First published: album sleeve notes for Snapper Music, March 1998.
”In the beginning there was Iggy Stooge. Then there was Alice. And then there was David. But the most bizarre of this incredible trio has always been – and remains – Iggy.
Iggy And The Stooges: some of the most bizarre performers in rock music today…”
They’re not my words. Although I’m in no doubt that if you or I ever found ourselves transported back to the good-old-bad-old-days of 1973, we’d be hard-pressed to want to challenge with such a bold, sweeping – but undoubtedly correct – assertion.
If you’ve already treated yourselves to the Head On 2CD set (released by Snapper in September 1997), then, chances are, you will have already heard that opening statement (and I do stress the “chances are”, as it appears not all compact disc players seem to enjoy having to manually rewind discs to items tucked away before the start of the official track one), which was used on American radio to promote a pair of shows the boys were about to give in the ultra-conservative mid-west city of St. Louis, Missouri.
The performance contained on this CD was captured a little while later, during The Stooges’ infamous, incendiary five-night stand at Los Angeles’ legendary Whisky A Go Go on Sunset Strip, Hollywood in the September of ’73. And although the audio quality is perhaps not quite what you would expect from album releases in the run-up to the new millennium, this archive concert recording is regarded among the cream of Stooges collectors as the zenith of the band’s powerful live abilities a whole quarter of a century ago. It is also an important historical document of a band with a mounting tide of internal conflicts aided, but not exclusively caused, by heavy drug and alcohol abuse, careering inexorably towards eventual auto-destruct, but, on any given day, still more than capable of bringing their own brutal Molotov mix of seething primitivism and twisted mayhem to often shocked but always completely entranced crowds.
That summer tour of 1973 marked the beginning of the end of the second phase of Iggy And The Stooges. The first incarnation of the band is represented by their two albums recorded for Elektra: the John Cale-produced The Stooges (released in 1969, this eponymously-titled toxic debut includes I Wanna Be Your Dog (covered by Bowie on his ’87 tour), No Fun, We Will Fall, 1969), and the malevolent, James Brown-influenced free jazz menace of Funhouse (released 1970, features Dirt, TV Eye, Down On The Street, 1970). Although neither troubled the chart compilers on either side of the Atlantic, both of these LPs, the original pressings of which are both worth more than a few bob, are widely regarded to have smashed the barriers of traditional rock music in the same way that The Velvet Underground had done in a somewhat more avant-garde fashion a couple of years before.
But it was as a live act that The Stooges had really made their mark. Fuelled by the blistering riff-work of guitarist James Williamson and the pounding, turbo-charged rhythms of the Asheton brothers, Iggy would stalk the stage like a caged wild animal, providing a series of shock theatrics that have never quite been equalled (are you paying attention, Marilyn?), and making the headline-grabbing antics of The Doors’ Jim Morrison appear about as dangerous as going to church in a pair of flip-flops. The university-dropout’s on-stage subtleties would include prurient vomiting, saying the word “fuck” and getting arrested for it (during a support slot for the MC5), biting the audience and pulling their hair, pouring hot wax onto his chest, stabbing himself with lead pencils, diving onto a stage covered with broken glass, and of course, allowing his underpants to mysteriously fall down. Oh, and let us not forget smearing his body (and anyone else’s in the immediate vicinity!) with peanut butter, as captured by the television cameras at the Cincinnati Pop Festival in June 1970. Peanut butter has always been very popular in the United States.
By 1971 the band had drifted apart, and with nothing happening in America it was left to ardent admirer David Bowie to come to the rescue in 1972, as he would do for Mott The Hoople with equally stunning effect that same year. Ziggy brought Iggy over to England, got him signed up with his MainMan management, headed by the fearsome Tony DeFries, and secured unlimited studio time for his new best friend, which saw the Iguana deciding to resurrect The Stooges (a prospect DeFries was reportedly slightly less keen on) for a newly negotiated two-album deal with CBS Records.
Much has been written about Iggy And The Stooges third album, the Bowie-mixed Raw Power, released in June 1973. So all I feel I need to add at this point in time is if want this original version on CD look out for Columbia 4766102, while a “violent” Stardust-free edition was remixed and remastered by Mr Pop himself in 1996, and appeared as Columbia/Legacy 4851762 in April 1997. Incidentally, trainspotters may be interested to know that the galloping title track’s repetitive rinky-tink piano riff was replicated on the Duke’s 1995 single The Hearts Filthy Lesson, as featured in the motion picture Seven.
Riding high on the back of their most successful long-player to date, the band, now augmented by keyboardist Scott Thurston, went out on a summer tour of American cities, kicking off with a storming show at another legendary venue, Max’s Kansas City in New York. With their fourth album already in mind, Pop/Williamson had already written and rehearsed a new batch of fast, frenzied and amphetamine-fuelled tracks in London and Los Angeles in the autumn of 1972, and much of that material would be developed during the live sets as the tour progressed. Among the highlights, all featured here, were Head On (also known as Head On The Curve), a driving Chuck Berry-inspired rant with a riff nodded to the Doors’ LA Woman; the ferocious, semi-autobiographical Heavy Liquid, the lyrics of which changed from show to show; and Open Up And Bleed, a rivetingly extended 13-minute free-form jam and a stark take on the, at times, uneasy relationship between the performer’s vicious audience-baiting, and their hungry expectations of continued blood and outrage (“They got my heart. They want my head.”). Though Open Up And Bleed is undoubtedly a veritable velvet goldmine of a track, and the one song that, had he still been alive, Jim Morrison would have hocked his last bottle of Old Spice to have recorded, the finished studio version has never been officially released.
But as the shows became more savage and intense, the drugs got stronger and debauchery, depravity and dementia took over full-time. Iggy and James in particular were now being inequitably dismissed in music business circles as a couple of unsavoury, smack-addled casualties on the downward spiral, and CBS decided they wouldn’t be hassling the band for that contracted second album. Though the industry verdict hadn’t yet reached an enthusiastic Elton John. First of all, he took the unusual step of unexpectedly inviting himself on stage – the Stooges’ stage! – at a gig in Atlanta. Dressed as a gorilla. “My first thought was, ‘You can’t invade our stage! It could work out well for you, but it could also work out badly,'” remembers Ron Asheton. “So there’s Elton with the head off the gorilla suit (backstage), and I’m goin’, ‘Oh, man.’ It just worked out that we didn’t fuck up the gorilla.” Some time after that chance meeting, the Rocket Man made it known they that he was very interested in signing the band to his own record label, but, alas, according to Ron Asheton, was later warned off: “Elton was real excited about getting Iggy, and the word came down: ‘Nope, junkies.’ So that was our last chance. After that there wasn’t any people approaching us.”
As self-annihilation beckoned, a mentally and physically exhausted Stooges finally combusted after two home-coming concerts at Detroit’s Michigan Palace in early 1974, with Iggy then finding it necessary to check himself into the nearest mental institution. Had they survived the carnage, who knows what greater heights The Stooges could have reached. Perhaps, if they can still get their act together, the best is yet to come?
Steve Pafford, November 1997