Henry Rollins! The Column: The Stooges, Michigan's Original Insane Posse
[The one and only Henry Rollins contributes a weekly column and far-reaching reportage to the music section of the LA Weekly. Look for your weekly Henry Rollins fix right here on West Coast Sound every week and make sure to tune in to Henry's KCRW radio show every Saturday evening, or online, or as a podcast, or however else you decided to listen to the most eclectic DJ on LA's airwaves.
This installment includes Henry's history of The Stooges first album. And come back for the awesomely annotated playlist for his KCRW BROADCAST. For more details please visit KCRW.com and HenryRollins.com
Michigan's Original Insane Posse
On Saturday, March 19, I will attempt to melt your radio with a show I have wanted to do for a long time. At 6 p.m. on 89.9 FM KCRW, we will go scorcho for two solid hours of sonic perfection.
I have been listening to the Stooges' self-titled first album for well over half my life, and it remains one of the most exciting and essential records I have ever had the good fortune to come into contact with. That's one of the reasons I wanted to do this show and write all this down.
Let's take a moment to get deep into the details of what will be. The show will be nothing but the Stooges' self-titled first album. What, are we going to listen to it twice or something? Exactly.
First we will play the album as it was released in 1969, and then we will play the album again in sequence but using alternate versions of the songs. This show will prove that too much of a good thing is a real good time. The Stooges, who were at this time Iggy Pop on vocals, Ron Asheton on guitar, Scott Asheton on drums and Dave Alexander on bass, had been in Michigan, raising hell on the outskirts of the American dream since 1967. Danny Fields, visionary A&R man for Elektra Records, went to Michigan to check out another group of Midwestern firestarters, the MC5. While there, he saw the Stooges and eventually ended up signing both bands to the label. So the Stooges had a deal but they didn't have a lot of songs. The band went into the studio to record with ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale. This put the band in an interesting and somewhat difficult position, as the arrangements of their songs at that time were rather, let's say, free. Live, the songs went where they went, but for studio purposes the band had to make arrangements.
The band recorded what they had. Five songs: "1969," "I Wanna Be Your Dog," "We Will Fall," "No Fun" and "Ann." Elektra said they needed more. The band said that wasn't a problem, they had plenty more songs.
They didn't, actually, so to keep up the façade of professionalism, the band wrote three songs overnight: "Real Cool Time," "Not Right" and "Little Doll." All of them were banged into shape in the studio and recorded with minimal overdubs.
John Cale, as producer, mixed the album to his satisfaction. This mix, however, was not pleasing to Iggy and the band. Iggy eventually went back in and remixed the tracks with the label's president, Jac Holzman, and that's the one that made it to the pressing plant.
The Stooges found studio practices of that time to be antithetical to their sound and methodology. Rock albums were not recorded at high volume in those days. The Stooges were among the first to turn it all the way up and lay it down on tape. Apparently, this induced a bit of discomfort in Cale. Strange, seeing that this man had walked out of the hurricane of sound that was the Velvet's White Light/White Heat album sessions only months before. And thus the Stooges, one of the most primitive and plugged-in-straight-to-the-source bands rock has ever known, emerged with one of the purest and timeless records ever made.
The Stooges, eight songs, clocking in at a little over half an hour in length, is a stand-alone, classic, absolutely mandatory listen. The album perfectly nails down the boredom and smoldering alienation of draft-age young men in Vietnam-era America. The album's opener, "1969," addresses the quagmire the war was creating back in the United States as thousands of young men pondered how much time they might have left to live. The Stooges is perhaps an ultimate statement of minimalism for impact. The album is almost devoid of layered guitars; the lyrics are spare and delivered with cool disinterest. You get the idea that the band is at once fully committed, yet ready to drop their gear and walk out of the room without a second thought of returning. The fact that the band sounds like they could take it or leave it makes it hit all that much harder and makes so many other albums seem like the members are merely actors working with a script they didn't write.
Although they had not been at it all that long, these guys have a natural and instinctive pocket that's well beyond their years. Dave's bass sits deep in the cut. The Asheton brothers are astonishingly talented. Iggy, for a man who doesn't say much on this album, puts down some of the most impacting lyrics ever. Check "Real Cool Time" and, especially, "Not Right."
The album cover features the band members in a staggered line away from the camera. Iggy, Ron, Scott and Dave. They look bored and unfriendly. To be succinct: This is one of the best albums ever made. Over 40 years of existence has not dulled this primitive gem.
As to the alternate versions of the tracks -- they're great! We've got different vocals, unedited endings, alternate mixes and finally "Asthma Attack," a bona fide outtake from the sessions. All of these worthwhile alt. takes can be found on two different rereleases of the album, both in print. As cool as these different takes on these songs are, ultimately, all you really need is the Holzman/Pop mixes on the proper release; the rest is a great way to hang out together on the radio over the weekend.
Hopefully, some people will connect with the album for the first time and dig it. If that happens to be you, welcome. When you recover, catch your breath and then check out the band's follow-up, Fun House. Careful, that one will leave marks.
On April 19, Henry will emcee and perform at a memorial show celebrating the
life of Ron Asheton, featuring Iggy and the Stooges, at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. It is already sold out, as well it should be.