Counterbalance No. 90: Iggy and the Stooges' 'Raw Power'
Look out honey, 'cause we're using technology. In this week's edition of Counterbalance, Klinger and Mendelsohn debate the advantages of having a heart full of napalm and the 90th Most Acclaimed Album of All Time.
Mendelsohn: Going into this, I sort of figured we get around to talking about Iggy Pop at least once—I didn't think he'd have two records lodged in the back end of the Great List’s Top 100. And I didn't know how well it would go having to talk about two Stooges records in short succession, but I'm glad we are because, man, is Raw Power just non-stop, balls-to-the-wall rock 'n' roll. I hadn't paid much attention to Raw Power in the past; after "Search and Destroy", (best side one/track one we've seen in a while), I thought there wasn't much to this record. But once you get past some of the questionable production values, there is a wealth of pure rock energy just waiting to lay waste to your ears. Even the "ballads" are loud, badass, and completely in your face.
Pop was starting to come apart at the seams due to his escalating heroin addiction, and the Stooges wouldn't last more than two more years after this album came out in 1973, but I kind of think they knew the end was near and they put everything into this album. Just hit the record button and bust it out in one take because time was short. All of that frenetic just comes flying out of the speakers. What's not to like?
Klinger: Well, I can't say I approve of your salty language, but I have a hard time finding fault with your sentiment. I'd also point out that this is one of those curiosities of the Great List. The mathmagician at Acclaimed Music compiles every list he can get his hands on, feeds them into a computer, and out pops the most acclaimed albums of all time. Neither he nor the mass of critics involved could have known that a David Bowie album could be followed by an album that Bowie produced, but there you go. Serendipity!
And I can agree with you that the production—or lack thereof—is the only thing that's questionable about Raw Power. As I've been really digging into it recently (I actually bought it on cassette in 1987, but for whatever reason I never put it in regular rotation. Mea culpa.), I've had one recurring thought: If these guys had brought in a proper producer and managed to keep their own chemical demons at bay, Iggy and the Stooges could have been the heirs apparent to the Rolling Stones. As it stands, we have this singular piece, really quite different from the two Stooges albums that came before, and unfortunately never to be repeated. But there you go; how does this album differ from Fun House for you?
Mendelsohn: I hate to split hairs but Bowie didn't produce Raw Power. Pop produced and mixed it himself but did such a terrible job that they asked Bowie to remix it in an effort to fix the record just enough for it to be released. Had Bowie been in the studio for this one, we might have really seen the Stooges claim the mantle of rock 'n' roll royalty from the Rolling Stones. But there lies the real difference between Fun House and Raw Power. Fun House had someone running the show—Don Gallucci was in the studio directing the mayhem. With Raw Power, Iggy and his stooges were left to their own devices—the inmates were in charge of the asylum. Of course, being the idiot savant that Pop is, Raw Power shows these uncanny flashes of brilliance through all the madness and some stellar song-writing to boot. Iggy and the Stooges may have had only one speed (fast) and one volume setting (loud), but that outward simplicity belies a very complex record from a band that completely understood the intricacies of rock 'n' roll and worked it with an unmatched finesse. It's just unfortunate that Pop didn't know anything about production or mixing. But then maybe that is the true charm of this record.
The other major difference between Fun House and Raw Power is the presence of Jim Williamson on guitar. Nothing against Ron Asheton, but Williamson could shred and it's his work that really sets this record apart from the Stooges’ previous submissions.
Klinger: Er, right. Mixed. Sorry about that, although I think the fact that Bowie brought in some crazy gizmo called a "Time Cube" as part of the mixing process suggests there was something wackier going on than just your basic knob-twiddling. I'm still listening to "Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell" to figure out just what a Time Cube was meant to do. (Of course, Iggy added to all the confusion in 1996 when he went in and remixed the whole thing again, igniting countless arguments within the rock nerd world—I got to the point where I just gave up trying to keep it all straight. It’s supposed to be about the music, man.) But yeah, not only did James Williamson bring a new level of virtuosity to the proceedings (kind of analogous to what Mick Taylor did for the Stones, come to think of it), but bringing him in meant that the recently reintroduced Ron Asheton got pushed over to bass. And like a lot of guitarists who find themselves in that situation, Asheton couldn't help but work it as hard as he could. It's his bass that really moves the Stooges away from the primitive thuggery that had been their M.O. prior to this. Check out the slinky groove that runs throughout "Penetration" and you'll see what I mean. It's something that the punk bands that drew inspiration from Raw Power were seldom able to incorporate.
I've also gone back and listened to the Stooges' two Elektra albums a good bit, and it's really pretty surprising to hear what a departure Raw Power is. You're right that Raw Power comes across as unhinged, even compared to those latter-day garage-based efforts, and at the same time it marks a real leap forward in terms of songwriting. How do you reconcile that issue of control vs. chaos that seems to be at the core of this album?
Mendelsohn: I don't really want to reconcile that dichotomy -- that juxtaposition between control and chaos, smart and stupid is a real appeal of this album for me, and pulling it apart to analyze the inner workings might ruin my enjoyment of this record. You are right about the importance of Ron Asheton's bass work, though. That, combined with Williamson on guitar and some inspired writing from Pop, came together in a sort of serendipitous convergence, like the heavens opened up to show them the way; sort of a Moses and the burning bush moment. But since it was Iggy Pop and he was probably high on heroin, he seems to have only managed to write down half of what God told him and made up the rest. In a way, I guess you could argue that this record is a little like the punk Ten Commandments. It set the bar pretty high and laid out the ground rules. But, much like the real Ten Commandments, the disciples of punk only followed the rules when it suited their needs. I would probably like punk a lot more had it stuck to the strict code of songwriting displayed on Raw Powerby Iggy and the Stooges.
Klinger: I don't think I've ever heard the phrases "strict code" and "Iggy and the Stooges" used so close to one another, but I see your point. As much as this album helped establish a template for the punk that came later, I'm also struck by the way that Raw Power remains linked to the grand tradition. Just listening to "Gimme Danger", with its snaky acoustic guitar figure and minor key dramatics, I hear the Stooges employing a groove that had been driving rock for the last half-decade, only with a good bit more menace and foreboding. So clearly this wasn't punk in its pure form—that was still a couple more years down the pike—but it definitely laid some very important groundwork that would pave the way for what was to come.
But hey, as long as we're conjecturating here, what do you make of the fact that Raw Power was edged out by Fun House on the Great List? They're so close to one another that this could just be a mathematical anomaly that could easily have gone the other way, but I still find it odd that it shook out the way it did. As much as I like Fun House, I have to say that Raw Power has the advantage in my ears, and I can't figure out if it's because of its heightened sense of insanity or its advanced ingenuity. Both? Regardless. How about you Mendelsohn—Fun House or Raw Power?
Mendelsohn: I think the problem with Raw Power is that the insanity tends to overpower the ingenuity. The album is definitely both insane and genius, which is why I agree with you on Raw Power over Fun House. But as far as the list is concerned, I think Fun House holds the edge simply because it came first and it came as much more of a cohesive statement. It has been a while since we talked about an album turning the tide of music, but Fun House signaled some drastic changes to follow later in the decade. Raw Power was just the continuation of that sea change, it was just a weirder, unbalanced whirlwind of mayhem.
To return to the biblical metaphors, Fun House is like the first plague, it turned the waters of rock 'n' roll to blood with its intensity. Raw Power, on the other hand, was the plague of frogs—just strange and diabolical.