In his sleevenotes to the Iggy Pop retrospective, The A&M Recordings, veteran critic Dave Thompson charts the musical life of a punk rocker before the word became flesh.

For 40 years, since he first led the Stooges out of mid-'60s Motor City, to prove there was more to Detroit than cars, bars and Motown, Iggy Pop has been a legend.

The tales that take him to such heights are legion. "Iggy Pop," the man himself later reflected, "was this guy who… used to stick pencils in himself, throw peanut butter, puke and do crazy things, play wild music." There was more. Broken glass and candle wax, broken teeth and death dives from the amplifiers, headlong into an audience that was too scared to catch him - Iggy Pop, the papers said, was a one man self-demolition squad, and his Stooges were the wrecking ball from which he swung.

"I guess you’d call it Punk Rock," Iggy mused. "Although it wasn’t called that at the time." Instead, it was a brain-charring noise that slashed so gloriously through the naval-gazing of the late '60s rock scene that the band’s two albums (a self-titled set and the leviathan Funhouse) sound as frighteningly vital today, as they were demented and demanding back then. When the Stooges broke up in 1970, most observers were simply amazed they’d survived that long.

Two years later, the Stooges were back. 1973’s Raw Power continued the band’s beautiful, bludgeoning ballet and, if history had gone according to plan, Elton John was in line to oversee their next record. But the band broke up once again, shattered on the bottle-strewn stage immortalized across the Metallic KO live album, and Iggy sank into a dark world of rumor, a shadowy Godfather for Punk’s first generation, but alive more in theory than anything approaching fact.

And then he returned, riding two new albums in the space of eight months. The Idiot and Lust For Life were both created with David Bowie, but they were Iggy’s show regardless… when the pair toured together in spring 77, Bowie never uttered a word. He just chainsmoked at the side of the stage, playing keyboards; a lot of people didn’t even know he was there. Iggy was back.


For all his notoriety, however, Iggy Pop never used to get played on the radio, and that bothered him. "Radio neglect has hurt me more than anything else. I’ve written some great songs, and I know if more people had heard my music back when…." In 1985, he decided to do something about that. "I realized it was very important that this record sound as polished, as competitive as possible. I didn’t want there to be any obvious reasons why it shouldn’t get on the radio."

He picked his collaborators carefully. Renting a house in LA, he hooked up with Steve Jones, the former Sex Pistols guitarist, and the pair spent four months demoing songs. Then, back in New York, he called up David Bowie, and played him the tapes. A month later, the pair was kicking off a six-month working holiday, flitting between the Caribbean and Switzerland, swimming and skiing, writing and demoing.

Then Bowie booked the pair into his own favorite hideaway, Mountain Studios in Montreaux, and brought Queen’s engineer, David Richards, in to co-produce with him. He pulled musicians from his own band, guitarist Kevin Armstrong and Turkish multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay; and, just two weeks after the tapes started rolling, Blah Blah Blah was complete.

Iggy drew the album from both the stockpile of songs he’s written with Jones - the rock anthems "Cry For Love," "Winners And Losers" and "Fire Girls"; and the newer material he’d created with Bowie: "Isolation," "Hideaway," "Baby It Can’t Fail," "Blah Blah Blah," "Shades." The first thing that his public was going to hear, however, was a cover.

The debut single from the album was "Real Wild Child," written back in 1958 by Jerry Allison, a member of Buddy Holly’s Crickets, and Iggy quickly proved that he intended living up to its title with a vengeance. Promoting the record in the UK, he managed to get himself banned from both the flagship music show Top Of The Pops (for damaging a piano by dancing on it), and the entire ITV network (for simulating sex with a giant stuffed teddy bear). But the single was a hit regardless, and when Blah Blah Blah followed in onto the streets, the reviews were as excited as the album itself.

Iggy toured relentlessly behind Blah Blah Blah, while a string of further singles flew off the album - he’d never released so many from one record, but they did the trick. They kept him on the radio, while the extended 12-inch mixes (gathered together here for the first time on CD) ensured he was never far away from the club circuit either. By the time he was ready to begin work on his next album, Iggy Pop was quite possibly closer to household name status than he’d ever been in his life.

He celebrated his insurgence with a dynamic return to basics. Instinct was so titled, he said, because it was instinctual. Linking up with New York producer Bill Laswell, and drawing Steve Jones back into the fold, Iggy kicked off the new record with a statement of intent as ferocious as any he had ever delivered in the past, the grinding "Cold Metal." The remainder of Instinct simply followed on from there.

Laswell later explained, "this was not complicated music. It was more about overall feel and energy than about a precision performance," and that is precisely what they delivered, a testosterone-driven monster that commenced the battering at the start of the disc, and didn’t let up till the end. And if the studio recordings were incendiary, the live show was positively explosive.

Iggy had a new band together as he hit the road - guitarist Alvin Gibbs, from British punks UK Subs; bassist Andy McCoy from Hanoi Rocks, keyboard player Seamus Beaghen and drummer Paul Garristo. Together, they blazed.

Iggy had not released a live album since 1978’s TV Eye. Exactly 10 years later, A&M decided it was time to release another and, although Live At The Channel (recorded in Boston on July 19, 1988) was only ever intended as a promotional release, to be handed round to journalists and favored media contacts, its reputation quickly spread a lot further.

It captured a classic live set, new material rubbing up against the old, and bringing with it the freshness that Iggy always demanded from his concert performances. Onstage, everything sounded like a long-loved classic, and so "Instinct" swooped into "Kill City"; the band slammed out of "Penetration" and into "Power And Freedom"; and, to close the show, the crowd hung almost breathless as Iggy swerved from "Squarehead" into "I Wanna Be Your Dog." It was effortless, seamless, peerless, and the show was over.

But Iggy was still just beginning. Blah Blah Blah and Instinct marked a career rebirth that finally hauled him away from the cult status that had surrounded him for so long; placed him among that rare breed of performers who were as comfortable shaking up classic rock radio, as they were teaching the kids how it’s done on the hippest new alternative show.

From Brick By Brick to Skull Ring, from reissues of Raw Power to the reformation of the Stooges, Iggy Pop remains one the most uniquely individual performers, and breathtakingly brilliant showmen that rock ’n’ roll has ever produced. And this package shows you why.

Note: Veteran music writer Dave Thompson is a regular contributor writing on hard-to-find rarities. Dave is the author of many well reviewed rock biographies, including the recent Virgin Books' Red Hot Chili Peppers biography, works on The Cure and Kurt Cobain. He wrote Cream: The World's First Supergroup which was published early last year. In the past, Dave has written for Live! Music Review and he is also a regular contributor to Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q magazines. Click here to buy Dave's e-books.

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August 17, 2007