Even today — at the risk of sounding all academic — The Stooges sounds like skepticism attempting to deny existence. It manages to reject all distinctions in moral or religious value and has a willingness to renounce all previous ideas of rock ’n’ roll. Intentional or not, The Stooges discredited the music that preceded it. The record is pure rock ’n’ roll in that sense — the truest sense — as much as it was prophetic.
Still, The Stooges didn’t so much connect with the music that came before it; rather, it dragged rock ’n’ roll down to the car wash and scrubbed it up one side and down the other.
The eight-song Stooges debut album is at once spare and haunting, brimming with sex and raw as fuck-all. The Stooges made the let’s-tear-down-musical-history-and-rebuild-it punk ideal a cliché by the time the punks grabbed on to said ideal seven years later. The Stooges is the first punk rock record.
A mathematically perfect Sex Pistols cover-tribute of the Stooges droner “No Fun” (a regular encore and the B-side to the “Pretty Vacant” single) captured all the nihilism of the song but failed to grasp its sexual subtext. It was impossible to nail Iggy Pop’s sexual swagger. That was the problem with punk rock; it overlooked the Stooges’ sexual undercurrent.
The song “No Fun” took the Stones’ “Satisfaction” to its unnatural conclusion. Two gnarly chords back and forth, bass flopping along on the same line, one simple beat topped with hand-claps throughout. As sparse and repetitive as it is, the song still manages to rise and lift, building to a sexually tense climax out of cyclic tones and off-time rhythm guitar. Iggy’s pitched bark takes a life of its own:
No fun to be alone
Walking by myself
No fun to be alone
In love with nobody else
Sometimes stating the obvious is necessary. Songs from The Stooges, particularly “No Fun, “1969” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” were full-on Summer of Hate homework assignments. The Ramones, Wire and Television, post-punks like the Fall and Psychedelic Furs, and current revivalists like the Strokes and White Stripes, and any band claiming to punk, garage or glam, owe hugely to The Stooges.
By 1968, The Stooges had formed under the watchful eye of the MC5. Iggy himself always considered the Stooges the MC5’s “little baby brother band.” The MC5’s Wayne Kramer told Elektra scout Danny Fields that if he liked the MC5 he would like Iggy and the Stooges. Fields was responsible for getting both the MC5 and the Stooges signed to Elektra. (Both bands celebrated their record deals at the MC5 “TransLove” house in Ann Arbor, October 1968.)
While the MC5 openly politicized its three-chord boogie, the Stooges just came out and smashed shit up. The MC5 knew that they weren’t changing rock ’n’ roll in the same way that Iggy and the Stooges were. The Stooges took the MC5 lessons and made something else out of them, something bigger.
If certain songs on The Stooges sound incomplete, it’s because the band showed up at the recording sessions in New York with only three songs ready to go (“Little Doll,” “Not Right” and “Real Cool Time”).
Velvet Underground’s John Cale (who would produce both Patti Smith’s and Jonathan Richman’s momentous debuts) did two things on The Stooges that were remarkable. First, he managed to take a group of unruly drug-addled Midwestern punks who had never before been in a recording studio and instill a work ethic in them. Secondly, Cale inserted a sense of space and air into the band’s wall of sludge-y din, making songs drone and, at times, hum (particularly on the 10 minute kismet opus “We Will Fall,” on which Cale lends ethereal viola). The execution of the production could almost be described as graceful, but never polished.
Also, the hard living of the Stooges was never a kind of method-acting approach to writing rock ’n’ roll — the Stooges relied on the experience for incentive. The Stooges was a drug-fueled record.
In Legs McNeil’s oral history of punk, Please Kill Me, Ron Asheton (incidentally, phone calls to Asheton’s home in Ann Arbor went unreturned, and Iggy — who was recently dropped from Virgin records — couldn’t be located for comment) talks about the New York recording sessions for The Stooges. “We couldn’t play unless it was high volume. We didn’t have enough expertise on our instruments; it was all power chords. We had opened up for Blue Cheer at the Grande, and they had like triple Marshall stacks, and they were so loud it was painful, but we loved it. … That was the only way we knew how to play.
“So Cale kept trying to tell us what to do and being the stubborn youth that we were, we had a sit-down strike. We put our instruments down, went in one of the sound booths, and started smoking hash.”
When you hear the primordial power chords and sleigh bells that drive “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” it’s hard to believe it arrived just five years after “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” For an anti-hippie, punk-rock blueprint — 33 years on — the song resonates like a contemporary B&D anthem.
And the circumstances under which the record was made were very odd, above and beyond the drugs.
In Please Kill Me, Iggy talks about the strangeness of working with Cale. “When we started recording, Nico and John Cale used to sit in the booth looking like they were in the Addams Family — Cale was wearing a Dracula cape with a great high collar on it. He looked like Z-Man in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and he had this funny haircut. And Nico was knitting. Throughout that whole album, she sat there knitting something, maybe a sweater.”
When The Stooges came out in August 1969, the kids in America wanted nothing to do with it, wanted nothing to do with a band that was reinventing rock ’n’ roll.
Worse, Elektra had no idea how to market the band. The label’s first impulse was to market Iggy Pop as the new Jim Morrison.
Together, the Stooges first two albums (including its other Elektra release Funhouse) probably represented the strongest one-two punch of any American rock band (with the arguable exception of the MC5). And that’s not counting the band’s 1973 redemptive resurrection on Columbia with Raw Power.
Miles Davis loved the Stooges; so did Alice Cooper and David Bowie, as did Warhol and his Factory crew. The fact remains that four Midwestern stoner kids led by a maniacal ass-magnet, a self-immolating destructo front man — didn’t stand a chance.
The Stooges established a line of demarcation that served as waterline for punk rock. The Stooges is still relevant, more so than ever, really. Bands like the Hives and the Strokes, and God knows how many Detroit outfits, are taking both the style and the substance (musically, at least) and using it to sometimes worthwhile but often dubious effect.
Return to the introduction for this special collection of music stories, where you'll find links to the other nine records on our list of Detroit discs that shook the world.Brian Smith is Metro Times’ music editor. E-mail him at [email protected]