The Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band Ever?
Photo courtesy of Bomp/Greg Shaw
By Dave Lang (December 1997)
It's almost frighteningly irrelevant at this point in history to even consider what I'm about to embark on, but nevertheless I feel it must be said: the Stooges were perhaps the greatest rock'n'roll group of all time. Groan all you want - bicker about what a laughably misinformed (and highly 'unfashionable') opinion that is - I wish to state my case...
I'll admit, it's taken me a long time to come around to this conclusion, long enough to make me want to forget. Being introduced to the Sex Pistols at the age of 13 by my older brother, and then quickly making my own way into the deep, dark discographies of Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Flipper, Minor Threat and the like (there was only ONE form of hardcore: American!), you could say I was heavily lobotomised by the whole punk rock gravy train.
Taking the usual route of punk to hardcore to SST/Homestead/Touch & Go (this is the late '80's here, kids) to experimental-free-jazz-whatever-the-fuck, I bypassed the Stooges all the way. My reason is simple: I'm Australian. If that begs the question, 'What?! Don't you Aussies all worship at the temple of Iggy?!', then I must state 'yes'. That's why I bypassed them. Australia has dredged up more pee-goddamn-thetic Stooges-wannabe bands than you could ever poke a stick at, and it's for that very reason that I never bothered with them. If the Stooges were the granddaddies to all this mediocrity, then I'd be sure to keep a distance. Several listens of the Bowie-mixed Raw Power at the time didn't change my opinion one iota: this band stunk.
It was only about three years ago, at the ripe old age of 22, that I decided to take the plunge. Things were being re-evaluated; the Oz-Detroit Jr. scene was becoming a distant memory, the 'indie' scene was boring the crap outta me, and the Stooges' name was being dropped in odd circles. Miles Davis dug the Stooges? A more primitive Velvets? Iggy was into Sun Ra and Harry Partch? The most noisy, nihilistic headfuck music of its time? Time to investigate...
I already knew pretty much all the songs. 'I Wanna Be Your Dog', 'No Fun', 'TV Eye'... christ, might as well be the Beatles or the Stones. I mean, everyone knows those songs, don't they? Well, let me state why indeed - after what must be a good 500 listens to their three studio albums - they encapsulate all that is important in defining them as perhaps the ultimate rock'n'roll ensemble.
Firstly, they were a freak show from hell who wilfully disgusted every square who ever stood in their way. This is an important asset. Of course not an essential asset for great music - the contrary is often the case - though when done with a certain sense of flair, being offensive can be a most important trait. These guys were pure mid-Western white trash. Trailer homes. Speed freaks. Car factories. Ugly as goddamn sin. Other bands have achieved this: the Sex Pistols ( a 10/10 rating in this area), Black Flag, hell, even the Rolling Stones had their moments of outrage, yet the Stooges were animalistic and outrageous in a purely uncalculated, instinctual manner. There was NO pre-planning here, no marketing meetings, and no ageing Situationist managers drawing up band manifestos to send off to the media.
As Lester Bangs once said, Iggy was simply a fucked-up kid who took too many drugs and wanted to have the most fucked-up band in history so as to externalise his own nihilism. Or something like that. I don't recommend such a destructive lifestyle for anyone - and I certainly don't live it myself - though it's all part of a bigger picture that I'm getting to. There were precedents in what they did: everything from Little Richard to the Troggs to the early Who, yet no one took it to such a natural extreme. The Stooges were the band to out-shock any other. Alice Cooper? It was all schtick, not the real thing. MC5? Some great records (and a real stinker), though if anything, they were the Clash to the Stooges' Sex Pistols: all phony politics, fairly 'trad' music and no sense of pure, out-of-control animalism. Too much planning, boys, back to the drawing board...
So the Stooges, from 1968 til their final dissolution in 1974, trekked across the country time and time again despite the fact that the general 'rock' audience didn't give a shit, with few contemporaries to call their own. It's this sense of total isolation and will to go it alone - the will to rock the fuck out even though NO ONE CARES - that lends the Stooges their rep as the true punkers of the '70's. There was no 'movement' and no media coverage to spur it on: it was one band against the world.
We're getting a bit too involved in context here; not such a bad thing, as context is often about 75% of what's on our mind when we listen to music, but let's get to the more important matter: the music. All this baloney about being crazy-assed wild men who'd smear peanut butter on their ass and attack the audience with drum sticks wouldn't mean a damn thing if their music stunk like a dead mule. Such is not the case here.
The kids, man, I don't understand 'em these days. They seem to be down on rock. Can you believe it? The Kids don;t want to rock?!! There seems to be a school of thought - one very popular with the British press - that Rock = Dumb = Low-grade art form for out-of-date braindead assholes. To be honest, I very rarely listen to rock music these days, especially any contemporary rock music, but as that AOR hit said: 'You're always on my mind.' Good rock'n'roll is such a rarity that when the REAL stuff hits you - and it's good - it bowls you over like you're 13 again. Once you get into your mid-twenties, believe me, that doesn't happen too often. Usually the only stuff that really moves you is the music you first heard in your youth, and anything after that is listened to for pure 'musical enjoyment'.
I guess it's called 'growing up' (I try not to think about it). I may really 'like' Faust and even dig the odd John Cage record, but they don't mean all that much to me on a personal level. They're just not communicating anything to me. It's either all stuffy intellectualism or Zappa-esque 'wackiness'; I don't hear the humanity, the wail from the gutter. The Stooges' music is pure emotionalism. It's both a cry for help and a cry of FUCK YOU. It's a middle finger to the entire universe wrapped in thundering riffs, avant-jazz rhythms and seething white noise. There's even the theory (often propogated by zine hepcats) that the Stooges - far from being back-to-basics rock'n'roll - were in fact the ultimate avant-garde band. After all, no one had ever made it THAT primitive before. It was like jungle rhythms with a plane flying overhead. Modern primitive in the most complementary sense, but then again, whether you think they were heirs to Stockhausen or merely a bunch of glue-sniffing neanderthals is not the point - low- and high-brow 'art' don't even exist in reality - the only thing that's real is that certain indefinable SOMETHING that puts a bug up yer butt and makes you move. Just whack on 'TV Eye', crank it up to 11 and I DARE you to stay still. The Stooges and Funhouse are what your piddly band you bum around in can only hope to aspire to.
This brings me to Raw Power, the belated third album originally ruined by David Bowie. You may know that it's been remixed by Iggy himself, though you may not be aware of the rampant levels of righteosity that it reaches. The bad production tragically concealed a monster for over 20 years: this is rock at its peak, its apex, it's all downhill from here, baby. This is the sound of a band beating its head against the wall til it bleeds; from 'Search & Destroy' to 'Death Trip', never before or since - no, not even Bollocks or Damaged achieved this - has a band so eloquently told the entire human race to eat shit. I would even be tempted to say that the remixed Raw Power is in fact the Stooges' best album, even surpassing the oft-referred to Funhouse. Any self-respecting music fan who feels that a song like 'Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell' or 'Shake Appeal' is 'dumb' or 'childish' sure lives a hell of a sad existence, believe you me.
That wraps it up. There was no great 'point' to my rant, just a desire to get a few things off my chest and a need to see all the young 'uns of the planet check out the REAL roots of all this 'grunge' and fake-'punk' pap they listen to. I'm a grumpy old man at 25 and I love it. The question still remains, however, as to why the Stooges have made such an impact on me at this relatively late stage of my 'development', yet didn't move me an inch when I was an angry teenager being brainwashed by Minutemen and Bad Brains records. Are the Stooges adult-oriented rock? Is their angst of a different variety to the hardcore of the '80's, a certain timeless quality? Something weird is happening here. If you'd told me ten years ago that at this point in my life I'd be busy vibing to the sounds of the Stooges, Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra, I would've laughed in your face. Who'da thunk?
It must be added that the Stooges were a GROUP effort. Their records may rule the planet, though Iggy's solo records certainly don't. Bar the odd song here and there, Iggy's solo career has generally been an embarrassment, in my opinion, though much like John Lydon, he remains a hilarious middle-aged anomoly that I can admire from a distance. For my two cents, if you want some real '70's punk, I recommend you get all three Stooges albums, Miles Davis' Get Up With It(110 minutes of pure drug-soaked energy), Yoko Ono's Plastic Ono Band LP and Amon Duul's Disaster double set and strap yourself in. Only then does everything - contemporary music, punk rock, the solar system, life in general - start to make sense.
Also see our Ron Asheton interview and our story on Funhouse producer Don Gallucci
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