Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Iggy Pop, one of rock’s most distinctive icons.
Iggy Pop 101
In February—one month after the death of his close friend and collaborator David Bowie—Iggy Pop covered Bowie’s “The Jean Genie” at Carnegie Hall. Two weeks earlier, he said in an interview that he’s probably “closing up” and retiring from the recording business after the release of his new album Post Pop Depression. If Pop seems a little morbid these days, well, it’s nothing new. A hell-bent, self-destructive streak runs through his entire body of work; in fact, that streak long ago became his calling card, along with this feral, hair-raising baritone. Hard to believe he launched his music career innocuously enough as fresh-faced James Osterberg, the drummer of various ’60s garage bands in Michigan such as The Iguanas and The Prime Movers.
Pop’s next band, The Stooges, hit like a runaway earthmover. Not that the band was particularly popular during its time. Formed in 1967 when he was still going by the name Iggy Stooge, The Psychedelic Stooges (soon shortened), the group harnessed the jet-engine power of fellow Michigan band The MC5 while droning on in a spectacularly Neanderthal way. The Stooges’ self-titled debut appeared in 1969, produced by The Velvet Underground’s John Cale, and it turned psychedelia into something overwhelmingly new: simple, primal, brutal, and blazing the trail for a new style of music still a decade away, punk rock. On the album’s best-known track, “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” Pop howls in an lascivious imitation of Ron Asheton’s wah-wah guitar, celebrating sexual submissiveness while paradoxically playing up the group’s own aggressive, distorted domination.
As great as The Stooges was, it’s an album that all but painted the band into a corner—that is, until Fun House blew off the roof. The blueprint from the first album is dutifully carried over—no one ever accused The Stooges of being eclectic—but the band’s attack is deepened, sharpened, and given a far more insidious atmosphere of transgression and hedonism. On top of that, the decision to bring saxophonist Steve Mackay into the mix on songs like “1970” and the sinuous, swaggering title track lent a jazzy edge that only enhanced the album’s ominous atmosphere. And Pop’s blistered voice urges on the noise like a drug-pushing drill sergeant. At the start of the ’70s, as rock ’n’ roll was congealing into corporate slickness, Fun House ripped off the skin and pissed in the wound.
Three years passed between Fun House and its follow-up, Raw Power. The album was billed under the name Iggy And The Stooges, reflecting the new star power of its self-abusive frontman, whose bloody, destructive stage performances were already becoming the stuff of legend. But the band itself had disintegrated in a haze of drugs and reformed in those three years, giving Raw Power a far more abrasive and hard-edged sound; co-produced by Pop and his admirer David Bowie, the album’s ear-shredding, in-the-red chaos kickstarted the punk movement. On songs such as “Search And Destroy,” guitarist James Williamson threatens to split the heavens with his unhinged solos; meanwhile Pop weaves a new mythology of rock decadence that teeters on the brink of sanity and reality.
Barring the officially released demo Kill City in 1977 (recorded in 1975 and credited to Iggy Pop and James Williamson), The Stooges’ time in the studio was long over by the time Pop began in solo career in earnest with The Idiot. Released in 1977, the year punk exploded, it took a different route than all the groups The Stooges had inspired; instead of raw power, the album bears the cool, dour, synthetic tones that co-produced and collaborator Bowie was about to use on his Berlin Trilogy (The Idiot was also recorded in Berlin). In a way, Pop is fish-out-of-place on Krautrock-inspired tracks like “Nightclubbing” and the ethereal “China Girl” (later turned into a hit by Bowie himself). But it’s exactly this bewildered displacement and fresh context that makes The Idiot such a welcome jolt in Pop’s career arc—one that stretched his formidable voice into strange new shapes.
The second of Pop’s Berlin collaborations with Bowie released in 1977, Lust For Life produced Pop’s most identifiable solo hit: the Bowie-penned title track, a thumping, sinewy anthem that gleefully hurls Pop’s suicidal image back at itself. Falling much closer to Pop’s raw rock wheelhouse than The Idiot, Lust For Life nonetheless produced one of his most sultry songs: “The Passenger,” whose slinky, menacing vibe taps into the dark poetry that Pop always has lurking beneath his bad-boy surface. With punk in full swing, the movement’s forefather claimed his snotty offspring while striking out on his own assured yet anarchic path.
Pop’s third solo album, New Values, was released in 1979—his first without Bowie. Instead it was produced by his old Raw Power cohort James Williamson, who also supplies guitar. Rather than sounding like a Stooges rehash, though, the album ventured forth into bold new territory: sleek, sculpted, and lean, songs like the nervy title track gave Pop a clean canvas on which to reinvent himself. Accordingly, his vocal range is fully explored for the first time on record: From spoken-word proclamations to supple yelps to stentorian moans, he’d finally settled into his solo-artist role as a sophisticated provocateur and enfant terrible—even while Williamson sets off Stooges-era guitar explosions.
The ’80s should have been the decade where Pop reaped his hard-earned artistic rewards. Instead, it was pretty spotty. In spite of a strong pool of collaborators (The Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock, Blondie’s Clem Burke and Chris Stein, Patti Smith Group’s Ivan Kral, and Bowie sideman Carlos Alomar) the run of albums including 1980’s Soldier, 1981’s Party, and 1982’s Zombie Birdhouse reflect a desperate frenzy of weirdness, mediocrity, and experimentation with only sporadic bursts of brilliance. Following a four-year break from studio albums, 1986’s Blah Blah Blah was Pop’s attempt to court the mainstream; with David Bowie back in the producer’s chair, the record resulted in a minor hit and something of a calling card for Pop in the ’80s, a slick cover of Johnny O’Keefe’s rock ’n’ roll oldie “Wild One (Real Wild Child).” Pop’s rebelliousness comes off as canned, but the album gave Pop another lease on music life—although it wasn’t capitalized on by 1988’s Instinct, a middling hard-rock team-up with The Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones that feels like a washed-out echo of Raw Power.
In the ’90s, the alternative boom brought many borderline underground artists out of the shadows—Pop somewhat included. He came out swinging with 1990’s Brick By Brick, a substantial album that boasted appearances from members of Guns N’ Roses plus another minor hit—a genuinely stirring duet with The B-52s’ Kate Pierson, “Candy.” With a new generation of stars, led by Kurt Cobain, singing his praises, the decade might have been huge for Pop, but his next three albums of the decade (1993’s American Caesar, 1996’s Naughty Little Doggie, and 1999’s Avenue B) were mostly muddled and confused, each one lesser than the one before it. Pop’s status as an icon was cemented—especially after “Lust For Life” was resurrected by its appearance on the soundtrack to 1996’s Trainspotting—but his inability to funnel that into another classic record was frustrating. Yet wholly in line with his perverse brand of self-destructive integrity.
In the ’70s, few would have predicted that Pop would make it to the year 2000, let alone release some of his most intriguing music in the 21st century. That’s not to say 2001’s Beat Em Up and 2003’s Skull Ring are good—they aren’t—but two significant things happened to Pop’s career in the new millennium: One, he started dabbling in French pop , and jazz, and two, he got The Stooges back together. His French-inflected albums, 2009’s Préliminaires (consisting of original songs) and 2012’s Après (comprising covers of everyone from Serge Gainsbourg to Édith Piaf), aren’t entirely successful, but they’re both brave and compelling in their own way, giving Pop’s ever-more-cavernous voice a new atmosphere to breathe. The Stooges’ two reunion albums, 2007’s The Weirdness and 2013’s Ready To Die, are wildly uneven—the second is much better—but there are flashes of real combustion to that decades-old chemistry. His new album, Post Pop Depression, once again relies on top-notch collaborators, in this case a group led by Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age, and it’s one of Pop’s best solo albums since The Idiot, Lust For Life, and New Values—mostly because it draws heavily from The Idiot, Lust For Life, and New Values. But if Post Pop Depression is indeed Pop’s swan song, he’s going out on a note that’s both dignified and fittingly creepy.
1. The Stooges, Fun House (1970)
More confident and corrosive than The Stooges’ self-titled debut a year earlier, Fun House is not only Pop’s most potent statement about the dark side of the modern psyche—it captures American civilization at the cusp of an epic comedown.
2. Iggy Pop, The Idiot (1977)
The Idiot is as much a Bowie album as a Pop one, and that’s its strength: icy, experimental, starkly chiseled, and filled with both dreamy electronics, it gave Pop’s wild-man persona a chillingly robotic sheen.
3. Iggy And The Stooges, Raw Power (1969)
If ever an Iggy Pop album explodes out of the speakers, it’s Raw Power. Savage and incediary, every second feels like it’s about to shake apart at the molecular level. And Pop has never topped his fierce, apocalyptic imagery here.
4. The Stooges, The Stooges (1973)
There’s something endearingly numbskull about The Stooges’ eponymous debut—a psychedelic record that bulldozes over every flower in its path. But it’s also steeped in shadows and Pop’s pulsing, psychotic desire.
5. Iggy Pop, Lust For Life (1977)
The title track of Lust For Life may have been used in one too many TV commercials for its punch to be fully retained, but Pop’s sophomore solo album as a whole remains a giddy, meaty match-up between Bowie’s vestigial glam stomp and Pop’s fiery abandon.