July 1971. With the Stooges crippled by drugs and two future classics released to indifference, Elektra pulled the plug, and the group disbanded. The Stooges’ resurrection in 1972 — now on CBS/Columbia — was an unholy perversion of the natural order in which failed bands didn’t come back from the dead. MainMan, a management company, tried to break David Bowie in the US, so he scooped up his friend Iggy Pop as a sop to Bowie and burnish the Englishman’s credentials in the far heavier US scene. Pop then finagled a full Stooges reunion, and the executives were so thrilled to have a group of proven losers on the roster that they allowed drug-addled Pop to produce and mix the new album, Raw Power. They insisted Bowie step in to remix it only to have him somehow either work from an oddly mixed tape or botch the remix. Then the execs had the Stooges play only a single gig in the four months after the album’s release.
It’s hard to believe that anyone believed that the Stooges still had a shot, but here they are on Cherry Red’s new four-disc box-set — Born in a Trailer — studiously rehearsing a wide array of new songs across late 1972-early 1973. The box-set complements Cherry Red’s 2020 box-set — You Think You’re Bad, Man? — which documented the Stooges’ briefly reinvigorated corpse staggering and collapsing live on stage across summer 1973-winter 1974. By contrast with the dissolute live entity, the Stooges in rehearsal were strikingly industrious. These recordings still carry that talismanic ‘lost album’ energy that makes one wonder what a fit and healthy Stooges — who didn’t lose their record label and management in mid-1973 — might have done next.
Disc One looks intimidating with 13 takes of “I Got a Right”. Though the labeling needs cleaning up — “slow”’ is another false start, one “false start” solidifies into a full take, “different drums” means a couple of extra fills, “different vocals” means Pop’s usual whooping over the outro — the song really is an awesome spray of fuck you energy. Beyond the archeological fascination, several other songs leaven the disc. The best is “I’m Sick of You”, on which Pop matches the contemptuous dismissiveness of his lyrics with a lethargic delivery that could start to drag if not for a startling mid-song pivot. The band dive headfirst down a helter-skelter of descending notes, then push the energy higher with a skeletal solo, final eruption, and exhausted reprise.
“Gimme Some Skin” is well known but a great sliver of pure punk spite. “Scene of the Crime” walks a funky hip-swinging groove in a straight line then fades before it can lose its shine. “Tight Pants” is a vestigial version of Raw Power’s “Shake Appeal” (Pop needs a bit more time with pen ‘n’ paper). Then there are loose workouts on “Louie Louie” and “Money”, plus a swift desecration of “Surfin’ Bird” — all fun but nothing more.
Disc Two sees the band pummeling away at five songs (plus an undistinguished cover of “Can’t Turn You Loose”) ready for their US comeback show. Its main virtue is reinforcing Disc One’s message of how much sweat and intelligence the band put into their music. As they did on stage, the Stooges’ warp and distend songs allowing Pop space to get wild without the band missing a beat. Pop repeatedly lets the intros and instrumental interludes run long, forcing the band to hold their shape and unspool until he snaps them into the next section. Seven minutes into “Gimme Danger”, Pop is still yelling instructions tightening and honing the song. An even weightier example of the Stooges’ craft is a 17-minute medley of “I Need Somebody” with Pop instructing them (“it’s your job to hold them back!”) before heading into some vocal ad-libbing and improvising.
Ignoring four takes of Raw Power songs, Disc Three and Four are where things really enter “imaginary fourth album” territory, and certain songs would be resurrected in definitive form on Pop and Williamson’s 1975 album Kill City. It’s a cliché to say that a band’s industriousness went unnoticed and ridiculous to claim it when they were making determined efforts to look like trash. It’s still remarkable, however, that the Stooges had an album and change of serviceable songs at a time when demonic hedonism and terminal boredom were winnowing the band down to the final fumes of their talent. Though that isn’t to say there’s a future where these songs would have been the catalyst for superstardom. Rather, with a few exceptions, they’re the raw matter that could in some unknown reality have been transmuted into gold.
“Rubber Legs”, “She Creatures of the Hollywood Hills”, and “Cock in My Pocket” are cases of the band increasingly leaning into reheated and undistinguished rock ‘n’ roll. I despise the boogie-woogie piano that came to the fore at this time, the repetition of a tiny array of tricks adds little, and the shrillness often either overwhelms the band or weakens their pulsating rock power. Elsewhere, Pop’s waywardness forces the band to keep everything structurally simple, at the expense of dynamism or subtlety. Examples of this are “Cry for Me” (aka “Pinpoint Eyes”), which stays at walking pace with no fresh angles or detours to offer, and “She Creatures of the Hollywood Hills”, which is a flat canvas over which the band throw piano vamps or guitar solos wherever new ideas should be.
There’s also a bit of disposable fussing about. “Jesus Loves the Stooges” is a lighthearted bar-room instrumental, while “Mellow Down Easy” is up-tempo but still only has a single idea. “Born in a Trailer” (aka “I Come From Nowhere”) improvises around truly vestigial ideas, a leaden mess dragged out for seven minutes. “Hey Baby” is similar but short enough to be fun. Disc Four even includes a sequence — “I’m So Glad”, “Old King Live Forever”, “Look So Sweet”, “I’m a Man”, “Move Ass Baby” — which only just warrant inclusion given they’re a record of Pop alone, without the Stooges, rehearsing with some unknown guitarist. It’s a novelty rather than an exciting listen.
Luckily, good artists don’t turn bad overnight, and there’s still a core of great music here. Lyrically, Pop was adrift in a land where women and drugs were both pain and salve, a combination from which he could still conjure drama. “Open Up and Bleed” exhorts one or another personal demon to “tell me lies and place your lovin’ arms around me”. Meanwhile, “Cry For Me” (aka “Pinpoint Eyes”) sees Pop twist cliched dwelling on a lover’s eyes into guilty confession before plunging into the blunt ugliness of his situation. “Next thing I knew I was into skag / I was flat on my ass.” On “Wild Love”, Pop sounds thoroughly enlivened and is matched by a band able to follow him down to a complete halt then rev back up to another mad dash with Scott Asheton on particularly fine form.
“Open Up and Bleed” is unique in that it pushes toward a sense of the epic that the Stooges had never previously reached, Pop’s flailing for safety, honesty, hope, always met by music surging toward explosion or dissipation. “Johanna” shows promise too, with a restrained piano casting a twilight mood behind the heavy clip of the main riff — a perfect merger of aggression and balladry. “Till the End of the Night” also intrigues as Pop tip-toes through the verses with curious gentility making it even more startling when the band launches into a full savage attack.
It must be said that there are obvious frustrations with this box-set. First, the recordings have been picked over multiple times in the past few decades (three discs here are identical to those featured on a 2005 box-set.) Second, there’s a wealth of leftovers from this era (see Stooges Detroit Circulating Tapes) that emerged on the Bomp! and Revenge labels in far more need of this comprehensive tidying up. Third, it’s a weird grab-bag taken from very different scenarios that don’t necessarily hang together: an album session in ’72, an intended live set, the audition tape, assorted rehearsals. The strengths of this box-set, however, are that it’s a very fairly priced, well-packaged gathering of the Stooges final run of unreleased songs, with decent liner notes, and filled with music that deserves to be resurfaced and reprised.