Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Driving to and from work for the last four days, I've been listening to one CD. I've always liked this recording - I bought the record in 1974 - but I've now come to the conclusion that it is the best rock recording ever made. It is Raw Power, by Iggy and The Stooges.
I realize that anytime you say, "This is the best [whatever] ever!", you're bound to get an argument. That's why I usually say, "This is my favorite [whatever] ever!", since nobody can really argue with that. I mean, how can anyone else decide what your tastes are? Sure, you'll still get some folks who will say, "How can you pick that piece of crap as your favorite? Are you sick, demented, a moron, from another planet, deaf, dumb, blind, retarded, totally lacking a social conscience and a Yankees fan?" However, those people are just looking to validate their personal favorite as the best ever whatever, so give them a kick in the yarbles and move on.
Before I go about explaining to you why Raw Power is the best rock recording ever, let's make sure we're on the same page. If your idea of a rockin' good time is a glass of chablis and an evening listening to Seals & Crofts Greatest Hits, this probably isn't a record you're going to like. Similarly, if your main kick is in figuring out whether the bassist is playing in a normal major scale or a mixolydian, this record might drive you to drink (and not chablis - possibly arsenic.) I'm talking about rock here, not music.
Rock has never been primarily about musicianship. While there have been many fine musicians playing rock, there have also been many great records made by barely competent players. What rock music is most about, at its core, is emotion. The best rock recordings are almost completely about emotion and if the guitarist hits a real clam in the middle of his solo, it won't necessarily destroy whatever buzz you're getting from the song. As a matter of fact, it sometimes enhances it. A guitarist playing out on the extreme edges of his limited abilities is sometimes much more interesting than a guitarist who really knows his stuff, but who plays it safe. Rock at its best is not about playing it safe. And Raw Power is the most emotional and most unsafe record, from beginning to end, that I've ever heard.
Please note that, when I say "emotional", I do not mean love. Love is a swell emotion, but songs about love are generally either subdued to the point of catatonia or embarrassingly saccharine. Even when a song about love is lively and full of good hooks, it's usually still safe. Anyway, you have to be in love to fully appreciate the emotional impact of a love song. Raw Power contains an overload of emotion, but none of it is about love - although love is mentioned. It is mostly about two emotions that everybody can identify with and which tend to lead to very unsafe actions - angst and lust.
(By the way, please don't get up on your soapbox and start telling me that you've never felt lust. You have. Everybody has. And angst? If you like rock at all, you've certainly been there, too. Love? That's in short supply. The reason we have a nation [a world, really] obsessed with drugs [prescription, religious, and otherwise] is because everybody has felt angst and lust, but not everybody has felt love. And even most of those folks who have felt love - and I'm in that category - haven't felt as much of it as they have angst and lust. However, I digress. The point is you've been there, you've done that, so now we've established the playing field.)
This record has no emotional letdown. It goes from sizzling beginning (Search And Destroy) to crushing end (Death Trip) without once letting up on the stranglehold that Iggy wants to put on your psyche. Whether he's spitting venom (Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell) or telling you about his need for companionship (be it good, bad or indifferent, in I Need Somebody), there is never anything less than a full-frontal emotional assault going on here.
This is not to say that musically the record is only balls-to-the-wall flying buzzsaw noise. It is a good deal of that, but it also contains some lyrical musical passages. Some are pretty (briefly) while others are dark and dangerous-sounding. It isn't all speedfreak metal. However, it is all exposed, bleeding, scraped-to-the-bone, and frayed. There is nothing here that will make you shrug your shoulders.
And, unsafe? The band, aside from Iggy Pop on vocals, is comprised of James Williamson on guitar, Ron Asheton on bass, and Scott Asheton on drums. There are odd bits of keyboard strewn about (probably Iggy's doing, and they work) but the main band is guitar, bass and drums, played by three guys who barely have a handle on what they're doing. Am I saying they don't play well? No. I'm only saying that nobody ever taught them how to play well (or, if someone tried to, they ignored the lesson) and there's a huge difference between that and incompetence. It's the very fact that these guys aren't aware of their limitations that makes this record such a shotgun blast to the gut.
James Williamson is one of my favorite guitar players and it is strictly on the basis of this one recording. The only other existing recordings of him are basically bootlegs and outtakes - and that's it. More on him in a minute.
Both of the Asheton brothers played on the two previous Stooges albums (Ron handling guitar on those, rather than bass) and they also did a few more records after this one, but this is definitely their high point. Their contribution is generally violent and minimalist. Scott's drumming relies heavily on the snare, little on the kick, and has almost no subtlety. Ron, as a bass player, is miles ahead of what he was as a guitarist, but his sound is extremely muddy. That's fine. That's what was needed here and it works well to support the vocals of Pop and the guitar work by Williamson.
Since Iggy Pop is fairly well-known now, I don't have to explain much about him, right? Wrong. If you've only heard such later vehicles as Lust For Life or you know him as a bit player in movies, then you need to know what Iggy Pop used to be. He was a force of nature. Back in the day, if you went to an Iggy Pop show, you never knew what you might see. Sometimes he'd smear his body with peanut butter before body surfing across the audience. Other times he'd dive, chest first, into broken glass on the stage. His physical involvement with the music was total. He'd twist and contort his body, visually matching the twisted and contorted emotions in his vocals, and there was always the very real possibility (at least in the audience's mind, if not Iggy's) that this might be the night he'd kill himself right in front of your eyes.
(That thought may have been in Iggy's mind, too, but I'm no mindreader.)
Anyway, his vocals since The Stoogeslast saw the light of day have been much more in the baritone range. He still occasionally climbs into a scream here or there, but mostly he remains under control much more than he once did. On this record, he cries, growls, yelps, screams, whines, and runs the full gamut from that latter-day baritone on up to dog whistle highs. And he does one thing that no other vocalist does, at least that I'm aware of. Much as a jazz singer might use his voice as a lead instrument, not singing words but just making sound - scatting - Iggy uses his voice in a manner befitting his idiom, rock. His voice is used as a rhythm instrument. He will repeat a phrase over and over, making it a backing track to whatever else is going on. This is especially seen to good light on Gimme Danger, the two words "little stranger" being laid down as pure sound through the final minute or so of the song.
All in all, it's a masterful vocal performance on these 8 cuts. There may be one or two spots where you might have done without, but the overall effect is stunning. You can almost hear him clawing at the inside of your speakers trying to bust out.
And now, let us dissect one Mr. James Williamson.
Learning to play an instrument is a life-long process of evolution. Musicians, even masters, continuously reach plateaus from which they look back and attempt to consolidate their gains, while looking forward to see if there's new real estate they can explore. However, except in the cases of prodigies and savants, there is one time in every decent musician's life when he goes from just playing notes to discovering (to his delight) that he has begun to know his instrument on an almost instinctual level. This is when style begins to develop and take root.
At this point, the player (if he's of a certain age or state of mind untainted by other's expectations) will experiment profusely. He will be tremendously pleased by his ability to come up with new and (to him) unique riffs, progressions, runs, etc., and he will try to incorporate as many of these shiny new tricks into his playing as often as possible. He may, if you're lucky, do this while you're listening, and he may, if you're luckier still, try to expand his repetoire right in front of your ears, by trying to do things that he's never attempted before. When this happens, it's the most exciting thing (for me) in music. It's the confluence of developing talent and untamped emotion, and it's rarely heard on record. I believe that this is where we find James Williamson here.
The truly extraordinary thing about this recording is that it is a recording. Unless you have either a massive ego or a total unselfconsciousness, the studio tends to make even the most accomplished musicians play it safe. However, this recording is an amazing example of a guitarist going out to the end of his known universe, wondering if there's more, and taking a leap of faith that there is. You take Williamson out of this situation and put in a Joe Pass, a Charlie Christian, an Eric Clapton (post-Cream), a Les Paul, or any other recognized guitar master and this record wouldn't be one-fifth as interesting as it is. And none of those guys would have made this record, even if they had notation of every note Williamson plays here, because they wouldn't have allowed it to be released with their name on it. The playing is too open, too sore, too raw, for those guys to even imagine - or, as they'd probably express it, upon hearing something like this, have nightmares about.
One other thing about this album: it couldn't possibly have been recorded at any time other than when it was. Prior to, as well as after, that time, there wouldn't have been the artistic license granted by the recording company. Iggy and his boys were pretty much allowed free reign in the studio, something which would never happen with such an unknown, untamed, uncommercial group now. And the recording technology and techniques now employed would have cleaned up (read: made more boring) every tiny off note and slip of a finger. It was the willingness to let an artist be an artist that produced this, and that's rare.
Enough. I don't mean to make this sound like the second coming of Christ committed to vinyl, but it's such a great and cathartic recording that I've struggled to come up with just the right words to convey what I feel about it. I hope I've succeeded, and I hope that, if you like hard rock at all and you have never heard this, I've convinced you to buy it. It might fill that empty spot in your rock and roll soul.