Noble philosopher and drooling idiot, transcendent shaman and earthbound sucker, Iggy Pop is in many ways the ultimate embodiment of rock’n’roll. While a similar claim can be made for artists from the Stones to the Clash to the Ramones to Half Japanese, the beast born James Jewel Osterberg is a walking, talking one-man melodrama, reflecting both the scary, stupid extremes of rock and its fearless, indomitable spirit. From his early drug-fueled days fronting the Stooges through his surprising reincarnation as a solo artist in the late ’70s, to his ongoing search for fulfillment up to the present day, Iggy has maintained the blend of restless intellect and animal hunger that gives his music — no matter how presented or configured — its raw vitality.
The Stooges, the debut LP by Iggy’s self-willed Michigan band — which at the time also included guitarist Ron Asheton, drummer Scott Asheton and bassist Dave Alexander — sounds like nothing else released in 1969. Produced by John Cale, the moronic lyrics and three-chord “tunes” (“I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “No Fun,” “1969,” “We Will Fall”) clearly anticipate the lowest-common-denominator populism of ’70s punk (and provided its participants with the elementary texts of rehearsal and audition numbers). If the tempos drag a bit, all the ingredients for what followed are present. One of the most superficially artless records ever made.
By contrast, Fun House knowingly sucks the listener into its raucous vortex. This ingeniously constructed album starts out menacingly (“Down on the Street”) and builds relentlessly to its apocalyptic conclusion (“L.A. Blues”). Iggy’s singing — which is much more expressive than on The Stooges — veers from sullen petulance to primal scream on songs of adolescent solipsism. Fun House comes as close as any one record ever will to encapsulating what rock is, was and always will be about. Inspired touch: Steven Mackay’s tenor saxophone. (No Fun, appearing between reissues of the two original Stooges albums, consists of tracks from both.)
Three decades later, in a rare approach to historic rock (as opposed to jazz, where such notions are common), Rhino Records saw fit to release 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions. As advertised, the limited-edition boxed set — six full discs plus a CD single — contains every single inch of tape, down to false starts and between-song chatter, recorded for the album at Elektra’s LA studio in May 1970. You want 22 takes of “Loose”? How about listening to “T.V. Eye” 14 times? How about 45 minutes of “Down on the Street”? Yes, it sounds nightmarish, but here’s the amazing thing — despite the image they intentionally conveyed, these anarchic drug fiends were well-rehearsed and highly disciplined musicians, capable of playing what ultimately came out sounding like a raw blurt of id over and over in precisely the same way, working out the nuance of songs, not haphazardly jamming over set chord changes. (Recently asked to explain the great lengths to which the band went to sound so casual, Iggy attributed it to a search for just the right vocal performance. One supposes they could have simply cut acceptable backing tracks and then let him sing over them until he was satisfied, but this is all full-band live-in-the-studio.) It’s a grueling, often funny, and ultimately extraordinary document that obliterates most presumptions about Iggy’s creative ethos.
David Bowie took an interest in his American soul mate and (in some mixture of worship and pity) brought a drug-damaged Iggy to London where he could midwife Raw Power, the one album Ziggy couldn’t simply create by himself. (Years later, without prejudice, Iggy essentially took Bowie out of the mix, ending longstanding complaints about the album’s thin, bottom-free sound — the result of a disastrous battle of the wills between artist, producer and management — by remixing the master tapes and releasing a completely new-sounding version of it. Is it better? No.) A gravitational accommodation of sorts with the state of music in the British-led glam era, Raw Power is another masterpiece, featuring the stinging lead guitar of James Williamson in a reorganized Stooges. (Ron Asheton had switched to bass to replace Dave Alexander.) With Williamson as co-author, Iggy’s songs are more musical (i.e., a sense of structure emerged) in their sex-and-death conflation (“Gimme Danger,” “Death Trip”). The title track and “Search and Destroy” are only two of the tunes here to achieve classic status for staring into the abyss, guitar in hand. Heavy metal in every sense, the album marked the end of the Stooges as a band concept — Iggy hereafter received solo billing — and, effectively, the first stage of Iggy’s career.
Setting the tone for a vinyl deluge that would follow a decade later, Metallic K.O. is a semi-notorious, semi-legal document of the Stooges’ final concert. At the Michigan Palace, Detroit, January 1974, the band staggers towards entropy as Iggy maliciously baits the crowd, which responds in kind. There are only six songs, but more than your money’s worth of bile. Highlight: a version of “Louie Louie” you’ve never heard before.
Kill City was salvaged from the period between the Stooges’ breakup and Iggy’s Bowie-inspired redemption. The songs plod, the sound is bad and the vocals — recorded on weekend leaves from a hospital where Iggy was residing at the time — are buried. The strung-out music has a morbid voyeuristic appeal if you enjoy wallowing in other people’s degradation; otherwise, it’s wise to avoid such nastiness. After Kill City went out of print, the German I’m Sick of You collected tracks from it, along with the 1977 “I Got a Right” single and two Bomp! EPs (I’m Sick of You and Jesus Loves the Stooges) of rough but intense and worthwhile demos. The 1983 I Got a Right and the French variation thereon are drawn from the same pool of material, containing an entire side of Kill City; the subsequent Pure Lust offers four of the same tracks in mixes ranging from identical to wildly divergent.
In late ’87, a groundswell of enthusiasm for the Stooges (fueled in no small part by the increasingly prominent and numerous Australian bands playing in the Detroit-influenced post-Radio Birdman/New Race style), resulted not only in one of the first single-artist tribute projects — Hard to Beat, a double LP of mostly over-reverent Iggyness — but the beginning of a spate of reissues, predominately from renamed French labels previously notorious for questionably legal ’60s releases at the height of the mid-’80s garage revival.
Rubber Legs offers six ’73-’74 rehearsal tracks, including “Cry for Me.” Although a bit heavy on the keyboards (as are many of the “rehearsal” tapes also to reach vinyl), the sound is good, revealing Iggy at his rawest and most powerful, along with James Williamson in all his glory, on such new songs as “Head On” and “Cock in My Pocket.” My Girl Hates My Heroin is one of the best of the lot. Although mostly familiar ’73 rehearsal material (with the guitars are turned up and the keyboards turned down), there are a few surprises, and a studio mix of “Death Trip” that is unquestionably one of the most violent recordings ever made.
Half of Iggy & the Stooges is lower-fi studio run-throughs, three songs of which were previously unreleased in any (nominally) legit form, though “She Creatures of the Hollywood Hills” (already familiar to Hard to Beat owners, thanks to a rendition by the unimaginatively named Raw Power) has since turned up on several bootlegs. The three songs that comprise the other side of Iggy & the Stooges are moderate quality live-at-the-Whiskey versions of by-now-familiar tracks. (The same recording of “Open Up and Bleed” also showed up, with far hotter mastering, on She Creatures of Hollywood Hills, backing a weird and spicy para-funk rendition of the title track.) What You Gonna Do excerpts the same show with a fairly rote take on “Gimm(i)e Danger,” along with a minutiae-filled Ron Asheton radio interview and the obscure title song, horrendously recorded in ’68 but undeniable testimony to the fury of the band even in its formative stages. For wealthy novices, five of the Revenge titles — Pure Lust, Raw Power, Gimme Danger (also available as a picture disc), She Creatures of Hollywood Hills and What You Gonna Do — were offered in a limited-edition boxed set simply titled The Stooges.
Live 1971 (with the same excellent cover photo as What You Gonna Do) presents the Stooges’ least documented and, to many, most intriguing phase: the brief period from late-’70 to mid-’71 when Asheton and James Williamson dualed (dueled) on guitar. Unfortunately, the sound quality is by far the worst of all the recent records — muted and mushy — so this one is for collectors only.
Metallic 2xKO, the two-disc reissue of Metallic K.O., adds two previously unreleased songs (plus the previously bootlegged “Heavy Liquid”), and a brief a cappella poetic recitation of “I Wanna Be Your Dog”), supposedly from the same final gig (though exact dates of certain tracks on both versions of the LP are questionable). There’s also a somewhat less biting/baiting chunk of interaction with the juiced-up audience and an unpolished, extended demo of “I Got Nothin'” (later/previously on Kill City). Besides the title track (also said to be from that same final show at the Palace), Gimme Danger offers a considerably crisper sounding if less urgent additional cut as well as the first third of “Open Up and Bleed,” backed by a bizarrely hybridized “Heavy Liquid (part one)”/”I Got Nothin'” and — oddest of all — Iggy and James (unaccompanied) paying musical tribute to James Brown. That session is presumably the source of an Iggy/Williamson duet on “Purple Haze” and “I’m Waiting for My Man” (on the French Raw Power), “I’m a Man” and a percussed, drawn-out version of Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown” (on Death Trip). With several duplications from previous titles, Raw Power and Death Trip are disorganized hodgepodges that mix tasty radio ads in with backing tracks lifted from the original lost Raw Power mixes.
The first two volumes of Raw Stooges offer some of the weirdest Stoogerama yet. Purportedly cheap pre-Elektra studio recordings of the songs soon to become the band’s first two LPs (with a stray treat or two thrown in), the basic sound is incredibly harsh and direct, not nearly so developed or wickedly insinuating as Fun House, yet unnervingly affecting on an even more immediate basis. The truly weird thing is how the mix in places simulates sound leakage/print-through bleeding from one groove to the next, creating weird guitar echoes and premonitory vocals throughout the set. Amazing stuff, but it’s like listening to a live show with one ear in the first row and another behind the outfield scoreboard. When the elements hit an uneasy balance, as on “Real Cool Time” and “Little Doll,” this is some of the very best Stooge music on record. When they clash, it still ain’t too shabby, either. Volume III, the pic disc Search and Destroy, combines the suppressed mixes from Raw Power (as broadcast in a then-current radio promotion) with remixed and alleged CBS outtakes that ought to sound awfully familiar by now to anyone stouthearted or singleminded enough to have waded completely through the preceding.
After the Stooges ended, Iggy resurfaced as a solo artist but remained under the influence of David Bowie, who co-wrote and produced The Idiot. Instead of flailing all over the place, Iggy conserves his energy on numbers like the surprisingly funky “Sister Midnight” and the menacing “Funtime.” The album’s tone is generally subdued (“Baby,” “Nightclubbing,” “Dum Dum Boys”), lumbering along in medium gear. It’s disturbingly effective, but of mixed parentage.
Iggy reasserted himself on the rapid follow-up, Lust for Life. More upbeat than its predecessor (just check the smiling cover snap), the album swaggers along to Iggy’s confident delivery of the title track, “Success,” the powerful “Turn Blue” and other self-analytic tunes. While the music is largely Bowie’s, and Jim Morrison’s unmistakable influence is noticeable on a few vocals, the clear-eyed vision is Iggy’s own.
The masterful Lust for Life was followed by a shoddy live album. Recorded at four Midwest shows in ’77 with two different bands (one with Bowie on keyboards; he also gets co-production credit for the disc) underpinned by the rhythm section of Hunt and Tony Sales, TV Eye Live offers no new insights into the old and more recent material and is mighty difficult to sit through.
Newly signed to Arista, Iggy got off to a strong start, reuniting with Stooges guitarist James Williamson (also his partner on the warmed-over Kill City) for New Values. This confident display restates his desire to find truth (in the title track), offers the sick-joke complaint of a little man (“Five Foot One”), displays his mordant wit (“I’m Bored,” “New Values”) and flirts with vertigo on the dizzying “Don’t Look Down.”
Soldier dissipated his artistic momentum with less consistent material and performances. (Though the international band backing him on the album is pretty fascinating: Glen Matlock and Steve New of the Rich Kids, Barry Andrews of XTC/Shriekback, Ivan Kral of the Patti Smith Group.) Despite a few scattered thrills, notably “Knocking ‘Em Down (in the City),” it’s for serious fans only. Party continues in this vein, vacillating between self-deprecation (“Eggs on Plate”) and obnoxiousness (“Rock and Roll Party,” “Sincerity,” etc.). Two non-original oldies — “Sea of Love” and “Time Won’t Let Me” — also get perfunctory treatment. Heritage Collection collects 11 tracks, not all of them worth remembering, from Arista’s three-album dalliance with Mr. Pop.
Jumping ship, Iggy teamed up with buddy-producer (and deputized bassist) Chris Stein from Blondie for Zombie Birdhouse, which Stein released on his Animal label. The respectful production is a bit too respectful, with rock’n’roll often ignored in the interest of celebrating Iggy the deep thinker. No longer singing so much as rap-chanting, Iggy turns surprisingly cerebral for a crazy blend of sociological (“The Villagers”) and philosophical (“Eat or Be Eaten”) discourse, pseudo-folk (“The Ballad of Cookie McBride”) and topical documentary (“Watching the News”). Spare musical accompaniment underscores the album’s ascetic nature. He’s come a long way since the Stooges, but Zombie Birdhouse reveals that Iggy is far from reaching the end of his creative tether.
Following Bowie’s 1983 hit version of their collaborative “China Girl” (originally on The Idiot), Iggy’s two RCA albums were culled for the hoped-for-fast-buck Choice Cuts, the cover of which helpfully notes the inclusion of that song and prominently mentions Bowie’s songwriting and production credits.
Their creative partnership thus re-established, Iggy took some time off before recording Blah-Blah-Blah in Switzerland with Bowie. The individual musical changes both had undergone (with further diversion by the considerable involvement of ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones) make it a strange and sometimes mainstream-sounding maelstrom of styles, but the lyrics — thoughtful personal reflections on various topics — provide at least intellectual cohesiveness. The commanding (and radio-friendly) “Cry for Love,” “Fire Girl,” “Winners and Losers” and a superlative cover of ’50s Australian rocker Johnny O’Keefe’s “Real Wild Child (Wild One)” are more than worthy of Iggy’s ready-to-wear legend. (The UK CD EP merely contains four selections from Blah-Blah-Blah.)
In typical rollercoaster fashion, however, Iggy followed that with the disappointing Instinct, produced by Bill Laswell and featuring a grinding no-name hard-rock band led by Jones and his unmodulated, unimaginative guitar work. Although Iggy’s unshakeable stylishness and some impressively dramatic vocalizations (especially on “Lowdown” and “Cold Metal”) keep the album out of the dumper, Iggy hovers dangerously close to artistic vacuity here. Anyone searching for high points need go no further than the title track and “Cold Metal.”
Virgin next took the Pop challenge and heralded its acquisition in the UK by issuing a four-song EP. Livin’ on the Edge of the Night joins that new tune with “China Girl,” “Nightclubbing” and “The Passenger” — songs from The Idiot and Lust for Life, crucial Pop albums the label had licensed and reissued. As it happened, the change of corporate scenery did Iggy a world of good: Brick by Brick was his strongest, most rewarding (not to mention commercially presentable) album in a decade. Taking a firm and creative role in the project, producer Don Was deftly helps organize a stellar lineup of session players into sympathetic backing for surprisingly accomplished songwriting. As huge a disaster as the record could have been, the bizarre mix of LA studio hacks (like David Lindley and Waddy Wachtel), groovy session pros (bassist Charley Drayton, drummer Kenny Aronoff), John Hiatt, members of Guns n’ Roses and Kate Pierson of the B-52’s (who helped the legend to his first honest-to-goodness Top 40 hit single in the form of the sweet duet “Candy”) works like a charm, rising and falling in synch with Iggy’s shifting stylistic moods. Going from strength to strength, Brick by Brick rocks (“Home,” “I Won’t Crap Out,” “Butt Town”), rolls (“Pussy Power”), slithers (“Something Wild”), cruises (“Main Street Eyes,” “The Undefeated” — now there’s an apt epitaph) and even takes a gentle romantic breather (“Moonlight Lady”).
As if to acknowledge his new mainstream visibility, American Caesar presents itself as Iggy 101, laying out his credo for beginners. Printed right on the disc, the 46-year-old singer writes, “I tried to make this album as good as I could, with no imitations of other people and no formula shit. This is individual … expression.” And so it is. Produced by Malcolm Burn, this 16-track extravaganza features the acoustic “Jealousy” (a resentful meditation on pampered rock gods: “When he acts like an ass/He’s treated like a rogue”), the anguished, painfully honest “Fuckin’ Alone,” a tuneful celebration of racial harmony (“Mixin’ the Colors”) and, of course, some blistering rockers, including the absurdist “Boogie Boy,” wherein he confesses, “I like to make a dumb-ass noise.” The album also has a few missteps, including the pretentious “Caesar” finale, a cover of “Louie, Louie” spoiled by too much social commentary and “Beside You,” a pleasant but obvious attempt to duplicate the success of “Candy.” Regardless, Iggy still has plenty to say and still deserves to be heard.
Perhaps realizing he’d spread himself too thin on American Caesar, Iggy made a more coherent statement with Naughty Little Doggie, produced by LA punk veteran Thom Wilson. Reveling in his noble bad-boy persona, the godfather emphasizes gritty, driving rockers like “I Wanna Live” and “Heart Is Saved”; this time, slower songs, such as the anguished “Outta My Head,” seem like true confessions of the soul rather than calculated overtures to the mainstream. While Iggy doesn’t try to break new ground, his unflinching candor in discussing sexual obsession — in “Shoeshine Girl,” “Keep on Believing” and the cheerfully obscene “Pussy Walk” — is reassuringly sure to upset those who deserve to be shaken up. At the other extreme, “Look Away” offers a touching memoir of the decadent old days and such luminaries as the ill-fated Johnny Thunders and groupie Sable Starr. Eloquent and direct as ever, Iggy sings, “I went straight/And serious too/There wasn’t much else/That I could do.”
Don Was returned to produce Avenue B, a solemn, somber meditation on life and loneliness at the half-century point which presents Iggy as a beat poet and an offbeat saloon singer. (Decades after the Stooges’ resemblance to the Velvet Underground, Iggy seems in synch here with the middle-aged Lou Reed.) Other than a jarring garage-wall-rocking rendition of Johnny Kidd’s “Shakin’ All Over,” “Façade,” “Corruption” and a Spanish-language Latin rocker called “Español,” the album coasts along on understated loungey grooves which encourage Iggy to leave out the instinctive swagger that once pushed songs like “China Girl” along and rely on restraint, allowing the natural resonance of his baritone to do all the work on such emotionally open numbers as “Nazi Girlfriend” and “Long Distance.” Feeling sorry for Iggy because he broke up with his girlfriend (“She Called Me Daddy”) is perhaps one of the most shocking developments in an always-shocking career.
Iggy took back the production reins for Beat Em Up, a Metallica-strength rock album with sizzling guitar (Whitey Kirst), a monstrous bottom (bassist Mooseman and drummer Alex Kirst) and some of the bluntest bleating Ig’s done in a long while. Most of the songs are one-chord vamps over which he thrusts simple, aggressive philosophy (“It looks like shit/It sounds like shit/It must be shit”), occasionally punctuated by his own brand of thrash-metal rapping. Although much of it sounds like what might have become of the Stooges had they survived into the ’80s, Iggy digs into this noisefest like he’s just been awoken from a deep sleep with a mainline jolt of speed. By the end of an album that is more invigorating than it is entertaining, he’s off on a wild (and hysterical) spoken-word ramble about the fraudulence of celebrity in “V.I.P.,” seven minutes of withering sarcasm that proves just how outside everything Iggy has always been. Just another day in the salt mines for an ageless rocker who will always remain a naughty little doggie.