Great Fucking Albums #17: Raw Power

Towards the beginning of Cameron Crowe’s too-long but still pretty good Almost Famous, Lester Bangs (portrayed with verve by Mr. Philip Seymour Hoffman) is being interviewed at a radio station and he, quite against the rules, puts on the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” and begins rocking out all over the broadcast booth. It’s a great rock ‘n’ roll moment in a decent rock ‘n’ roll movie and it sums up quite beautifully how Lester Bangs felt about the Stooges (for less – much  less – succinct summations of Bangs’s feelings about the Stooges, read Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. In fact, if you’re interested in some great, funny, intelligent, and slightly drugged out music writing, you should read Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung).

Bangs knew that the Stooges wasn’t just a neat name for a rock band – he was keenly aware that it described Iggy Pop (known as Iggy Stooge at the time) more accurately in one word than you could in ten words. The Stooges were big, dumb rock ‘n’ roll and Iggy was a full-on freak. I’m sure the internet is full of heated arguments about which Stooges album is the best, but I’m going to tell you why Raw Power is my favorite.

Sure, it was released under the name Iggy and the Stooges and yeah, Ron Asheton was not too happy about being moved to the bass for the album (although James Williamson’s guitar playing is unassailable on Raw Power). I don’t think David Bowie’s treble-heavy original production was  a good choice and I don’t care if that’s the “wrong” opinion. When Iggy Pop restored the low end (and thus the late, great Asheton, who played guitar on the first two Stooges records) to Raw Power for a CD remaster in 1997, he put some much-needed throb back in an early punk masterpiece.

Though 1977 is often regarded as the Year Zero for punk, only a complete fucking moron (or Bernie Rhodes) would make the assumption that punk just sprang into being that year, as a complete reaction to the stadium-filling bullshit that dominated the seventies. A quick look back to the 1972 release of Raw Power should tell you exactly where the Ramones and the Sex Pistols came from (the Clash too, at least for their first couple of albums. They always had a larger influence from Jamaican dub and reggae stuff, which is why they spent a lot of time in the States giving opening slots to early hip-hop artists in the 1980s).

Opening with what has probably become the Stooges’ best-known song, “Search and Destroy”, Raw Power is a brief (eight tracks, about thirty-five minutes), raw, sometimes disturbingly sensual rock record. Which is to say it’s everything good rock ‘n’ roll used to be. In an interview with Arthur Levy for the 1997 CD booklet, Iggy Pop says that the Stooges, “could kill any band at the time and frankly can just kill any of the bands that built on this work since, just eat any of those poodles. The proof’s in the pudding.” And indeed it is; the Stooges had a profound influence on early heavy metal acts like Alice Cooper, but if you listen to the music, even early Alice doesn’t stand up to the sheer rock nastiness of Raw Power. Songs like “Shake Appeal” and “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell” still rock harder than most of the cleaned up garbage that passes for rock today (Lester Bangs was prescient on this point as well – he claimed rock ‘n’ roll was a sort of adolescent phase for music and that the future would see, “a small island of new free music surrounded by some good reworkings of past idioms and a vast sargasso sea of absolute garbage”).

After the release of Fun House, the Stooges were dropped by their record label, Elektra, because the label didn’t see a demographic to which the Stooges would appeal. Astute readers will conclude from that sentence that the major label record industry was basically fucked as far back as 1972. Iggy broke up the Stooges (more or less) and ended up, through a series of interesting events (chronicled in the Raw Power booklet; one of my favorite nuggets is Iggy blowing off meeting David Bowie in New York because he was watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) in England doing heroin (“snorting big Chinese rocks” of it) and trying to write songs with James Williamson. Eventually, it was decided that England didn’t have the musicians to deliver Iggy’s vision and the Asheton brothers (Ron’s brother Scott plays the shit out of the drums) were brought over and Raw Power was recorded but almost never put out. Basically, the label decided that Iggy’s mix was shit and would only put the album out if David Bowie was allowed to remix it. Bowie’s mix, to his credit, is pretty good, but the mix Iggy did in 1996 for the ’97 reissue (the 25th anniversary of the album’s release) is definitive. You can hear the full force of a band that had started in what Lester Bangs called “illiterate chaos” and really evolved into a talented group of musicians.

As much as Iggy Pop is known as an awesome, drug-addled weirdo, he should be celebrated for being, at least back then, a positively iconic rock ‘n’ roll vocalist. Every howl and yip and squeal on Raw Power is primitive magic and even when he’s in “crooner” mode for songs like “Gimme Danger” and “I Need Somebody”, there’s a lurking sense of danger in his voice that I don’t hear from a lot of rock singers today. Iggy was capable of completely losing his mind during a song, a talent that I think people vastly underrate.

And that’s another reason I celebrate Raw Power – it’s dangerous, slightly unhinged rock ‘n’ roll, which is what all rock ‘n’ roll should be. There are plenty of albums that are nice to listen to while you’re having sexy time, but Raw Power is one of the few albums I’ve heard that sounds like it wants to fuck the listener and/or be fucked by the listener (this is due somewhat, but not entirely, to “Penetration”. I think) – it wants to get all up in you and wants you all up in it until you don’t know who’s who anymore. If I were a Pitchfork writer, I’d point out how the resultant fuck-tangle would somehow mirror the adolescent angst and confusion that drives the Stooges albums, but I’m already too old for that kind of shit. Raw Power is that rare album that is exactly what it claims to be: raw and powerful. And fucking awesome.

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