18 February 1978 phone conversation from JW home in Claremont CA with Jon Savage "Sounds" magazine
Williamson's present preoccupations - Artificial Intelligence/ Computer Music, his attitudes to punk and Iggy's current output, and his days with Stooges, from his joining them to their last gig in Michigan 1974.
THE STOOGES. . . ha! Such legends! Such myths! Strong enough that they're still with us, more and more powerful with each retelling. In there, one album: Raw Power, where Williamson's razor-sharp guitar shards (best heard on 'Search & Destroy') set the style for a generation. As simple as that –but for those who weren't there and yet in one way or other have been affected (which means this writer and many of you) there are many questions to be asked.
Which Williamson answers with candour, courtesy and good humour. Although "very disillusioned with the music business, and the entertainment business in general", and implicitly by his present activity very far from those days, it's possible to detect a certain awe and relish in his voice as the Stooges days are recalled. Whatever: those are over. Having set the style in one area, Williamson has moved on: we can only await any future products of his interest in computer music.
Can we start with Kill City – the actual date of recording, when presumably the vocals and much of the instrumentation was put down?
We tracked the album in the summer of 1975 – it actually was an entire album, aside for a couple of things – but what happened at that point was that it never got finished: we got the basic tracks on there, the vocals and a few of the overdubs. After a certain point we tried to stir up some interest in it but couldn't go any further: it was a problem of money, as nobody could fork up the kind of money that was needed to put it together.
Had somebody fronted the money for Kill City?
No. The way it was done was that Ben Edmonds and I got together and decided, well y'know, what's going on, why aren't we doing anything? Well we had no contract – CBS had kinda shelved us – and everybody wanted product at that time, to hear what you were doing. We decided, well here's this guy Jimmy Webb who's got a whole studio up at his house so why not go up there? Webb was kind enough to let us use his studio, we just went up and tracked everything there. Now he doesn't have the best studio in the world, but it was adequate.
It worked out all right But one of the troubles with the whole thing was – see when you let a tape sit on the shelf, especially when it's not stored under ideal conditions, it causes a lot of problems So here I was, sitting with this tape with all these problems and I had to go back in and really do a whole number on it to make it come out right.
What, that the tape slows down or the quality goes?
On a multitrack tape you're dealing with 15/16 tracks. You get print-through and all the stuff goes all over the tape, so you've got this mush. And that combined with the fact that it wasn't finished meant that I had a perfect opportunity to finish the album, having most of the guys who were on the album in the first place around, except for one, and I had a couple of people around who I thought were really excellent too. It was just kind of a fun thing to do last summer, and I finished it up and it turned out fine
Who actually played on the original album?
Scott Thurston did piano and Brian Glasscock did drums.and a guy named Steve Tranio who's credited for some tracks played bass. We had to bring him in at the last mlnute because the bass player we wanted to use couldn't do it, and he didn't work out too well – he's good on some of the things but not on others, so we knocked him out of some of the tracks and retracked him. The saxophonist, John Harden, I brought in last summer (1977) – I didn't know him and after that was finished l heard him play around LA – l was really anxious to get him on the tracks: it's what they needed, y'know.
Did the Sales Brothers come in later?
No – they did some backlng vocals on the original and later I brought them back in just for a few things like 'Master Charge' which they're completely on, and Hunt was on 'Lucky Monkeys'. I tried to work them in there.
I saw them with Iggy's band the last two tours.
They're with him.... I don't know, he may be doing something . else next tour – I talked with him last week – but I'm not sure. He changes his mind so fast... I don't know what's going on.
Were 'Master Charge'and the 'Night Themes' added later?
The 'Night Themes' were the original tracks.
I did some speculating in my review that maybe 'Master Charge' could only have been added after the whole situation had passed. Iggy sounded pretty messed up on the album and maybe that's one of the reasons why it wasn't finished?
That was true. He was seriously ill at that point and I had to actually bring him out of hospital every day to do the tracking ... It was a really, uh, unusual situation, but the thing that's good about his singing on that – his voice isn't as good as on some of his other stuff, but he's like really singing out of his asshole; y'know, really valid singing ... true feeling ...'
What made you finally release the album?
I decided, well here's this document and it's a valid piece of work and everything. People have been asking me for years what the hell I'm doing and when I'm going to have produce out, and why aren't l doing this and that, and I didn't have any real answer that they'd accept. So l finally said 'Well hey:
I'll put this album out and that'll be something, y'know.
And ... it's definitely the best thing we did– so l feel like it should be out.
All that I know now is that you're studying computers. I don't know exactly what you're doing.
The computer area is very complicated and unless you're gonna do something like work for a company or be a key-punch operator it's not an easy thing to get into – but I've gotten really interested in an area called 'Artificial Intelligence'. What it is – it includes the area of computer music, but that's just a sub-group – it's a series of programs to make the computer act as an intelligent being. At this point computers mainly function as machines: they can solve problems really fast, think really fast, but they can't come up with solutions of their own..
Could you explain a little about computer music, if it's not too complicated?
Let me see if I can boil it down. One of my big problems is that I don't read music, and that's a BIG problem: I know a lot more about mathematics than I do about music. Relating mathematics to music – music is intervals, and it has mathematical correlations. So what you do, you get together with somebody who is a musician, and can read music, and you break down everything: time, tonality, harmonics etc into mathematical terms and then you feed it to the computer, OK?
Now the computer can then do anything it wants to: it knows what the basic format is. Then you have to use your own judgement if, say, you want to compose something on the computer you then tell it: 'Let's try using six more harmonics on this passage, or let's change the time in here'. You have complete control because the thing can scan, can break things down into microseconds, right, SO fast – things that are totally impossible on real instruments become possible – so that the music that just comes out there is just phenomenal.
I'm not far enough in that I've actually done anything yet; I work at it but, y'know, it's a long drawn out process – you don't get good for a long time. I’ve heard some things by some people – Stanford (University) is one of the main areas: they have one of the best Artificial Intelligence laboratories. I'm not up there yet but I'm planning on it. it's just phenomenal music ... really good... nothing like synthesisers or anything like that: it really sounds REAL.
Another thing you can use computers for is for regular music. You can just record music and you process it directly into the computer – y'know, live music – and then, when you want to change something, you type in what you want to change, and it gives you a lot more control than usual. The studio is in real time, so you're really dealing with your reflexes and things that are so touchy that they can't even be –y'know all the weird little noises and so forth – some of them can't be controlled very well in the studio, on a computer they can be. It's a good thing: you can choose properly. .
You could have used it on Kill City.
I would have if I'd had one available to use: that's one of my projects. if I can get a big enough budget I want to take the tape up to Stanford and process it that way. I'd love to do that but you gotta have the bucks.
There's a great difference in your playing between ‘Search & Destroy’ and the Kill City album...
Oh yeah. It was a completely different thing. The whole concept of Kill City was different. The difference in sound has to do with a couple of things: one of those has to do with the fact that the tape the sound was muddy from sitting on the shelf for so long, and the second was that I maybe overcompensated for Raw Powerhaving had those guitars so upfront: I couldn't stand that. I think a band should play together...
How do you feel about the fact that since 1976 there's been a whole breed of groups and a whole breed of guitar players, who are very heavily influenced by Raw Power?
I think it's as funny as hell. (laughs). I couldn't believe it when I first started hearing that, but now I turn on the radio to some stations where they play this stuff, and I hear these guys are...l mean it might as well be ME playing! And... y'know, what can I say? I don't even play like that anymore, number one, and, number two, what I ever did, the only thing I ever dld was just because I was a kid and could hardly play guitar at all. The way l could play in a band was that l had to play my own music because I couldn't play anyone else's: Iwasn't good enough.
It's very encouraging for new bands though (Penetration are mentioned as an example.)
Yeah I know, they've got all these names.
What kind of guitar were you using?
A basic Les Paul. Maybe a lot of the sound comes from the fact that I was using an AC-30 amp for the rhythm track, and that was that sound, y'know, that almost broken up sound.. and then I just used Marshall – just straight amplification: I was never one for using a whole bunch of stuff, I just liked to keep it simple.
You know also there are these big myths built up around the Raw Power days in England. This whole deal of everybody smacked out groveling on the ground – all this kind of thing.
At the time when we were over in England, we had just gotten off of drugs. We'd been back in Detroit when we got that CBS contract through DeFries – We'd just come off that shit, y'know, and we were actually pretty good almost the entire time, at least through most of Raw Power there was very little drugs involved. A lot of drinking and just the regular dope scene but by the end of the album we'd met a few people and sort of slid back. . . by the end we were playing around with that, but I wouldn't say that was our heavy period of drug abuse.
But by the time we got but here to California, that's when the dope really started up again: y'know, when you have a problem with drugs, you never get over it. And – I mean the sort of thing we were doing just completely generated the whole thing and we were in way over our heads. We had a lot of money, and DeFries was way into putting you up at the best places and here you are: these kids, basically, with these fabulously wealthy LA people and. . .just fantastlc accommodation, and we had money to burn so we just burnt it on dope. We ended up by getting into it pretty deep.
That was before Kill City?.
Yeah. At that point Jim as still going through emotional problems and his career was pretty shot : nobody wanted to pick up on him. He was actually in an institutlon at that time because he had a problem – he couldn't afford real drugs but would take pills and stuff – his mind wasn't functioning right. So he got kind of straightened out a little bit there, and when he was well enough to do it, I would bring him over to the studlo and do it.
And by that time you were dean?.
Yeah. I don't take drugs anymore but you don't ever get over that shit. I'm basically an addictive personality – y'know I'll drlnk too much, say –but I don't have a drug problem anymore. I mean, it just ruins your life, that's what it does, at least at that time anyway, and anybody that can see beyond it won't get into it – it's just that certain people, myself included, have to try things like that. It's just ridiculous.
There's a whole rock 'n' roll myth built around that.
Exactly. Well I was really involved in that. The basic thing about that rock 'n' roll myth is that you're trying to pose yourself as - you've got more balls than anyone else, you can handle more shit than anybody, and that what makes you powerful – but that's also what kills you.
Like the pictures of Sid Vicious overdosed in America?.
Yup. That's the way it goes, y'know. And especially with those guys – they must have been having a hard time of it, because they're young and they've been getting so much press that shit really turns your head around, you know. But – in the end I can't see any meaning in it. I can't see the usefulness of it. It's really destructive. It really is, and I don't want to continue to perpetuate that whole thing – it's not valid to me anymore.
I've actually got two versions of the Raw Power album: one's English and the other's continental, and the sound is different, much better on the continental release.
Yeah, l have one of those too; the difference in that is the guy that's mastering the album: they can really change the sound quality of it just by how they equalise the mastering.
The English album really doesn't sound too good...
(Laughs) At the same time there were a lot of different mixes going down: we tried to mix it ourselves but I didn't know about it at that time and Jim didn't either really – and so we ended up with just a big bunch of crap, y'know. Finally, we had a deadline on the album and we gave it over to Bowie and I don't think he did justice to it either, but it was too late. There's a lot of things I don't like about that album. David – I don't know: he goes off into these things, and he loses sight of the basic thing you're trying to get across. That's what's true about that album – these things coming out of nowhere and stuff, But what can you do? It's over now.
You played one gig only over here, didn't you, at the King's
What that was all about was – when we first started out with Mainman, which wasn't called that then; DeFries was a partner of that organisation. Bowie's career was just starting again at the same time, so he had the two of us. . . he didn't know really what the hell to do with us – y'know we were really out of control – and he was trying to be proper.
I mean Bowie, at first especially, was very formal and proper, very much in control what he was doing. Well, here's us and we're maniacs – it was decided then that we were gonna start making the album: we started cutting some of that stuff at little studios to try and get the material up. Meanwhile Bowie's playing shows around town and so forth, so eventually it comes up that why don't we try playing? OK – we couldn't get anybody to give us a hall because of our reputation; so DeFries ended up by renting that hall himself and putting us in there. Uh, everyone was completely afraid of us and stuff and we didn't even do anything that heavy really (laughs). But that was the end of that: he couldn't swing it again, and it took a long time before that became accepted as a show of sorts.
Was the CBS contract for one album only?
It was a real welrd situation. They had us under contract for two albums: what happened was that the whole thing with DeFries got so queered and everything that we got away from him and just went out on our own. We were basically without management – only had an agent. By the time we hit New York they were hot and cold on us, going one way and then the other on this extra album. We were touring mostly just to stay alive so they were gonna do a live album: we tried to record one in New York one time and it was just a really bad performance, so that didn't happen. So they just kind of shelved us, that's what it amounted to.
A friend of mine said he saw you in New York in 1973 with Blue Oyster Cult or somebody.
That must have been the time they were trying to record us. I think that show we were pretty out of control: a lot of things had gone wrong and we literally had to do it all ourselves, which was pretty much beyond us at that point.
Do you have any recollection of any particular incidents?
Umm, I'll tell you the funniest thing I've ever seen in my entire life. That's when we played the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC; we stayed at the Watergate Hotel, and Jim and one of the other band members, Ron Asheton, had some chicks down from New York to stay, see the show and stuff. He'd been really bad for a couple of gigs and things weren't going too well – these chicks came in with this goddam crystal THC (synthesised marijuana), y'know, and they have it laid out in these lines on the table . . . Crystal THC you don't fuck around with: a little bit goes a long way.
So he sticks his nose down there and does about six lines; he was so out of his mind he was seeing Green Martians, couldn't walk, couldn't do anything. We had to go on stage in like half-an-hour and it was really serious: he was so bad he should have gone to hospltal but we had a gig to do, and every gig on that tour was important because if we didn't get paid we didn't go any further. We needed him. We go on like half-an-hour late, playing this big prestigious gig with Mott the Hoople, for one of the biggest promoters on the East Coast: the motherfucker was so pissed at us, he took off his gold watch, which must have cost about $500, and smashed it against the wall; he was so mad at us.
So we went out and actually started playing: we had two roadies actually carry him and throw him on stage. He couldn't sing – he didn't know where he was coming in or out – but somehow he pulled it off; everybody in the audience thought it was his act. He's, like, every step he would miss his balance and fall down. It was hilarious: everybody was saying 'Fantastic concert' and here's this guy that can't even walk! I know, what can you say? He's the only guy that can get away with things like that. . .
There's been a whole slew of stuff re-released over the last year or so, especially during the last month: can we run through it...?
'Well – I'm Sick Of You, that EP was done actually before Raw Power, when we were feeling out material for the stage show and the album. I think we did it at a tiny studio at Wembley – I forget the name. I like that song...
Then there was 'I Gotta Right'.
That was also done at the same place, and Jim apparently is putting that out on his new album which is coming out, of live performances. . .
It's very trebly.
(Laughs). Yeah, well I was way into really cranking up the treble on that thing, but they mastered it pretty bad too. I wasn't involved in the mastering of any of those singles.
What happened to Metallic KO?
That's a long story. The guy approached me through some French friends I have in L.A. and said: 'Well I have some money if you'll give me some tapes. . .' Well I was trying to sell the Kill City tapes, and I wasn't interested in the kind of money he was talking about, but I gave him some tapes in return for a sum – to me it was like a joke. Those tapes are a joke. They're only interesting for me like to sit home and play them through with friends once for a laugh, y'know.
That was your last ever gig.
Yeah, one of the sides was. The ones with all the bottles breaking and shit. That was frightening man – you can't imagine what that gig was like. Anyway he released this and it's selling unbelievably, making all this money: what's frightening too is that I'm not seeing any of it.
What exactly happened there? The whole audience sounds as though it was trashing you.
We had just gotten in with these people in New York who were thinking about managing us and they started booking us a lot of dates close together. To make more money in Michigan they put us in this place called "The Rock 'n' Roll Farm" outside Detroit and the next day we had a gig at the Michigan Palace.
So we get to 'Rock 'n' Roll Farm' and the fucking place is a biker's hangout! And here you got Iggy who jumps offstage and is going wild, and you have all these kids coming out from Detroit to see us and you also have a bunch of drunk bikers hanging around. So we started playing and Jim goes out to the audience: the first thing you know is that this biker comes up with all these brass knuckles on his hand – y'know, with all the studs – and he punches him out. Just floors him, cut his eye up and stuff. So that was the end of THAT gig.
Well the next night I guess the bikers didn't like us too much – they came to the Palace gig: they're whipping bottles at us, a whisky bottle broke on the piano, and a goddam camera went whizzing past my head – smashed on my amp. Real serious violence y'know – really, if any one of those things had hit somebody it would have been all over – we were lucky. We had to play the gig too, you see, so we really had to just stand out there and be targets!
In a way it's a really deep experience for a person to be
standing there just knowing at any minute a bottle could hit
you in the face and shit. That was a culmination: I think it was going to be our last gig anyway, but that was just a perfect end.
So everything fell apart...
Yes. Ron (Asheton) and I were on the outs, because Ron had started out playing guitar and was on the first two albums. It goes back a long time, Jon, I used to know all those guys since I was a teenager, and we were close friends. I would never play with them because they weren't very good at first. Jim used to play drums in a blues band.
I travelled around a bit, Boston, New York and stuff, and I came back and decided that I didn't have anything better to do. So I started playing with them, moving Ron over to bass and he never really got over that. By that time anyway l was tired of bands, period: I didn't want to be in a band anymore. So we just canned the whole thing.
Can I ask you what you think about Iggy's current activity?
I enjoyed his tour with David Bowie: for me that was very funny, because – I like David and respect him – but we're just polar opposites, right, and to see him playing my music. . .! Iggy was a lot different from that time (1973) but he's still Iggy – you gotta give him credit, he can perform! He is good.
I wish his recording career was a little more directed: I think his last album was the better of the two, but I just have to say that I'm glad he did them but I don't think there's too much there that's lasting. It's just good product, I guess, but it didn't do very much for me. But I spoke to him last week and I'm really happy for him: that he likes Berlin and it seems to be a good base for him, because he doesn't get screwed around there. He's well, thinking coherently, and I'm glad he can do what he wants to because when he can't, he's in trouble.
Is there any more stuff from the 1972/5 period to be reissued?
"There is nothing else to reissue. Greg Shaw has a whole pile of it – everything I owned, that was all one package deal I did last summer. All I can say is that I hope he uses discretion with it – I'm not entirely happy with Jesus Loves The Stooges, as they stuck two different tapes of the same song on the same side. I can't even believe they did that! I don't like the Kill City album sleeve either but the one saving grace is at least you can see it from a hundred yards away. . . If he doesn't, I'll be pissed off at him: that's all I can do. It's out of my hands.
When I moved out of L.A. I just got rid of everything I had y'know – I don't have anything now. I'm just starting anew. So I'm hoping to get some work with this album so I can put out some new stuff. Y'know: times goes on and I don't want to keep rehashing that whole period. .
Time moves fast in rock 'n' roll...
In the end, especially in rock 'n' roll, there's a fine line you have to walk and if you lose sight of what you're doing, you better get out of it fast because it's cold meaningless bullshit after that.