David Bowie & I: Socks, Sax & Sex Shops

David Bowie & I: Socks, Sax & Sex Shops

reeves gabrels
Reeves Gabrels of The Cure performs live on stage at Wembley Arena, 2016 (Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

In 1989, David Bowie was closing the decade facing a similar crisis to the way he rounded out the previous two: uncertain where his future lay and searching for creative rebirth. He found it in the egalitarian Tin Machine, Bowie’s first band democracy since his days in forgotten ‘60s beat combos The Konrads and The Manish Boys. 
The scenario shocked Bowie out of his over-produced pop stupor of the ‘80s and revitalised him, but it was at a cost: the musical equivalent of Brutalist architecture, Tin Machine’s eponymous debut could be brusque, bludgeoning and critically divisive.

Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels’ serrated sounds caused particular apoplexy among fans, despite Bowie albums such as “Heroes”, Lodger and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) featuring comparable lodes of inventive guitar tones. After 1984’s Tonight and 1987’s Never Let Me Down hastened Bowie’s fall from grace thanks to tracklists heaving with dubious reggae, misguided covers and soulless dross, the musician was ready to burn down his ‘80s avatar. Gabrels and brothers Hunt and Tony Sales, the respective drummer and bassist on Iggy Pop’s Bowie-produced Lust For Life album, were on hand with the lighter fluid.

Listen to Tin Machine's 9 Song Compilation here.

Listen to Tin Machine's debut self-titled album here. 

“The whole Tin Machine thing was a reaction to David’s ‘80s career, a reaction to Never Let Me Down,” Gabrels recalls. “Tin Machine started out as David and I writing songs together, then David ran into Tony on the street in LA and invited the Sales brothers over. He called me up and said, ‘Listen to Lust For Life, I think they’re our rhythm section’. We still didn’t know what we were making, but there was a chemistry between the four of us. Matt Resnicoff, the editor of Musician magazine, interviewed us, and he said to me after the article was published he formed the opinion David and I were the left and right side of the brain and Hunt and Tony were the two testicles. You know, you need all that! Playing with those guys, it reminded me rock’n’roll was at least 50 per cent below the waist. We each had our roles and settling into it was an interesting process. When everyone’s mouth was shut and we were playing the music, we really had something.” 

On the 30th anniversary of Tin Machine’s debut, Gabrels is reflecting on the band’s contentious place in Bowie’s career. Even the Tin Machine promotional video directed by Bowie’s associate Julien Temple (The Great Rock N Roll Swindle, Absolute Beginners, Earth Girls Are Easy), which has now been officially released on digital streaming services and YouTube for the very first time, was created in opposition to expectation. Years before U2 mocked pop culture’s underbelly via their Zoo TV campaign, Tin Machine envisaged a video presenting their latest music as tacky infomercial fare. Keen to avoid simply delivering MTV a video clip for a new single, Tin Machine instead submitted a 13-minute megamix of music backed by footage Temple filmed in New York’s The Ritz.

“We used K-Tel Records’ late night advertising as our template,” Gabrels says. “It was the Sales brothers who came up with that idea, since they had their finger on the pulse of all things trashy. At first I thought we were going to go completely in a K-Tel infomercial direction, but we ended up going with a long-form video edited together. We had certain vignettes in our head, like us playing in a venue, then we wanted to add elements that were a little more vaudevillian, such as the monkey unplugging the band, which I think was a Hunt idea.”

Now a Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductee thanks to his ongoing membership of The Cure, Gabrels speaks to I Like Your Old Stuff while in Sydney performing Disintegration’s 30th anniversary shows. The guitarist admits it’s a “beautiful coincidence” he’s back in the harbour city almost 30 years since Tin Machine arrived in Sydney to commence work on their second album, Tin Machine II, at Studios 301.

“David had a place in Sydney which was a lovely place to stay,” Gabrels says of Bowie’s former home in Elizabeth Bay. “The Sales brothers stayed in a hotel just off Kings Cross and a bunch of bands were staying there at the time – Bon Jovi, Charlie Sexton and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. There were lots of bands around the Kings Cross neighbourhood. The brothers came over for about two weeks and we did the basic tracks before they flew back to LA. 

“David and I stayed for about another two months and continued working… and enjoying Sydney at the same time,” Gabrels laughs. “U2 was here [on the Lovetown Tour with BB King] and they had to reschedule a number of Sydney shows as Bono had lost his voice. Every night they played we hung out – if not at their shows then at the hotel afterwards. I remember one night sitting there at a table of BB King, Bono and David and it was at a time when James Brown was in jail. A fair amount of alcohol had been consumed and the three of them decided to write a letter to James. I was the one whose penmanship was still intact so I was the ‘court stenographer’ – I was the one making sure that everyone’s sentiments were clearly stated and that the letter made sense!” 

So was David Bowie a good Sydney flatmate? Yes, says his houseguest, save for the occasional theft of undergarments. 

“One morning as the sun was coming up I wake up to a shadowy figure in my room and I see that it’s David,” Gabrels says. “He’s got the dresser open and he’s going through the drawer where my underpants and socks were. He pulls a pair of socks out and says, ‘All of my socks are dirty’ and then just leaves the room with them! We had that kind of relationship. On a Sunday afternoon, we’d maybe have a bottle of wine and then he’d put on Little Richard. He’d say that all he ever really wanted to be was Little Richard’s saxophone player. We would listen to Little Richard’s greatest hits and in my memory, he played all the saxophone solos note for note. 

“When I first met him [on the Glass Spider Tour in 1987] I had always lived in band houses – you’d rent a place with six other musician guys where you could rehearse. David just reminded me of someone who could have been one of those guys, except for the fact he had been a rock star for 25 years…”

As showcased on Tin Machine’s output - as well as ‘90s Bowie/Gabrels collaborations such as “I’m Afraid Of Americans”, “Little Wonder” and “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” - Gabrels has shown a professorial commitment to pushing his guitar sounds in new directions. While recording Tin Machine II in Sydney, he infamously acquired a new accouterment for his sonic arsenal. After asking his guitar tech for a variable speed drill he could use to manipulate his guitar strings, the pair ended up at a local sex shop. 

“My tech guy didn’t have a drill in his tech bench, but he said, ‘Well there’s a sex shop down the street and they’ll have vibrators with motors you can change the speed on’. I didn’t ask him how he knew there was a sex shop at the end of the street, but he and I just walked down there. It was around closing time in the evening and we got in as they were locking the door. I said to them, ‘I won’t be long – I just need two variable speed vibrators!’. I would have thought that the gentleman running the shop would have seen it all, but I was putting the vibrators up to my ear to listen to the motor speed.”

With practice, Gabrels was able to manipulate his vibrator to vibrate his guitar strings like a bow on a cello. The infamous practice made it to Tin Machine’s live performances, as well as wilful and disconcerting TV appearances such as the BBC’s staid chat show Wogan. While Tin Machine were ultimately dissolved by the end of 1992, Gabrels sounds wistful as he thinks back to his moment in a New South Wales sex shop 30 years ago: “I guess, in my mind, Sydney will always be synonymous with my vibrator…”

Listen to Tin Machine's 9 Song Compilation here.

Listen to Tin Machine's debut self-titled album here. 

READ MORE: Interview With David Bowie Collaborator Reeves Gabrels (2018)

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