The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, January 15, 2007

So how does the enterprising music writer avoid the Stunning Return To Form trapdoor? Ceaselessly our aesthetic faces are in receipt of unsolicited licks from over-eager, or over-fearful, music press lapdogs strenuously trying to convince us that the new Stones or the new Bowie or the new Prince is indeed a Stunning Return To Form rather than a sub-Antony Worrall-Thompson cocktail of wishful thinking, the fact that it has two listenable tracks on it (two more than its predecessor, which likewise was hailed as an SRTF), the dread that we might not get the interview.

I am willing to admit that the wishful thinking element may be the most important here; that there is a profound and underlying love for the artist such that the writer is practically goading them on to exceed themselves even as they listen to the increasingly underwhelming and cynical reality. The reason for this is because there is a new Stooges album about to be released, 33 (and a third!) years after their previous one, and the fearfulness here is understandable but of an entirely different nature. For those of my age and experience, the original trilogy of records is so inviolable a document of the beginning of time as to deny, let alone defy, any manifestation of rationality. A shrine, an ideal, which anyone would be loath to desecrate. It’s not as if any of us were in with Iggy from the beginning, either – like everyone else, I became aware of Pop’s music because of Bowie and the Pistols, but Raw Power was only reissued (on CBS’ budget-priced Embassy label, usually the home of Jerry Vale or Robert Goulet) in 1977 and the two Elektra albums were impossible to find in the Glasgow of that period. So, despite the increased visibility of Iggy thanks to The Idiot and Lust For Life, Stooges music was something you had to catch a cold hunting down.

In 2007, however, the Stooges are long-acknowledged avatars; Fun House, once the most discreetly retained of noisy secrets, has its multi-CD outtakes/burps box set, and their reformation could well be instinctively regarded with scepticism, the reconstitution of long-defunct groups usually being attributable to the recent receipt of tax bills. Look at the mess made by the ill-advised ‘90s reunion of the Velvet Underground.

But then Reed doesn’t seem to have had much interest in reforming the Velvets other than to perform greatest hits sets to recondite Sonic Youth fans, whereas the Stooges have emphasised their urge to remain a current group, writing upwards of thirty new songs for this new album, The Weirdness (that title almost serves as bait in itself), though only twelve made the final forty-minute cut (twelve tracks in 40 minutes – that sounds promising and wise), reuniting the Asheton brothers, getting in Mike Watt to stand in for the late Dave Alexander on bass, and even bringing back peerless avant-proto-punk-jazz saxman Steve Mackay from heck knows where. All this, and then they whack the songs down in the studio under Steve Albini’s supervision…and few groups rely so keenly on their power deriving from the music as it is played, live, as the Stooges do; Iggy’s remix of Bowie’s remix of Raw Power is like a gaudy Technicolor Hogarth street scene uncovered from beneath its veneer of polite, pale grey.

So, of all reunions, the Stooges have to get it right; they practically invented the blasted game, for heaven’s sake. And it has to be said that The Weirdness is not a stunning return to form…but that actually works in its favour. It is true that the Stones’ A Bigger Bang is a very fine rock record which flounders because of being out of its time through no fault of its, or the group’s, own; they continue to rock as few others a third of their age could even begin to attempt, but then some of us remember when, because of “Gimme Shelter” and “Paint It, Black” and “Jumping Jack Flash,” they were something more than the best rock band, something chilling and intangible (note how the four chords of the long anthemic fadeout to “Hey Jude” are also the four main chords of “Sympathy For The Devil”).

Similarly, with the Stooges we cannot delete the memory of “TV Eye” and “LA Blues” and “Death Trip” and “1969,” especially thinking about the latter in the context of the actual 1969. They have come to mean too much for that. If it is possible, however, for a record to be the yardstick for great rock and roll records in a year which is likely to yield few other competitors without necessarily being a Landmark Album, let alone an SRTF, then The Weirdness is such a record. Given that these fellows are largely pushing, or have already pushed, sixty, the rawness, attack and palpable hunger of the Stooges of 2007 are remarkable. Ron Asheton might be the man of the match; his guitar is endlessly inventive and pertinent – for instance, the little raised eyebrow his chords give to Iggy just before the chorus of “You Can’t Have Friends” or the characteristic blurring of time and scales on “ATM” which comes very near to “TV Eye” territory, despite the fact that the song is Iggy blowing hot and cold about his bank balance (“Don’t bullshit the bullshitter!” “It takes GOLD to live like a KING!” “The Stooges fight poverty in secret!” – complete with hilarious, totally out-of-place quotes from “In The Midnight Hour” and “Can I Get A Witness?”). Scott Asheton’s drums, meanwhile, have been recorded better than ever before; his attack never lets up, his cymbals radiate across the channels, the punch of his snare and floor toms agreeably violent. Watt wisely keeps his head down and gets on with underlining the rhythm. In terms of visceral impact, the likes of The View should watch and weep.

But it’s Iggy’s show, as it must be; and in the opener “Trollin’” his already-satisfied grunts of “Uh!” and “Good God!” (the best JB tribute you’re likely to hear this year) soon lead into his proclamation that “My dick is turning into a tree!” and you sigh your blessed relief in the secure knowledge that it’s going to be a goodie. “You can’t tell me this is not a swell thing to do!” he roars and defies your disagreement (I mean, really, unless any of you miserably polite little British groups can open your record with the observation that your dick is turning into a tree, then go back to your City temping jobs and don’t even bother trying) (it).

Thankfully, although there are two ruminative slowburners on the album – the title track, a lovely loping deep vein 6/8 ballad which with its confidential low-pitched vocal and wobbling Palais dancehall saxophone is more than a little reminiscent of “Drive-In Saturday” (but then you remember that Bowie, even, especially, in 1972, owed infinitely more to Iggy than he ever did to Tony Newley), and the creeping apocalypse of “Passing Cloud” (“Time will be healing me!” sings Iggy on the latter with little confidence – but truly, low-range Iggy with his Mrs Miller vibrato is still one of the sexiest sonic drugs in all of rock) – there are no attempts at “maturity”; sixtysomething Jimmy O is unrepentantly puerile, as witness the sidesplitting and musically explosive one-two punch of “She Took My Money” (another in the long line of Iggy’s absurdist rants about Women Who Done Him Wrong) and “The End Of Christianity” – in the latter he giggles “When it’s a black girl you can’t resist!” and incredibly, in 2007, gets away with it. From Scott Asheton’s fumbled drum intro onwards, this, in conjunction with “She Took My Money,” sees the Stooges at their vibrant best. As guitar and sax start to get uppity towards the fadeout Iggy cackles “I can’t tell if I’m dead or havin’ fun!”

Elsewhere he’s still the petulant sixteen-year-old, relishing the thought of “killing everyone” in “Idea Of Fun,” though quickly balances that with his chant “Now is the season for war with no reason!” and his remark “They make you King then make you ill” counterbalances the knowingly self-satirical self-glorification of “Trollin’” and “ATM.” Similarly, “Free And Freaky” is a terrific variant on the sort of hollow booming Reaganite Rock song you used to get at the end of Michael J Fox or Charlie Sheen “comedies” in the eighties where Iggy revels in his purposeful isolationism (“I’m the kind of guy who don’t pick up the ‘phone!.../I hate it when people look at me the wrong way!”) but enlarges the picture (“My sister went to war! She tied a guy up on a leash! I think about it sometimes while I’m sittin’ on the beach!”) and even finds room for the classic jibe “England and France! These cultures are OLD! The cheese is stinky and the beer ain’t COLD!” In “Mexican Guy” he returns to the Bo Diddley beat of “1969,” citing Zappa and the Troggs and exclaiming “Started out with marijuana! Ended up with red wine!” before concluding “Modern life can certainly make one ill” like the good Telegraph columnist he isn’t. In “Greedy Awful People” he bemoans yuppies (“They drive those fuckin’ awful cars!.../They buy pyjamas on TV!.../They always clap at the wrong beat!” – and Ron A’s exasperated, liquefying guitar responds instantly to the latter line) while at the same time whining “I’m sad and lonely baby! ‘Cause I can’t live among my class!” He concludes by shrieking “Throw ‘em in a hole!” followed by the unsurpassable couplet of “This is the last chorus! I don’t wanna bore us!”

It all comes to a glorious boil with the final “I’m Fried” – punk as it was always meant to be (with something of a “Pretty Vacant” undercurrent), and at its climax Ron Asheton and Steve Mackay finally break loose for a classic compressed atonal freakout brought to an abrupt end by Iggy’s never-more-ecstatic drawn-out “I’M! FUC! KING! FRIIIIIIIIIED!” And who wouldn’t care? The Weirdness is a glorious racket of a record and you have my permission to queue up for a copy when it gets released (7 March). But just remember that it’s not a stunning return to form. Thank the Lord for that.

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