Classic Detroit Discs:
The Stooges

by
Matthew Jaworski

 


1967. The foul Year of our Lord. Cataclysmic changes sweeping the nation. It was the Summer of Love and Detroit was obviously full of that. As the city burned amidst the riots, there was also something volatile happening just a short jaunt westward on I-94. The Stooges were forming and engineering a sound that influence punk for decades to come.

The Stooges' eponymous debut was released by Elektra records in August 1969 to little fanfare and radio promotion (hence very small sales).

This was, after all, something completely different than anything else being put out at the time by a major label. Elektra didn't really know how to handle the band or the music. Unfortunately, this is often the case with revolutionary, ground-breaking music. How the Stooges ended up on a major label is, in and of itself, a minor miracle. Considering the unrelenting nature of their music and the vulgar, riotous stage presence of lead singer Iggy Pop, it does seem 1969 might well have been the year Hell froze over.

After he witnessed the crowd-baiting, reckless madman routine of one James Morrison during a Doors show at the Yost Field House, a young Ann Arbor gentleman named Jim Osterberg decided to form a band. He recruited brothers Ron and Scott Asheton along with bassist Dave Alexander, thus spawning one of the hardest-rocking, most confrontational bands ever to grace this rotting planet: The Stooges.

Fittingly, they played their first gig on Halloween at Detroit's Grande Ballroom. The band invented some instruments to use at the first show, which included: a blender with water in it, contact mics on a 50-gallon oil drum (played with two hammers no less), and a vacuum cleaner. The group produced tremendous psychedelic drones for Osterberg (Iggy) to go crazy to.

The group quickly acquired a heavy rep around the Midwest as a seriously dangerous band that damaged ear drums and minds while playing dirty, raucous, primal animal rock. Iggy Stooge earned a reputation for his debased and dangerous stage presence. He sometimes performed shirtless, covered in peanut butter and his own blood. Sometimes he was naked. Usually he was pretty much assaulting unsuspecting audiences.

After the success of The Doors, other hard rocking, in-your-face acts were being sought out. Here in Detroit, the MC5 were also tearing it up, trying to incite riots. The MC5 were exactly the kind of high energy act that labels were looking for. Danny Fields, a talent scout from Elektra Records, had been flown to Detroit, as Elektra was interested in signing the MC5. After a devastating gig at the Grande Ballroom, Wayne Kramer of the MC5 mentioned to Danny Fields, "If you liked us, you will really love our little brother band, Iggy and the Stooges."

On Sunday, Sept. 22, 1968, Fields went to Ann Arbor to check out the Stooges at the Student Union.

"I can't minimize what I saw onstage," Fields says. "I never saw anyone dance or move like Iggy. I'd never seen such high atomic energy coming from one person. He was driven by the music like only true dancers are driven by the music. It was the music I had been waiting to hear all my life."

After witnessing the madness of The Stooges live, Fields talked Elektra into signing them along with the MC5. And the rest is Rock & Roll history.

The Stooges were then flown out to New York in an attempt to harness their incendiary sound. When asked if they had enough material for an album, Ron Asheton assured the execs they did. (In reality, the Stooges only had three songs.) But Ron went back to their hotel, and in an hour came up with the riffs for "Little Doll," "Not Right," and "Real Cool Time."

It was decided that legendary producer John Cale (of Velvet Underground fame) would produce the Stooges' first album. Prior to this, the Stooges had never stepped foot in a studio and had no idea of what the recording process entailed. The only way the Stooges knew, was to crank their amps to 11 and rock out like possessed maniacs. Subtlety was not something they practiced. At first there was a lot of static betwixt Cale and the Stooges, as they couldn't seem to fathom the concept of playing at a lower volume--even to record. Being the young punks that they were and hating being told what to do, the Stooges engaged in a sit-down strike (how Detroit is that!?), putting their instruments down and smoking tons of hash. Eventually Cale said fuck it, and recorded the band at ear-bleed volumes. This definitely comes out in the album as the guitar virtually shreds the speakers. The rest of the session went off without a hitch, resulting in one of the greatest rock albums of all time.

Finally released in 1969, the Stooges' first album is a monumental slab of dirty proto-punk history. If you've never heard this album, you should be ashamed of yourself. I can't imagine how this music must've sounded to unsuspecting listeners in 1969 as it leapt off the vinyl, assaulting the ears. When attempting to describe the music, I realize the futility of words ever being able to properly describe sounds. Upon re-reading what I wrote, the music sounds so simple and basic. This belies the band's power and raw energy. The only way to truly appreciate it is to put the album on and crank it up.

The first two tracks on this album provide a lethal one-two punch, still sounding completely wicked, and rocking harder than 99 percent of today's music. "1969" begins with fuzzed-out wah guitar and groovy hand claps over a driving rhythm section that just sounds Detroit. Music like this could've only come out of this city.

Asheton's overdubbed chainsaw guitar blasts, dancing with Iggy's mantra, "it's 1969, baby!"

There is nothing smart about this music, and that somehow makes it perfect.

Following "1969" is one of the greatest rock songs ever, "I Wanna Be Your Dog." This song exudes animal sexuality and more of Asheton's incredible mind-bleeding soloing, with Iggy pleading over and over, "Now I Wanna, Be Your Dog." I truly believe him, as his stage antics firmly backed it all up.

The rest of this album proceeds in much the same way. Simple, raw, dirty rock. Perfect.

The Stooges would go on to record two other deliciously animalistic rock records. The skronked-out roadhouse demon rock of Funhouse, and the dirty, overdriven proto-punk madness of Raw Power.

But this record is where it all started. This album remains one of the seminal rock albums of all time, inspiring generations of rockers, punkers, deviants, and slackers. Another startling, impressive, and historic gift of music from Detroit to the world.


Note: all quotes come from "Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk", by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain (New York, Grove Press, 1996)

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