Explore Iggy Pop’s sordid meat-covered past with this double-CD anthology spanning 40 years of blood, sex and oh yes, some cracking tunes
Iggy Pop has never seemed very comfortable with revisiting his past. Currently a keen golfer and classical scholar whose sole vices are t’ai chi and a nightly glass of red wine (“If I have two, I’ll get loopy and start talking about my penis”), he seems keen to distance himself from his reputation as what he once heart-warmingly called “the fucked-up godfather of nihilistic horseshit”. Exactly just how fucked up Iggy has been is almost impossible to properly comprehend, but he remains one of rock’s true greats: a sinewy icon with skin like shoe leather, a chest covered with self-inflicted welts and the constitution of a mid-sized rhinoceros.
Born James Newell Osterberg in Muskegon, Michigan in 1947 (like Eminem he was raised in a Detroit trailer park), he’s inspired everyone from Television (whose first single, ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ was a tribute) to the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, The White Stripes and Green Day. As well as inventing punk ten years early, though, Iggy expanded the boundaries of what is considered acceptable stagecraft: he was probably the first singer to inject heroin onstage, almost certainly the first to have sex in front of a paying audience and definitely the first to halt a gig to rub his naked torso with raw hamburger meat and peanut butter, as he did at the Cincinnati Pop Festival in 1970. Early shows with his band The Stooges saw him emerge with a shaved head, dressed in women’s underwear and ballet slippers, banging a huge industrial oil drum with a hammer.
In February 1974, Iggy took the somewhat curious step of promoting one of The Stooges’ last gigs by appearing on a local radio station and offering to fight an entire chapter of a local motorcycle gang. The bloody result was immortalised on ‘Metallic KO’, a bootlegged live album with a cover featuring a photo of Pop unconscious after being pelted with eggs, beer, glass and, somewhat incredibly, a shovel.
It was around this time that Iggy reached his personal nadir, checking himself in to a mental home. Indeed, the description in his autobiography of his typical daily routine in the early-’70s is beyond startling: “There are things I don’t remember,” he reminisces. “I’d wake up with bumps on the head, blood on my shirt and something green coming out of my penis.” With The Green Discharge Years in mind, then, it is perhaps little wonder that Pop is so wary of looking back. The other reason, as this career-spanning 37-track double-CD retrospective proves, is that even Iggy’s staunchest advocates would have a hard time arguing that he’s made all that many decent albums since the late 1970s.
Skipping his time in high school frat-rockers The Iguanas (where he got the first part of his name), the Rolling Stones-style Prime Movers and a period living in a sewer in Chicago playing drums with various bluesmen, this compilation commences with three tracks from the first Stooges album. Inspired equally by The Doors, LSD and the noise of Detroit car plants, The Stooges played their first show on Halloween 1967, narrowly escaped death driving a 14ft truck under a 13ft bridge and fluked a major-label record contract when Elektra executives came to Detroit to sign the MC5. Their debut album, produced by Velvet Underground bassist John Cale, combined primitive proto-metal with over-amped blues and raga rock: ‘1969’, ‘No Fun’ and ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ are peerless pieces of 20th-century suburban American art played by the kind of bored kids who pull the wings off flies for fun.
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The fact that there’s only one song, ‘Down On The Street’, compiled here from The Stooges’ second album – sprawling, avant-noise jazz-metal masterpiece ‘Funhouse’ – is a small quibble when that LP is re-released with a multitude of extra tracks next month anyway, but it seems a shame it’s so under-represented. Still, following ‘Funhouse’’s poor sales and Iggy’s worsening heroin addiction, The Stooges disintegrated and Iggy was persuaded by fan David Bowie to relocate to London. There he recruited a new Stooges line-up and made ‘Raw Power’, an album intended to be physically punishing to listen to; he almost succeeded, but the original mix was limp and weedy. The versions here of ‘Gimme Danger’, ‘Raw Power’ and ‘Search And Destroy’ (aka The One From The Nike Ad) are taken from the re-released remixed version, though, and are among the most dense and exciting rock songs ever recorded.
Further drug problems saw The Stooges split once more and Iggy move to LA, sleeping rough and recording the song ‘Kill City’ with former Stooge James Williamson, before checking in to the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. Here, he was rescued by Bowie and the pair decided to move to Berlin together in 1976. Bowie’s increasing interest in metronomic electronic-tinged German bands like Can and Faust were highlighted in Iggy’s Bowie-produced first solo album, a wonderfully austere collection of insectoid funk called ‘The Idiot’. Made on a diet of cheap speed, bratwurst sausages and Bavarian black bread, the likes of ‘Nightclubbing’, ‘Funtime’, ‘China Girl’ and ‘Sister Midnight’ have a kind of detached, loping menace that he’s never matched since. Less chilly are the songs here from ‘Lust For Life’, Iggy’s second album of 1977. Again recorded in Berlin with Bowie, it sold well in the UK, where Iggy was heralded as a punk pioneer and figurehead. The tense title track (aka The One From Trainspotting), ‘The Passenger’’s sci-fi reggae and the glammy ‘Some Weird Sin’ close ‘A Million In Prizes’’ first CD, neatly providing a convenient quality watershed. Because, frankly, Iggy had a terrible ’80s. He’s not the only one, of course – former accomplice Bowie resorted to wearing tights in a Jim Henson movie with a talking dog – but Iggy’s post- ‘Lust For Life’ solo albums jump between new wave, lounge, synth-pop, disco, punk and rockabilly with a disappointingly high level of inconsistency. The generous-minded could argue that albums like 1983’s ‘Blah Blah Blah’, the sleeve to which thanks a member of perma-tanned Brummie Thatcherites Duran Duran for the loan of a drum machine, were a satire on crass ’80s chart-pop swill. After all, Iggy has never been anything less than vocal about his contempt for most of his contemporaries (“Today’s rock is just embarrassing. It’s just white men on MSG”). But spoof or not, there is still something deeply sad about the fact that Iggy’s biggest UK hit remains his cover of anaemic ’50s rocker ‘Real Wild Child’ – and the fact that he looked so square in the video.
Things improved slightly from the ’90s onwards. Although it features a back-cover photo in which he’s airbrushed to look a very unconvincing 24, ‘Brick By Brick’ featured an appearance from Slash and Duff from Guns N’Roses, but balanced meatheaded metal chops with snappy pop tunes. Grunge bands lined up to pay tribute and movie directors asked him to provide scene-stealing cameos (particularly in Jim Jarmusch’s existentialist western Dead Man). Although he’s never again succeeded in finding a foil of the quality of The Stooges’ Asheton brothers or Bowie, his appearances on records by At The Drive-In and Peaches were undoubted highlights of the last few years, but neither of them feature here. Also disappointing is the way in which ‘…Prizes’ glosses over Iggy’s weird orchestral mid-life crisis album, only picking one song from 1999’s ‘Avenue B’, a record which was nothing if not a brave failure. Still, now reunited and touring again with another line-up of The Stooges, Iggy at last seems to be coming to terms with the fact that the foundation of his legend is not just based on his reputation as a bottomless drug-dustbin, but also as one of the most original, feral and charismatic singers of the last 40 years. It’s a legend that at least 50 per cent of ‘A Million In Prizes’ upholds effortlessly, providing a perfect opportunity to explore Pop’s past.