Following the disbanding of the Stooges in 1974, Iggy Pop was not in good shape. The band had failed to deliver what would have certainly been another rock and roll masterpiece (though we do get to hear what might have been on Metallic KO) and instead had collapsed in a chaotic mess of booze, drugs, and excess. Iggy was laying low in L.A. and was being watched over by former Stooge Ron Asheton, until he finally gave up on Iggy and went back to Michigan. There was talk of Iggy perhaps replacing the late Jim Morrison in a revamped Doors, but Mr. Pop proved to be even too fucked up for the Lizard King’s former bandmates.
Come 1975, “Straight” James Williamson, Iggy’s writing partner for the Stooges’ rock manna masterpiece Raw Power, convinced some folks to let him try to do a record with his former partner and see what could happen. Songwriter Jimmy Webb, who authored of “MacArthur Park” and “Up, Up and Away”, was one of the backers and also provided use of his demo studio. Everything was set to go save for one thing: Iggy, who had checked into UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute (NPI) for help. Williamson figured it would be no problem for Iggy to do his vocals on weekend leaves — which is precisely what happened.
Like the blurred aura of Gene Clark’s 1974 masterpiece No Other, Kill City manages to capture a cocaine and liquor drenched mid-1970s Los Angeles, simultaneously through the angled glint of a hangover and the hazy façade of a buzz. Kill City doesn’t quite reach the heights of the albums it fell between — the twin rock monoliths of Raw Power (1973) and The Idiot (1977), Iggy’s first truly solo outing (aided and abetted by David Bowie) — but it is nevertheless a compelling, if often misunderstood, listen.
Bursting out of the gate, the title track establishes time and place with a rollickingly good and slightly funky guitar and piano hybrid, backed by the firm backbeat of future Motels drummer Brian Glascock. Augmented by oddly Young Americans-like backing vocals by the Sales Brothers (who would serve as rhythm section for The Idiot and Lust for Life, and eventually for David Bowie’s late-1980s career detour Tin Machine). Iggy states his wide-eyed but not naive view of L.A., clinching it all with “the scene is fascination / And everything’s for free / ‘Til you wind up in some bathroom / overdosed and on your knees”. Ouch.
From here on the album takes several turns, through some dragging and drifting altered states (“Sell Your Love”, “No Sense of Crime”), unreleased Stooges tunes (“I Got Nothin’ “, here given an odd gospel, King Curtis via Exile on Main Street arrangement; “Johanna”), moody incidental music worthy of Edward D. Wood, Jr. and Ray Dennis Steckler (“Night Theme”, “Master Charge”), and three worthwhile nuggets of gold: “Beyond the Law”, “Consolation Prizes”, and “Lucky Monkeys”.
“Beyond the Law” is a tamer version of some of the material on the second side of the Stooges’ second album, Fun House, with wailing and stuttering sax keeping a desperate melody while jolly piano and sharp Williamson guitar hold down the backline and Glascock does his best impression of Rock Action. “We don’t believe in anything / We don’t stand for nothin’,” Iggy’s warns. “Can anybody hear me when I call? / The real scene is out beyond the law.” Maybe it doesn’t make total sense, but nihilism in rock and roll never quite grooved like this or seemed so hummable.
Roaring out of the backward drums and whirring synths of “Night Theme (reprise)”, “Consolation Prizes” might be the most underrated Iggy song next to “Cold Metal” (from 1988’s Instinct) and features some of Williamson’s best chording since “Cock in My Pocket,” reinforced by Thurston’s thick piano and Glascock’s excellent drumming. Evoking a midnight ride on the 405 while screaming on black beauties, Iggy roughly admits “Teen magazines won’t let me be / And now I feel so clean but they’re always digging dirt on me” while sounding only the least but smug. The irresistible hooks of the song only make the Southern California down-on-the-up experience of the tune that much more surreal.
The minor-keyed, blues-harmonica-and-piano-led “Lucky Monkeys” leads the album out on an unsteady note. With all of the processing and effects layered on to his vocals, Iggy often sounds like he’s at the bottom of a swimming pool on the record (sometimes empty, sometimes full). But here it’s as though he’s broadcasting through a crap transistor radio, cruising down a nameless boulevard at 3 A.M., heading to the Santa Monica Pier, perhaps to drive off of it or maybe to just look at the moonlight reflecting off the sea. As the music draws itself to a close in the form of a question, “Master Charge” ends the proceedings while the credits roll, a musical smirk that wraps itself up in slide guitars and foggy synths. Fade out and fade to black.
Supposedly Iggy was none too pleased with Kill City when he finally came to and heard the results, and the album was not released until Williamson, allegedly noticing just how well The Idiot and Lust For Life were doing, cut a deal with Greg Shaw of Bomp! Records for its release in November 1977. Apparently Iggy wasn’t too offended, as he and Williamson would again collaborate on 1979’s New Values, and Iggy even sometimes still does “Kill City” in concert (but, alas, no “Consolation Prizes”). Sadly, though, both CD versions of Kill City (one of which pairs it with I’m Sick of You, another Bomp! release), are taken off of vinyl, making one wonder just what may have happened to the master tapes. A remixed and remastered Kill City (not unlike what Iggy did to Raw Power) wouldn’t be bad thing at all, but one wonders if the tapes have merely disintegrated under the weight of their own existence. Judging from the fact that Iggy himself barely survived that period of his history, it wouldn’t be at all surprising.