Diving into Iggy Pop’s David Bowie years
Low, Heroes, and Lodger weren’t the only notable albums David Bowie worked on during his “Berlin Trilogy” era.
Iggy Pop, who accompanied Bowie when he relocated to West Berlin in the late 1970s, was a beneficiary as well, with Bowie overseeing the recording of Pop’s first solo albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life, serving as co-songwriter, musician, backing vocalist, and producer. Hence the name for Pop’s new box set: The Bowie Years.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Bowie’s reason for moving overseas was to escape the chaos that had engulfed his life in the United States, his overindulgence in drugs leading to paranoia and ill health. Pop was a welcome companion, dealing with drug issues himself, as well struggling to find his way after the demise of the Stooges. He’d also been hanging out with Bowie since accompanying him on his recent tour in support of Station to Station. Bowie wanted to find a new sound for both of them, and decided to take the first step with Pop as his “guinea pig” in process; the recording of The Idiot would precede work on Low.
The Idiot (named after Dostoevsky’s novel) would be recorded in summer of 1976, in studios in France (where the sessions began), as well as Munich and West Berlin. The record exchanged the proto-punk of Pop’s most recent album, the Stooges’ Raw Power, for music that was darker and more sinister. Without its stark, heavy beat, “Nightclubbing” would be just another ode to nightlife, a la the Swinging Sixties classic “The In-Crowd.” Instead, it becomes an ominous journey that’s fraught with danger.
There’s a brooding, suffocating element to the songs, in the chilly Oedipal scenario of “Sister Midnight” and the dissonance of “Funtime.” “Dum Dum Boys” is a fractured retelling of the Stooges’ story, while the closing track, “Mass Production,” sounds like it could be from the soundtrack of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, with its industrial clanging and droning. And for all that, the best-known song is the atypically (for this album) melodic “China Girl,” later turned into a poppier confection on Bowie’s Let’s Dance album, where its fears of imperialism (“I’ll give you eyes of blue/I’ll give you men who want to rule the world”) would be more jarring. Of the two albums, The Idiot is the one in which Bowie’s influence is strongest, not only as a songwriter and producer, but even as a musician, with him playing more guitar on this record than on any of his own albums up to that point. And sax!
VIDEO: David Bowie “China Girl”
Though The Idiot was completed before Low (which featured Pop on backing vocals), it was the latter album that came out first, in January 1977. The Idiot was next released in March, followed by a tour to promote it, and then the two headed straight back into the studio, cranking out Lust for Life with dispatch; the album was in the shops by August. In contrast to the cold Teutonic keyboard-based sheen of The Idiot, Lust for Life was swaggering, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll, as evidenced by the bracing title track, which opens the album. Written by Bowie, the song’s propulsive rhythm was inspired by the Morse code style theme used on the US Armed Forces Network; perhaps that’s what made the song consumer friendly enough to be improbably used in a commercial for Norwegian Cruise Line some years later. Pop’s vocal is giddy with delight, as he rushes forward to embrace his newfound freedom, eager to bust out and break loose.
“The Passenger,” of course, is as glorious as ever. Pop’s lyric was jointly inspired by Jim Morrison’s poem “Notes on Vision” (“Modern life is a journey by car. The Passengers change terribly in their reeking seats, or roam from car to car, subject to unceasing transformation…”) and his own experiences on the road, and, paired with Ricky Gardiner’s irresistibly catchy guitar riff, is beguilingly seductive, even having its own singalong chorus (unsurprisingly, it’s also ended up in a commercial). Yet this obvious choice for a single was relegated to the B-side of “Success” (which wasn’t one). Who knows what direction Pop’s career would’ve taken had “The Passenger” received substantial airplay?
VIDEO: Iggy Pop “The Passenger”
There’s an overall warmth to the album in contrast to its predecessor, despite the occasional note of gloom, as in “Tonight,” about an OD. But “Success” is optimistic, “Sixteen” a playful ode to teenage lust, and “Neighborhood Threat” and “Fall in Love With Me” bring the album to a strong, rock steady conclusion. Pop sounds amped up and ready to go, benefitting greatly from having a solid, tight band (including Bowie on keyboards) backing him. Both albums are also available as standalone CDs, with bonus live material.
If you were hoping for unreleased studio outtakes, you’re out of luck; the only thing along those lines is a 10-track “Edits and Outtakes” disc, with single edits, alternative mixes, and an interview with Pop about the recording of The Idiot. But there’s a bounty of unreleased live stuff. Supplementing the remastered version of TV Eye that’s included in the box are three previously unreleased live recordings, from March 1977 shows in London, Cleveland, and Chicago. The set lists are largely the same, with the London show being the longest, starting off with a bristling “Raw Power,” mixing in the new songs with a healthy selection of Stooges classics (“Search and Destroy,” “No Fun,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog”), and closing with an extended “China Girl.”
“They are masterpieces,” Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes says in the set’s booklet about The Idiot and Lust for Life. “The capture the spirit and time and energy of that period … Everyone polishes things to within a millimeter of their existence, but all the rough edges around these albums made them bigger diamonds.” In their search for a new direction, Pop and Bowie had found the highway that led to the future.