave-up, which Bowie had produced for Iggy Pop. Bowie not only insisted that the four men record together, but that they form an actual band, with each member having equal creative input. And so Tin Machine was born.
The quartet convened at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland, in August 1988 and worked fast. “We walked in every day with ideas and basically built a song a day in the studio,” Gabrels says. “We recorded the songs, overdubbed, and sometimes even mixed them in the same day.”
Tin Machine was released in May 1989, with a noise-heavy sound reflecting current Bowie favorites like Sonic Youth and the Pixies (the song “Tin Machine” even mentions Sonic Youth’s former mentor, experimental guitarist Glenn Branca, by name). By October, the band was back in the studio. Tin Machine II turned out to be a more collaborative effort – Hunt Sales even sang lead on a pair of tracks. And with Bowie contractually obligated to begin work on the Sound+Vision Tour at the beginning of 1990, his bandmates were left to finish recording without him. Gabrels had to chase after Bowie on tour to get him to record vocals.
After taking Tin Machine back out for four months of shows, Bowie decided that the project – which he called a dreadful commercial failure but an artistic success – had run its course. “We did make a big effort at the beginning to try and change people’s minds,” Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1993. “But we gave up after a while.”