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Many Happy Returns To...'The Stooges'

Friday, 29 August 2014 Written by Graeme Marsh

In the early ‘70s, American critics latched onto a term that would later define one of the most divisive, viscerally exciting periods in popular music history. Credit the term to Creem magazine’s Dave Marsh, credit it to whoever you like; punk rock was new, ferocious and boasted a hard edge that stood at odds with the excesses of arena rock.

While the history books tell us that the punk explosion arrived a few years later on both sides of the Atlantic, its origins can be traced back to the mid-’60s in the US, when bands like the Sonics and the Seeds came to prominence, peddling garage rock with the odd acid-tinged diversion.

As for the original punk record, that’s a debate for another day and for those with the longest of fuses. But, some believe the Stooges’ debut, released 45 years ago this month, to be it and, duly, the band’s iconic, perma-shirtless frontman, Iggy Pop, has been labelled the Godfather Of Punk. In truth, though, it’s a neater fit with the first throes of another sub-genre: proto-punk.

Arriving just before the hippy high point at Woodstock, ‘The Stooges’ was produced by the Velvet Undergound’s John Cale, an early convert after seeing the band open for the MC5, whom he detested, and released on Elektra Records.

The label’s Danny Fields famously signed both the Stooges and MC5, having already played childminder to Jim Morrison, before managing the Ramones. After hearing the primal rhythms of Ron and Scott Asheton and rubbery bass of Dave Alexander coupled with the inimitable Pop (at this time going by the pseudonym Iggy Stooge) Fields was, for better and worse, hooked. “It was like sailing right over the cliff of modern musical taste into places you’d never been before,” he said in the liner notes to the album’s reissue. “I was overwhelmed, it was love at first sight. It was like they were making music I’d wanted to hear my whole life.”

The quartet arrived at New York’s Hit Factory studios in April 1969 equipped with just five songs, which formed the basis of their live show. After hearing the improvisation-heavy initial takes and a free-form jam, Jac Holzman, head of Elektra, asked for more songs. A bit of bluffing and three hastily assembled tunes later - Little Doll, Not Right and Real Cool Time - they pressed on again. Cale wrangled with the band’s peculiar energy and, regardless of conflicting views over the who, when, where and how of the mix, managed to distill something of their menacing vibe.

Writing in Rolling Stone in October 1969, Edmund O. Ward offered this take: “As we all remember, in 1957, it was conclusively proven that there exists a causal relationship between rock and roll and juvenile delinquency. This record is just another document in support of this thesis.

“The Stooges, formerly the Psychedelic Stooges, hail from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where, in case you've never been told, they do things high-powered — high-powered music, high-powered doping, high-powered fucking, high-powered hyping.”

The album opens with 1969, the first glimpse of the raw power the band would become synonymous with, and I Wanna Be Your Dog, on which Cale added piano and sleigh bells. This double whammy is where the real heart of the record lies, with wah-wah guitar and vile rock ‘n’ roll evident at every turn and as few chords used as possible. Almost a decade earlier, it was a loose template for punk.

We Will Fall, though, divides fans. A slow, 10 minute dronefest based on a Swami Ramdas chant, it introduced the experimental side of the band that was so important to their early shows. But, although it is a unique moment in their history, it’s easy to dismiss it as possibly the lengthiest example of filler ever recorded.

The song structures on ‘The Stooges’ have long been considered as a good place to start learning guitar and this direct, powerful approach became the norm for hundreds of bands that followed in their wake. Whether you choose to believe that this was the first punk record or not, its influence is unquestionable. Bands ranging from goth monsters the Sisters Of Mercy to psychedelic masters the Brian Jonestown Massacre, as well as the Pistols and Ramones, all owe debts to the Stooges.

The band would go on to release two more long players – 1970’s ‘Fun House’ and 1973’s ‘Raw Power’ – before their heroin-induced capitulation in 1974. Two further albums have since surfaced following reformations, with last year’s ‘Ready To Die’ the latest, but with the Asheton brothers both now having passed away, the band will never ride as it once did.

Both ‘Fun House’ and ‘Raw Power’ saw an improvement in their musical abilities, but drug and alcohol abuse was becoming detrimental to their performances and sadly their demise occurred before they could truly enjoy the legacy they had unknowingly created at the time.

Much like Cale’s Velvet Underground before them, their importance was only truly recognised years later. Without this record, the whole evolutionary process that followed could have been so different. Many happy returns to 'The Stooges'.

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