Counterbalance No. 83: The Stooges’ ‘Fun House’

The Stooges
Fun House

Klinger: It’s certainly no surprise to me why critics would be so taken with the Stooges, and Fun House in particular. As the decade changed hands from the 1960s to the ’70s, rock still felt like it was very much in a state of flux. And it may well have seemed that one of the casualties of that changeover was the concept of the rock band as a bunch of blue collar buddies loading up on beer and using guitars and drumsticks as cudgels to pound their hormonal angst into crude representations of music. The initial wave of “garage rock” had given way to considerably more noodly blues experimentation, and the likes of James Taylor and Elton John were looming large on the horizon. Even if that first wave of rock writers were longing for a time that never technically existed, Iggy Pop, the Asheton brothers, and Dave Alexander were more than able to fill the Kingsmen-shaped hole in those critics’ hearts.

It’s also not too surprising that this second album nosed out the others in the mathematical race to the top of the Great List. Although it’s in a virtual tie with 1973’s Raw Power, Fun House certainly has the edge over their debut LP. Tipping the balance away from the Stooges’ primal basheriffics (and trading in the 10-minute psychedelic dreamery of “We Will Fall” for the freaked out babble-jazz of “L.A. Blues”—which only sounds like it’s 10 minutes long), Fun House presents a group that’s doing something quite nearly inimitable—not that loads of bands haven’t tried in the ensuing decades. Your thoughts, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: When I looked over the final quarter of the Top 100, I noticed that we would be doing two Stooges albums in quick succession and I found myself thinking, “Is that really necessary? Couldn’t the criterati have just picked one?” But then I remembered that’s not how this silly list works. And, truth be told, looking ahead to some of the other stuff I’m going to have to listen to in the coming weeks, dropping the needle on two Stooges records doesn’t seem so bad. Seems kind of nice actually.

I like Fun House. It’s been nearly 15 years since I listened to any Iggy Pop. Listening to it now, I don’t care that it’s dumbed-down and dirty. I don’t care that it’s repetitive to the point of being derivative of itself. I don’t care that they occasionally set aside the stupid act to show off real flashes of brilliance. The one thing I like about this record is just how my it speaks to my Midwestern roots, much more so than something by the Ramones, who, when you get right down to it, were pretty much doing the same thing. There is just something about the Stooges’ reinterpretation of the blues — that driving beat, those jagged riffs, and Pop’s guttural yowl — that is so deeply ingrained in the subconsciousness of the Rust Belt.

Klinger: Funny you should mention the Ramones, because that reminds me of your take on their debut last year. I’m paraphrasing, but you essentially questioned whether their simplicity made them stupid or great. I told you not to think too much about it and to drink more beer, but right now I find myself doing the same thing with the Stooges. On the one hand, I respect their ability to produce a bunch of one-riff wonders that seldom cause me to wander off (although the pop nerd in me is always secretly a little disappointed every time “T.V. Eye” kicks back in), but on the other hand I’m still not entirely convinced that they actually knew what they were doing.

Was Steve Mackay actually spewing free jazz abstractions all over these songs, or was he just blowing into his horn and wiggling his fingers? Is “L.A. Blues” the definitive freak-out of its era or was it five drunk guys screwing around? Was Iggy a brilliant keeper of the frontman flame or a simpleton smearing peanut butter on himself and making bong noises into the microphone when he couldn’t think of anything else to say? Can he be both, like the late Earl Warren? Of course, as the title track choogles along for well over seven minutes, sounding for all the world like some Frankenstein monster cobbled together from bits and pieces of James Brown and the Doors, all these questions reveal me to be the poindexter that I am. Am I overthinking things? Do I just need more beer, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: Everyone needs more beer, Klinger. You and me included. And listening to the Stooges is conducive to drinking. This is the type of record that almost requires you to get smashed and then smash things. In regards to Fun House being great or stupid, I will turn the tables a bit a paraphrase your response to me when I asked about the Ramones. You told me that the Ramones weren’t here to make me think. The same applies to the Stooges. The Stooges and the Ramones aren’t cerebral bands; they are visceral experiences meant to draw out the primacy of human nature. The difference between the Ramones and the Stooges comes down to their influences and the way they structure their music. The Ramones were a rock band that evolved out of the pop model while the Stooges climbed out of the primordial ooze of the blues. I have a soft spot in my heart (and head) when it comes to the blues, especially the trance-inducing freak-outs that come flowing out of the hills of Northern Mississippi. That’s what I hear propelling the songs on this album and none more so than “Dirt”.

Klinger: Mendelsohn, you’ve been to Ann Arbor, Michigan—it’s about as far from the hills of northern Mississippi as you can get, unless all those pan-Asian bistros used to be tar paper juke joints. And while I can see your point about the seeping allure of “Dirt”, it’s not exactly the reason why I put this record on. When I’ve made my decision for the Stooges, it’s because I want to thrash around my living room or area drinking establishment, my inexpensive American lager held aloft as I offer up such trenchant bon mots as “Wooo!” I’m just not liable to put “Dirt” on the jukebox. “Dirt” is more suited to being flopped down on the couch concerned that the contents of your stomach (inexpensive American lager and a Totino’s Party Pizza, most likely) have been jostled to the point where they begin planning an exit strategy.

But that’s just me. You are much more the type to put “Dirt” on the jukebox. Come to think of it, you might be the type to put “L.A. Blues” on the jukebox—feel free to take that as a compliment.

Mendelsohn: Compliment accepted. I was merely pointing out the this album is dripping in the blues—it was the stock car that this record was built from, before Pop, the Ashetons, and Alexander stripped it down, dropped in a 350 V8, took out all the seats and windows, installed a roll cage, and entered it in the local demolition derby. And if you must know, there is a trans-dimensional doorway in a tiny juke joint in the hills of north Mississippi that will spit you out either in Detroit, Michigan or Akron, Ohio. Why? I don’t know. It’s just one of the mysteries of the universe.

You are right about this album being the perfect soundtrack for destruction. I just like the fact that they slowed in down in the middle with “Dirt”. It’s not the reason I reach for the record but I always find it to be a welcome breather. And while I hesitate to use the word “range”, the Stooges did show off enough versatility on Fun House to help inspire four decades and counting of various rock and roll acts.

Klinger: And that’s one of the things that makes the Stooges a key element in rock’s history, and it ensures their place in the canon. Every so often a band (or a loosely formed movement of bands) comes along to serve as a corrective when things get to pompous or too sappy or too slick. These groups don’t generally shift a lot of units, but the music gets passed along from generation to generation, and that creates a sweat-slicked, loamy, frequently bad-smelling underbelly of music over which the mainstream can slip and slide on as it heads toward what’s next. Come to think of it, I’d like to believe that there’s something like that happening somewhere right now. There’s a lot about our culture that could use a good slide through the muck.