Sharps & Flats

On Rhino's exhaustive "1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions," the Stooges obliterate the line between dumb joke and visionary achievement.

Topics: Music, Iggy Pop,

Sharps & Flats

Wouldn’t this be a more interesting world if Melissa Etheridge had picked Iggy Pop rather than David Crosby to sire her love child? Were popular culture subject to Darwinian principles, natural selection alone would seem to favor a lean, mean rockin’ machine over an overstuffed walrus with a liver transplant. Yet Etheridge’s choice is the same one that rock itself made in 1970 — the year that the music went so terribly wrong. Climbing the utopian tower of sweetness and light was “Deja Vu,” an album which elevated the whiny warbles of Messrs. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young into the harmonies of post-hippie solipsism. Down a darker alley was the Stooges’ “Fun House,” a switchblade howl from the trailer-trash abyss. The first album topped the charts; the second went straight to the toxic dump of oblivion.

Or so it seemed at the time. Thirty years later, “Fun House” still has the rabid bite of a junkyard dog, as Rhino’s unleashing of “1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions” attests. Reviled by critics and ignored at the cash register, the album initially dismissed as a demented novelty has resurfaced as an expensive collectible, limited to a numbered edition of 3,000 (available only through the Rhino Web site).

Just the heft of the box suggests the glorious absurdity of the enterprise: a seven-disc, eight-hour expansion of an album that originally clocked in at a mere 36 minutes. One hundred thirty-three “bonus” tracks, previously unreleased, where the original album included only seven cuts. Thirty different takes of “Loose,” Iggy Pop’s ode to his oversized phallus, where one verse was previously enough to send most listeners begging for relief. And then there’s the supreme marketplace irony: the $119 price tag, where the original “Fun House” had been all but impossible to give away at less than $4.

It’s a joke, right? Only in the sense that the Stooges themselves were a joke, the Nietzschean Neanderthals as rock ‘n’ roll super men. As front man, Pop was less singer than satyr, spewing his primal urges as an ejaculatory stream of rant and grunt. The songs were mainly riffs — often the same riff — pulverized by musicians who were barely familiar with their instruments, but who understood that slash-and-burn intensity was more crucial to rock ‘n’ roll than virtuosic dexterity. Their concert rampages made it hard to tell when one song ended and another began, or if the band were bothering with songs at all.

Instead of lingering in the detumescence of rock’s peace-and-love afterglow, the Stooges met the complacency of popular culture with a raging hard-on. While rock was self-consciously trying to grow up — aspiring toward the poetry of the printed page, the complexity of jazz or classical music, the respectability of polite society — the Stooges were defiantly dumbing down. Stoogeland reduced the entirety of experience to being bored and getting laid (peace and love as reflected in the funhouse mirror), while recognizing that the latter wasn’t necessarily an antidote to the former.

Outside the soul-numbing, blue-collar Rust Belt of the band’s native Midwest, there was simply no cultural context for the Stooges, a band for whom musical celebrity was as ludicrous as rock was crucial. The music was too primitively raw for mass consumption, though high-energy pretenders such as Alice Cooper and Grand Funk Railroad would soon enjoy commercial success with a pasteurized approximation of the Stooges’ sonic assault.

It wasn’t until the mid-’70s that punk rock heralded the influence of the ignoble Stooges, showing just how far ahead of its era the band had been. By the time the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten snarled “No future,” Iggy Pop had been living that future for almost a decade. Not that respect necessarily benefited the Stooges (by then disbanded), as Pop’s ascension into a punk icon, along with his adoption as David Bowie’s pet poodle, left him a caricature of his former Stooge self, while the rest of the band was all but anonymous.

Another decade down the road, the Stooges’ synthesis of punk attitude and metal dynamics could be heard as the progenitor of grunge. Yet “Fun House,” an album originally derided as behind the times, a reversion to both pimply-faced adolescence and Stone Age primitivism, has subsequently shown more staying power than either the punk or the grunge it spawned. (It’s hard to imagine anyone wading through seven hours of Alice in Chains outtakes.)

The revelatory dimension of “1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions” is how tidy it makes the 1970 LP sound in comparison. The album was recorded as the follow-up to the previous year’s “The Stooges,” produced by former Velvet Undergrounder John Cale. That debut had earned the band considerable notoriety, and even some FM airplay for “I Wanna Be Your Dog” on the emerging “underground” format, while sacrificing much of the nuclear energy and the anything-goes recklessness of their live performances.

In order to channel as much of that surge as possible, the band and producer Don Gallucci (fresh from Crabby Appleton’s with “Go Back”) decided to record the band live in the studio, rather than layering overdubs in the conventional manner as Cale had. On the first run, the band pretty much bashed its way through its concert set, with guest saxophonist Steve Mackay punctuating the wah-wah and fuzztone menace of guitarist Ron Asheton to push Pop to the extremes.

Whatever those early versions lack in polish — a flubbed note here, a blown rhythm there, a lyric (or even a coughing jag) holding space for something more inspired — the crazed intensity of the formative outtakes grinds the official LP to dust. As the fourth take of “1970″ makes plain, no one could possibly scream, “I feel all right” with more psychotic desperation than Pop. Or howl, “Let me in!” with more insistence, as he does through the early stabs at the title track. With every roll of tape unspooled in chronological order, memorializing every false start and in-joke, “The Complete Fun House Sessions” lets it all hang out.

Rock was never product for the Stooges, a band that equated show business with pro wrestling and art with museums. Thus the attempt to commodify the music’s assault into a commercially palatable package was doomed from the outset, though producer Gallucci did his best to focus the energy into a recognizably song-oriented format. He even provided keyboard overdubs for a rarely heard 45 version of “Down on the Street,” to make the band sound more like the Doors. Concluding this boxed set, the bid for a hit single shows just how out of sync were the Stooges with the tenor of the times.

For Pop, the obvious single was “Loose” — “Hitsville!” he exclaimed between takes — which lost its lyric about his “red hot weenie” as the sessions progressed, but retained the triumphant chorus: “I’ll stick it deep inside, stick it deep inside, ‘CAUSE I’M LOOSE!” Though such an orgasmic explosion never stood a chance of equaling even the marginal airplay previously given “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” let alone conquering the charts, it spurts triumphant through 30 takes as the climactic achievement of Stoogedom. As “The Complete Fun House Sessions” makes plain, the only way to sustain the pulverizing energy of “Loose” was with another, even more pulverizing version of “Loose.”

“Let’s just put out a single and not an album,” says Iggy. “How about an album with 22 takes of ‘Loose?’” responds engineer Brian Ross-Myring.

In retrospect, it was a brilliant idea, a Zen-like distillation of the band for whom too much was never enough. Such is the essence of the Stooges, the sonic obliteration of that line between a dumb joke and a visionary achievement.

Don McLeese is associate editor of Midwest Living and a contributor to a variety of music magazines.

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