Treble 100: No. 48, Iggy & the Stooges – Raw Power

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Raw Power. Rarely has an album title so succinctly captured its creator’s intent while describing in just as few words what the album actually sounds like. If these songs didn’t exist before the album title was coined, they’d have to be created—no other documented combination of reckless attitude and sheer, forceful sonic annihilation could possibly live up to such a name, and no such hypothetical album does. Raw Power is unhinged and unrelenting, a half-hour of rock ‘n’ roll that in 1973 arrived less as a threat than a proper demonstration of the kind of actual danger that it could actually possess—and not simply because of how often Iggy Pop risked bloodloss and staph infections slithering through peanut butter and broken glass. It’s provocative and menacing, unpredictable and irrational, the worst roommate and a nightmare neighbor perhaps, but the best night out you’d have in years.

All the proof one needs of such danger can be heard in its leadoff track, “Search and Destroy.” If Raw Power is what this album is, “Search and Destroy” is what it does—howling, snarling, hell-bent on destruction and erupting like a dirty bomb. It’s a shock to the system, exploding with barbed-wire distortion squealing out of James Williamson’s guitar, Iggy Pop’s harried bark unraveling from the walking embodiment of danger as cool (“I’m the runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb“) to a rabid dog off the leash by the end of its three and a half minutes. This song damages eardrums and soft tissue, and it’s an absolute blast because of it. Various internet databases tell me this song has been covered about 17 times by the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Def Leppard, but that’s undercounting it by about 1,000 I’d wager—what band of guitar-slingers out for a good time hasn’t had the urge to shout “I’m a streetwalkin’ cheetah with a heart full of napalm!” in a dingy dive bar? I can make no such claims to the contrary.

Raw Power evokes very specific sensory responses, the likes of which are admittedly highly conditional—the album has lived two lives in two dramatically different versions, neither of which is perfect by audiophile standards but which represent two wildly different experiences of hearing the album. When Iggy & the Stooges originally released the album in 1973, it was something of a last gasp for the band, who had been dropped from Elektra after disappointing sales and poor critical reception from their previous album Fun House. Coupled with the band’s increasingly disastrous live performances and rampant heroin use within the band, The Stooges hit a slump and parted ways for six months. In the interim, Pop found a new friend and champion in David Bowie, who brokered a deal for a new contract with MainMan and CBS to make a record with Williamson in England featuring production from Bowie himself.

Enlisting Ron and Scott Asheton as their rhythm section when no suitable team of musicians worked out in England, the newly branded Iggy and the Stooges tracked Raw Power‘s eight songs in fall of 1972, with Bowie mixing them all in a single day in Los Angeles. Bowie worked with what he said were only three separate tracks (later found to be an erroneous claim, prompting the question of what Ziggy was doing, exactly?), leaving him to mostly tinker with the guitar levels—which are wildly louder than anything else on the original mix. Iggy called Bowie’s mix “very interesting,” and it nonetheless allows a little extra space into the songs, which were unfortunately usually at the expense of the rhythm section. Nonetheless, the “raw power” of it remained.

The second mix of Raw Power arrived in 1997, nearly 25 years after it was created and after decades of bootlegged versions, the likes of which neither Bowie nor Iggy particularly liked. Given the chance to tinker with the mix, Iggy turned up the levels on everything, winning the loudness war by virtue of blowing everything into oblivion. The waveform on it appears as a solid block, which is both hilarious and a testament to Iggy’s commitment to a bit; why bother with nuance when you can throw your hat in the ring to make the loudest album ever? It clips, it’s intentionally pushed all the way into the red as often as possible, but on the other hand there are elements buried in Bowie’s mix that suddenly come to life, like the celesta in “Penetration.” It also prompted critics of the original mix to appreciate it more in hindsight.

Given the gift of nuance or blasted into oblivion, Raw Power is a perfect album no matter how it sounds—and people have opinions about how it sounds, the most valid of them being that it sounds amazing even when it sounds like shit. No studio polish can tame the nihilistic fervor of “Search and Destroy” or the hedonistic shake of the title track. “Penetration” slightly eases up on the throttle for a salacious and slinky strut that says little but speaks carnal volumes. And closer “Death Trip”—well, it’s called “Death Trip,” you do the math.

Raw Power, for all its incendiary energy, has two slower songs, which Iggy referred to in the liner notes of the 1997 reissue as “your classic ‘there’s gotta be two ballads on the record,'” though to call either of these a “ballad” seems to defang them. The tempo on “Gimme Danger” and “I Need Somebody” might be a little lower, and there might be overdubbed acoustic guitars, but there’s nothing particularly tender about either of them. The former is a hypnotic celebration and lament of being sexually attracted to dangerous women, a cliche statement 50 years later, perhaps, but when Iggy sings “there’s nothing left alive than a pair of glassy eyes,” it feels less like a fetish than a cry for help. And “I Need Somebody” is strip-club blues that makes loneliness feel sleazier than it ought to.

There’s a reason why Raw Power is often cited as the first punk record; just because we didn’t rank it high enough on our own list of the best punk albums of all times shouldn’t dissuade you of any such notion. Other than the Stooges’ prior records, there’s nothing of this era that comes even close to this level of nihilistic rebellion and extreme sonics. Though like any great rock album that reshapes the form in its own image—The Velvet Underground & Nico, Love’s Forever Changes, Wire’s Pink Flag—it didn’t make the cratering impact in its time that it felt like it should have. The risk of releasing music this extreme is that audiences need time to adjust, but The Stooges didn’t have the luxury of time. Sales numbers underwhelmed, and the band continued to tour, culminating an infamous and hostile Detroit show they later documented on Metallic K.O., in which you can actually hear the beer bottles smashing against their amps.

It’s perhaps fitting that The Stooges flamed out rather than giving themselves the opportunity to become caricatures. At least right away; their reunion albums in the 21st century lost something in the translation, but such is the nature of attempting to capture something so incendiary. That explosion can only happen once.

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