Sunday, September 12, 2010

New Values by Iggy Pop (1979)

In 1979, Jim Osterberg had something to prove. He had just released two of the most critically acclaimed albums of his solo career, but they were overshadowed by his creative collaborator, a certain D. Bowie. Keen to ditch the training wheels that his celebrity pal had provided, New Values was to showcase Iggy’s ability to make his own luck in life. The cover alone shows off the strength of the solo artist; this was not a man who needed crutches from anyone.

In the mid-1970s though, Pop needed all the help he could get. Washed up physically, commercially and creatively, he had checked himself into an insane asylum to try to kick heroin. The Stooges had broken up in 1974, after 1973’s last stand Raw Power. Having produced that album, David Bowie continued to support Iggy Pop while he was locked up (by smuggling in drugs, for instance), and finally took him on the road for the 1976 Isolar tour, supporting Station to Station. The two also fostered a creative relationship. Their “Berlin Years” are stuff of legend, spawning several in-depth articles and even an entire book devoted to their output between 1976 and 1978. In an effort to escape LA, where Bowie had spent his own annus horribilis locked in his home, coked out of his mind, subsisting on milk and peppers, storing his urine in the fridge and drawing pentagrams on the floor, the two decamped to Berlin to live a more sober life. The albums they recorded there (and in France) were all released in 1977 and arguably represented the peak of their respective careers.

The 1977 output of Messrs. Pop and Bowie, clockwise from top left: January, March, August, October

From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, he had been cast as a “sweating lunatic”, but The Idiot showed a side to Iggy Pop that had largely been lost on the public; the experimental raconteur, the son of an English teacher, the well-read Europhile. It was also on this album that Bowie’s fingerprints were most obvious. It proved to be a dry run for the latter’s Low, but it was released after Low so that it wouldn’t look like Bowie was aping Iggy. Billed as a cross between James Brown and Kraftwerk, the desolate musical landscape was lightened by some funk and soul workouts courtesy of Bowie’s backing band. This album also included a menacing “China Girl”, slickly covered years later by Bowie partly to provide royalty revenues for Pop. Lust For Life would be a more typical Iggy record: guitars dominate, the tempo is higher and the rhythm section of the Sales Brothers was reminiscent of The Stooges’ Asheton Brothers.

Having David Bowie with him for the 1977 promotion for The Idiot took Iggy Pop to some unusual places, including this daytime chat show. Iggy's natural wit and charm towards the older generation would win over his hosts. This video also shows a brief clip of the Pop/Bowie dynamic onstage.

This career rejuvenation was very much overshadowed by Pop’s patron, who had broken through in the US with Young Americans and Station to Station. Much was made of Bowie’s keyboard work in Pop’s touring band, attracting as many concert-going fans as the singer himself. The release of Lust For Life also coincided with the death of Elvis Presley. When the first pressing sold out, RCA’s record plants were churning out Elvis’s old albums, and the well-received Lust for Life disappeared off the shelves, never becoming the hit it deserved to be. Iggy was at the top of his game, but somewhat frustrated by his second-fiddle status and lack of support by his record company. Keen to put more distance between himself and Bowie, he used his new critical and commercial clout to negotiate a new recording contract and prove himself.

Right off the bat, New Values delivers. Demonstrating a cleaner, slicker production than its immediate predecessors, “Tell Me A Story” has female backing vocals, a few new wave synth sound effects, a laid-back guitar solo and a mix that puts Iggy Pops vocals front and center. “New Values” features a vocoder, and has a punky riff that drives the song, without sounding as apocalyptic as Raw Power. In fact, the Stooges’ guitarist from that album, James Williamson, produces the album, and along with Scott Thurston on lead guitar New Values picks up where Raw Power and Kill City (1975) left off. “Girls” has simplistic lyrics, a parody of a love song, crooned by Pop’s excellent singing voice. Providing much character throughout the sessions is Klaus Krüger, drummer of Tangerine Dream. His tight, dry and rhythmic drumming makes a welcome addition to Pop’s sound, having replaced Hunt Sales’ loose thudding on Lust For Life. Practising with a so-called click-track, Krüger’s Teutonic precision gives the album a solid base and a good start to the crisp production. Williamson’s production has been criticised for being unnecessarily, even harmfully elaborate, being more of a production showcase than facilitating Pop’s songs. Arguably, the album’s clearly “produced” nature adds distinct character without overshadowing the strong songs.

The two men who defined the sound of New Values: Drummer Klaus Krüger and producer James Williamson

Strong opening tracks aside, it’s the two singles (that is to say, promo videos were made for them) that stand out. “I’m Bored” and “Five Foot One” are possibly Iggy Pop’s best solo songs, definitely the best without the Stooges or Bowie. “I’m Bored” has a catchy angular riff, a fantastic drum part and funny lyrics. Proclaiming himself to be “chairman of the bored”, the whole song is a funny tirade against “stiffs, dips[omaniacs]” and his own “kicks”. “Five Foot One” is a beefy rocker in the vein of Motörhead, with lots of horns, animalistic howling and ironic lyrics thrown in. “I wish life could be/Swedish magazines” is the nihilistic slogan.

“Hiya Dogface!” A buzzing/buzzed Iggy Pop literally jumps out of his chair, fends off questions about his reliance on David Bowie, ridicules Australians and mimes to “I’m Bored” with full devotion.

Two other tracks that stand out from the rest are “Don’t Look Down” and “The Endless Sea”. These experimental tracks are somewhat of a departure for Pop, and prove to be exciting listening. “Don’t Look Down” is a smooth, mid tempo song that’s organ driven, super slick and choir-drenched. It’s beautifully light-hearted, quite a novelty from the rage of the Stooges or the experimental nihilism of the Bowie collaborations. “So why be bored?” asks the track that immediately follows “I’m Bored”. “The Endless Sea” starts as a synthy mood piece, introduced by spot-on drum loops from Krüger. It gradually builds to a climax, and must be heard to be appreciated in all its tonal glory. Needless to say it represents some kind of experimental highlight of pop’s 70s output, rivalling some of the soundscapes on The Idiot.

Other tracks on the album are sadly mere filler, including the naively racist “African Man” with stereotypes that could only have been acceptable in the 1970s (“I live in the jungle/I eat with my fingers/go home you dirty white man”). A few soppy love songs give way to “Billy Is A Runaway”, a new-wave freak-out that’s instantly forgettable. Nevertheless, New Values is essential listening, and proof that there is more to Iggy Pop than fronting proto-punk Stooges or eating bratwurst in Berlin as David Bowie’s test subject. His solo career was off to a promising start with The Idiot, Lust For Life and New Values under his belt. Sadly, his luck would not hold up and he would, like so many huge 1970s artists in the 1980s, crash and burn quite spectacularly. Only since reforming the Stooges in the early 2000s would Iggy Pop receive more credibility and popularity. Since Ron Asheton’s untimely death in 2009, Iggy’s tour would convince James Williamson out of retirement and some songs from New Values are being heard all over the world again for the first time since the early 1980s.