Friday, March 11, 2016
Favorite Albums Friday #1: The Idiot & Lust for Life
Favorite Albums Friday is a series of mini-essays weekly or bi-weekly that explores classic albums that made an impact on the world of popular music whether are albums famous to the public or albums that the world needs to hear.
On March 18, 2016 will be the release of Post Pop Depression by punk legend Iggy Pop as it is rumored from the man himself that his seventeenth studio album might be his last. If that is true then the album at least showcases one of the most influential figures on rock music going out with a bang as it serves as a fitting finale to a career that saw many highs and lows with a lot of craziness that occurred along the way where he would also plant the seeds for a lot of music that was to come. To many, a lot of genres ranging from punk, post-punk, alternative, and indie wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for what Iggy has done from his work in the late 60s and early 70s with the proto-punk band the Stooges to his solo career. It is fitting that, with the upcoming release of Post Pop Depression, the man deserves some due into why he’s influential and why his first two solo albums in The Idiot and Lust for Life are so widely regarded by many as some of his best work outside of the Stooges.
When the Stooges broke up for a second time in 1974 following a period of notoriety but very little commercial success. Iggy Pop’s career wasn’t going anywhere as an album he made with Stooges guitarist James Williamson in 1975 called Kill City had languished until it was released two years later following the back-to-back releases of The Idiot and Lust for Life. During Pop’s time at a L.A. mental hospital where he was trying to kick his heroin addiction, one of the individuals who was David Bowie who had been a fan of the Stooges and did some remixing for the band’s seminal 1973 album Raw Power in an attempt to boost their lack of commercial viability. Bowie’s visits would get Pop out of the hospital where Pop would join Bowie on the road during the Isolar Tour to promote Bowie’s 1976 album Station to Station.
Among the first batch of material that would be written for The Idiot and later re-worked as Red Money for Bowie’s 1979 album Lodger is a song called Sister Midnight as it is this mixture of funk, art-rock, and the emergence of electronic-based music that was happening in Germany. Led by this funk-based riff by the song’s co-writer in guitarist Carlos Alomar, the song is this mid-tempo cut that include these bopping, funk-based rhythms that would later be overdubbed by Bowie’s rhythm section in bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis. It’s a song that is filled with some weird yet playful lyrics as the song was first performed by Bowie during the Isolar tour of 1976 in a rough form as he would later perform the song again in his final tour in 2003/2004. Yet, it’s Iggy’s song all the way where he had these vocals that are off the wall as well as flairs that are just unique.
The song was the genesis of this collaboration between Pop and Bowie where they were aided by Bowie’s collaborators in Alomar, Davis, and Murray as well as Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti would do the final mix for The Idiot. It was made at a time when Bowie was making his own albums that would become Low and “Heroes” as those three albums along with Lust for Life were either partially-recorded or made entirely in Berlin at Hansa Studios. Though there has been some claims from fans of Pop, who prefer his more punk-based style, in believing that The Idiot was largely a Bowie album sung by Pop. That’s not really true as it is obvious that Pop did write a lot of the lyrics on the album while providing some of his own input into the music though if one were to compare it to some of Pop’s other solo albums like 1979’s New Values or 1993’s American Caesar. They would probably wonder if The Idiot was a genre exercise or something else but it does carry a sense of adventure that Pop probably wouldn’t have done with some of his solo work and actually showcased ideas that would plant the seeds for post-punk.
Among these songs that showcased Pop and Bowie’s flirtation with electronic textures and song structures that would be considered part of the template for post-punk are songs like Baby, Dum Dum Boys, and the album closer Mass Production. With Bowie serving as producer for the album as well as play lots of keyboards, synthesizers, and saxophone, the songs definitely have a sound and tone that isn’t punk but it’s not conventional rock either with Baby having Bowie playing synthesizers and piano as it is this mid-tempo tune with some very eerie lyrics and vocals from Pop who provides something that is dark in the song. Dum Dum Boys and Mass Production are these down-tempo tracks with the former being a more conventional rock song of sorts though it starts off with Pop talking about former friends and such including original Stooges bassist Dave Alexander who died in 1975 of alcoholism while playing to a piano. It’s a song that is just really eerie in the fact that it is a song about loss in the darkest ways where it sort of serves as a template for another genre that would come out of punk in Goth though in a very direct way.
The latter in Mass Production is a song that definitely owes a lot to the music of Kraftwerk from its opening sounds of warbling synthesizers as it is followed by these slow, thumping rhythms as it is a track led largely by its synthesizers which has this sound of imperfection as if it was still in childhood stage. The song has these very intense yet imagery-based lyrics that really is street as one of the things that makes Pop unique is that he is an artist of the streets in some respect as the Stooges were largely based in Detroit though Pop really comes from a trailer park in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That sense of street-smart would appear in a song like Funtime which is this up-tempo rock song with some dark lyrics and Pop in haunting vocal with Bowie singing back-up. It is has this mixture of out-of-tune, machine-like synthesizers and raw guitars where it a song that is kind of the closest thing to the Stooges on that album.
For anyone that wondered where a song like Closer by Nine Inch Nails comes from, it’s in Nightclubbing due to sound of those thumping drum machine beats as it is clearly a dark and dirty song because of those beats, fuzzy synthesizers, a jazz-like piano from Bowie. It has these lyrics that are odd but also intoxicating in its imagery where it also has Pop taking on different vocal ranges for its two different verses where it starts off having him sound like a lounge singer and then be in a more robotic-kind of vocal that just adds a lot more. Those beats from that song provide the basis for the beats in Closer which is probably why NIN mastermind Trent Reznor liked it so much that he would later cover the song for a radio performance with Bauhaus’ Peter Murphy, then-NIN guitarist Jeordie White, and longtime collaborator Atticus Ross.
Jazz is also heard in a ballad called Tiny Girls which is this smooth track with a bopping rhythm and Bowie on the saxophone as it sort of the anomaly of the album but it is this amazing song. Especially for Pop’s vocals and his playful lyrics while Bowie definitely shows his knack for the saxophone which doesn’t get a lot of credit. He’s not like a top jazz player or anything but has this approach to the sound as a saxophonist that is so intoxicating to listen to. Then there’s the one song that is probably the most famous song of the album but audiences more familiar with pop will probably have heard the song in a different form from one of its co-writers. That song is China Girl as it is this song that features these ominous yet intense lyrics as Bowie would recall in an episode of VH1 Storytellers in 1999 where he and Pop were in Berlin as it relates to what they had seen as they went back home and came up with ideas for what would be this song.
With Pop playing drums on the song as it has this thumping, mid-tempo rhythm that is followed by raw, driving guitars and Bowie’s swooning synthesizer melodies. It is a song that is quite dark in its presentation yet Pop’s vocals manage to be full of raw emotion in the lyrics he sings as it is probably one of his finest vocal performances. When that song came out in 1977, it never went anywhere until Bowie did his own version for Let’s Dance six years later and it became a worldwide hit that would provide Pop lots and lots of money for years since he did write the song with Bowie.
If The Idiot was this wild experiment into the world of electronics and art rock that set the tone for a lot of genres to come. Then its follow-up in Lust for Life is an entirely different ball game but like its predecessor, both albums are filled with a sense of adventure and experimentation. Yet, the album is more rock than electronics and art rock as well as providing some templates for the post-punk genre in one of the album’s most famous songs in The Passenger. Led by co-writer in guitarist Ricky Gardiner’s driving guitar riff and a steady walloping rhythm by bassist Tony Sales and drummer Hunt Sales, the song is filled with some haunting lyrics that include some of Pop’s chilling vocals. It’s a song that has a lot of imagery in its description which could also be served as a template for the genre of Goth as one of the genres premier bands in Siouxsie & the Banshees would later cover the song in 1987 for their all-covers album Through the Looking Glass.
The other song from the album that is also quite famous is its title track where it is a song that is just massive in its sound thanks in part to the production as the album was produced by Bowie, Pop, and Colin Thurston all in the alias as the Bewlay Brothers after a song from Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory. The moment those bombastic drums films are heard, it is clear that this is really unlike anything as it is driven by Carlos Alomar’s playful guitar riffs and walloping rhythms while Pop sings these weird lyrics as it is filled with a sense of ambiguity but also a sense of celebration. One of the most legendary things that is heard about the song is that Pop and Bowie got the idea of the rhythm from a Morse code signal from the Armed Forces Network while they were waiting for Starsky and Hutch to air on TV. Yet, that rhythm and those drum sounds would be used in a million songs to follow for many years while the song would later get a new life nearly 20 years later due to its appearance in the 1996 Danny Boyle film Trainspotting.
Two songs in the album’s A-side in Sweet Sixteen and Some Weird Sin are full-on rockers that display Pop’s street edge as well as the fact that he still is the Godfather of Punk thanks in part to the musicians who were part of live band in early 1977 in Bowie, Gardiner, and the Sales Brothers. The former is just this primal, driving rocker with a nasty yet bopping rhythm with Pop just going all out with its confrontation lyrics and snarling vocals as it is raw to the fullest. The latter is a more of a mid-tempo piece that features some blazing guitar riffs and a solo from Gardiner as well as thumping, hard-hitting rhythm courtesy of Hunt Sale’s walloping drumming. Pop, accompanied by Bowie on backing vocals, sings in a very fast yet direct form as it play into lyrics that are weird but also to the point of sin as it is one of the album’s finest deep cuts.
Bowie’s involvement with this album would later have him use two songs from the album for his much-maligned 1984 album Tonight in the form of that album’s title track and the song Neighborhood Threat. The former starts off as this somber yet loud mid-tempo tune with Pop singing about loss about a young woman dying of a drug overdose. Then the tempo changes into something more upbeat with Pop displaying amazing vocals as he’s backed by Bowie’s backing vocals and a steady rhythm section while Ricky Gardiner provides this amazing solo. Though Bowie would cut out the intro for a smooth, reggae song in a duet format with Tina Turner, it is clear that Pop’s version is more superior though Bowie’s attempt to make the song more commercial in tune with what he was doing at the time. In the latter, the song is a straight-ahead rocker with wailing and melodic guitar textures, hammering beats, and Pop’s more street-edge vocals as it is more to the point as opposed to what Bowie was doing which was so indicative of 1980s production with its loud, gated drums and synthesizers that would sound very dated.
A mid-tempo rocker in Success is a song that has this driving rhythm in its guitars, bass, and drums as it is a song that is about the fantasy of success with Pop providing a sense of charm into the lyrics. It is one of the album’s finest cuts along with two other tracks in the album in the eerie ballad Turn Blue that Pop and Bowie wrote with Walter Lacey and longtime Bowie cohort Geoff MacCormack in his Warren Peace alias. It is this ballad that highlights Pop’s abilities as a vocalist where it a song full of regret and loss while he is accompanied by this slow yet hammering rhythm section as it is one of the album’s highlights. The album closer Fall in Love with Me which was written with Bowie and the Sales Brothers is a playful, mid-tempo cut where it is probably the only track to involve Brian Eno from an outsider’s view as he was Bowie’s collaborator in the two albums they made in 1977. Though Eno was probably not credited or was directly involved with any of the albums that Pop did. The fact that the song had Gardiner playing drums instead of guitar, Tony Sales on guitar instead of bass, and Hunt Sales on bass instead of drums is an idea that obviously comes from Eno’s Oblique Strategies tarot cards. Yet, it has this unique sound as it does play to something that is raw with Pop being funny in his vocals and lyrics.
Like Iggy’s work with the Stooges before him, The Idiot and Lust for Life weren’t commercial successes in the U.S. but did find an audience in the U.K. as the legacy of those two albums would help inspire the world of punk of what it could happen in life after punk. Though it would take more than a decade for Pop to have some commercial success in the U.S. where he would finally score a top 40 U.S. hit in 1991 with Candy from the album Brick by Brick. Pop has managed to secure a stature in the public eye as not just some punk legend but also an unlikely pop culture figure through his work on the Nickelodeon show The Adventures of Pete & Pete and films like Cry-Baby and Dead Man. The title track for Lust for Life would become a bigger hit in 1996 due to its appearance in Trainspotting as the song would be used in ads and such to the point where punk’s godfather was now rich and getting some overdue attention.
Having already been inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2010 as part of the Stooges and making a slew of albums that ranged from hard rock, punk, and in recent years, jazz music sung in French. It is amazing that of the artists from his era that were notorious for being dangerous, doing all sorts of drugs, and other crazy shit that makes the antics of today’s pop starts look tame. He is still alive for some reason which is also kind of sad considering that one of his compatriots in Lou Reed had died in 2013 and now that one of his champions in David Bowie had unexpectedly passed away this past January. It is surprising that Pop is probably the last man standing at this point which is probably why Post Pop Depression is definitely one of his best albums in his career.
Like Reed and Bowie, Pop still has the power to shock and do something that is dangerous which isn’t surprising into the kind of music that these men made. What is surprising that as Pop will turn 69 this April is that he is making music that is quite vital and dangerous where most artists in that age or older are either coasting on their past or just ease themselves into their comfort levels. By teaming up with Josh Homme and Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age and Matt Helders of the Arctic Monkeys, the album definitely recalls the work of The Idiot and Lust for Life in spirit as it has a sense of darkness and energy that a lot of today’s pop music seems to lack. Especially in the world of rock which had become extremely polished as Post Pop Depression seems to be the right anecdote for rock.
If Post Pop Depression is to be Iggy Pop’s final album, it is a fitting way to go as it does complete the circle of music that he had began nearly 40 years ago in France and Germany with David Bowie on The Idiot and Lust for Life. Those two albums aren’t just classics in their own right but it also paved the way for so much to come. Even as it adds so much Pop’s legendary status regardless if they fit in with the rest of his body of work that include his legendary work with the Stooges. They’re albums that are dangerous, unsettling, and compromising but also manage to be a lot of fun and you can dance to it. In spirit, they’re both punk rock albums and who better to do that than the Godfather of Punk himself in Iggy Pop.
© thevoid99 2016