Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

A further dive into Iggy Pop's hallowed Berlin stint proves exhaustively rewarding

"The Bowie Years"

Release date: 29 May 2020
Iggy Pop 7 CD Box Packshot 1024x
28 May 2020, 13:01 Written by Ross Horton
Iggy Pop jumped on David Bowie’s Station to Station tour in 1976 and never looked back. It was the smartest move he ever made, and it’s a decision that is still paying dividends to this day.

The men born James Osterberg Jr. and David Jones were already fierce friends of course – but that’s a story about a separate album, a different time. The Station to Station tour – Isolar – was a juggernaut, producing some of the best shows and worst moments of Bowie’s career (especially his flirtation with Nazi imagery and gestures, which did not go unnoticed or ignored). Almost every seat was filled, and new ground was broken in Western popular music. Bowie had deftly begun to weave the sounds of German experimental and progressive music into his own, producing a funk-soul-progressive-electronic hybrid that he would go on to master, and define, over the next four years.

In those four years, Bowie produced his Berlin trilogy (Low, “Heroes” and Lodger), and its capstone, the pièce de résistance of his career to that point, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). He also rolled up both sleeves and decided that he’d have another go at making a superstar of his buddy Jimmy, too.

The Idiot was written with, and tracked by, Bowie’s Low band (Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray) as well as Michel Santangeli and Laurent Thibault. It was recorded before the sessions for Low took place but released afterwards, to make it seem as though Bowie was laying the foundations for Iggy, not the other way round. In the liner notes that accompany this box set, we get an in-depth look at the creation of the album, which includes the semi-tragic story of how guitarist Phil Palmer was there for the birth and tracking of the album, but saw his contributions removed or replaced entirely by the time the thing was released.

The Idiot is many things, to many people. It’s almost impossible to define exactly what it is, but famously, it’s the album Ian Curtis was listening to when he died - which is sadly not surprising when you consider that it’s an album built around themes of existential crisis, loss, and pain. It also brings with it a Dionysian energy that (thankfully very few) people feel when at their very lowest: a demonic urge to keep yourself drunk and high and smiling against the pain, when you’d really rather be in a hole somewhere. It’s an album that, according to Siouxsie Sioux, confirms Ig as a “genius”. It’s also not strictly a ‘Berlin’ album, as the sessions were split across the Château d'Hérouville in France, Musicland in Munich and the Hansa Studios in Berlin. What it is, for sure, is an underrated classic – and it’s waiting, patiently, to be heralded as one of the greatest albums of all time.

The genesis of The Idiot, and the rest of Iggy’s post-Stooges career, begins in earnest with “Sister Midnight”, which was first performed by Bowie in the rehearsals for the Isolar tour, but never finished, and never committed to tape. In its finished form, “Sister Midnight” kicks off The Idiot with Oedipal lyrics and a sinister undercurrent that only grows as the album develops. In its primal, lurching thud and bleeding, woozy throb are the seeds that made the thread that ties thousands of bands together, from the Sisters of Mercy to Ministry, from The Cure to Queens of the Stone Age, from Bauhaus and Joy Division to Depeche Mode.

Although it draws its name from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1874 philosophical novel, it is much closer in style and execution to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or more particularly, the Promethean work of the title character.

Across its eight tracks, it draws from schmaltzy jazz (“Tiny Girls”), steals from NEU! (“Funtime”), pre-empts post-punk (“Dum Dum Boys” and “Mass Production”), and contains a track so far ahead of its time that it only became a hit six years later (“China Girl”). In “Baby” and “Nightclubbing”, it also has two utterly unforgettable Doors-ian oddball skronks that are as disturbing as they are funky – both paeans to the Cold War bacchanal that Iggy and Bowie were drawn to in those frozen years at the end of the '70s. Stepping off a plane, in Berlin, at night, in the rain, with “Nightclubbing” banging around in your mind is an unforgettable experience (and one I’ve been lucky enough to summon into existence).

Its legacy, certainly as a cornerstone of the post-punk, Gothic rock and industrial genres, is impossible to accurately depict and impossible to overstate. Its black tendrils are everywhere – even in Iggy’s own later albums like Zombie Birdhouse, and especially with Post Pop Depression and Free, with which it forms an unholy trilogy. It appears as though The Idiot waited for its completion for decades – a narrative of Lovecraftian proportions.

But Lust For Life is going to be the star of the show for most of the people coming to this box. Far and away Iggy’s most well-loved solo album, and unanimously praised as one of the greatest albums of all time, it (like its predecessor) does not waste a single second. Every song is crammed with unforgettable moments, every chorus instantly recognisable. Unlike its sister, Lust For Life is not the product of pain, or of darkness, but the corresponding joy, and the endless light of self-acceptance. That the album evokes Bowie’s early '70s records like Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane in its playful sexiness, and in its relentless focus, should not come as a surprise – this is an album that shows an artist fully-formed; an artist reckoning with his own unlimited potential.

Compared to The Idiot, Lust For Life’s grooves are looser, and the songs are raunchier; the rhythms spiral and dance where they had previously lurched and spluttered. Iggy sings about success and falling in love and enjoying the ride, and he does it all with a smile, and a sincerity that he’d failed to muster on any other album he had ever made until that point. Where once it was considered less influential than Iggy’s Stooges material, and less influential than The Idiot, it is now finally getting the recognition it deserves as an influential body of work – white-hot bands from The Strokes to Fontaines D.C. to The Murder Capital have all attempted to capture and harness some of Lust For Life’s elemental power.

“Lust for Life”, the track, is unbridled mania: sheer endless momentum built from the ashes of Motown and the melodies of half-forgotten nursery rhymes. “Sixteen” is Iggy Pop’s lizard brain at its most exposed, most desperate. The band – this time David Bowie, Hunt and Tony Sales, Carlos Alomar and Ricky Gardiner – explode with a primal thunder. On “Some Weird Sin”, they play like their lives depend on it – Iggy howls, Bowie yowls, Hunt smashes at his drums like a caveman, Tony’s bass sounds like it’s been strung with bridge cables, and the fiery guitar interplay threatens to push you off a cliff at any moment.

“The Passenger” is youthful exuberance, and youthful acceptance of oncoming death, combined and made music. It’s iconic, one-of-a-kind, and interestingly the only track on either album not composed by Bowie or Iggy (it’s a Ricky Gardiner composition). “Tonight” starts with a death, with Phil Spector drum drama and building anticipation. Then the bottom drops out and it morphs into a whirling, swirling soul-rocker with bittersweet lyrics about hopefulness in the face of certain doom.

“Turn Blue” has its roots in the Station to Station band sessions – pianist/keyboard player Warren Peace has a credit as both a contributor and a songwriter. But under Iggy’s control, it becomes a huge, bluesy mess of colour and flavour. It could easily have featured on Low, but it would have had to have been chopped up and reassembled as a two-minute shard. Here, it’s resplendent.

“Turn Blue”, along with “Neighbourhood Threat”, were the only two songs from Lust For Life missing from the setlist when the all-star Post Pop Depression band (Iggy, Josh Homme, Matt Helders, Dean Fertita, Troy van Leeuwen and Matt Sweeney) played their run-through of the Berlin material on their 2016 tour (“Tiny Girls” and “Dum Dum Boys”, from The Idiot, were absent too.) “Neighbourhood Threat”, by far the darkest track on the album, is paranoid and angry – and sharp as a knife. It’s fiery art-punk of the highest order.

No album that starts with “Lust For Life” would be complete without an equally celebratory middle, and an equally fruity end. “Success” and “Fall in Love with Me” are two of the most popular songs in Iggy’s extended canon – the former closed those Post Pop Depression shows, and the latter was the track Ig chose to spend wandering around in the crowd. “Success” is pure, unadulterated fun, the sound of a bunch of friends making raunchy rock ‘n’ roll for the sheer hell of it. The lyrics – increasingly silly and sung in a call-and-response manner – only add to that sense of fraternal camaraderie.

“Fall in Love with Me”, not played live between 1982 and 2016, is a final doffing of the cap to the Berlin years, at least from Iggy. The four-to-the-floor stomping groove and the howling keys and the choppy guitars and Iggy’s voice, filtered through a cloud of reverb and echo… Beautiful. The lyrics are the simplest Iggy’s ever committed to tape – and are amongst the most powerful he’s ever summoned. It’s a simple tale of a boy and a girl falling in love in a saloon in West Berlin. As far as bookends for the Berlin era go, you could do worse than “Sister Midnight” and “Fall in Love with Me”.

The remastering job on these two albums, by Tony Dixon, is an honest and sympathetic job. The tracks are louder than the original CDs, and Lust for Life in particular benefits from the overall spruce-up it’s received. There’s something to be said for those reedy, tinny early '90’s CDs that people are only just starting to realise they love (see: online discussion about current David Bowie remasters vs. the original 1991 Ryko discs).

A quick note on the album covers and box set design – the cover of The Idiot, like “Heroes”, is a reference/homage to the paintings of Erich Heckel. It’s grainier, and darker, and less refined than “Heroes”, which perfectly captures the mood of the music within: Iggy lurches like a reanimated corpse, Bowie stares far off into the future like a cyborg. The design of this new box set, which some fans have expressed dissatisfaction with, is fine – and although it’s a garish and brash redesign, it’s not so terrible that it cheapens the overall appeal of the box.

The live material here (four discs of it) are a collection of live discs that have previously been available in various forms, though only one of them has been released in any official capacity. That album, 1978’s TV Eye Live, has always divided fans and critics. Some enjoy the slapdash presentation, the sloppy musicianship and the raw energy of the set, while others see it as a cynical cash-grab that damaged the reputation that Iggy had tried so hard to foster over the previous year. It was also the first time we got a glimpse of Iggy the mercenary, an image that dominated his career for the next 20-odd years. Not until Post Pop Depression would he again be taken seriously an artist, which was a shame, considering the highs of albums like New Values, Blah Blah Blah and the (rather brilliant) final Stooges album, Ready to Die.

TV Eye Live is the best of the live discs here, because it comes from the strongest sources and contains more than one song from Lust For Life. The other three discs, drawn from the time Bowie was still playing in Iggy’s live band, are less than essential prospects for anybody but diehards. The setlist remains largely the same – a strangely sequenced, Stooges-heavy blunderbuss of a set that squashes or blasts through material from The Idiot, which only serves to dull its appeal. Presumably, Bowie wanted to play these songs live, and this tour became his outlet.

Only one of the three remaining live sets has good audio quality (Agora Ballroom – some of which appears on TV Eye Live), while two remaining shows (Mantra Studios, Chicago and Rainbow Theatre, London) are like listening to TV Eye Live through defective speakers. On the Mantra disc, Iggy is loud and clear while the band wobble in and out of focus, while in London he appears to be singing from outside the hall at points. Both discs have an unmistakable energy, but are disappointing in terms of overall effect. One wonders why Iggy’s legendary 1977 show at the Manchester Apollo wasn’t included, especially as it has the highest audio quality of any of his recorded sets from that era. Perhaps Bowie’s absence from the touring band made it a troublesome proposition?

The bonus disc, of edited and alternate versions of tracks culled mostly from The Idiot, is a fascinating (if a little unessential) look at the editing process behind the sessions. The tracking of The Idiot was apparently so poor that the mixing became less about audio quality and more about salvaging the album (something ably achieved by Tony Visconti during the recording of Low) – although you’d never know the stark, trebly hiss and buzz of the record wasn’t intentional. What does make for great listening is the final track, where Iggy gives an interview about the making of The Idiot, where he discusses the impression Bowie’s depth of artistic knowledge had on him, and he goes on to give some contextual analysis of their time together (and a fascinating anecdote about ‘old hag masks’.) Also highly interesting is the 1978 single version of Stooges rarity “I Got A Right”, which featured in every live show Ig was doing at the time.

This box set is a treasure trove for people who’ve never heard any of Iggy Pop’s various bootlegged and semi-official releases over the years, especially the releases pertaining to this era. The quality of these albums – and Bowie’s entire Berlin period – is so high because the sessions were so economical, and no ideas were abandoned along the way. Both men, and the bands assembled for each album, were in such a rich vein of form that there are almost no off-cuts or lost recordings that can be put into boxes like this. Everything recorded in the Berlin period was put on an album (Bowie’s extra tracks, like “Some Are”, “All Saints”, “Abdulmajid” and “I Pray, Olé” surfaced on the 1991 Ryko/EMI editions of their corresponding albums). To date no unheard songs from either The Idiot sessions or the Lust For Life sessions have found their way into the light.

Despite the reservations that fans may have surrounding this box, especially about the quality of the bonus material, the design of the box, and the need to put together a box set at all (rather than deluxe editions), this is still a worthwhile set. It’s also markedly cheaper than what some box sets of far inferior albums go for in today’s market.

In short, if you’re an Iggy diehard, you’re likely to have already placed an order for the box or the deluxe editions or both – and you will be very happy with what you get. If you are tempted but have an overwhelming preference for one of the two studio albums in the box, then plump for the deluxe edition, neither will disappoint.

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