Graded on a Curve:
Iggy Pop, The Idiot

Celebrating Iggy Pop on his 75th birthday.Ed.

David Bowie was a great artist, but he was also an appropriator and opportunist, and was not above exploiting his friends to achieve his own goals. Take Iggy Pop. Pop had been floundering since the Stooges dissolved, and found himself in Berlin with Bowie who, like Pop, was trying to fight both his drug demons and find his way to a new sound, which would emerge in 1977’s Low. But before Low he produced Pop, as much out of self-interest as friendship. As he would say later, “Poor Jim, in a way, became a guinea pig for what I wanted to do with sound.”

Fortunately for Pop, their creative collaboration—for their sessions were much, much more than Bowie’s simply using Pop as a laboratory animal for musical experimentation—resulted in 1977’s The Idiot, a work of genius and a radical departure from Pop’s frankly self-destructive proto-punk with the Stooges. Indeed, it was so radical it skipped punk entirely, and disappointed plenty of people who thought Pop should have been taking advantage of a sound and attitude he had helped to foment.

The Idiot would have been unthinkable to anyone familiar with Pop’s previous personae as rock’s wildebeest, who flung himself about to the frenetic roar produced by the Stooges, seemingly oblivious to the physical and psychic damage he was inflicting upon himself. On The Idiot, the roar of guitars was replaced by a funky and robotic foray into more Apollonian territory, with Pop singing over Kraftwerk-flavored art rock, quieter tunes some with Gothic overtones, and even proto-industrial electronica.

Most of its songs would be celebrated by proponents of the various genres of post-punk, demonstrating conclusively just how far ahead of its time it was. On a bummer of a note, it was even the soundtrack to Joy Division singer Ian Curtis’ suicide, as it was found spinning in the room where Curtis hanged himself.

Opener “Sister Midnight” is based on a riff by guitarist Carlos Alomar and is actually funky, and reminds me, if nobody else, of the music on Bowie’s Station to Station. “Calling Sister Midnight,” sings Pop to the accompaniment of a gargantuan bass riff, “Well I’m an idiot for you.” Meanwhile Carlos Alomar plays a droning guitar solo and Iggy goes all Oedipal over mom, his deep baritone growing more frantic as the song goes on.

The song ends with Iggy making bird noises, then segues into the pneumatic and Teutonic funk of “Nightclubbing,” an autobiographical song about Pop and Bowie’s night-time carousing in the decadent clubs of 1970s West Berlin. Alomar supplies a completely unhinged and prolonged guitar solo, while Pop sings, “We learn dances/Brand new dances/Like the nuclear bomb” and Alomar returns to spray more guitar feedback all over the place. As for the percussion, it came in the form of an old rhythm machine used at the initial session. Bowie saw it as a placeholder, but Iggy liked it so much he insisted they leave it in place.

“Funtime” is a rollicking number about having a rollicking good time, with Iggy singing, “Hey I’m feeling lucky tonight/I’m gonna get stoned and run around” while the backing vocalists punctuate his every utterance. Then Alomar comes through with a pair of savage solos, the latter of which finds the backing singers crying, “Wooooaaah!” and screaming before the song ends with a shout. (Note to reader: I’m assuming Alomar is playing the solos, which I suspect were overdubbed after the initial sessions, during which Phil Palmer played guitar. But the album’s credits have long been a source of dispute, and I could be wrong.)

“Baby” also has a Bowie-like feel to it, probably because he wrote the music, but it’s my least favorite song on the LP, a lullaby that Pop sings alternately in his usual singing voice and his abyss of a baritone. The lyrics are bereft of interesting imagery, and the song just sorta sits there, a placeholder between “Funtime” and the great “China Girl.” I admit I used to prefer Bowie’s later, sleeker version of the latter, but Pop’s bravura vocal performance really brings the bizarre lyrics (for a love song, anyway) to life. “I’d stumble into town/Just like a sacred cow/Visions of swastikas in my head”—there are some sentiments you’re not likely to encounter in your average love song, by Toto say.

The ticky-tacky Asian-flavored percussion used to annoy me, but now what I hear is a guy willing to throw it all away in a screaming, “It’s in the white of my eyyyyyeeeee!” “I’ll give you television,” he tells his china girl, “I’ll give you eyes of blue/I’ll give you men who want to rule the world” before she tells him to hush and Bowie comes in on saxophone and synthesizer and Alomar again plays an extended solo, over which rides a clichéd Asian riff.

Side Two opens with “Dum Dum Boys,” in which Iggy memorializes his former band mates in the Stooges. He begins the song by summarizing their sad fates, after which the song throbs to the rhythm of a great bass and monumental guitar riff and Pop remembers the first time he ever caught sight of the boys in the band. “But we’d sing da-da-da-da-da-da-da dumb dumb day,” sings Pop, before singing, “Then the sun goes down/And the boys broke down,” casualties of the drugs and alcohol that Iggy, seemingly indestructible, inexplicably survived.

He concludes the song on a note of loss and longing: “Now I’m looking for the dumb dumb boys/Where are you now when I need your noise?” Pop may have taken a turn towards the avant garde and art rock, but part of him couldn’t help but look back, and miss bygone days, when hit the stage (as Lester Bangs described him) like a “blowtorch in bondage,” raw power seeking a way to exorcise his demons on stage.

The ballad “Tiny Girls” raises the same question as Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”: to wit, just how tiny are we talking? Palm sized? Garden gnome sized? The song is dominated by Bowie’s saxophone, which opens the song in a long passage before Iggy enters stage left, singing about tiny girls before Bowie takes over on sax again. And that’s it. Meanwhile, “Mass Production” is early industrial electronica, and grinds ominously along like a factory suddenly gone melodic, Iggy riding over the hieroglyphic noise, singing about how he likes to drive on the freeway.

I have no idea how Bowie and Pop achieved the song’s unique sound; I suspect Alomar and a synthesizer are running the show, especially during the sublimely weird instrumental passage, which makes you feel like you’re on the floor of the ocean in a doomed submarine that is sending out an SOS. Meanwhile Iggy grows more frantic as the synthesizers and guitar go about their monstrous business. This song is the future, and the future is bleak; it’s the aural equivalent of East Germany, the border guards of which the pair could see from their recording studio on the roofs across the nearby Berlin Wall.

Pop has called The Idiot his “album of freedom,” and it’s easy to see why. He no longer had to play for the high stakes exacted by his self-destructive personae in the Stooges; that road led to death and I think he knew it. On The Idiot he unveiled a new self, one that didn’t have a fast-approaching “use by” date on it.

And contrary to the common wisdom, Pop brought authentic avant garde bona fides to the table—the notion that Bowie was wholly responsible for “taming” Iggy, and more or less using him as a sock puppet, is an erroneous one, despite Bowie’s description of Iggy as a guinea pig for his own new musical ideas. And yet the freed Pop obviously felt a tinge of ambiguity about his new direction; it’s right there in “Dum Dum Boys,” in which he nostalgically evokes his old Stooges band mates and sings, “Where are you now when I need your noise?” Where indeed?


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