Revisiting David Bowie’s Tin Machine’s stunning re-working of John Lennon song ‘Working Class Hero’
Tin Machine is a largely underappreciated part of David Bowie’s legacy. The side project concocted a lot of magic during their short period of activity and this cover of John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’ is up there as their finest hour, a cover that optimises what the group embodied.
During their four-year life span from 1988 to 1992, Tin Machine was a force to be reckoned with. Later perceived as being ahead of their time, the band was a vessel also that allowed audiences to see a more relaxed side to Bowie. An environment where he could experiment with the music he loved in a manner deemed inconceivable during his time as a solo artist who hit major mainstream success of Let’s Dance in 1987 and, of course, the expectations which that had aroused.
The band was inspired by sessions with guitarist Reeves Gabrels. It led to inviting drummer Hunt Sales and bassist Tony Fox Sales to form the rest of the group, with “fifth member” Kevin Armstrong providing rhythm guitar and Hammond organ. Their grungey sound was a stark contrast to the route that Bowie was venturing down with his solo material at the time and allowed him to express a different side of his vast talents.
Their tour’s garnered a reputation for being more of an old-school stripped back rock and roll show than Bowie’s solo shows prior, which, at the time had huge production budgets. One song that featured heavily in their set was a cover of John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’, a number which featured in the band’s setlist 13 times over the course of their two world tours.
Bowie had a great admiration for Lennon so it is no surprise that he managed to sneak the song into his side project’s set. He famously said this about his contemporary during his induction to the Berklee College of Music’s Class of 1999: “It’s impossible for me to talk about popular music without mentioning probably my greatest mentor, John Lennon. I guess he defined for me, at any rate, how one could twist and turn the fabric of pop and imbue it with elements from other art forms, often producing something extremely beautiful, very powerful and imbued with strangeness. Also, uninvited, John would wax on endlessly about any topic under the sun and was over-endowed with opinions. I immediately felt empathy with that. Whenever the two of us got together it started to resemble Beavis and Butthead on ‘Crossfire’.”
He then hilariously spoke about the first time he met Lennon, adding: “The seductive thing about John was his sense of humour. Surrealistically enough, we were first introduced in about 1974 by Elizabeth Taylor. Miss Taylor had been trying to get me to make a movie with her. It involved going to Russia and wearing something red, gold and diaphanous. Not terribly encouraging, really. I can’t remember what it was called — it wasn’t On the Waterfront, anyway, I know that. We were in LA, and one night she had a party to which both John and I had been invited. I think we were polite with each other, in that kind of older-younger way.”
Bowie continued: “Although there were only a few years between us, in rock and roll that’s a generation, you know? Oh boy, is it ever. So John was sort of [in Liverpool accent] ‘Oh, here comes another new one’. And I was sort of, ‘It’s John Lennon! I don’t know what to say. Don’t mention the Beatles, you’ll look really stupid’. And he said, ‘Hello, Dave’. And I said, ‘I’ve got everything you’ve made — except the Beatles’.
Take a few minutes out to enjoy this sublime tribute to Lennon by Bowie’s Tin Machine, below.