It felt disingenuous for me to bring a Bowie album. We’ve been over this before, but I never really connected properly with his music. I hugely admire what he did, and perhaps even more the way he went about it, but even despite having gone back to those records of his that I own over the last couple of weeks, and having dipped into many of the others via Spotify, I still don’t feel I could claim a solid connection with a particular record, perhaps with the exception of ‘Ashes To Ashes’, or at least not one strong enough for DRC.
But we’re allowed licence to interpret, and Bowie’s direct influence is so extensive and apparent that I haven’t had to push too far off-piste to find something. Initially I thought about bringing Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’, a record I have always loved, that Bowie and Mick Ronson famously produced, and which I know some of the others have mixed feelings about (for some reason ‘New York Telephone Conversation’ is one of the most frequently pilloried tracks at our meetings – actually, for one specific reason: Nick likes to repeat himself).
Instead I skipped forward another 5 years to ‘The Idiot’, also produced by Bowie and, as with Transformer, also heavily reflecting the work he was doing as a solo artist at the time.
Iggy Pop and David Bowie were hand-in-glove throughout the Berlin period, having moved to the city together to escape their spiralling drug addictions. The writing and recording for ‘The Idiot’, Pop’s debut solo album, began in mid-1976, before Bowie started work on ‘Low’, although Iggy’s record was released after the first of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy.
The wikipedia page for ’The Idiot’ features a rather telling line, one that hints directly at just how fundamental was the range and impact of Bowie’s influence on the album: ‘The Idiot is regarded by critics as one of Pop’s best works, but is not generally considered representative of his output’. The specifics of the creation of ‘The Idiot’ has been a point of speculation ever since its release. Some have claimed that Bowie wrote the music and Pop the lyrics, others that they switched places frequently. There’s a commonly held assumption that this is effectively a Bowie record that he didn’t want to sing himself, with Iggy little more than a singing and dancing puppet. This view plays neatly into the dual narratives of Bowie as ceaselessly creative genius and Pop as primitive, well, stooge.
I prefer to hear ’The Idiot’ as a genuine co-creation, a meeting of musical minds from wildly differing backgrounds, histories and with vastly different capabilities. That might be partly because I tend to drift towards the uncategorisable savants who seem to be channelling or expressing some innate, restless, inexplicable force, rather than the super-geniuses who are so good because they’re just so damned good. I’ve never clicked with Bowie, but I guess I’ve always been on Team Iggy. Even so, you’d have to admit that ‘The Idiot’ does sound a hell of a lot like a Berlin-period Bowie record with someone else singing on it.
Happily, that’s a very good thing. Much of the tingling tension that animates the album comes from Iggy’s apparent spatial discomfort, his alien status in a soundscape constructed for Mr Pop, by pop’s most famous alien. Iggy sounds out of place in his own record, singing slowly in a lower register over icy, glass-cool synths and proto-industrial drums. He seems unsure whether to croon, to speak, to growl and so he tries all of these approaches and more. His delivery is constantly questing for a place to settle, a way to be, often within the span of just a single phrase.
The guitars that slice through from time to time raise a particularly other-worldly type of havoc, more New York art school than Motor City mosh pit. Check out ‘Nightclubbing’, a neutered disco strafed by a guitar that sounds capable of slicing planets in half. Elsewhere there are tracks that come over like the reanimated corpses of pop songs of the fifties, in a good way. There are songs that start ploddingly, almost declaring their dreary filler status, and yet they go on to charm and intoxicate, and much of the credit for that has to be laid at Iggy’s feet. He is the human heart beating at the centre of this wasted post-industrial wasteland. It’s a collection chilled by dislocation and yet thrilled by the possibilities that were opening up before these two artists.
Compare and contrast this album with the titular opening song from the follow up, ‘Lust For Life’, which was also produced by Bowie and released in the September of the same calendar year (’The Idiot’ was released on my 6th birthday, fact fans). It features Iggy back on sneering, snapping vocal form. It’s much more the rambunctious modern rock record he may have been expected to make on the way back from an early career ripping up the foundations of Detriot dancehalls. It’s terrific in its own way, and the two records together stand up next to any one-two in rock music, but ‘The Idiot’ is so idiosyncratic, so striking and so utterly beguiling that it stands just that little bit above.
Nick listened: I might’ve known Rob would be contrary.
But I’m glad he was, because I’ve been vaguely wanting to hear The Idiot since I read the 33 & 1/3 book about Low a few years ago, and thus found out that Pop’s debut solo album is, in some people’s opinions, essentially a fourth record in Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy.
And it really does sound like that; corrupted, industrial, mutated r’n’b with a sense of dark European theatre. I enjoyed it greatly, and was delighted when Rob gave me his CD copy because he’s ordered it on vinyl. Thanks, Rob!