Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[KamerTunesBlog presents B-Sides The Point, where I occasionally write about smaller artist catalogs, or even compilations and box sets, in a single post instead of revisiting the entire recorded output of a particular artist over numerous posts, which is the main purpose of this blog. As I’ve stated before, think of these as the palate cleansers between the main courses.]
* I want to preface this post by extending sympathies to the family & friends of Stooges drummer Scott Asheton, who passed away last week at the age of 64. His death follows guitarist/bassist (and Scott’s brother) Ron Asheton in 2009 and original bassist Dave Alexander in 1975, leaving charismatic lead singer/frontman James Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop (“Iggy” a nickname from his high school band The Iguanas), as the sole surviving member of the lineup that formed in Ann Arbor, Michigan back in 1967 *
After I wrapped up my previous series on The Kinks I immediately decided it was time to focus my energies on the three albums released by The Stooges before they disbanded in the mid-‘70s. They reunited three decades later and have subsequently released two more albums, but I never bought either of them. The focus of this post is to discuss the contents of those first three records, which I’ve owned for nearly a decade but never really gave them the attention they deserved until this past week. I’ve mentioned several times over the years that I’m not a big fan of punk. I do enjoy some punk bands but it’s not one of my go-to genres, so for years I avoided listening to The Stooges because they were considered proto-punk (an early influence on nearly every punk artist that followed) and Iggy’s public persona (the wiry shirtless madmen smearing himself with peanut butter & slashing himself with glass on stage) was a major deterrent.
In 1996 I got a copy of the Nude & Rude: The Best Of Iggy Pop compilation CD, which includes a handful of Stooges tracks along with later solo material. I liked it enough to hold onto it, but I wasn’t really interested in exploring his/their music any further. A few years later I got a copy of Iggy’s remix of their third album, Raw Power (which I’ll discuss below), and it was too raw & grating for my tastes, so that was my impression of The Stooges for several more years. Then in 2005 a friend gave me copies of the 2-CD expanded editions of their first two albums. I wasn’t expecting much, but seeing that Velvet Underground co-founder (and extraordinary solo artist) John Cale produced their debut was enough impetus for me to give them a listen…and what a pleasant surprise they were. I probably played each of them 2 or 3 times that year, with the debut being my clear favorite, but they’ve sat on the shelf for nearly a decade since then. Over the last week I’ve played all three albums a number of times, and although the general consensus among fans & critics seems to be that they improved with each album, this non-punk feels it’s the other way around. Read on to find out why.
The debut album, simply titled The Stooges (1969), is an astonishing collection of songs that combines elements of ‘60s hard rock (like Ron’s constant use of the wah-wah pedal) with an aggressive approach that’s equal parts Lou Reed streetwise poetry and DIY punk rock. Although none of the musicians would be considered virtuosos by any stretch of the imagination, that didn’t stop them from breaking boundaries with music & lyrics that are somehow stupid & brilliant at the same time. It’s especially impressive considering that none of them were older than 22. This was the only album where their frontman was credited as “Iggy Stooge.” Musically speaking, they obviously didn’t care about following any rules, and the choice of John Cale as producer was a wise one since few people have broken the rules of rock & roll more than the viola-wielding Welshman. For some reason his original mixes were rejected by the band and their label (Elektra Records), so the album was mixed by Iggy with Elektra president Jac Holzman. Four of Cale’s mixes are included on the 2-CD version and they’re not drastically different from the final product. If anything they might be a little more muted & claustrophobic, but they don’t distract from the power of the music. The other bonus tracks are alternate or expanded versions, none of them surpassing the album versions. With eight songs in less than 35 minutes, The Stooges packs a punch and invites multiple spins. That brevity is welcome, and something that would continue on subsequent releases. Now it’s time to discuss the highlights of the album.
♪ “1969” – Wah-wah guitar and a Bo Diddley beat initially make this sound like it could be any garage band, but Ron’s searing guitar work (as much about tone as the actual notes he’s playing) and Iggy’s snarled lyrics (“It’s another year for me and you, another year with nothing to do”) make it sound unlike any of their contemporaries.
[The Stooges – “1969”]
♪ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” – A fuzzed-out hard rock song that’s also a template for punk acts to follow. The jingling bells add a touch of lightness while the repetitive music is mesmerizing, making you focus on Iggy’s voice. I never realized before that this is really a love song: “And now I’m ready to feel your hand, and lose my heart on the burning sands.”
♪ “We Will Fall” – Some listeners might be turned off by this 10+ minute long Indian-influenced drone with chanted group vocals, but it’s a key song for me. I can clearly hear a Doors influence (especially Iggy’s Jim Morrison-esque vocals) but it has its own distinct feel. I consider it a psychedelic masterpiece, and I love the wah-wah flourishes throughout the song, the slow intensity of the music, and Cale’s viola added at the end.
♪ “No Fun” – Possibly the best-known song from this album; a stomping rocker with a distorted fuzzy guitar riff and a great vocal delivery (“No fun…my babe…no fun”). The simple arrangement is very effective.
Other Notable Tracks:
For their sophomore album, Fun House (1970), in came producer Don Gallucci (formerly of The Kingsmen, best known for their garage rock classic, “Louie Louie”) as well as sax player Steve Mackay on Side 2 of the original LP (tracks 5 through 7). Not much had changed in their approach since the debut, but with a more sympathetic producer the goal was to capture the energy of their incendiary live performances in the studio, and on that level they certainly succeeded. For me it’s not quite as strong as its predecessor even though I really liked all 7 tracks (even the free jazz + screaming vocals of “L.A. Blues,” which is the only one that didn’t make it onto my list of key songs), since the high points aren’t quite as high this time and there are fewer truly essential tracks. I know most fans will vehemently disagree with me, but remember that this aggressive, proto-punk sound is not something I typically enjoy, and the more free-form, jazz and progressive moments made the biggest impact. The bonus tracks on the 2-CD edition are really enjoyable. I won’t go into too much detail about them since I prefer to just focus on the original albums, but the slow, sparse blues of both “Lost In The Future” and “Slide (Slidin’ The Blues)” would have been nice additions had they wanted Fun House to exceed its brief 36-1/2 minute running time. Of the alternate takes of existing songs, the lengthy performances of “Fun House” (9:30 & 11:30, respectively) are extended freak-outs that warrant repeated listening.
♪ “Dirt” – A 7-minute slow, stomping dirge with repeated 6-note bass riff, searing guitar stabs as well as some additional chiming guitar work. Overall it’s a great jam that opens up a bit in the middle section, with Ron shredding on top of Dave’s bubbling bass groove.
♪ “1970 (aka I Feel Alright)” – A bouncy, fuzzy rocker with a rollicking drum pattern. Iggy almost cries out his lyrics, like “All night…till I blow away” before barking “I feel alright!” Mackay’s skronking, honking sax makes this a manic blast of freak-out fun.”
[The Stooges – “1970 (aka I Feel Alright)”]
Other Notable Tracks:
After two albums that had very little success and being dropped from their label, the band split up. The fact that everyone excluding Ron had developed serious drug habits didn’t help matters. Iggy traveled to London where he befriended David Bowie (who was a huge Stooges fan), and Texas guitarist James Williamson, who had joined The Stooges for live performances after Fun House was released, was still working with Iggy when he decided to reform the band and work on a new album for Columbia Records. Unable to find suitable musicians in London, Iggy summoned the Asheton brothers, with Ron grudgingly switching to bass guitar. Now billed as Iggy & The Stooges, their sole album was Raw Power (1973). Considered by many to be the pinnacle of The Stooges’ and Iggy’s careers, I don’t feel as strongly about it for reasons I’ve already explained, but I do have a better appreciation for it now than I did a week ago.
There are two distinct versions of Raw Power. The original release included the David Bowie mix and a later re-release featured Iggy’s remix. Iggy’s version is loud & abrasive while Bowie’s is more muted, smoothing out the rough edges but lacking some much needed punch. Somewhere between the two approaches would be the optimal mix, but since that’s not an option I spent a lot of time playing both, including an A/B comparison of each song. In the end I decided that Iggy’s mix is probably the best representation of this album, but regardless of the mix I don’t enjoy it nearly as much as the first two. Only 5 of the 8 songs made any real impact on me, and my two favorites are the “ballads” that Iggy claims were suggested by the label. The tracks that didn’t make my lists below all have their moments, and are probably someone’s favorites, but they didn’t do much for me.
♪ “Gimme Danger” – It’s nice to hear jangly acoustic guitar and tambourine, while Iggy’s voice sounds like a cross between Bowie & Lou Reed. The verses are very pretty, but it becomes harsher at “I got a little angel, want a little danger, honey you’re gonna feel my hand.” James’ guitar soars through the outro.
♪ “I Need Somebody” – A slow bluesy shuffle with a heavy, staggered drum pattern. I like the blend of acoustic guitar picking and heavy riffing, and Iggy’s raw vocals are a perfect fit.
Other Notable Tracks:
If you told me 10-12 years ago that I would one day be extolling the virtues of The Stooges I wouldn’t have believed you, but it reinforces my belief in always keeping an open mind when it comes to music (and pretty much anything in life, but I don’t want to get philosophical here). As much as I love many of their songs, more so now than ever before, and I think their debut album is pretty fantastic, they’ll likely never be one of my favorite bands since I’m usually drawn to other genres. If anyone believes their two recent albums (2007’s The Weirdness & 2013’s Ready To Die) are worth hearing, let me know and I’ll consider checking them out. It’s more likely that I’ll investigate some of Iggy’s solo albums, since the aforementioned Nude & Rude compilation is all I currently own. I’m really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on The Stooges, even though my rankings of their albums are probably the exact opposite of most fans’ opinions. Of course, it wouldn’t be a fun discussion about music without some disagreement, but perhaps some of you will surprise me. Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below, and thanks for reading.
Now, for anyone who has 10 minutes and was intrigued by my description of this song as a “psychedelic masterpiece,” here’s “We Will Fall” from their debut album. Sit back, relax and ingest your favorite substance (or, like me, enjoy it with a clear head).