Was James Osterberg’s 1979 Arista debut also his last true masterpiece?
When Iggy Pop signed to Arista in 1978, it seemed a natural continuation of the label’s reach for downtown rock & roll credibility with first Patti Smith and then Lou Reed.
But there was a big difference: Arista president Clive Davis had already encountered Iggy’s chaotic ways when he was convinced to bankroll Raw Power during the last year of his leadership at Columbia Records. The story has it that Iggy climbed onto Davis’s desk and serenaded him with a Sinatra song and tales of world-dominating sales. The latter part may have seemed convincing because he had lined up as his producer none other than David Bowie, who had recently delivered hits for both Mott The Hoople and Reed.
While Raw Power is a stone-cold classic, featuring many classic songs and adding the heat-seeking guitar of James Williamson to the mix, it contained no hit singles, however, and there was nothing Sinatra-smooth about its creation either. Davis was likely happy to see Iggy self-destruct after its release, so at least so he wouldn’t darken his office door again with another wild sales pitch. Yet that’s exactly what happened. Within a year or two The Stooges flamed out and Iggy was at a low point, addicted to heroin and without a label or a band.
However, after a stint in rehab, Bowie got him to Berlin where they cut The Idiot and Lust For Life during the same prolific period that produced Low and “Heroes”. Both albums did fairly well in the UK, cracking the Top 30, and received enough critical acclaim to confirm Iggy was once again a going concern, now as a solo artist.
Even so, Davis was not pleased when Ben Edmonds, Arista’s UK A&R person, inked a deal with Iggy behind his back. Instead of killing the deal, Davis simply put the kibosh on any American releases for whatever the former Stooge cooked up. New Values, the first album he delivered for Arista, surprised everyone at the label by selling strongly and getting great reviews when it was released in England, prompting Davis to give it an American release almost immediately.
Here are five reasons why it’s not only a great record, but also Iggy’s last masterpiece.
1. Getting The Band Back Together – Sort Of
Iggy is one of the greatest performers to ever grace a stage and has a surprisingly versatile voice. He also has wide-ranging musical interests and a cracked worldview that can produce interesting lyrics. But all of these things usually come together in the studio when he has strong collaborators. So, when it came time to craft New Values, the first smart decision he made was to get James Williamson back in the fold as producer. Williamson brought along Scott Thurston, a multitalented musician and songwriter who had played piano on The Stooges last tour. Both Williamson and Thurston were also involved with Kill City, which was recorded back in 1975 while Iggy was on a weekend pass from rehab. Thurston ended up co-writing five songs on New Values and playing most of the guitar in addition to his keyboard work.
2. Mix It Up
The other two main musicians on New Values were new to the lineup. Drummer Klaus Krüger, who had recently joined Tangerine Dream, was a friend from the Berlin days and a pioneer in combining percussion and electronics. He made sure the drum parts were resolutely contemporary and a distinct change from Hunt Sales’ powerful work on Lust For Life. The bassist was Jackie Clark, who came up playing soul and gospel with the likes of Ike & Tina Turner and Shirley Caesar, adding some other flavors to the sound. Williamson, Thurston, Krüger and Clark may be the best combination of players Iggy worked with until he joined forces with Josh Homme and co. for Post Pop Depression nearly 30 years later.
3. Three Rules Of Songwriting: Focus, Focus & Focus
One main downfall of much of Iggy’s work since New Values has been a lack of focus when it came to writing lyrics. For example, while Post Pop Depression was hailed as a return to form, when you listened carefully many of the songs kind of died after the first verse. Whether it was Thurston’s influence or wanting to prove Davis wrong, every song on New Values has arresting imagery and quirky catchphrases that keep you coming back for more. Right from the first song, “Tell Me A Story,” which begins “What must I do to take a holiday?/Show me a bill that they can make me pay, ha/Tell me a story and maybe I’ll believe it,” there’s a freshness and concision to the language. Even on the “dumb” songs, like “Girls” or “I’m Bored” he adds twists and turns. In “Girls” the line “You’re somebody to talk to” lends some heart to what could just be a caveman’s rant and when he interpolates Gershwin’s “Summertime” it’s both hilarious and smart. When he says “I’m a lengthy monologue” in “I’m Bored” it adds the right touch of self-deprecation so he doesn’t come off as merely jaded. When he really hits his stride in “Don’t Look Down” or “The Endless Sea” he reveals a persona with more soul than we previously imagined, which is further developed on “How Do Ya Fix A Broken Part” and “Angel.”
4. Sing Along With Iggy
If you told the average Iggy fan circa 1978 that his next album would feature extensive background vocals, they would probably think the worst, that he’d “sold out” or “gone soft.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the canny use of other singers, which puts Iggy’s baritone in a new perspective, might be one of Williamson’s best moves as a producer. It didn’t hurt that the primary background vocalist was one Earl Shackleford, a music-biz veteran who had cut the classic garage rock single Pretty Little Thing with his band The Deepest Blue back in 1966 when Iggy was still playing drums in The Iguanas. Williamson had caught Shackleford at a club gig with his band The Strutters and asked him to add vocals to some of the New Values tracks. The Strutters included two female vocalists, Anna and Mary Alfono, so it was likely Shackleford’s idea to add them to “Don’t Look Down” and “Angel,” a sweetening that works wonders for the songs. Iggy wouldn’t use backing vocals to this degree for years, until his brief purple patch in the early 90’s with Brick By Brick and American Caesar.
5. Keep It Short
In 2000, a reissue of New Values included two bonus tracks, “Chains” and “Pretty Flamingo,” which served only to prove the point that the 12 songs included on the original album were the best from the sessions.
While Iggy’s early years are often looked at as a complete mess – and he often lived up to his reputation as a wild man – he also managed harness his midwestern work ethic to helm seven of the best records of that or any era, counting the three albums with The Stooges, two with Bowie and two with James Williamson, including New Values. This sharp, funny, heartfelt album, now celebrating its 40th anniversary, was a more than fitting capstone to Iggy’s first decade of record making. Even Clive Davis probably remembers it fondly!
VIDEO: Iggy Pop – New Values