An exclusive interview with cover artist Charles Burns highlights our celebration of the best Iggy Pop album from the last 30 years
Iggy Pop has been around long enough to nearly supplant Keith Richards in the “Cher and cockroaches” nuclear war survival jokes.
But back at the dawn of the ‘80s, he usually popped up on the “Who’s next” ledger. After the underrated batch of new wave frazzle, Party, and Zombie Birdhouse’s crazed ramble into a post-punk terrain, it was looking like Mr. Osterberg was going to keep kicking around the music industry after all. Iggy Pop has survived low sales and a shaky PR rep more fruitfully than any other rock’n’roller, and that is a testament to the intermittent power of his solo work, and the immense respect he’s garnered among many levels of the fickle music biz.
With the latter ‘80s came a string of more ostensibly accessible albums that seemed to show Iggy was working at having his career durability match his physical longevity. Blah Blah Blah was a typically synth-glossed ‘80s piece that atypically began a period of normalcy fist-raising, with Iggy espousing healthier habits in interviews, and standing stout on the album cover, wearing a shirt for a change. Then came the demi-hair metal’d Instinct, more proof that Iggy was in hit-seeking mode. Iggy spent much of that decade searching for hot producers, hot-shot players, and loads of touring. 1990’s Brick By Brick would be Iggy’s last stab at pop chart action, and as far as last stabs go, it lands loads of great cuts.
It starts off strong with “Home,” one of the best Iggy solo singles. A sashaying riff over a slapper of a snare, Iggy croons of workin’ hard and payin’ dues. At that point, his need to convince you of that is utterly unwarranted, but the sheer desperation in it is a reminder of Iggy’s never-ending battle against the uninspired and boring. The “Homeboy, everybody needs a home” chorus is funny, a nod to just-past hip lingo that angles for a punny street-level connection to a settling down sentiment. Iggy as dad jokes, if not cringy because, well, he’s fucking Iggy Pop.
VIDEO: Iggy Pop “Home”
“Home” is a classic of an aging rocker’s simultaneous pride in sustaining a steady family and a burning fury – though of course Iggy Pop’s idea of a “steady family” probably ain’t your’s. “So many people rise and fall, who’s looking after you at all?” Iggy has had his share of rising and falling, and absolutely no one would begrudge him calming down. Well I saw him on that tour, and I can tell you, there was no calm.
The cocky “Home” is followed by the lyrically nervous, fiddle-flecked, ballad, “Main Street Eyes,” that starts with, “Boy, I feel so outgunned today.” There’s a wider thematic palate on this album, a good back, forth, and middle mood cataloging with some of Iggy’s most developed lyrics. “I Won’t Crap Out” is another example of his desperate defiance. “I’m glad I am crazy, it keeps me trying.” It’s a melodic-to-manic promise that’s one of his best latterday tunes. And it adds to a trail here of some of his most expansive singing chops too.
Throughout, Iggy gathers a collection of rock-solid vets (Waddy Wachtel, Kenny Aronoff, John Hiatt, David Lindley), and adds in some young guns for a few guitar head-pokes, all pieced together by the wizened pop hand of Don Was, who lays off just a bit on his late ‘80s production proclivities. A bit. The omnipresent ‘80s snare thwaps can grate at times (though that could be said of nearly every major label release from 1983-89), but a bit more grit on the grittier tunes might’ve matched the songwriting sweep of the album better. So while I might’ve wanted Spot to produce it, Iggy and Was found a decent balance here for newbie stage-divers and drive-time programmers.
The big hit was the surprisingly tender “Candy,” a sparkling duet with B-52’s singer Kate Pierson, right as her band was doing its highest chart dance. Hearing it makes you wish Iggy might’ve tried a whole album of duets and lush torch-pop. It was one of the best summer singles of that decade.
VIDEO: Iggy Pop feat. Kate Pierson “Candy”
The skeezy surveillance of the big bad city in “Butt Town” gets its gnash from Slash and Duff McKagan’s crunchy churn, which they also capably convey on two peons to the fairer sex, “Pussy Power” and “My Baby Wants to Rock and Roll,” that could be leftovers from Instinct, though better than most of Instinct. Those Guns N’ Roses guys got to bloom here, probably happy to get out from under the boredom of waiting around for Axl Rose to make up his mind, and play for a main inspiration to-boot.
There’s a jangly roots rocker of the sort that was populating college radio at the time (“The Undefeated”), the swaggery “Neon Forest,” and a solid crooner, “Moonlight Lady”, that keep things going. This was the CD explosion era where everyone suddenly went from 10 songs per album to 14 or more, often resulting in filler. For the most part, Brick By Brick sidesteps that era’s trap.
VIDEO: Iggy Pop Kiss My Blood
Much of the album has Iggy offering sly commentary on the hoi polloi that he has to deal with on the streets of the L.A. or NYC he was living in, or exaltations to those who stay in the gutter, looking up at the stars. During “Starry Night” – a sort of silly Caribbean shimmy – he conversely really lays into the idiots who populate our late stage capitalist grind. Like similar legends Lou Reed and Neil Young – who also released semi-comeback albums that same year – Iggy used a “critique of America” as the general theme, though he does it with much more humor than those two contemporaries – humor the often forgotten 30 percent of Iggy’s influence.
Throughout his career, Iggy is nothing if not straightforward with most of his lyrics. They’re just often couched in sinister musical muscle, poetic pulchritude, or dirty talk ha-has. Well on the title tune here, Iggy sings over an acoustic guitar and that’s about it — “I wanna live in peace quietly, I wanna have a place of love and safety…. People oughta have respect in front, people oughta get along pretty okay.” It is a simple summation of where he was at in life, where he wishes we could go along with him, and it pulls no punches or couches anything.
The coda, “Living on the Edge of the Night,” is a wide-screened version of all that went before, with extra-cheek ‘80s synths and that generic title, and it leaves a strange aftertaste. It was the last single off the album, and really sounds like a 1989 single. But synth-sweeping power ballads were on their last chart legs at that moment. New, noisier bands, who would soon laud Iggy into elder statesman territory, were coming up from the underground, while “Living on the Edge of the Night” was still swimming in the nicer backyard pools of Butt Town.
VIDEO: Iggy Pop Rock The Vote PSA
As is the case of many an aging boomer rocker gone solo, the weight of early expectations and then shaky sales figures became less oppressive concerns by the end of the 1980s. And ironically, right when Iggy hit that relaxed point, he came up with his best-selling solo record. Here he was, ahead of the curve again, as irony would become the ‘90s talisman, and Iggy would become alternative rock’s spirit animal.
Iggy’s next album, American Caesar (Virgin, 1993), is tougher and leaner, making it arguably his last relevant release until Post Pop Depression, given it appeared right when grunge was hitting big. Brick By Brick though brought actual chart leaps that Iggy hadn’t landed previously. That three year lapse until American Caesar solidified Iggy into canon territory. Henceforth, good or bad, you picked up a new Iggy record because you owed it to history, to Iggy’s towering influence, not because Slash, Johnny Depp, or Henry Rollins guested on it.
Like his aforementioned boomer rock cohorts, Iggy’s post-1990 albums aren’t greeted with the usual press reminders of tour dates, track premieres, and whatnot. Instead, they’re offered as relieved proof that said legend is still going at it, keeping our youthful discovery and love of them alive as much as their current career.
In context of Iggy’s catalog, Brick By Brick has aged well. He was still building something, still strutting through Butt Town, treated by the industry as a “Well, maybe this time.” That time finally happened, and the album is as solid a collection of songs as any of his. It’s relative success meant he got a new lease on industry life. It’s good to enter the “Respected Hero” stage – you can put out whatever the fuck you want (re: Avenue B, Free), and find a major label to do it. You thankfully don’t have to worry about giving ‘em a hit anymore. It’s a free, inventive space, if maybe not as fun for those who always thought Iggy should somehow be even bigger.
Brick By Brick’s cover art is excellent. Ditching the ubiquitous Iggy portrait, he instead employed the hottest comics artist of the day, Charles Burns, to lay out an explosion of street freak types, the kind Iggy has always slithered amidst. The colorful shades are a deepening, 1980s primary color blast moving down a dark alley into the unknown new decade.
We tracked down Burns for his recollections of Brick By Brick.
Were you a big Iggy fan before the Brick By Brick project? I assume you’d seen him live.
Yeah, I was a fan of the Stooges. The first time I saw him live was when he was on tour for The Idiot with David Bowie. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen him over the years, but I’ve never been disappointed. I remember a friend of mine telling me after one of his shows, “God, that was kind of scary.”
So who approached you to do the cover, how did it come about, etc.?
I got a phone call from someone at Virgin Records asking me if I could send them my “book.” I don’t know how it works now, but in the pre-Internet days, illustrators would assemble a book/portfolio of their printed illustrations, samples of their work that they could send out to potential clients. I had put one together, but from experience I was reluctant to go to the trouble of sending it out, because up until that point I’d never managed to get a job that way. It usually meant that an art director was looking though a bunch of stuff, and maybe wasn’t even familiar with your work. My response was, “Uh, I don’t think so. But what’s the job?”
“Iggy Pop has a new album coming out, and we’re looking for someone to do the cover.”
“Okay, where should I send it?”
They got back to me shortly after that and wanted me to come up with something. There was a tight deadline, but they told me, “If Iggy likes it, we’ll use it.”
Was there an album title before you started working on it?
I didn’t know anything about the album until Iggy Pop sent me a cassette with his handwritten song titles, as well as “Brick By Brick” written on the spine. A couple of the songs on the cassette had mixes that were a little different than the final album, but I think everything was pretty much in place by the time they contacted me.
Did you have some consistent communication going with Iggy while working on it? Did you show him mock-ups, etc.?
There was a tight deadline, so I had to come up with something quick. My approach was to listen to the album and come up with a dense illustration that would include some imagery based on the song lyrics – the brick buildings, the packed, claustrophobic street, a glimpse of a starry sky at night – a big, decaying east coast city feel to it. There are a few direct references: “She’s got a joint, she’s got a cute walk” (from “Pussy Power”); “The world will sing like a happy bug” (from “I Won’t Crap Out”), “…and like a cartoon cat I roam” (from “Neon Forest”). I didn’t come up with any mock-ups or sketches. I just worked straight through and made a finished black and white ink drawing, and then took a train up to New York to see if Iggy liked it. He did. And it was fun to meet him at his apartment down on Avenue D. He had the album playing on his stereo, and I remember him telling me, “I’m worried about my mom hearing this. There’s a lot of swear words.”
After the original drawing was “approved,” I did the color version using a weird, pre-digital technique I’d come up with. I made a transparent “film positive” overlay of the black and white art, and then did the color on a separate board using colored paper, watercolor, and gauche. That’s what I sent off to Virgin Records. I had to work fast, but I put a lot of time and effort into it. My wife and daughters didn’t see much of me during that time.
So it sounds like it went smooth enough on the Iggy end, but I assume there were disputes?
Of course. The folks at Virgin Records were a little concerned about the girl smoking a joint, but I explained it was based on the song lyrics. Somehow they let that slide.
The part that they insisted on editing was the guy in the center, holding the baby wearing a skull mask. In the original version he has black hair and they thought it looked too much like Roy Orbison. It was explained to me that Roy, who had died recently, was on their label, and they thought it was too disrespectful. Or something. I never made that association until they pointed it out to me, but that certainly wasn’t my intent. I would never be disrespectful to Roy Orbison.
Did you have any kind of input on the back cover or general layout?
No, they worked out the design. The blue portrait of Iggy on the back cover looks like it was designed to link up with the color on the front cover, but that had nothing to do with me. Originally, Iggy wanted Allen Ginsberg to do the photo for the back cover, and I actually met Ginsberg when I took the artwork up to New York. I’ve seen a few of the Ginsberg photos that were taken that day, but I guess the record company was going for another look.
Iggy’s solo albums almost always have some sort of portrait of him on the cover. Brick By Brick was refreshing as it wasn’t just another portrait. That said, my interpretation is that the little, yellow, bug with the fork is Iggy, checking out which person he’s going to poke next.
From what I remember, Brick By Brick was the first album he did for Virgin Records. He had a new contract with them, and yes, they wanted a cover that didn’t have the usual photo portrait. And that little yellow bug? I actually lifted that from Gary Panter. He and I were working together on a comic around that time called “Pixie Meat,” and he’d drawn a cute little bee that seemed perfect. More recently, someone pointed out to me that the bee has a striking resemblance to the mascot of a fast food chain called Jollibee. That was news to me but maybe it was the inspiration for Gary’s original drawing. Gary loves fast food.
Is there anyone else we might know on the cover?
The woman smoking a joint with the “B-52” hairstyle is based loosely on Kate Pierson.
Where is the original artwork today?
The black and white original is sitting safely in my flat file, and the color original was never returned.
What are you working on recently?
I’m working on a new comic that’s going to take me forever to finish. The first book in the series has been published in France by Éditions Cornélius, and the French title for the series is called Dédales. Eventually, a collected edition will be published in the U.S.