Musings on Rock and Roll
by Ken Shimamoto

 

 

 

 


Posted February 25, 2002

NOW LET US PRAISE FAMOUS STOOGES

The Stooges were one of the archetypes (Greg Shaw's term) for most of the music I've been listening to since I was 13 (the others are the Who and the Velvet Underground).

Sure, man for man, the MC5 were probably a better band (with the exception of the crucial frontman position), but the Stooges sounded more DANGEROUS.

Compare the two Detroit dynamos album-to-album and the Stooges come out ahead every time. While the Five's live-at-the-Grande debut "Kick Out the Jams" coupled one side of the most exciting music ever committed to tape with a string of "embarrassing duds" (the Village Voice's term) on the flip, the Stooges' eponymous debut, produced by ex-Velvet Underground noise baron John Cale, highlighted the young band's inexperience (songs of moronic simplicity, Iggy's vocalismo a hybrid of Jagger and Jim Morrison mannerisms) and similarity to the Velvets (drones, fuzzed-out guitar blast), contained three bona fide classics (that'd be "1969," "I Wanna Be Your Dog," and "No Fun"), an equal number of also-rans ("Not Right," "Real Cool Time," "Little Doll"), and one interminable piece of filler (bassist Dave Alexander's stoner mantra "We Will Fall") that still had its charms (especially for VU fans).

The Five's Jon Landau-produced sophomore outing, "Back In the U.S.A.," was too fast, too thin-sounding, and too short (except for the decidedly sub-par fuck-me ballad "Let Me Try," which only SEEMED to last as long as "We Will Fall"), while the Stooges' second, "Funhouse," was produced by Dick Clark protÈgÈ Don Gallucci (a bona fide "Louie Louie" Kingsman, he knew from basic rock), contained nothing short of THE UNDILUTED ESSENCE OF ROCK AND ROLL and surely qualifies as one of the two or three (if not THE) greatest albums of all time. The bands split the difference on their third albums: "High Time" is generally acknowledged as the best Five album MUSICALLY, but its recorded sound is murky and indistinct when it should be in-your-face (loyal fans had to wait for Wayne Kramer's nineties solo work on Epitaph to hear the Five's sonic promise fulfilled on record), while Iggy & the Stooges' "Raw Power" was even more intense than "Funhouse" (although people could scarcely believe it at the time), but David Bowie's treble-happy mix eviscerated the sound (although in fairness to the Thin White Duke, it probably woulda been a good idea for the engineer to get some levels from the bass and drums before they started recording...oh well).

But those were just the official releases. Like the MC5, the Stooges made loads of music which wasn't released during their existence, but has surfaced in the last decade or so. Part of this has to do with the fact that throughout said existence, as Real O Mind Records (itself a "Funhouse" reference) honcho and occasional All Music Guide scribe Geoff Ginsberg points out, "The Stooges NEVER played old stuff" - they were constantly reinventing themselves with new sets of material (at most, they MIGHT play stuff from the current album), and prided themselves on not using anyone else's (even turning down an offer from Lou Reed to write a song for them) - and they were even more adept at pissing off record labels than the Five were.

By the time their first album was released, they were already developing the material that would appear on "Funhouse," which they honed by playing live on the road for six months before recording. "Funhouse" was a sublime rock'n'roll Moment, and like all Moments, it wasn't destined to last; by the time the album was released in August 1970, Dave Alexander was ignominiously shitcanned from the band after he forgot all the songs in a drunken haze onstage at the Goose Lake (MI) Pop Festival. (A coupla years ago, Ben Edmonds thankfully unearthed, and Rhino Handmade released, the complete "Funhouse" sessions, for many of us the Holy Grail of Rawkdom.) With a succession of non-musicians (mainly roadies) drafted to fill in on bass and the eventual addition of a second guitarist, James Williamson, to augment Ron Asheton's primal fury, the band developed a new repertoire of songs which were never officially recorded, although versions of some, including "I Got a Right," exist on a bootleg (released on the Starfighter label) which Clinton Heylin correctly characterized as "excruciating."

The Starfighter "Live 1971" CD purports to present a performance from the Kiel Auditorium, St. Louis, featuring both Ron Asheton and James Williamson on guitars. That may well be, but you couldn't tell from the murky recording - it sounds as if it was taped from across the street; Iggy's vocals are totally unintelligible (most of his stage patter appears to be delivered in a shrill Butterfly McQueen "I don't know NOTHIN' 'bout birthin' babies" voice), and the recording of the band rivals the MC5's abysmal "Phun City" for sheer horrendousness. Today, Williamson himself states that they "weren't exactly a professional rock'n'roll band at that point," which is putting it mildly. The listenable portion of the disc consists of four tracks featuring the original band, starting with the audio portion of the Stooges' summer '70 appearance at the Cincinnati Pop Festival, famously broadcast live nation-wide on NBC TV with sports announcer commentary and commercial interruptions, which is a must-see in any of the numerous circulating video versions. You get intriguing fragments of "TV Eye" and "1970," the latter including the sound of an hysterical girl asking the Ig "Are you alright?" and "Can I take a picture? PLEEEASE?" while he's out in the audience preparing to do his immortal audience-hand-walking and peanut butter smearage. The last two tracks are from 1968 and provide a tantalizing glimpse of Ron Asheton and Dave Alexander in full pre-discovery flight.

Post-Alexander, as every good Stoogefan knows, the band entered a downward spiral, fueled by certain members' escalating substance-abuse patterns and their dismissal from their Elektra recording contract after the label declined to pick up their option on a third album. Finally the wheels came off the cart and after timely pause, Iggy decamped for London with James in tow, only summoning the Ashetons (and demoting Ron to bass) when it became clear that no suitable substitutes were available in the U.K. Signed to Bowie's MainMan management and Columbia, the band, rechristened "IGGY & THE Stooges," started preparing to record an album.

Iggy & the Stooges were, as Craig "The Barman" Regan of the I-94 Bar points out, a completely different animal than the Stooges that preceded them.. The difference was primarily down to the men on guitar and bass. Drummer Scott "Rock Action" Asheton was a hard-hitting powerhouse and, at least in his youth, a supple, dare I say FUNKY drummer; his work on the song "Funhouse" is nothing if not the most twisted fatback soul groove imaginable. To say nothing of the Well-Mannered Boy up front. Besides being a fallen high school preppy/class president type guy, ex-record store clerk (what high school geeks 'n' freaks become when they want to increase their coolness factor), and drug-addled Everybody's Id gone wild (when I forced her to watch the Stooges on video, my ex-girlfriend asked, "You'd like to act like him, wouldn't you?" and I responded, "Who WOULDN'T?"), I'll bet Iggy was a good drummer back in his Iguanas/Prime Movers daze. A good drummer knows all about musical structure, tension, release, kinetics, dynamics, all that stuff it takes to power a band and MOVE a crowd, and Iggy is clearly a master of all of the above. On the "Funhouse" box and some of the rehearsal tapes, you can hear him teaching the band the material. Crazy like a fox, I'm thinking. But I digress.

Technically limited though it might have been, Ron Asheton's guitar work in the first incarnation of the Stooges was PURE FIRE. He might have only done one thing, but it was the BEST thing. (Later, back on guitar with New Order, Destroy All Monsters, New Race, and Dark Carnival, he'd learn a few new tricks, including one signature gambit, a descending/ascending tonic-seventh-fifth-seventh-with-a-full-step-bend, that's referred to in Australia as "The Lick," but he'd never surpass his "Funhouse" masterwork....nor would he need to.) James Williamson was something else again, starting from the launching pads of Jeff Beck and Keith Richards as well as Ron's Stoogestyle, but adding a dimension of mania previously unheard anywhere. Williamson's aggression was a little more CHANNELED and FOCUSED than Ron's, though - that is to say, he wrote more fully-developed songs with actual DYNAMIC SHIFTS and a tendency to use lotsa chords that was atypical in this kind of music; his guitar style was all jagged edges where Ron's was fluid. Similarly, while the hapless Dave Alexander had been a vastly underrated contributor to the band, serving as a kind of catalyst as well as composing the basslines that underpinned "Dirt" and the title track on "Funhouse," Ron's superior technique allowed him to play busier lines with a harder attack.

From a discographer's perspective, there were four sets of Iggy & the Stooges "sessions":
1) 1972 pre-"Raw Power" demos
2) 1972 "Raw Power" LP sessions
3) 1973 tour rehearsals
4) 1973-74 live shows

Of these, the "Raw Power" demos are pretty well covered on a couple of Bomp EPs, which include several versions of the astonishing "I Got a Right," along with "Gimme Some Skin," "Sick of You," "Scene of the Crime," and "Tight Pants," a song which appeared on "Raw Power" with different lyrics as "Shake Appeal." Considering this material was recorded in 1972, its impact is staggering. At the time, no one had ever heard rock music as thunderous as "I Got a Right" (is it any wonder that the Columbia A&R department didn't know what to do with it?), and the rest of the songs were of the same stripe, if not quite equal in intensity. In a way, you could view the new Stoogesound as a mere exaggeration of the more aggressive aspects of the Stones/Yardbirds/Them/Who/Kinks/Pretty Things axis of R&B-based Britbands, but in reality it was much more - a lot more kinetic and hard-edged than any of the above at their wildest. The template for seventies punk was drawn. Williamson's blasting block chords and explosive solo interjections over the Asheton's pummeling engine room gave Iggy the strongest foundation he'd ever have to emote over, and he took full advantage. "Sick of You" was the first in a line of Pop/Williamson compositions (others include "Gimme Danger," "Till the End of the Night," and "I Got Nothing") that combined "soft" and "hard" sections (in the case of "Sick of You," incorporating the four-note descending riff from the Yardbirds' "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago").

While "I Got a Right" inexplicably missed the cut for inclusion on "Raw Power," the album Columbia wound up releasing, the lead-off track from that record actually surpassed it - "Search and Destroy." Singing "I'm a streetwalking cheetah with a heart full of napalm," Iggy defined the high-energy aesthetic, and for the next 30 years, nothing else would even come close (with the possible exception of "City Slang," the sole release by Sonic's Rendezvous Band, the late-seventies aggregation led by the MC5's Fred "Sonic" Smith and powered by Scott Asheton). "Raw Power" in all its blasted magnificence has appeared in both David Bowie (1973) and Iggy (1997) mixes, as well as Bomp's silly "Rough Power" release - a bunch of rough mixes recorded off radio - so take your pick. While I initially favored the original crappy Bowie mix over Iggy's "all-needles-on-red" revisionism, the remix - surely the funniest thing ever to happen to digital remastering - finally won me over once I learned from James that the reason for the Ashetons' relative inaudibility was inadequate recording levels, not intraband politics. Where the Bowie mix emphasized treble frequencies and lead guitar, the Igmix highlights vocals (no big surprise) and a wall of rhythm guitar noise that actually approximates better than any other record I know of the way a band sounds onstage playing at volume (and is mastered louder than any other record you can name to boot). Besides rockers "Search and Destroy," "Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell" (AKA "Hard to Beat"), the title track (which saw the return of the Velvet Underground "Waiting for the Man" one-note piano that had driven "I Wanna Be Your Dog") and "Death Trip," "Raw Power" also introduced a new, uh, SENSITIVE side to the Stooges (the aforementioned "Gimme Danger," which actually featured ACOUSTIC GUITAR, and the shattered "St. James Infirmary" rewrite "I Need Somebody," which contains the immortal and very revealing line, "I need somebody, baby/I need some money too") - or was it just a continuation of the dark, moody strain present in "Ann" on the first album and "Dirt" on "Funhouse?"

Following the release of "Raw Power," the band was dumped first by MainMain (who had used their Columbia advance to finance some of Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" tours), then by Columbia. Undaunted, they rehearsed in Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York, then toured relentlessly through the fall and winter of 1973-74. For the Detroit and New York rehearsals, they added Bob Sheff on piano, Iggy's former bandmate in Ann Arbor blues band the Prime Movers, later to attain notoriety in avant-garde music circles as "Blue" Gene Tyranny. The Detroit rehearsals include a couple of interesting song ideas that were never fully developed ("Wild Love" and "Till the End of the Night"), as well as a smattering of covers and some jams that didn't really coalesce. They've been released innumerable times in Europe and were anthologized by Bomp in 2001 as "Wild Love." While interesting from an historical perspective, they make less-than-compelling listening. The New York rehearsals have been released in numerous configurations, most effectively on the French Fan Club label's "Rubber Legs" and Bomp's "Open Up and Bleed." These include the songs that formed a sizable chunk of the '73-'74 live set, and presumably would have appeared on a fourth Stooges studio LP: "Rubber Legs," "Open Up and Bleed," "Johanna," "Cock In My Pocket," "Head On" (AKA "Head On Curve" or "Head On Curb," which starts out with the declaration, "Buttfuckers wanna rule my world"), "She Creatures of the Hollywood Hills," and some jam material - "Cry for Me," "Pin Point Eyes" (a minor blues that sounds like a littermate of "I Need Somebody"), "Jesus Loves the Stooges."

These songs show Williamson pushing the band to become "better musicians" and write "better songs," moving in an almost Stones-like mainstream direction (although the band's performances remained white-hot and vitriolic in a way the Stones' had never been). While "Rubber Legs" and "Cock In My Pocket" were rockers in the style of those on "Raw Power" (think Chuck Berry on strychnine), the slower songs ("Johanna," "Head On," and especially "Open Up and Bleed," which starts out with a surprise - a bleating harmonica; was Scotty Thurston deliberately trying to evoke the Stones or Dylan? - and tended to evolve in live performance into an "L.A. Blues"-like free-form freakout, as did the pulsing jam-tune "She Creatures") had almost Big Rock dynamics, wielding a power and drama that the band had only hinted at earlier, even at their most emotionally devastated. If this was the way Iggy really felt, how long could he continue? The next few months on the road would tell the story.

Of the '73-'74 live shows, material has been released from a number of sources:
1) Whisky-a-Go-Go. Los Angeles, September 1973 (5 shows)
2) Michigan Palace, Detroit, 6 October 1973
3) Latin Casino, Baltimore, November 1973
4) Academy of Music, New York, New Year's Eve 1973
5) Bimbo's, San Francisco, January 1974
6) Michigan Palace, Detroit, 9 February 1974 ("last-ever show")

For the tour, keyboardist Sheff was replaced by Scott Thurston, who later played guitar on Iggy's 1979 "New Values" album and even later was a mainstay of, uh, Jackson Brown and Tom Petty's touring bands. Sets typically included two or three selections from "Raw Power" (the title track, "Search and Destroy," "Gimme Danger"), the rehearsal material (except for "Rubber Legs" and the jam tunes), plus "Heavy Liquid" (AKA "New Orleans," a bastardization of the Freddie Cannon hit), "Rich Bitch," "I Got Nothing," "Wet My Bed," and Richard Berry's immortal "Louie Louie." Of these, "I Got Nothing" was one of the best songs from the period, while "Rich Bitch" carried contemptuous lyrics that were even more scabrous than "Head On" ("When your cunt's so big you could drive through a truck/And every boy you meet's/Gonna know that you've sure been fucked").

Most of the released live material is from low-fidelity but fascinating audience tapes (although the October '73 Michigan Palace show released by Skydog/Jungle on the second disc of "Metallic K.O. 2xCD" and by Bomp on "Michigan Palace" is from an onstage recording by Williamson; Bomp's version has the edge in sound quality, coming from the master rather than a cassette dub).

The greatest and most notorious is, of course, "Metallic K.O.." itself in its many forms, as much for the "ambience" (rabid audience-baiting by Iggy, response in the form of shattering beer bottles from the surly Detroit claque) as for the music, although the music is fine - compare Iggy's impassioned vocal and the arrangement (with added verses) on the "Metallic K.O." version of "Gimme Danger" with the "Raw Power" original and decide which one is boss. The Latin Casino show released in its entirety on Bomp's 2000 "Double Danger" documents the most complete performance - over an hour, featuring the band's whole repertoire from that time except "She Creatures" and "Louie Louie." The second disc of that release is an audience recording of the New Year's Eve show at New York's Academy of Music (where the Stooges appeared sandwiched in between Kiss and Blue Oyster Cult) which was supposedly pro-recorded by Columbia for an aborted live album, although the whereabouts of that tape remain unknown (would it be too much to hope that they still exist somewhere in CBS/Sony's vaults?). Bomp's sumptuously-packaged (lotsa cool photos) "California Bleeding" compiles some good performances from the Whisky and Bimbo's in okay fidelity, interspersed with some interview snippets that some find annoying but seem to these ears to make it a neat little "audio verite" documentary, and is probably the only "quasi-official" Stooges release NOT to include a version of "Raw Power." Snapper Music's "Live in L.A. '73" is notable for what just might be the best version of "She Creatures" extant, as well as a cataclysmic 13-minute "Open Up and Bleed."

It's regrettable (to say the least) that the Stooges scared the bejeezus out of every A&R exec in the record business during this last, supernova-like explosion of creativity. Their image as some kind of novelty act (albeit the most malignant, twisted one ever to tread the boards) rather than "real" musicians probably contributed to this, but in retrospect, they now seem to have been light years ahead of their time and a likely candidate for the title (as Dave Laing suggested in Perfect Sound Forever) "the greatest rock'n'roll band of all time." Iggy and James would collaborate again on the demos that Bomp released as "Kill City" in 1977, and James would produce Iggy's last good album "New Values" in 1979 (although the guitar playing on that album, save one song, was by Scott Thurston, not James as many of us supposed for years). An original Stooges reunion was rumored in 1997, but Iggy's lack of interest (and his snide putdown of the Ashetons in his liner notes to the remixed "Raw Power" CD) queered the deal. Over the years, Scott Asheton has worked sporadically with his ex-Sonic's Rendezvous bandmates Scott Morgan and Gary Rasmussen, and toured Europe with New York rocker Sonny Vincent (with whom his brother has also recorded). While none of Ron Asheton's subsequent musical endeavors have quite measured up to the Stooge standard (although the 1981 New Race tour of Australia with the MC5's Dennis Thompson and three ex-Radio Birdmen came close), his place in the punk pantheon is secure. Ron spent much of 2001 touring America and the U.K. with Stooge disciples J. Mascis and Mike Watt, playing all the great Stoogesongs from the first two albums. When the tour hit L.A., there were rumors that Iggy and Williamson would show. No dice. Williamson holds a responsible position in the electronics industry and has seemingly put down the guitar for good.

As for the World's Forgotten Boy, Nike ads and film appearances notwithstanding, none of his solo records have approached the magnificence of "Funhouse" or "Raw Power," but I've been told he still has the goods to deliver in live performance.. The one time I caught him solo (way, way back in 1981), Joan Jett & the Blackhearts blew him off the stage; his best song was the ancient Stones chestnut "I'm Alright."

"Thanks a lot to the person who threw this glass bottle at my head. You nearly killed me, but you missed again. Keep trying next week." Sic transit Gloria Iggy? I'd be delighted to be proven wrong.
- Ken Shimamoto


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