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IGGY POP - The Idiot CD Review - -
The Idiot


Review Information

Reviewer: David Murcott
Review Date: October 2010

CD Information

Label: RCA
Running Time:


out of 10



In four short years during the late sixties and early seventies Iggy Pop (James Osterberg on his birth certificate) almost singlehandedly invented punk rock, wowed audiences with his brash and incendiary live performances and, as frontman of The Stooges, recorded the albums that would influence practically every garage band to have formed in the last thirty years.  Not bad for a guy who grew up in a trailer park in Michigan.   

The Stooges three albums were way ahead of their time- iconic and near-perfect rocker ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ was recorded forty fucking years ago, and still sounds about as friendly as a starving Doberman.  From the succinct, punchy rockers like ‘No Fun’ and ‘1969’ that adorned their self-titled debut (Iggy’s self-imposed maximum was 25 words per song), to the raucous exuberance of sophomore release Fun House and finally the explosive, drug-fuelled train wreck that was the aptly titled Raw Power, this was a band that was never going to be in for the long haul.  None of the Stooges albums sold more than a few thousand copies upon initial release – Elektra dropped the band after the sluggish sales of their second record, and Columbia did likewise after the David Bowie-produced Raw Power barely managed to crack the Billboard Top 200 album chart.  Yet the band maintained a small but intensely devoted following, and continued to influence countless musicians over the next few decades.  In his published journals Kurt Cobain listed Raw Power as his favourite ever record, Jack White has proclaimed Fun House ‘the definitive rock album’ and Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols alleges he learnt guitar by playing along to Stooges songs until his fingers bled.  The band’s music has been covered by artists as diverse as Emilie Simon and Slayer, and their reformation in 2003 resulted in the recording of a new album and a string of highly successful tours.

In the mid-1970s, however, these plaudits were light years away.  The Stooges had disintegrated amidst the darkness and squalor of their own excesses, with bass player Dave Alexander dying of alcohol-related pancreatitis in 1975 and Iggy entering rehab for heroin addiction the following year.  Upon completion of a treatment program undertaken in the sunny confines of a mental institution, he and Bowie relocated to West Berlin, seeking a change of musical direction and an escape from the temptations of the past.  Bowie, for instance, was so high on cocaine during the recording of his album Station to Station that he was later unable to recall the majority of the sessions, which had lasted several weeks.  During this intensely creative German period The Thin White Duke released his highly-lauded ‘Berlin Trilogy’ of albums (Low, Heroes and Lodger) whilst in 1977 Iggy went on to release The Idiot and Lust for Life, two of his most important, and arguably his best, solo efforts.  Both were collaborations with David Bowie, with the former record in particular capturing the emotional fragility and cultural isolation experienced by the pair as they attempted to kick drugs in the divided Berlin of the late seventies.

The Idiot has been perfectly described by one commentator as ‘a funky, robotic hellride of an album.’  From the slurred, seasick electronica of ‘Nightclubbing’ to the harsh, staccato instrumentation of plaintive love song ‘China Girl,’ later to become a solo hit for Bowie, the album revels in its own sinister ambience.  It sounds like nothing Iggy would ever produce again, and served as a precursor to Bowie’s own output during his German hiatus.  The change in clime didn’t entirely elicit the hoped-for sobriety in the pair, with both singers indulging not only in their respective drugs of choice but in lengthy drinking binges during their time in Berlin, and these relapses may partly explain the recurrent desperation underlying many of The Idiot’s songs.  In addition, much of the album’s imagery is haunting, paranoiac and drug-fuelled (‘I stumble into town, just like a sacred cow, visions of swastikas in my head’ intones a lovesick Iggy on ‘China Girl’) which adds to the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia.  Producer Brian Eno, for one, would later liken listening to the album as having one’s head encased in concrete, a remark intended as a compliment on how effectively the album drew the listener into its insular, sometimes frightening world.

That being said, the album isn’t without an ironic humour.  On ‘Dum Dum Boys’ Iggy eulogises his past, his former bandmates (‘How about Dave? OD’d on alcohol’), and himself (‘How about James? He’s gone straight’) in a sardonic monotone before lurching into a languid vocal to the accompaniment of a fragmented, though undeniably tuneful, guitar riff.  The stark lack of sentiment set to beguilingly accessible music is characteristic of the entire album.  Bowie’s synth strings and jagged keyboard parts drone in and out, the emotionless score contrasted with his subtle, endlessly effective vocal harmonies.  He may have been doing enough coke to kill a dozen lumberjacks, but boy does that man ever know how to serve a song.  Elsewhere, ‘Mass Production’ describes a drive around the industrialised areas of Berlin, where ‘belching’ smokestacks make ‘breasts turn brown, so warm and so brown,’ bizarrely juxtaposing impressionistic and seemingly incongruous images of pollution and sexuality.  The record also contains ‘Sister Midnight,’ possibly the weirdest and most overtly oedipal love song ever written: ‘Sister Midnight, I’m an idiot for you,’ laments the song’s protagonist, before confiding a series of recent dreams in which ‘mother was in my bed, and I made love to her/father he gunned for me, hunted me...’  The song ends with a shrug: ‘But what can I do about my dreams?’ and a concession that the enigmatic object of these unrequited affections has got him ‘walking in rags’.  Not exactly your average boy-meets-girl affair.  

By the early eighties Iggy was facing bankruptcy, both financial and musical, releasing a string of obscure low-budget albums like Soldier and Zombie Birdhouse.  But in 1977, under Bowie’s tutelage, he was on fire.  The Idiot, like all great art, defies easy interpretation.  It is a challenging, odd and sometimes ominous effort: reportedly it’s the album Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis was listening to when he hung himself.  But once you’ve acclimatised to the inherent menace it’s also a fascinating listening experience, and one that stands apart as the most audacious and convincing effort of Iggy Pop’s entire solo career.


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