David Bowie knew it was time for a big change at the end of his 1987 Glass Spider Tour, a grueling, overblown stadium extravaganza that baffled many fans and left most critics quite cold. It had been four long years since the huge success of Let’s Dance, and his last two releases were commercial bombs. Teetering on the verge of irrelevance and feeling uncool for the first time in his professional career, he decided to team up with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, bassist Tony Sales and drummer Hunt Sales to form the noise-rock band Tin Machine.
The band drew heavy inspiration from critically-adored alternative groups Sonic Youth and the Pixies, acts that got virtually no mainstream radio play or MTV love, but were moving rock in bold and exciting new directions. The only problem was that those bands had the advantage of growing organically. Tin Machine had the odd misfortune of being fronted by one of the most famous rock stars in history. They couldn’t exactly tour under-the-radar or do anything without obsessive Bowie fans chronicling their every move.
The band hit the road in the summer of 1989 to promote their self-tiled debut LP. They made it quite clear before it started that this would be a Tin Machine show and anyone showing up that hoped to hear “Let’s Dance” or “Young Americans” would leave disappointed. “Reaction to the shows was mixed,” read a report in Rolling Stone by Jeff Ressner. “While some concertgoers felt the band delivered a strong, tight set, others were underwhelmed by the new material and the contrived atmosphere of the event. Most appeared jostled by Tin Machine’s straight-ahead emphasis on loud guitars, dark lyrics and stark staging, pegging the band as merely the singer’s latest whimsical conceit.”
Frustrated by his complete inability to shake off his own past, he launched the Sound + Vision solo tour the next year. It took him around the globe for the better part of the year, giving every old school fans the chance to hear him play “Space Oddity” one last time. He told anyone that would listen that the tour was the final occasion he’d play any of his hits. To underscore the point, he cut a new Tin Machine album when it wrapped and supported it with a 1991 theater tour.
Once again, he limited the setlist to Tin Machine originals and covers. One might think that singing “Rebel Rebel” 109 times the previous year would make people happy, but many still left disappointed in the show. Check out a video of the group covering “Debaser” by the Pixies at a Wolverhampton, England gig on November 2nd, 1991. Bowie was a huge Pixies fan from the very beginning and went on to cover their song “Cactus” on his 2002 LP Heathen. “I found [the Pixies] just about the most-compelling music outside of Sonic Youth in the entire 1980s,” he said. “I always thought there was a psychotic Beatles in them.”
Bowie stuck to his “no hits” pledge throughout much of the 1990s, but they crept back into the set when he did a few promotional gigs in support of 1999’s Hours and they returned with a vengeance on the 2003/04 Reality tour. Nobody knew it at the time, but it marked the final time he’d go on any sort of tour. The setlist touched on basically every period of his long career. Just about the only exception was the Tin Machine catalog. None of their songs were played even a single time.