The Stooges Kick Against the Pricks All the Way Down Into Their Grave

Cherry Red's new box set finds Iggy Pop and the Stooges on their final death trip, falling apart for audiences between September 1973 and February 1974.

You Think You're Bad, Man? The Road Tapes '73-'74
Iggy and the Stooges
Cherry Red Records
20 November 2020

In 1969,
the Stooges were a truth serum, forcing hippiedom to belch up the reality that flowers and hope had become just another guise for hucksters and snake-oil salesmen to take advantage of the naïve. By 1973, however, the Stooges were no longer the mirror to an era’s hypocrisy. They were the representatives par excellence of desiccated overindulgence and self-destruction. Too many bad shows, too many blatantly underage groupies, too much booze, too high — way too high. While the Stooges’ noise-rotted nihilism, originality, and underrated musicianship have ensured their longevity, the final six months of the band, as captured on Cherry Red’s new box-set — You Think You’re Bad Man: The Road Tapes ’73 – ’74 — were a squalid and chemically-warped stagger toward total collapse.

The five live shows captured are all previously released, licensed by Tony DeFries’ MainMan management company to labels like Revenge, Bomp!, and Jungle during the 1980s and 1990s. However, this box-set is a very welcome tidying up exercise with good packaging and liner notes, all at a fair price. For decades, delving into the vast quantity of Stooges deep-cuts meant investing in a chaotic mishmash of compilations, so the 21st century has been wonderful in terms of labels (Easy Action in particular) bringing professional curation to the Stooges. This Cherry Red compilation is a part of that positive trend, and one can only hope they get a similar grip on the many studio demos still out there.

In terms of sound quality, these are tapes from the early 1970s, so it’s no surprise — and it’s also appropriate given the nastiness of the period — that they sound grimy. The best are the two shows that made up
Metallic KO, the worst are the two Double Danger discs — but everything is more than listenable, and the power of Iggy Pop as a frontman and the band as musicians shines through constantly. A further positive of the box-set is its comprehensiveness: “Cry For Me” (aka “Pinpoint Eyes”) is the only song composed after March 1973 — as far as is possible to tell — to not be present on these tapes. However, it was recorded in rehearsal as late as July 1973. These live performances capture the band transitioning from increasingly fruitless attempts to promote the Raw Power album to working up new songs that would lead nowhere.

If you’re a Stooges-virgin, then you need their three studio albums — go, go now! However, if you’re an experienced devotee of the Stooges, this is a worthy addition to the collection. Now, “come on everybody, take a trip with me,” into the nakedly honest and ruinous destruction of one of the most talismanic bands ever to bleed on stage.

Live at the Whisky: Whisky a Go Go, Los Angeles – September 16, 1973

You can’t buy a man’s soul, not even in Hollywood…You can’t buy a man’s dreams! Not even in Hollywood, USA.”

September 16 was the penultimate gig in a run of seven at West Hollywood’s Whisky-A-Go-Go. In truth, this may be a mislabel capturing the Stooges’ stint at the Whisky in late June: “She Creatures of the Hollywood Hills” was abandoned in the summer, and there’s no “Cock in My Pocket” which was consistently part of sets after July. Regardless, it’s still a powerful and competent performance despite Pop describing these months as long spells of drug abuse in low-rent motels then dashing out to do tranches of shows purely to get money to go back into hibernation.

Half the songs are from Raw Power, which had been out since February, receiving significant praise from critics and making little commercial impression. In July, the band’s chief supporter at Columbia Records — Clive Davis — was fired, and the Stooges were jettisoned. The band were also on increasingly uncivil terms with their management. MainMan’s focus was on breaking David Bowie in America. As part of that effort, they had Bowie mix Raw Power — making the Stooges’ album a sideshow to Bowie’s needs — while enhancing his ‘wild man credentials’ by publicizing his association with Pop (and with Lou Reed too). MainMan were also so scared that the Stooges would wind up in trouble that they isolated the band at a house in the Hollywood Hills and had fixers home-delivering groupies and drugs, staving off boredom at the expense of promoting Raw Power.

DeFries insisted guitarist James Williamson be fired in March — after one of only two shows the band played between their breakup in 1971 and mid-June 1973. Management claimed Williamson had assaulted a female friend of theirs. Williamson still claims they were taking revenge on him for a sour breakup. Management called in a guy called Tornado Turner (a pseudonym for the already awesomely named Sky Warnklein), who substituted for a single gig on June 15 and did such a poor job that Pop had a showdown with DeFries and insisted on Williamson’s return. Williamson was working as a porno theater projectionist, so he re-joined despite serious resentment toward Pop. Pop also accused MainMan of stealing his advance money and, having lost the whole five months since Raw Power‘s release, of actively sabotaging the album’s promotion.

The songs from Raw Power are tight, well-drilled, and effective. What’s heartening is that the Stooges were still creating powerful songs. “She Creatures of the Hollywood Hills” is a skittish, tense, and wired number that dashes along with sudden instrumental breaks striking like lightning. It’s only weakness is the sheer length. That wasn’t an uncommon feature of late-era Stooges with songs loosening up to give space for whatever extemporizing or audience baiting Pop felt like on the night. Another muscular arrival is “New Orleans” soon renamed “Heavy Liquid” once the band had supercharged it instrumentally: Pop cribbed the lyrics from a 1960 Gary U.S. Bond hit. Another feature that became common as the Stooges entered a terminal decline was a reliance on tossing together old blues and rock ‘n’ roll.

Auburn Hills: Live at Michigan Palace, Detroit – October 6, 1973

We’re the hardest working band in the business, I don’t care if we’re the best.”

By November, Iggy Pop was in free fall. He had a heroin overdose in the kitchen of MC5’s Michael Davis and woke up in a bathtub with Bebe Buell’s dogs, having shared Valium with them. PCP almost completely incapacitated him before a show in Washington DC. In Atlanta, Pop wound up unconscious in the bushes outside his hotel after a strong batch of quaaludes was injected with methamphetamine to get him on stage and was so fucked up he thought Elton John in a gorilla suit was an escaped gorilla attacking him. Without label or management, Pop further antagonized Ron and Scott Asheton by trying to force them to sign contracts to be paid on side-musician rates.

Pop’s warped interaction with audiences becomes increasingly prominent across these recordings. There’s a lot of cheering at the Whisky, but by October, he spends a lot of time reacting to audience taunts and provoking further antagonism. Sometimes the audience seems to start it. Other times he only needed the slightest encouragement. There’s always a push-pull between an audience’s appetite for spectacle and a performer’s willingness to create demand for excess: Pop took this toxic bond to the absolute limits in a game of chicken that he couldn’t fail to lose. There’s only one of him, and he was bound to die long before audiences grew sick of watching him fall.

The title Auburn Hills nods to a persistent mislabel in which the Palace of Auburn Hills — a 23,000 seater arena — was confused with the far smaller Michigan Palace. This show was the second of a two-night stand, preceding a week-long residency in Atlanta, but Pop already sounds defensive and fed up. At times, he’s defiant, celebrating how good a song like “Open Up and Bleed” is or how hard the Stooges work. At others, it’s clear that seeing his career derailed and fucked over yet again has wounded him deeply. He harks back to the band’s early years, lamenting, “it ain’t too easy being the Stooges sometimes…” He asks, “Let’s give…all the people that hate the Stooges, a chance to clap: who hates the Stooges out there?” He rambles so much that between-song interludes are labeled as separate tracks.

Despite claims that the Stooges were determined to alienate audiences by only playing new songs, there’s still a fair half-and-half mix of Raw Power highlights and new songs. Since the album sessions the previous autumn, the band had readied an album (and more) of new material — much of which they had already side-lined (for more information on unreleased Stooges, check this three-part write-up.) Throughout summer and autumn, the band would open on the adrenalin of “Raw Power” with “Head On”, coming in straight on its tail — a perfect one-two punch winding up the audience. “Head On” starts on a galloping guitar line then crashes through energetic verses and bridges, stretching to accommodate drum breaks and bass highlights, giving Pop space to improvise or ad-lib, and Williamson a chance to lay down the coruscating lead guitar.

Double Danger I: Latin Casino, Baltimore – November 1973

It’s coming, it’s coming. The whole destruction of this room and your mind is coming.”

In the Cherry Hill district of Philadelphia sat the Latin Casino nightclub, reputedly the biggest club between New York and Miami, host to Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles. But that isn’t the company the Stooges were keeping. Instead, they wound up on Baltimore’s outskirts at a different Latin Casino on Pulaski Highway. The only other information about the venue is that it was one of four nightspots owned by Greek businessman John Stratigakos, that Chuck Berry played there in 1968 and Hawkwind in 1974.

Positively, this is one of the Stooges’ few remaining good nights! The longest and hottest show on the box-set, the audience merrily responds when Pop encourages them to applaud the musicians, and they actively encourage the band to play. “Head On” goes so well that Pop extends it, building tension and throwing in improvised lines, filching a line or two from a composition called “Born in a Trailer” (aka “Nowhere”/”I Come From Nowhere”). There’s far less time than usual spent picking fights with the crowd, and the band are on fire.

However, this show is the last glimmer of creativity — there are no more new songs in the Stooges’ final months. In February and March, fruitful rehearsals had seen them whip together over a dozen compositions, but there was no money for studios after July. The shows became the rehearsals that stymied their writing — no commercial prospects meant no incentive. Pop’s increasingly sour attitude spills out on the few new songs. Building on the mood of “She Creatures of the Hollywood Hills”, “Rich Bitch” is a vindictive kiss-off to the jailbait groupies Pop was reliant on for a bed and cash. Instrumentally they’re similar in that both spiral toward the nine-minute mark elongating to accommodate noodling and scatting. While one can wince at lines spitefully claiming female sexual disposability — when “your cunt is so big you could drive through a truck” — “Rich Bitch” shows one of the underappreciated qualities of the Stooges, Pop’s ability as band leader and the band’s responsiveness: they cycle comfortably while he shoots back-and-forth with audiences, then whip seamlessly through the gears when it’s time to haul ass.

Just as revealing is “I Got Nothin”. Instrumentally, it’s the most straightforward piece of 1970s hard rock the Stooges created. Scott Thurston’s piano feathers the clean riffs, and the cooing vocal harmonies are genuinely lovely. Lyrically, it’s an admission of total devastation, of hopelessness, of penury. Pop’s decision to bring a keyboard player on board was a matter of taste (I like my Stooges without the horrible piano). But Thurston sounds thoroughly integrated and makes telling interventions. The other new songs are the sketchy (yet brutally truthful) “Wet My Bed” and the lightweight “Cock in My Pocket”. Thank God for “Open Up and Bleed”, another jagged shard of brilliance to emerge from early 1973 rehearsals. No matter what state the band are in, it’s always feisty, filled with compelling dynamic shifts, and glowering with the dark magic that makes the Stooges so beloved.

Double Danger II: Academy of Music, New York City – December 31, 1973

Ladies and gentlemen, it’ll all be soon over…”

For New Year’s Eve, the Stooges wound up at an industry event headlined by an on-the-rise Blue Öyster Cult and a hungry new band called KISS, for whom this was the first big corporate gig — they had only been playing live since January. For the Stooges, by contrast, this was last-chance saloon, a final opportunity to get back on track…And they blew it completely. I have nothing but empathy for the label reps: put yourself in their shoes, would you stake your career and salary on this batch of songs performed by this twice-sacked bunch of untrustworthy, drug-addled losers?

The mood had reached such a low that even Andy Warhol had spread the rumour that Pop would commit suicide on stage that night for a million-dollar fee. Further rumours that recording was taking place for a potential Stooges live album are unfounded given the band had no label and no one willing to invest — this is most definitely an audience tape. Incidentally, it’s one of the rare Stooges shows where video footage exists, 11 rough minutes filmed by Ivan Kral are circulating. In it, Pop is stripped to his tight white trunks, stumbling, falling down, clinging to the mic stand for dear life. Reportedly photographers in front of the stage had to prop him up and push him back up at one point.

The solidness of the Stooges’ music is still visible, but there are definitely more than moments than usual where, even with just the audio to go on, things fall apart. On “Cock in My Pocket” and “Heavy Liquid” the vocal chants and harmonies are entirely out of time. On “Gimme Danger”, Pop’s vocal ad-libs sound are messy. He winds up wolf-howling during “Rich Bitch” and even Williamson’s guitar work on “Search and Destroy” sounds rushed and perfunctory. Pop announces “I got nothing!” several times during the show, not calling for the song, more as a knowing statement of the bind he was in: semi-homeless, broke, career on the skids, monkey claws in his back so deep they were hooked on his spine.

The core of the set was the dispiriting run-through of “Rich Bitch”, “Wet My Bed”, “I Got Nothing”, and “Cock in My Pocket” — the same sequencing from November where at least the pure-fire of ‘Search And Destroy’ broke things up. ‘Wet My Bed’ would be tragic if the vision of a grown adult waking up soaked in his own effluence, the consequence of drug consumption, wasn’t played for rock ‘n’ roll jollies. Instead, it’s another slight and sketchy composition, another testament to Pop’s surrender to his all-consuming appetites, similar to “Cock in My Pocket” which, in the meanwhile, hadn’t developed or evolved at all since it appeared in the spring because there was nowhere for such a banal joke to go. Both songs are a grim reheating of Chuck Berry with honky-tonk piano poured over the top. On the upside, the band pull themselves together sufficiently on “Rich Bitch” that there’s no denying its power.

Metallic KO: Michigan Palace, Detroit – February 9, 1974

Whoever threw this glass bottle at my head, you nearly killed me, but you missed again, so you’ll have to keep trying next week.”

It’s almost unfathomable that a ten show Stooges tour of the UK, scheduled for April 30 to June 1, was announced. By February, all Iggy Pop had left — his talismanic quality — was his honesty. That’s what makes Metallic KO — first released in a truncated version in 1976 — so compelling. It captures his utter nakedness; a man stripped so bare psychologically that he would spend summer in a psych ward. There are long stretches where you can hear bottles breaking against the stage and whatever the audience had to hand hitting the backline. It’s still the finest recording of an audience turning on a band: Pop having made himself a willing target for people’s frustrations one too many times.

A spirit of violence, of abuse, had solidified into a stygian dark cloud over The Stooges’ heads. Pop was known for cutting himself and bleeding on stage — a ghoulish reputation that continued to build after he fell through a table of drinks at Max’s Kansas City, slicing himself up so badly he required hospitalization. In early 1974, in Toledo, he had twice dived off stage only for the audience to part allowing Pop to face plant on the venue floor. Then things reached a new peak at Wayne’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Farm, where he’d responded to a barrage of eggs by baiting the Scorpions motorcycle gang and wound up knocked out by a particularly burly biker. The very next day, he went on the radio and challenged the gang to show up at the Stooges’ next show — a risky move even with Williamson’s friends, the God’s Children biker gang, along to protect them from the worst.

The show cuts in partway through “Heavy Liquid” making it likely we’re missing “Raw Power” and maybe “Head On” or “Wet My Bed”. “Gimme Danger” is the only remnant of Raw Power seen here, and it still towers above everything else. The lyrical drama of the Stooges’ back catalog has been completely voided. All that’s left is deflating one-note juvenile doodles, ripped off rock ‘n’ roll clichés, and a band that has devolved so far they seem to be aiming no higher than a career as a sub-standard Rolling Stones cover band. It isn’t unreasonable that the part of the audience that wasn’t openly hostile would respond insipidly even if “I Got Nothin” and “Rich Bitch” still show the band’s promise.

“One…Two…FUCK YOU PRICKS!” Last shreds of defiance wind down to an utterly defeated Pop, reduced to negotiating with the audience, “would you rather we just ran through our programmed set and looked real slick, or would you rather we just relaxed and did ‘Louie Louie’…?” Everyone opts for the latter, and Pop surrenders with a murmur, “I never thought it would come to this…” Lyrically, the rendition of “Louie Louie” is nothing more sophisticated than schoolboy giggling at rude words, crude ad-libs doing poor service to the band’s shaky yet visible might. Metallic KO‘s shattering audio-verité captures the brutal end of an all-time great band.