The Stooges (Liner Notes from Rhino Deluxe Reissue)

The Stooges Rhino Deluxe Reissue, Aug 23, 2017

Kooks and creationists beware: The Stooges prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that Darwin was right.

Before their first record sprouted legs and came crawling up onto land out of the primordial ooze to horrify and frighten critics and fans—and quite literally change the course of rock ’n’ roll—they had been known as The Psychedelic Stooges, and their shows had been a collision of barely competent garage rock, avant, hippie-baiting noise, and physical confrontation. Beyond the abusive wah-wah pedal excursions that would become a hallmark of their early sound, their arsenal of noise-makers included amplified kitchen appliances and garden rakes. It has been suggested that the band was formed before they even knew how to play. They were like children that way.

In their singer they had a gimmick that was hard to beat. Iggy Pop, née Jimmy Osterberg (and more recently Iggy Stooge), was a savage of the first order—gorgeous, ripped, ready for war. He dove into the audience. He cut himself with broken bottles and still sang beautifully. He could seemingly puke on cue. Tough stuff in 1969, a musical year best remembered for three days of peace and mud.

The Stooges didn’t see things through the rose-colored glasses of the love generation. They knew it was all crap, and had unwittingly, instinctively deconstructed rock ’n’ roll, making it simple and primitive all over again. It was the shape of things to come. They were savants, and there was nothing cool or hip about them. Their poetry wasn’t from the street—it was from the trailer park. They may have jammed, but their feedback-laden improvs were the darkest side of the Grateful Dead’s lysergic lullabies. So pure was their message, so honest their antipathy and brutality, that no amount of revisionist nostalgia for the hippie-happy ’60s could ever repaint them in pastels.

The Stooges did not offer solutions. They had no social consciousness; their sexuality was subversive and suspect. They brought thrift-store glitter, broken glass, blood, and assault to a party that was high on the promise of utopia. They brought reality against a grain of tie-dyed narcissism. They were an outrage, a riot waiting to happen. They may have sounded like they were from the Stone Age, but with this, their first album, they predicted the future of rock ’n’ roll. Forty years later, their attitude has been absorbed, diluted, revived, declared passé, and revived again, but at the time, no one could hear it.

“Loud, boring, tasteless, unimaginative, and childish,” sniffed Rolling Stone magazine, decrying the album as unlistenable garbage, somewhat ironically, since they would go on to name “I Wanna Be Your Dog” the 438th “Greatest Song of All Time” on their list of 500, right behind “Love Me Tender.” Lester Bangs was one of the few who championed Iggy and The Stooges as rock ’n’ roll saviors, positing them as proof—along with The Beatles—that “a band can start out bone-primitive, untutored and uncertain, and evolve into a powerful and elegant ensemble.”

That’s very nice, but there was something feral about this boy Iggy that would’ve scared the knickers off of the young Liverpudlians. He had the kevorka, the lure of the animal. He was untamable. But no matter how carved up and battered he was, no matter what sonic assault or physical abuse he would level at the few fans and curiosity seekers who came to see him in the early days, he would leave surrounded by women.

One of them, famously, was Nico, that death-angel chanteuse who had brought an exotic edge of sex and danger to The Velvet Underground that Lou Reed, at his most glammed-up and smacked-out best, could never conjure. She had adopted the 21-year-old Iggy (Nico was already on the wrong side of 30) and taught him, among other things, how to make love to a woman, properly. She also told him that he had a problem, that knew what she was talking about.

****

The Stooges were signed to Jac Holzman’s Elektra records by Danny Fields, who caught them in Detroit the same weekend he corralled The MC5.

The MC5, who Fields described as “the most professional, ready-to-go band I have ever seen,” got $20,000. The Stooges, whose 20-minute sets were still dominated by arty experiments in feedback and improvisation—including the breathless spectacle of “Asthma Attack,” heard here for the first time on record, and “I’m Sick,” an excursion lost to time, but one whose theme would reemerge frequently in their oeuvre—and only a handful of actual, “composed” tunes —“I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “No Fun,” “1969,” “Ann,” and “Goodbye to Bozos,” later re-tooled into the understated and groovy “Little Doll”—thought they were set for life when they got a prince’s ransom of $5,000. Upon the band’s arrival in New York to make the album, Holzman asked them if they had any more songs. They just shrugged and said, sure, and then went to their hotel room to write the rest of the record.

Signed on to produce this adventure was John Cale, lately of The Velvet Underground, no strangers to earth-shaking feedback and confrontational noise. Cale had also recently produced Nico’s Marble Index, an oft-overlooked and understated masterpiece. By and large, the boys were happy to have him on, figuring they had in him a co-conspirator, someone who they could talk to, someone who got along with Iggy’s girlfriend, someone who understood them and their ideas viz. volume and power as prime motivators.

As it turned out, Cale had other ideas. No matter his own curriculum vitae in the brain-bashing and ear-splitting departments, he took one look at their Marshall stacks and told them flatly, “This was not going to work.” Which led The Stooges to the only sensible reaction one can have in these stand-offs—they sat down and began to smoke hashish like a band of lunatic gypsies, albeit from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and refused to play until Cale acquiesced to the wisdom of their ways. He tried reasoning, citing the vagaries of the recording studio and how everything would somehow sound “better” if they would just come to their senses and use smaller amps. But what he didn’t realize is that this was not simply a matter of preference—it was the only way they knew how to play. A few hash joints later and he simply gave up. “Fuck it,” he said and pushed record.

Listening to Cale’s original mixes for this album is an especially enjoyable trip in the Wayback Machine—a peek into what could’ve been. The Cale mixes have a cool vibe, but too much thought had gone into them. He was trying to force a concept—Iggy’s voice “as evil,” he would later explain— in a place where concepts didn’t exist. Sitting at the console, inexplicably wearing a Dracula cape, and with Nico constantly at his side, knitting a sweater . . . it’s probably no wonder that the results were too pensive, too considered.

The Stooges were no dummies. They didn’t mind thinking—as long as it didn’t get in the way. But Cale’s artistry had dialed down Iggy’s toxic frustration into the realm of personal confession. Compared to the fury of the final album, Cale’s mixes may have well been recorded in the presence of a priest.

Jac Holzman took one listen, and with Iggy at his side, trucked back up to the studio, threw the entire mess back up in the mixing deck and started turning the knobs in the right direction, namely UP. They were putting the poison back in, crafting a masterpiece of jungle drums and monster guitars that would be to punk rock what Lexington and Concorde were to the American Revolution.

Scott Asheton’s drumming had a pile-driving simplicity, but also a syncopated bop that sounded like a gang fight brewing. Along with Dave Alexander’s basslines they created a groove built from fevered Bo Diddley-isms and a squall of late-’60s garage rock. But there had never been anything quite like it. It was a brand-new strain of the rock ’n’ roll virus.

Guitarist Ron Asheton (Scott’s brother) sometimes seemed to be reaching for Coltrane-esque sheets of sound, and at others, he sounded just plain fucking retarded. Iggy’s vocals were nothing short of a gift—rage without rancor, a gorgeous cocktail of cocksure posturing, snot and angst, naked self-degradation, and horny adolescent obeisance. As such, The Stooges were perfect in every way, and beyond any criticism.

**** It’s been asked if white people can sing the blues, which is ridiculous. Of course they can. It just sounds different from their black brothers.

Iggy pilfered freely from two great white blues singers—Frank Sinatra and Mick Jagger—and one decent one, Jim Morrison, who understood the politics and the possibilities of power and confrontation, music as a weapon, music as seducer, rock ’n’ roll as spectacle. Iggy stripped the Lord Byron bullshit from Jimbo and spanked the whole mess with silly amounts of blotter acid and mystery pills, and came up with his own style of Detroit crooning, a new kind of blues based on boredom.

Long before the Ramones sang about being sedated and having nothing to do, The Stooges were exorcising the banality of teenage life through high-volume atavism and fuzz-box fetishism. They invented blahs-as-blues for druggy punks battling adolescent ennui. They were apathetic at a time when everyone was supposed to care.

Together, “1969,” “No Fun,” and “Real Cool Time” are the Holy Trinity of Who Gives a Shit. One can only imagine what Joni Mitchell’s reaction would’ve been had she heard the matter-of-fact misanthropy of “1969” on her way to Yasgur’s Farm. Faced with the bleak but irrefutably honest outlook of The Stooges, maybe she would’ve turned around and gone home.

But it’s “No Fun” that would become the catalyst for a movement, its deadpan cynicism going on to morph into the snarl of nascent punks from New York to London. The Sex Pistols were prescient in making it the B-Side of “Pretty Vacant” when they were just beginning their campaign—it was also the last song they played at their final gig, just a year later.

“Ann” too often goes uncelebrated. A psychedelic torch song, melancholy and forlorn until an H-bomb of fuzz that explodes just after the two-minute mark (when it becomes melancholy and torrential), it proves that when he felt like it, Iggy could drive past the bathos of hopeless American youth and approach some depth of emotion. It is featured here also as a bonus track in all its uncut glory—five minutes of skull-pounding menace are, thankfully, restored.

If “Ann” was Iggy’s Sings For Only The Lonely, “Little Doll” was his Songs For Swinging Lovers. He tosses off the opening line—“Little doll I cant forget/Smoking on a cigarette”—with the same offhand swagger of saloon-era Sinatra. One can only wonder what he could’ve done with some of these numbers had they actually been rehearsed.

Cale’s greatest contribution to the album (aside from the ubiquitous handclaps, a brilliant touch that paints it with a subversive, deceptively friendly rhythmic base that could’ve just as easily turned into a losing game of Double Dutch) is his playing on “I Wanna Be Your Dog”—the almost mystical sounding sleigh-bells and the driving, one-note piano tattoo, which give the whole thing a mighty Ronnettes-esque sheen, the Wall of Sound as applied to canine fantasy and submission.

And then, there was the epic drone of “We Will Fall,” ten minutes of agony, inexplicably programmed on Side One, after only two songs, and not at the end of the record where logic and good taste would dictate.

At first listen it sounds as if it were born in the shadow of Cale’s cape, especially with his electric viola droning “Venus In Furs”- like against Ron Asheton’s most-constrained playing on the entire platter, but it was a gift from bass player Dave Alexander. By the time Iggy got through with Alexander’s druggy, Eastern-sounding chants, the song had begun to resemble one of The Doors’ more laconic numbers, and had become, like so much of the rest of this album, autobiographical. It was now a tone-poem about waiting for Nico to show up for a tryst at the Chelsea Hotel.

Since then, “We Will Fall” has become notorious, depending on who you are talking to— the Greatest Barbiturate Song of All Time (Rolling Stone has yet to compile that list), or the greatest “skip-over track” in the history of vinyl albums —at least until “L.A, Blues” on The Stooges’ next release, Funhouse. But by then they had learned to put the rock ’n’ roll first and end the set with their latest inspiration in room-clearing art.

**** This first album put the Stooges on a trajectory that, at times, seemed to follow the same dramatic arc as a head of steer in an abattoir. It’s astonishing that they survived, let alone cut two more studios albums, each of them masterpieces in their own right, plus a documentary live collection that is the rock ’n’ roll equivalent of a really good hockey fight.

The Stooges’ influence is legion—to name all of the bands, singers, and would-be rock stars who drank from the well could fill 1,000 phone books. This first album sold pitifully, but once it got into the water supply, every ’70s glam act from Bowie (especially Bowie) to T. Rex was reflecting some trace of The Stooges’ genetic material in their sound, to be followed in turn by punk rockers of every stripe—from art-school noisemakers to the honest victims of quotidian boredom who just wanted to play simple songs and kick some ass. There is not a hard or heavy band anywhere on the planet that is not in earnest awe of The Stooges.

So much of the danger has been taken out of rock ’n’ roll over the years. It’s been made safe for TV, ready for prime time. It even has its own museum. Looking back now, it’s hard to imagine how something like The Stooges could’ve happened, or was ever even allowed to happen. Fortunately, the band never appeared on Richard Nixon’s radar.

Times change— 40 years after being sprung on a public ill-prepared to hear their version of the truth, The Stooges are finally getting the royal treatment they’ve always deserved. How long can it be before we see Iggy humping a teleprompter at the GRAMMYS®, or stomping through the halftime show at the Super Bowl? What the hell . . . the Stones did it. Can’t you just imagine: “And now, celebrating America’s freedom, here are Iggy and The Stooges!!!”

Well alright.

—Mike Edison

Mike Edison is the author of I Have Fun Everywhere I Go — Savage Tales Of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling, Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, And The Most Notorious Magazines In The World.