Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
Raw Power isn’t simply the title of Iggy Pop’s 1973 signature album with the Stooges; it’s the spirit and attitude instilled in the recording.
The Stooges wasn’t a band riding high after two major-label releases. It was a commercial failure, having been dropped by Elektra, bedeviled by smack, and teetering on the brink of collapse. That charged air envelops Raw Power with the desperation and nihilistic anger that accompanies despair—offering the template for punk’s later disaffections.
Not that the first two Stooges albums lacked debauched, wanton abandon (“I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “Loose”). But for a variety of reasons—which include song quality, guitarist James Williamson’s addition, the band’s collective headspace, and the peculiar production choices—Raw Power more keenly expresses the explosive primitivism of the band’s nothing-left-to-lose mindset.
From the beginning, Pop’s direct, unabashed emotions (“No Fun,” “Dirt”) matched the music’s unbridled intensity. “I may have been the first performer to vent his immediate angers in this format,” he told Rolling Stone. “If I was pissed off, I sang about it.”
The lack of pretense or self-consciousness bespoke the Stooges’ primal roar. It came across in performances where Pop would squirm across the stage floor, cut himself with glass, smear raw meat on his body and throw himself into the audience. The spectacle evinced a sense of freedom through self-destruction like the phoenix’s purifying self-immolation.
The Stooges actually achieved just that in 1971 when, under the weight of drug abuse and faltering prospects, they broke up. Pop moved to New York and palled around with Lou Reed while looking for a record deal. One night at Max’s Kansas City, he met David Bowie, fresh from recording The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.
Bowie appreciated the intelligence and craft behind Pop’s grimy atavistic approach. So the soon-to-be Thin White Duke signed Pop to his management company, MainMan, got him a deal with Columbia, and flew him over to London to record an album—minus the Stooges.
Pop insisted Williamson come along as a writing partner. The guitarist (who would later become a computer executive at Sony) told The Guardian that before Pop’s call, he had no money, no prospects, and “nothing to look forward to.”
In London, Williamson and Pop were unable to find a workable rhythm section, so they convinced their old bandmates the Asheton brothers to reunite behind them. Only now they were to be credited as Iggy And The Stooges.
Scott Asheton returned to drums while Ron Asheton slid from guitar to bass to make room for Williamson. Ron wasn’t pleased by the move. Almost as an answer, he brings a peculiarly ferocious, hard-charging bass style to Raw Power—that is, when you can hear it.
Part of Raw Power’s redoubtable lore is in the production, or lack thereof. After being produced by a classically trained composer and an ex-member of the Kingsmen (“Louie Louie”) on the Stooges’ first two efforts, Pop was left to his own devices in London.
Still new to the recording process and his senses perhaps compromised by drugs, Pop recorded everything but the vocals and lead guitar onto one nearly unfixable track. It’s a muddy, distorted jerky of midrange throb as though heard through an apartment wall. “Raw” is just about the best word for it.
His new label, Columbia, wanted nothing to do with it. Bowie was brought in to salvage the recording, and if it weren’t for him it might never have been released. His production remains a source of great debate among fans (much like Ric Ocasek’s production of Bad Brains’ ROIR demos). In the end, Bowie mostly put the guitar and vocals high in the mix and left the bass and drums like an urgent yet distant train.
In 1997 Iggy Pop remixed a beefier version with the rhythm section high and the needles thoroughly in the red. (It’s one of the “loudest” albums ever recorded.) This became the definitive version for many newer music fans as Bowie’s version subsequently went out of print. (A remastered version returned in 2010.)
Since Pop’s noisy take, Bowie’s mix has found greater favor among critics and even some of the band members themselves (Williamson, for one). Pop’s take is a bit like Jennifer “Dirty Dancing” Grey’s post-surgery nose: While it might better fit contemporary standards of beauty, the album loses some iconic idiosyncrasy.
The wide-screen, bottom-heavy, steamroller sound often overpowers the scabrous beauty of Williamson’s lead guitar. It highlights the sludgy repetitive throb of signature opener “Search And Destroy” over the dynamic curlicues of lightning in Williamson’s tremulous six-string thunder, and that replicates itself through the album.
Pop’s is an uglier, more unforgiving album that fits the band’s initial intentions four decades hence while sounding much more contemporary production-wise. It comes at the expense of Bowie’s sensitivity to the bursts of grace amid crashing edifices of distortion. Less dynamic second-side cuts “I Need Somebody” and “Shake Appeal” come off better but pale in importance as to be inconsequential—a bit like William and Stephen versus Alec in the realm of Baldwin brothers.
Indeed, if the apocalypse were to commence tomorrow afternoon, it would not be a stretch to imagine the guitar from “Search And Destroy” blaring from the air raid sirens as the sky fell. Williamson’s trebly guitar lead rings tautly as strung razor wire against the chugging distortion-drenched rhythm line. The lead licks frequently end in hand-offs to Scott Asheton, whose quick rat-a-tat fills mime semi-automatic weapon bursts. Williamson’s crisp chiming rapid-fire runs pool in dirty, prickly tangles of notes or culminate in rabid screeches like a wounded animal.
The whole song rains sonic hellfire as Pop intimates the danger at the end of his fuse: “I’m a streetwalking cheetah with a heart full of napalm.” He’s a desperate, Mad Max-type character (“runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb”), with an appreciation for Eros and Thanatos (“love in the middle of a fire fight”), and an unyielding schedule (“Ain’t got time to make no apologies”).
Punk is deeply indebted not just to the band, but to “Search And Destroy” specifically, with its sense of crusading intimidation and anxious alienation (“somebody gotta save my soul”), wedded to a convulsive rumble like Tiananmen Square tanks rushing the mall food court.
This idea of personal dissolution and cultural decay going hand-in-hand with war and destruction would become a perennial punk trope (see Minor Threat’s “Betray” and Black Flag’s “My War”). And the album is rife with jaded dispassion. “There’s nothing left alive but this pair of glassy eyes, braise my feelings one more time,” Pop sings on “Gimme Danger.” It’s both menacing and sexual when a moment later he insists, “Babe you’re going to feel my hand.”
The delicacy of Williamson’s fingerpicked acoustic is particularly striking against peals of electric guitar. The chiming acoustic pulls and tugs like better angels against the droning minor-key electric line wresting for control, the alluring cry of the crossroads, and damnation preferable to the dead-eyed existence he’s staring at. This tension between beauty and barbed aggression intrigued Kurt Cobain, who called Raw Power one of his favorite albums.
Third track “Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell” is a glammed-up party tune riding a tricked-out Chuck Berry chassis. It’s the sort of hot-blooded rave-up that Stooges-loving glam-metal acts like Mötley Crüe would turn into cash a decade later.
Ron Asheton’s speed-walking bass line fuels the slinky “Penetration,” whose foreboding tone mirrors Pop’s sinister, stalking lyrics which alternate “purify me” with “penetration.” The weird sustained mid-song gibberish and infant-like whines confirm it: You’re in the presence of a certifiable madman. His abandon is palpable.
Raw Power side-two opener and title track feels like the flip side of “Search And Destroy.” Though still shrouded in chunky roar, the high-register keyboard part gives it a swinging bounce that counterparts the low clamorous din as Pop shouts, “Don’t you try to tell me what to do!” A punk sentiment if ever there were one.
The remaining three tracks aren’t as memorable as their predecessors, though the album-closing “Death Trip” is an extended gnarled blues grind that could be mutant kin of The Doors’ “The End.”
While Raw Power’s a strong top-to-bottom album, its legacy lies primarily in the first four songs, and “Search And Destroy” in particular. Along with the title track of MC5’s Kick Out The Jams, it created a new rock sensibility beyond simple rebellion. This was more like war. The sense of life on a knife’s edge (with a nothing-left-to- and/or born-to-lose indifference) would provide spiritual and philosophical underpinning for punk.
The band naturally combusted no more than four years later as Pop launched a solo career. But by then the seeds had been planted. Bootlegs of those years and outtakes from the Raw Power sessions—including the absolutely incendiary “I Got A Right”—would become a cottage industry of its own.
The sense of a mission that may annihilate you energizes Raw Power, and provides the perfect tone for punk’s crusade against The Man and suburban anomie. A quixotic battle? Without a doubt. But what other choice is there?