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Iggy Pop in 10 Songs

A crash course on the iconic punk rock frontman before Free drops

Iggy Pop
Iggy Pop
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    Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.

    Iggy Pop has been hanging around the punk-rock conversation for so long that even his body has become a sort of living artifact, a street-walkin’ cheetah for naturalists to study in the flesh. Every sinewy muscle, every scar inflicted by a shard of broken glass is a product of a bygone era when sex, drugs, piss, and vinegar were the key ingredients in a rock ‘n’ roll song. Pop’s physique might belong in a museum or an art class, but his music still belongs on stage, or at least in a car stereo set to an ear-splitting volume.

    Nearly half a century since his debut with The Stooges, the prolific punk provocateur remains as vital as ever. His latest release, entitled Free, both extends his legacy and gives it a kind of closing chapter. But before we close the book entirely, let’s look back on 10 songs that define Iggy Pop’s long career, from his early years with The Stooges to his wildly productive sojourn with David Bowie in Berlin.


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    Sexual Subversion

    “I Wanna Be Your Dog” from The Stooges (1969)

    “I Wanna Be Your Dog” isn’t just an expression of self-deprecation and sexual submission. It’s a plea to be accepted — for three minutes, at least — as something other than human. In 1969, Iggy Pop was still learning how to be a rock ‘n’ roll frontman, but he knew from watching The Doors’ Jim Morrison and The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger that it hinged on eliciting an extreme reaction every time he stepped onstage. Rolling around bare-chested and covered in broken glass, Pop presented himself as both a superhuman and a kind of depraved monster; in the early punk rock universe, the two were nearly one and the same.

    Perhaps more than any other song on The Stooges’ self-titled debut, “I Wanna Be Your Dog” established a template other bands could latch onto. Here were three distorted chords, a single-note piano riff, and not much else. The music’s simplicity and insistent repetition turns the listener’s attention to Pop’s vocal performance, which finds him literally flailing around on the ground and begging to be an object of exploitation. “I Wanna Be Your Dog” may be considered dumb or crass compared to Pop’s later work, but it also established him as a sort of anti-rock frontman. This guy wants to be beneath you, not towering above the crowd from a safe perch onstage. In 1969, there was something truly frightening about that kind of inversion.


    Pop Minus “Pop”

    “L.A. Blues” from Fun House (1970)

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    Fun House is Pop’s most gleefully anarchic album, a feverish, ferocious mess that happened to be miles ahead of its time when it was released in July of 1970. Whereas The Stooges’ self-titled debut scratched the primal itch so insistently that it seemed almost anti-intellectual, Fun House demands that all critical faculties be fully engaged.

    To call this album merely difficult is to deny the raw pleasures of a song like “L.A. Blues”, a jazz punk freak-out that finds Pop screaming his lungs out amidst a hurricane of distorted guitars, atonal saxophones, and haphazard snare beats. There’s not even the slightest pretense of pop structure, thank god, because such a structure would only serve to impose an artificial limit on what sounds like a limitless brand of aggression. The Stooges would go on to title their next album Raw Power, but they never sounded rawer or more powerful than they do in the final five minutes of Fun House.


    Heart Full of Napalm

    “Search and Destroy” from Raw Power (1973)

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    The Stooges were a band in turmoil after the limited success of their self-titled debut and follow-up, Fun House. Pop was struggling to kick heroin and retreated to London, where he reformed the band and recorded what would become their most iconic album, 1973’s Raw Power. Opening track “Search and Destroy” breaks down the door like a bulldozer, then slices through any remaining rubble with a trebly guitar lead that ranks among the most recognizable in punk rock.

    Though its title comes from a headline about the Vietnam War, “Search and Destroy” is less interested in politics than in co-opting the language of war (“runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb,” “heart full of napalm,” “love in the middle of a firefight”) to describe Pop’s own self-destructive mentality. As would become clear on The Stooges’ 1976 live album Metallic K.O., every time Pop went on stage he was at war with his audience. Describing his musical mission in militaristic terms doesn’t actually seem that crazy.


    The Provocateur

    “Louie Louie” from Metallic K.O. (1976)

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    Only 10 songs and we choose a cover? Before you start chucking the beer bottles, hear us out. At least half of Iggy Pop’s allure came from his dangerous, destructive live performances, several of which ended with him and the rest of the Stooges being chased out of the club. Such was often the case when they launched into their sloppy, heavily altered version of Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie”, a rock standard blown up from the inside out.

    Lots of artists release unnecessary live albums to raise a little cash, but Metallic K.O. is an essential document of The Stooges at their rawest and most, um, powerful. For a band that often sounded like they were going to implode in the studio, this was the next level of mayhem. The band’s cover of “Louie Louie” somehow both honors their rock ‘n’ roll forebears and spits on their legacy. In other words, it’s punk at its best.


    The Bowie Years

    “Sister Midnight” from The Idiot (1977)

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    Few musical partnerships have borne richer fruit than the unlikely pairing of Iggy Pop and David Bowie, both of whom had moved to Berlin in 1977 to kick their various drug addictions. But what began as a retreat from the world eventually turned into an explosion of creativity that resulted in classic albums like Bowie’s Low and Pop’s wildly divergent solo debut, The Idiot.

    Though the artists recorded under their own names, they had a deep influence on each other’s work. Bowie co-wrote and performed on several of The Idiot’s standout tracks, including “China Girl” and album opener “Sister Midnight”. The latter was one of the duo’s earliest collaborations, and it set the tone for an album that would sound nothing like Pop’s previous work with The Stooges. Some fans still can’t connect with the track’s Kraftwerkian synths and off-kilter rhythms, but even they can’t deny that it represents Pop at the weirdest and most ambitious phase of his career.


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    Back to Basics in Berlin

    “Lust for Life” from Lust for Life (1977)

    No need to get cute here and go for the deep cuts. “Lust for Life”, the title track of Pop’s second and more successful Berlin album, is probably the most essential song in his entire catalog. It combines the rock ‘n’ roll spirit of his early years with the songwriting sensibilities he honed during his time with Bowie, who co-wrote the track. “Lust for Life” is instantly recognizable by its tom-heavy opening drumbeat, but the whole song practically exudes swagger. Pop’s cryptic lyrics reference liquor, drugs, and William S. Burroughs, but the real takeaway comes from that central phrase: lust for life. It’s a perfect distillation of Pop’s insatiable passion for living, which sometimes led him down a dark rabbit hole and other times (here, for example) to rock ‘n’ roll bliss.


    Punk Rock Poet

    “The Passenger” from Lust for Life (1977)

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    Pop’s biggest influence as a performer may well be The Doors’ Jim Morrison, but that influence doesn’t always translate to the lyrics sheet. On “The Passenger”, it does. Pop allegedly wrote the song while traveling aboard Berlin’s S-Bahn, and Morrison’s poetry had a big influence on his portrayal of a man riding through the city beneath a “bright and hollow sky.” The song’s simple guitar melody serves merely as a backdrop for the story, and it demonstrates how Pop knew how to keep things simple even in the midst of his most creative period. Ten years later, in 1987, Siouxsie and the Banshees would release a cover with brass arrangements and other flourishes, but Pop’s stripped-down original remains the essential version.


    Dive into the Mainstream

    “Don’t Look Down” from New Values (1979)

    1979’s New Values marks the beginning of Pop’s true solo career — the one in which Bowie doesn’t play a starring role. It’s an ambitious record in both the artistic and commercial sense, though it ended up more successful in the former category than the latter. Left to his own devices, Pop fills out tracks like “Don’t Look Down” with horns and other new wave flourishes that make New Values feel more dated than some of his earlier material, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Don’t Look Down” is a swinging, sax-filled track that tries to go big and hits its mark. Though he wasn’t involved in the production, Bowie was such a big fan of the track that he covered it on his 1984 album, Tonight. Not that Bowie’s mark of approval means anything but — oh, who are we kidding? Of course it does.


    Never Say Die

    “Wild America” from American Caesar (1993)

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    Pop’s heyday was long over by the time the 1990s began, but he continued to make music all the same and showed that the well hadn’t run completely dry. American Caesar ranks among the best of his ‘90s albums, returning to a hard-edged rock ‘n’ roll sound that longtime fans could sink their teeth into with gusto. “Wild America” is a throwback tune in the sense that it makes Pop sound sort of dangerous again. The song’s account of a drug-fueled night out in LA recalls both The Doors and Hunter S. Thompson, and the live interview with former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins is a nice touch, too.


    Swan Song?

    “Sunday” from Post Pop Depression (2016)

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    What does Iggy Pop have left to prove, nearly half a century after he changed punk rock forever? Absolutely nothing, but he keeps exploring new avenues anyway. Pop’s latest (and likely his last) album finds him teaming up with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, and the results are both familiar and thrillingly strange. While Homme is merely the latest in a long line of collaborators, Pop really shows an interest in internalizing the producer’s Palm Desert sound and making it his own.

    One song that exemplifies this is the swaggering “Sunday”, which brings some much-needed levity to an album called Post Pop Depression. It’s still menacing, but there’s a playful edge that recalls some of Pop’s most vital output from the ‘70s. Pop is too old to die young, and he’ll likely never go out in a blaze of glory, but songs like “Sunday” show why he doesn’t need to. He’ll keep doing things on his own terms, not to preserve his legacy but for a much simpler reason: because everything else is boring.

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