The Weird Trilogy: Iggy Pop's Arista Recordings
The chance to revisit these albums is not likely to result in any critical reevaluation, but at least it's a chance to enjoy a boldly experimental phase in the career of one of rock's most intriguing artists.
Aside from the song "Lust for Life," which has been used to sell just about every product known to mankind, Iggy Pop is probably best known for the dramatic highs and lows of his lengthy career. As frontman for the Stooges in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he spit in the eye of the peace-and-love generation, laid the groundwork for punk, and made Detroit the capital of bad-ass America.
But the Stooges' fiery music was too brutal for the general public and after the failure of Raw Power (which was supposed to be a comeback after two failed albums with Elektra) in 1973, Pop was on a drug-fueled downward spiral. After spending some time in a Los Angeles mental institution, Iggy reconnected with David Bowie, who had not only mixed Raw Power but had been largely responsible for getting it finished. The two collaborated on the 1977 Bowie-produced comeback The Idiot, toured together (Bowie was Pop's keyboard player), and released another collaboration, Lust for Life, later the same year. The two 1977 comeback albums are still considered to be among Pop's finest solo works, delivering such Pop gems as "Funtime", "Nightclubbing", "China Girl" (later covered by Bowie), "The Passenger", and the ubiquitous "Lust for Life".
With the emergence of punk and the subsequent new wave record label feeding frenzy in the late 1970s, it seemed like the pioneering Pop's time had finally come. Cited as the "godfather of punk" by many significant artists of the day and riding high on the artistic triumph of his Bowie-produced albums, Iggy was finally starting to get his due. It seems reasonable, then, that Arista Records thought he had commercial potential when it inked a deal with him at the end of the decade. Besides, the label had seen the commercial potential of punk artists come to fruition when one in its own ranks, Patti Smith, scored a hit with "Because the Night" in 1978. According to Marshall Bowden on Transistornet.com, however, "When former Columbia stalwart Clive Davis found that Iggy had been signed to his fledgling label... he wouldn't even commit to releasing the albums in the U.S."
The first of Pop's three albums for Arista, 1979's New Values, must have provided some reassurance. Pop's collaboration with Bowie having ended for the time being, he recruited former Stooges guitarist James Williamson (who by that time had given up music for electronic engineering and computers) as his producer and collaborator, and enlisted former Stooges associate Scott Thurston on keyboards. Instead of a return to the drugged-out cacophony of the Stooges, however, Iggy this time struck a nice balance between mature introspection and his old wild-man persona. Some of the songs on New Values are what you'd expect from the Iggy of that era, such as the snotty rebel anthems "Girls", "I'm Bored", "Billy Is a Runaway", and the title track. Surprisingly, though, tracks like "Don't Look Down", "How Do Ya Fix a Broken Part", and "Angel" incorporate slower tempos, horns, and female vocalists to round out the sound. It's almost shocking to hear the man who had most recently sung "Of course I've had it in the ear before" opening an album with the mid-tempo "Tell Me a Story", complete with melodic guitar and sweet "oohs" and "ahhs". Once the first verse kicks in, however, we see a glimpse of the true Pop spirit. "Show me a bill that they can make me pay", he snarls, "Tell me a story / Maybe I'll believe it". Iggy's singing is confident and controlled on the slower tracks, but he switches into high gear when it's called for, like on the bizarre "African Man". Featuring Iggy howling and yelping politically incorrect lines like "I eat a monkey for breakfast!" atop synthesized faux-African music, "African Man" is a song that must be heard to be believed. It's this delicate balancing act -- of tough with tender, rebellion with contentment, sincerity with humor, cocksure wailing with nuanced balladeering -- that makes the album a winner.
New Values was a moderate success in the U.K., where Pop appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test to perform the single "I'm Bored". According to Bowden, this prompted Clive Davis to approve the album's stateside release, and New Values ultimately reached 180 on Billboard's album chart. It was hardly a smash hit, but New Values proved that Iggy could deliver a strong album without David Bowie's help -- something that had not been clear two years earlier.
By this time widely credited as a pioneer of the punk movement, Iggy cashed in on his newfound respectability by bringing in some of punk and new wave's finest -- Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols), Steve New (Rich Kids), Barry Andrews (XTC, Shriekback), and Ival Kral (Patti Smith Group) -- as his backing band on 1980's Soldier. Instead of a punk masterpiece, however, Soldier turned out to be an uneven and sometimes plain silly recording. Tensions in the studio might have been a contributing factor; legend has it that James Williamson and David Bowie were slated to co-produce the album, but clashed so badly that both walked out, while Iggy disliked Steve New so much that he omitted many of New's guitar parts from the final product. Whatever the reasons behind it, Soldier lacks musical muscle although some creative ideas occasionally shine through. Cartoonish keyboards drive "Loco Mosquito", "Get Up & Get Out" benefits from a slinky sax line, and "Mr. Dynamite" uses pulsating, repetitive drums and the occasional horn and piano to sparse, haunting effect. Otherwise, most of the songs are mid-tempo rockers that sound bland and sanitized. Iggy's lyrics unfortunately do little to make up for the music, consistently failing as they do to match the cleverness and maturity of those on New Values. On "Play It Safe", "I'm a Conservative", and "I Snub You" he desperately tries to sound rebellious, but his lyrics lack the smart wordplay of "I'm Bored" or the venom of anything by the Stooges. Lines like "You're too simple-minded / Let's play it safe" not only preach to the converted, but are too polite to get their point across. Other songs are far more interesting if no more successful. "Loco Mosquito" contains such weird one-offs as "I'm sick of hanging 'round with old transvestites" and a nursery-rhyme intro in which Iggy sings "My mama told me / If I was goody / That she would buy me / A rubber dolly".
The self-consciously punky "Dog Food" contains an autobiographical reference to a 14-year-old girlfriend named Betsy and a declaration that "Dog food is the current craze / Eat some every day". This was definitely not the subject matter of radio-friendly pop, and if New Values had given Arista any hope that Iggy might deliver a hit, Soldier must have been a red flag that things were not going according to plan.
By the time Pop entered the studio to record the 1981 album Party Arista had had enough and was pressuring him for a hit. Ivan Kral, who had led Pop's band through the rough patches in the recording of Soldier, once again stepped up to the helm and he was just as determined as Arista that Party would be Iggy's mainstream breakthrough. Why he thought this material would do it, however, remains a mystery. After all, this was the year that the Go-Go's topped the charts with the energetic pop-punk of "We Got the Beat" and meanwhile Iggy was working with cheesy synthesizers and an overbearing horn section while crooning lame covers of "Sea of Love" and "Time Won't Let Me".
If Kral was clueless about what a hit record should sound like, though, the suits at Arista were just as guilty. It was their idea, after all, to bring in onetime Monkees songwriter Tommy Boyce to produce a few tracks, as if that would help matters. The result was a bizarre train wreck of an album (whereas Soldier was just a mild disappointment) that stalled at 166 on the U.S. charts.
Iggy's limp backing band, comprising Kral, Rob Duprey, Michael Page, and Douglas Bowne, must shoulder much of the blame for Party, but to their credit, Duprey and Bowne knew something was amiss at the time. In the liner notes to the Buddha reissue of the album, Duprey recalls them telling each other, "This isn't a hit record, it sounds weird." Actually, "weird" is putting it mildly. If Party was an attempt to sell out, it is to Iggy Pop's eternal credit that he either didn't want to or didn't know how. Just witness the opening line of the album's first track, "Pleasure": "Sooner or later baby / I'm gonna squeeze you / Just like a tomato". Pop tries harder to write a legitimate love song with "Pumping for Jill", but ends up with lines like "When I'm asleep you touch my feet / You let me know that I am a creep".
The weirdest track by far, however, is "Happy Man", where Iggy's attempts at jocularity almost come off as scary. All pulsating guitars and happy-happy horns, the music sounds like a hoedown gone wrong. Meanwhile, Iggy sings his nonsensical and barely rhyming lyrics as if he's daring Arista to drop him. He attempts to paint a portrait of domestic bliss, but can't seem to conjure up the usual clichés about love, instead reciting baffling lines like, "I can make her scream / 'Cause she's my only machine / I'm her confidant / And she's my only cream". While it's unclear whether or not "Happy Man" was an intentional joke, the satirical "Eggs on Plate" and "Rock and Roll Party" imply that Iggy was hip to the attempt to make him a commercial entity and might have been actively avoiding it. In the former title, one of the few fairly successful rockers on the album, Pop has an exchange with a slick music biz type who promises him, "You can be up there / You can join the hit parade / Everybody will know your name". A skeptical Iggy's response is to ask, "So who's my name belong to then?" After the release of Party, Iggy's name still belonged to him; Arista certainly didn't want it anymore.
After parting ways with the label, Iggy went to work on the 1982 album Zombie Birdhouse, produced by Blondie's Chris Stein and released on his short-lived Animal label. For all the eccentricities of Iggy's Arista recordings, it is Zombie Birdhouse that has reached near-legendary status for its oddity. Full of droning synthesizers, Afro-style beats, and pseudo-poetic, free-associative lyrics, Zombie Birdhouse also marked the end of an intriguing and experimental if erratic period of Pop's career. By that time Pop had slid back into drug use (likely a contributing factor to his career downslide) and in 1983 he entered a live-in drug detoxification clinic in Los Angeles. Pop emerged not only physically but also musically cleaner. His next move was to sign with A&M and reunite with David Bowie in an obvious attempt for commercial success. The ploy worked and the resulting album, 1986's Blah Blah Blah became Iggy's first album to reach the top 100 despite being one of the blandest releases of his career. He then moved on to Virgin, where he released the disappointing Instinct in 1988 but recovered with the successful 1990 album Brick By Brick and its hit single "Candy". Pop has continued to record for Virgin over the past decade with mixed results ranging from the lean punk of 1996's heralded American Caesar to the Beat-poet aspirations of 1999's largely derided Avenue B.
In 1996 Virgin issued the compilation Nude and Rude: The Best of Iggy Pop; tellingly, it did not include any tracks from New Values, Soldier, Party, or Zombie Birdhouse. The Arista albums were treated like a dirty little secret until 2000, when BMG subsidiary Buddha Records reissued them with informative liner notes and amusing if unessential bonus tracks. The chance to revisit these albums is not likely to result in any critical reevaluation, but at least it's a chance to enjoy a boldly experimental phase in the career of one of rock's most intriguing artists. While Pop has yet to release anything as defiantly silly as "Happy Man" or as bizarrely hilarious as "African Man" let's hope that someday he will. After all, when he failed in the spectacular manner displayed on the Arista albums, you at least knew Iggy was really trying. In order to fall so hard, he must have been aiming for the stars.