The Stooges: Side One
By Ben Edmonds
Fusion Magazine, Oct. 16, 1970
The Stooges were unquestionably the most significant addition to the rock and roll roster for 1969. While it may be true that some (Crosby, Stills & Nash; Delaney & Bonnie) were ushered in with considerably more fanfare, The Stooges gave a tired scene a much needed kick in the ass. Writing in the Oct. 17, 1969 issue if Fusion, Robert Somma declared that "The Stooges are my nomination for the next big thing in Pop."
The nomination was seconded many times over and time has, of course, proven them all perfectly correct. Not that The Stooges will ever be superstars in the conventional manner, they are simply not cut out of that mold. But it is precisely through their circumvention of the orthodox that they get down to the heart of the matter: rock and roll.
There is actually little a Stooges record can say to someone who has seen them perform live, for they embody the concept of rock as visual and visceral theatre to the utmost. A record is more often a second-hand experience at best, anyway, but with The Stooges it becomes little more than a soundtrack for the nostalgia it inevitably triggers. Their new release, Funhouse (Electra EKS-74071) however goes a long way towards capturing the emotional, if not the visual, content of a Stooges performance and is also able to stand on its own as a recorded statement.
Their first album, (The Stooges, Electra EKS, 74051), produced by John Cale, was a precise exercise in the limitations of The Stooges as a band. At that time the boys had yet to confront the disciplines of the structured song, yet the whole album (from conception to product) was completed in just two days. Within this context both Cale and the band performed in most admirable fashion. It was very definitely a studio album; the sound was finely layered and almost synthetic, but it was nevertheless a remarkable representation of the adolescent Stooges.
By contrast, Funhouse must be viewed as an attempt to present the band in more natural environs. Produced by Don Gallucci (who did a fine job on the Crabby Appleton album) this record was, for all intents and purposes, cut live in the studio. (The only noticeable over-dubbing is on the guitar tracks.) The resulting sound is considerably rougher, more raw in short, and much cleaner delineation of The Stooges.
This approach offers us to see how The Stooges work together as a band, how the members interact as musicians. But aside from merely escaping the sterility of the first album Funhouse more accurately documents the emotional impact of The Stooges set, that extension of the basic rock and roll concept at which they excel. And because the band is working in a predominantly live atmosphere it is a far superior vehicle for presentation of front man Iggy.
The quality of Iggy's performance here is vastly different from that of the debut album. In working directly with the band (as opposed to being a singular track) we can see just how much he really gets off on the music.
While his 'singing' might appear to be more of the atonal screaming and belching which graced the first album, he has learned a surprising amount about the use of his voice. Both his phrasing and projection have markedly improved: in singing with the band his grunts and groans are more punctually effective. Whatever his technical limitations as a vocalist, he nevertheless sings with both force and personality. Quite marvelous, actually.
Note also, if you will, Iggy's recurring riff on the conventional image of the lead singer. By aping the gestures of the popstar (as with his "look out" on Loose or his commanding "bring it down" on Funhouse) he shows us how far removed he is from the whole image. His singing is nothing more than a statement on himself. You can take him or leave him, but either way it's on his terms.
For a band that could barely play their instruments at the point of conception, The Stooges have made exceptional progress. They still pound away relentlessly at inanely simple chordal structures, but this is the very foundation of Stooge music and success. The very force of their repetition achieves an almost hypnotic intensity closely akin to that found on the Velvet Underground's first album; it is an intensity that is capable of seizing the body as well as the mind, a truly rare combination in contemporary rock. Their music is so simple that a great many people are repulsed by it, but all the while fascinated by it as well.
One important facet in the music of The Stooges is their consistency in energy levels. Everyone in the band plays essentially the same level, much of their intensity can be traced to this solidarity. As a result, the not only grabs you, but the consistency allows it to hold you as well. Even in a compariatively low-key song like Dirt (the Funhouse equivalent of the first album's Ann) the level of energy is an even flow.
This technique, apart fromt he reaction it stimulates, serves to channel attention to the presence of Iggy; the perfect sound backdrop. Even the minor variations, usually in the form of false endings, do not disrupt the essential pattern and demonstrate the advancements The Stooges have made in the use of dynamics.
Guitarist Ron Asheton is the most readily discernible component in The Stooges' music, and is a fairly accurate yardstick for the measure of their improvement. His playing has always been more concerned with energy than finesse; it has been said that he plays the electric guitar with the emphasis firmly on the electric. Since the first album, however, he has polished up on the more conventional aspects of his trade. His chording is still simplistically brutal as ever, but his lead work is now more thought out and he relies less on the wah-wah and other effects. He double-tracks himself fairly regularly throughout but the recent addition of Billy Cheatham on rhythm guitar will free him to continue his exploration into the possibilities of guitar technology.
The live nature of the second recording more accurately presents the rhythm section of bassist Dave Alexander and drummer Scott Asheton. (Dave has since left the group, and has been replaced by former-roadie Zeke Zettner). The playing of both is primitive at best, but why they are technically 'very limited' they work together marvelously within the context of each other. The bottom they form, because it is not lost in either complexity or ego, is among the most solid in rock. They don't attempt much, but they achieve unfailingly.
The addition of Steven Mackay on saxophone (he plays on the entire side two) is at times the weakest link in their musical chain. Having played live with the band only once prior to this recording he sometimes tends to clutter the sound rather than defining it. On "Funhouse" for example his playing is slightly uneven and lacking in the consistent simplicity which marks the rest of the group. He displays enough basic feel for the music, however, so that when his integration into the band is more fully realized he should be a genuine bitch.
If the first Stooges album revolved around boredom then "Loose" probably gives us our closest perspective on The Stooges, 1970-style. It's loud and driving, the best support of The Rolling Stones analogy to date. It's vital and alive, an affirmation of existance rather than a comment on the lack of any way to use it. "I'll stick it deep inside/I'll stick it deep inside/I'm loose..."
The bass line hits hard below the belt, the guitar smacks you square in the mouth, while Iggy screams his defiant assertions of life in your ears.
Throughout the album, Iggy's life references ("I feel alright," "I feel fine to be dancing," "I'm the fire of life") are far to numerous to be ignored. He is making a very personal statement, a statement powered by the music:
"Oooh, I been dirt/And I don't care."
Not the spokesman for adolescent Amerika that he once made out to be, he speaks only for himself. He speaks of relationships ("Can you feel it when you touch me..."), of his relationships to the music, of his relationship to the audience (not as a mass but square in the eye), of his relationship to himself.
Once again The Stooges manage to draw blood. By rejecting the artifacts of a plastic culture and choosing to fashion their own (however crude), they are REAL. A reality that at once both captures the essence of and transcends mere rock and roll. Whether we choose to agree with them or not is irrelevant, we can't deny their creditibility as human instruments. Their music forces a totality in reaction that is darkly beautiful and to some, I suspect, more than a little frightening. Music is considered an entertainment, and of late only a partially self-involving one at that, but with The Stooges it somehow becomes existence itself. In response there is life, anything less is death. With The Stooges there is no room for anything in between.
Producer Don Gallucci wisely decided not to tamper with The Stooges to any great extent, to let the album evolve naturally and with room for spontaneity. If the guitar tracking is slightly erratic and the sound (especially that of Asheton's cymbals) sometimes a little on the flat side, it can be forgiven, for Funhouse is a work of tremendous emotional dimension and depth. And it's rock and roll.
So 1970 finds The Stooges to be once more at the crux of the matter. That this is one of rock and roll's finest moments goes without question from my frame of reference, but then again that was never really the question to begin with.
The answer is: Do you feel it?