Revisiting Iggy Pop’s The Idiot
IDIOT PROOF – Iggy’s No Fool!
By Madeline Bocaro
The Idiot is certainly not music for a sunny day at the beach! It is neither for dancing, nor partying. For driving on a rainy night alone in your car, it is the perfect soundtrack. For someone contemplating suicide, it might be dangerous. The Idiot was on the turntable of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis when he voluntarily checked out.
How Iggy Pop and David Bowie arrived at this glorious sonic abomination (recorded July/August 1976, released on March 18, 1977) at the height of the Punk vs. Disco era is one of the great anomalies of music history. Bowie suggested that Iggy sing in a lower register and was probably surprised at how low it was! Treated instruments were used; guitars, drums, sax and one of the earliest synthesizers – the EMS AKS briefcase model – on loan from Brian Eno (also heard on Bowie’s Lowsessions). Eno himself gave the album this ‘oblique’ complement, “It’s an experience akin to being encased in concrete.”
The Idiot sounds like nothing of this earth, yet it is the soundtrack of Iggy’s time in Europe with David Bowie. It is devoid of color, neither black nor white. It is mechanical, ashen, lead gray – a warped, disturbing dream of wartime cabarets, factories, smokestacks, Metropolis, Oedipus Rex. It is murky, dreary, haunting, suffocating and eerily beautiful.
When most early synths were being utilized to create mindless Euro disco, Bowie and Pop wrestled those same sounds into submission. Only Bowie could have slowed wild Iggy down to this numbing and anomalous pace.
“Rock & roll has been really bringing me down lately. It’s in great danger of becoming an immobile, sterile fascist that constantly spews its propaganda on every arm of the media”– David Bowie, 1976
Writing began at Château d’Hérouville where Bowie had recorded Pin Ups and was now working on Low. The Idiot was the prototype for Low, which was also recorded in France, /Germany in 1976. Although Iggy’s album was completed first, Bowie chose to release Low in January 1977, and The Idiot in March, followed by a live tour with Bowie covertly on keyboards.
“Poor Jim, in a way, became a guinea pig for what I wanted to do with sound,” “I didn’t have the material at the time, and I didn’t feel like writing at all. I felt much more like laying back and getting behind someone else’s work, so that album was opportune, creatively.” – Bowie, Sound + Vision liner notes.
Bowie’s musicians, Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray played on the album, mixed by Tony Visconti in Berlin at Hansa Studio 1.
Bowie composed, played all instruments and produced demos. Iggy improvised the lyrics on the spot. “There was a power to the music he was willing to provide for me. It was perfect – and I loved it.” – Iggy Pop, Mojo February 2012
At least one song (mentioned in a Rolling Stone Bowie interview by Cameron Crowe) was never released. It was performed during Iggy’s 1977 solo tour (with Bowie on keyboards). “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” drooled Iggy, who then disappeared with a girl he’d been trying to get off with, never to return.”
When I walk through the do-wa.
I’m your new breed of who-wa.
We will nooowwwwwwwwww drink to meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
The album cover photo by Andrew Kent was inspired by Erich Heckel’s painting, Roquairol, which hung in the Brücke Museum, not far from Hauptstrasse 155, Bowie and Iggy’s Berlin residence. They’d secured the rights to use the painting for the cover of The Idiot, but instead used a photo of Iggy imitating the image. Bowie would also mimic the Heckel painting on the cover of “Heroes” in 1978.
The Idiot is admittedly influenced by the sounds of industrialism in Iggy’s hometown Detroit, as was most of The Stooges material. We hear the buzz of mass production, the drone, clang and repetition of machinery – metal on metal. It is relentless, Germanic, anesthetic, hypnotic…hypodermic! Kraftwerk on Quaaludes.
“I think I functioned as an outlet for his overflow. Because there are things he did with me that he couldn’t do as David Bowie, because it would have slowed him down or might have been a wrong move,” “And then he was also able to use me to practice. … He made an Iggy album first, but watched the engineers there in the studio, learned how they worked, thought about it, had a chance to get to know the desk, and have daydreams about his own record while he worked on mine.” – Iggy Pop, Uncut 2006
Iggy also described Bowie’s studio methods being akin to a film director. He suggested that Iggy sing like Mae West on ‘Funtime’. He compared their collaboration to Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. “He subsumed my personality, lyrically, on that first album,” Iggy said it was similar to “…having “Professor Higgins say to you, ‘Young man, please, you are from the Detroit area. I think you should write a song about mass production.”
On ‘Sister Midnight’ Iggy has the dream to end all dreams. Wham bam, thank you MOM!! Oh no – father’s after me with his six-gun! “What can I do about my dreams?”
”Damn, listen to what Dennis Davis is playing on ‘Sister Midnight’, it’s a triple-time on the cymbal and a half-time on the ‘whack’ – it’s insane!” – Iggy Pop, Mojo April 2016
‘Nightclubbing’ is the dance of the dead, romantically slow-dancing to the mechanized drumbeat of the Nuclear Bomb. Iggy sings like an automaton. ‘Funtime’ is ‘No Fun’ in Germany! It’s Iggy’s zombified version of ‘The Monster Mash’. He’s down in the lab with Dracula and his crew. Some great screams and visceral growls get you into a ghoulish groove. Iggy recalled, “We recorded the song with a lousy drum machine. Bowie kept saying, ‘But we gotta call back the drummer (Michel Santangeli), you’re not gonna have that freaky sound on the tape!’ And I replied, ‘Hey, no way, it kicks ass, it’s better than a drummer.” – Iggy to Paul Trynka, Open Up & Bleed
Iggy croons two odd, bleak ballads ‘Baby’ with its ‘Street of Chance’ right out of a William Burroughs book, and warbles ‘Tiny Girls’ with sad desperation. Bowie provides a gorgeous, woeful sax solo on the latter.
In 1983, Bowie wrote a guitar line and turned Iggy’s dual themed song (a veiled allusion to heroin)into a pop song about an Asian heroine– transforming Iggy’s Chinese rock into a ‘China Girl’. Iggy’s a mess without ‘her’. (Kuelan was actually Vietnamese). The song was originally titled ‘Borderline’. A toy piano adds sweetness to the brooding tune, as the China Girl talks the singer down from his escalating demented thoughts of world domination and destruction with a whispering, ‘Shhhhh.’
Iggy spoke about the loss of Bowie last year, “At first I didn’t process it. I thought, They must be talking about someone else. But then I got it. I went to a rehearsal, and when we ran through “China Girl,” there’s a guitar theme at the end of that, that was written by that person, with a guitar, with his hands. I can see the person, I can see the hands, I can see the guitar. And he’s not on this plane anymore. That came up several times that day.”– Iggy Pop, The New York Times November 30, 2016
Bowie’s simple sax on ‘Tiny Girls’ is innocently beautiful, adding a touch of warmth to the robotic opus. The musicians borrowed from Bowie’s Low sessions enfold us in reverie, along with Iggy’s ghostly / ghastly crooning vocals.
It is seldom that anyone pays respect to former band members in a song (they’re usually happy to be rid of each other). David Bowie had the idea that Iggy should talk about his former band mates on ‘Dum Dum Boys’. Bowie suggested the song title, after the dumdum bullet. On his ode to the Stooges, Iggy pines, ‘Where are you now when I need your noise?’ It was inevitable that the surviving members would reunite decades later, and how joyous it was in 2003 when the Asheton brothers (and later, James Williamson) toured with Iggy again. They are still relevant fifty years on!
The hypnotic ‘Mass Production’ with its warped guitar sounds and wonky melody, is punctuated by a factory smokestack whistle. The riveting repetition sends us into a monolithic trance, akin to the enslaved workers in Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’. “Though I try to die they put me back on the line…” The song illustrates monotony in uniformity, and the cheapening of products and people through mass production – conveying the same message as the art produced in Andy Warhol’s Factory.
“She’s almost like you / and I’m almost like him”
The Idiot was an abnormality, and also a departure from Iggy’s own approach to music, thanks to his friend Bowie. It is one of his finest moments, never to be compared to anything he’s ever done, or to anything at all.
Iggy quickly emerged from the murky depths of The Idiot a mere six months later, wearing a goofy smile on the cover of his next album, declaring a ‘Lust For Life’.
Upon Bowie’s passing, Iggy told The New York Times, “He resurrected me. He was more of a benefactor than a friend in a way most people think of friendship. He went a bit out of his way to bestow some good karma on me.”