Monday, July 31, 2017

Pop, Iggy

It's been 40 years since the release of Iggy Pop's The Idiot. Iggy Pop and Lou Reed were already the godfathers of anything alternative, but here was the classic album of Pop's canon, drenched in synths and minimalistic dancey rhythms, with nary a guitar to be found. Still, the synthesizer represented an emergent dystopian modernity, viewed as scientific and dehumanizing, that would haunt the otherwise poppy 80s through artists like Tubeway Army. And it was on The Idiot that the roar of guitars was replaced by a funky and robotic foray into more Apollonian territory, with Pop singing over Kraftwerk-flavored art rock, tunes with Gothic overtones, and even proto-industrial electronica. Most of its songs would be celebrated by proponents of the various genres of post-punk, demonstrating conclusively just how far ahead of its time the LP was. (On a discordant note, The Idiot was the soundtrack to Joy Division singer Ian Curtis’ suicide, found spinning in the room where Curtis hanged himself. You can hear Curtis loud and clear in the LP's closer "Mass Production.")

Opener "Sister Midnight" is based on a riff by guitarist Carlos Alomar and, and reminds one, of Station to Station (Alomar pivotal in that LPs iconic sound). "Calling Sister Midnight," sings Pop to the accompaniment of a gargantuan bass riff, "Well, I'm an idiot for you." The lyrics all Oedipal over mom.

"Funtime" is a rollicking number about having a rollicking good time, with Iggy singing, "Hey I'm feeling lucky tonight/ I'm gonna get stoned and run around" while the backing vocalists punctuate his every utterance. What says more about every wild teens informative years than that?  Then Alomar comes through with a pair of savage solos, the latter of which finds the backing singers crying, “Wooooaaah!” and screaming before the song ends with a shout. It punctuates the LPs stellar production.

I admit I prefer Bowie's later, sleeker version of "China Girl," but Pop's bravura vocal performance really brings the bizarre lyrics (for a love song, anyway) to life. "I'd stumble into town/Just like a sacred cow/Visions of swastikas in my head" — sentiments one isn't likely to encounter in the average love song. "I'll give you television," he promises his China girl, "I'll give you eyes of blue,/ I'll give you men who want to rule the world" he croons before she tells him to shut the fuck up. There’s more to it than the poppy Bowie version with its classic MTV era video, but despite its familiarity, it is one of the less important tracks on the LP. Its follow-up "Dum Dum Boys," on the other hand, is the perfect era song, so Bowie, so Reed, but definitively Pop.

Despite their narcotic proclivities, David Bowie and Iggy Pop were good for each other. Their counterintuitive logic led them to clean up their lifestyles by moving from L.A. to Berlin, the heroin capital of the world (the Hollywood Hills made only of Cocaine), but the duo showed a surprising degree of restraint while living there. The 18 months they spent together would turn out to be the most productive period in both their lives. Iggy managed to release two albums in 1977. The Idiot, named after the Dostoevsky novel, was a far cry from the Stooges. Minimalist, electronic and experimental, it was recorded at the famous Château d’Hérouville in Val d’Oise, before being finished off in Munich and Berlin. It remains Pop's seminal LP.

The Idiot was followed up with the better selling Lust for Life. The unlikely musical germ of an idea for the LP came when Bowie attempted to imitate the Armed Forces Network call signal with his ukulele (he was apparently waiting for Starsky and Hutch to come on the television in Germany). The Armed Forces Network "was one of the few things that was in English on the telly," said Bowie, "and it had this great pulsating riff at the beginning of the news." The insistent beat was reinforced by drummer Hunt Sales and his brother Tony on bass, while guitarist Carlos Alomar said its driving rhythm was so dominating that to play something on the offbeat was out of the question.

The two LPs together reflect the Berlin period as succinctly as the iconic trilogy by Bowie; indeed these could have been Bowie LPs with a guest singer. Not to underrate Pop at all, but Bowie's imprint is clear here, from the backing vocals to the sad, reflective sax, the sound is the Thin White Duke's. It's the lyrics that exceed Bowie's efforts in the period. Like Springsteen, Bowie's best lyrics (particularly on Hunky Dory) were in the initial parts of his career. By "Heroes", the lyrics were less integral, while on Low, nearly non-existent.

While I discovered Iggy Pop through Lust for Life, it's the Idiot that I turn to 40 years on. Of all of Iggy Pop's albums, including those with The Stooges, The Idiot is by far the darkest, yet the most accessible. It creeps under your skin and sets up camp, creeping up to your psyche, just to give it a tap every now and then. It may give you nightmares about disco zombies, incest, Nazis or being chopped up in an assembly line. The Idiot may have been Pop's new beginning, but it is certainly not for beginners. Ease your way in, but make sure you get there.