1977: The Year Pop Broke - 'Lust For Life' And 'The Idiot' Re-Assessed
It was in The Stooges, over three albums between ‘69 and ‘73, that we would see the first phase of the Byronic rock ‘n’ roll reptile they call Iggy. The Stooges made a whacked-out kind of bastard music, the likes of which had certainly never been heard before.
The most vital American rock band of the era, their gravelly tones not only predate punk, but transcend it; the group captured a certain kind of sweaty, frustrated teen angst, and combined that with scorching rock that always buzzed with an special kind of danger. The riffs were taut, the basslines like a smack in the chops, and the drums concrete, but the star of the show was Iggy Pop.
Imagine Jim Morrison’s testosterone-fuelled bravado and times it by six hundred and sixty six; that was Iggy. Live, he’d cover himself in peanut butter, and he’d writhe, bellow and shriek in pursuit of rock ‘n’ roll divinity.
For my money, his best moment comes on the ‘Raw Power’ album’s ‘Gimme Danger’: amidst a towering middle 8, Iggy belts out an ever escalating “daaaa-nger! Daaaa-ger!” Pure catharsis. He’d turn a very infantile frustration into something far bigger, and far greater.
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But all common knowledge dictates thus; the brighter a star shines, the faster it burns out. This was certainly the case for The Stooges. After the Bowie-produced ‘Raw Power’, the band’s power struggles and drug problems became too much for the band to continue; catty and infantile, the band would sell each other’s equipment to pay for heroin. After a fight at their last gig, as documented on the live album ‘Metallic KO’, The Stooges broke up.
What happened to Iggy? Could this punk singer that captured the imagination like no other just slip away into nothingness? Well, initially, yes. Between 1973 and 1975, before making ‘Kill City’ with James Williamson (which wouldn’t come out til ‘77, anyway, and isn’t really worthy of further mention), Iggy was in a creative wilderness. Drug dependencies and the dissolution of The Stooges left the singer in a bad way, almost reaching a total point, as he checked himself into a neuropsychiatric hospital. But what came next wouldn’t be the total collapse of The Godfather of Punk; it would be total rebirth.
David Bowie, who had produced The Stooges’ ‘Raw Power’, was a longtime friend of Iggy’s. After visiting him in the hospital, David Bowie invited Iggy to join him on his 1976 Station to Station tour. With both of them suffering problems with drug addiction, the pair moved to Berlin, to get away from their respective addictions. Indeed, necessity is the mother of invention, and this duo leaving the US was totally necessary. David Bowie’s Berlin period is revered for the immortal triptych of records he released there; often considered to be his best. However, Iggy Pop’s Berlin albums ‘The Idiot’ and ‘Lust for Life’ is its own special renaissance, and the electric chemistry that the duo had really can’t be understated.
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Working with Bowie, Iggy Pop spent the majority of 1977 working on these two records. It’s rare that the reinvention of a feral punk icon can feel so fresh, but listening back to ‘The Idiot’ and ‘Lust for Life’, we hear some of the most refreshing alternative rock records of all time. They’re Iggy’s own Berlin diptych, and deserve a place of special reverence in the canon of musical history.
‘The Idiot’ is the sound of total rebirth. Smattered with seedy jazz and dazzling vaudeville, it mangles a dirty rock core with something way more interesting. It’s said that Bowie’s fingerprints are all over this, but that does Iggy a disservice. David Bowie certainly took the “role of a director”, but it’s about the whole production. Iggy Pop is the lead actor, cinematographer and screenwriter all at once.
The duo co-wrote all of the material, before infusing it with the unique energy that Iggy Pop can bring to a record. It’s a very dark, brooding and tightly guarded album, but with every listen, the chaos feels more and more orderly.
‘Dum Dum Boys’ is the most poignant song on the record; powerful and unflinching in confronting the torrid four years that had gone up in smoke post-Stooges, it’s a lament to lost friends. Every listen is sure to induce goosebumps unto even the biggest of Iggy-sceptics. In the spoken word intro, Iggy asks: “What happened to Zeke? He’s dead on Jones, man. How about Dave? OD’d on alcohol.” He recounts the tragic demise of his former bandmates atop rhythmic clicking and somber piano, before yowling that “things have been tough without the Dum Dum Boys”.
Yet whilst he looks back, musically Iggy ploughs forward. Swampy guitar wig-outs from Carlos Alomar give the track a real druggy strut, and Iggy’s performance is magnificent. Just a matter of years after setting the template for punk singers, he had found a new voice. Wiser and older, Iggy’s singing on ‘Dum Dum Boys’ is hypnotic and totally novel, as it rises from the woozy musical detritus that his ‘Idiot’ band create.
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‘Mass Production’ is the closing track on ‘The Idiot’, and it again lays down a bold marker for a new breed of experimental rock music. As Iggy Pop despairs at modern life’s more dehumanising aspects, he thematically and musically preempts the moodier post-punk, goth-rock and industrial music that would come in the following months.
Iggy’s tilted croon sits atop a miasma of brilliant musical ideas; a dizzyingly slow guitar riff and a Bowie sax line gives the song a sordid strut, before an insane detuned repetitive synthesiser makes the track take off into heady oblivion. It essentially sounds like the Tardis would, if William Burroughs was a guest writer on an episode of Doctor Who.
That’s not to say that this album is a move away from rock music as we know it. Merely a malignant mutation. On ‘China Girl’, Iggy Pop elevates a very solid pop song into a totally cathartic masterpiece. Of course, Bowie would later turn the song into an eighties pop highlight, but under Iggy’s jurisdiction it’s drenched in fear and paranoia.
During the relatively pedestrian opening verses, Iggy sounds as though he’s about to fall asleep to the chug of Alomar’s guitar – but by the escalating middle 8, he snaps into visceral action. This song has a euphoric payoff that is sadly absent from Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ version. The lines “I’ll give you television, I’ll give you eyes of blue” come straight outta the back of Iggy’s throat, as he gargles; “I’ll ruin everything that you are”.
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Every track on this album is some kinda highlight. ‘Tiny Girls’ features some wonderful soloing by monsieur Bowie on the saxophone, whilst ‘Nightclubbing’ has a depraved strut that embodies cool, sexy and evil at the same time. Endlessly creative, there’s something new in every listen; another texture, another lyric, another sound that would go on to influence generations of sonic experimenters. It’s remarkable, then, that after releasing the album that would be the high water mark in a very great career, that Iggy Pop would release another transcendentally great record a matter of months later.
‘Lust For Life’ was released in the August of 1977. Whilst ‘Lust For Life’ it maintains a certain tilted quality, the Kafkaesque darkness is very much succeeded by the image of reckless abandon conjured by the title. ‘The Idiot’ is a lurcher of an album that slinks out of its own neuroses sneakily; ‘Lust For Life’ makes a daring run in broad daylight for freedom. ‘The Idiot’ sounds like 70s Berlin, but ‘Lust For Life’ combines this with the happy-go-lucky American smirk of the emigrating chancer.
Musically, it’s all about momentum and energy. It was written, recorded and mixed in little over a week, with Bowie taking co-writing duties yet again, and has a feeling of total spontaneity. The title track is the prime example of this; drums gallop, spurred on by an iconic bassline and high-pitched backing vocals. Iggy repeats that he’s got “a lust for life” over and over, a mantra that sees optimism creep into his music for possibly the first time ever. Perhaps most notable for its inclusion as the theme tune to the 1996 adaptation to Trainspotting (alongside ‘Nightclubbing’), there’s a very certain mood and energy that this number embodies to a generation, and rightly so.
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This momentum, the idea of forward motion, pulses through the rest of the album like a heart beating 4/4. The album’s second iconic cut, ‘The Passenger’ is a prime example of this. Atop a cantering guitar riff, Iggy’s lyrics are those of the eternal observer. Iggy Pop is ‘The Passenger’, and not only does he observe everything, but he really sees it.
The rest of ‘Lust For Life’ falls more easily into the rock category, but great songs still pop up. Bowie’s backing vocals on ‘Tonight’ harmonise with Iggy’s croon beautifully, whilst there’s a divine air of Little Richard about ‘Some Weird Sin’. Meanwhile, ‘Turn Blue’ is the song that would later give the band Warmduscher their entire sound, as a redemptive Iggy rasps; “Jesus, this is Iggy”.
It was with The Stooges then, that Iggy Pop first made an impact on the annals of musical history. However, it’s in Berlin with David Bowie, that he really found himself as an artist. ‘The Idiot’ and ‘Lust For Life’, the Berlin diptych, are Iggy’s best work; beginning with a record as dark as any other, before discovering cause for optimism, these two albums capture a snapshot of Iggy Pop’s vital redemptive arc as an artist. Endlessly inventive and brilliant as all hell, these are two of the great albums.
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Newly expanded editions of 'The Idiot' and 'Lust For Life' are out now.
Words: Cal Cashin
Photography: Barry Plummer
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