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“Iggy Pop! – Live San Fran 1981″: Iggy at the edge of the abyss
Iggy Pop! – Live San Fran 1981 — a 52-minute blitz currently showing on Night Flight Plus — catches Iggy at a turning point in his career.
Pressured by his record label to score a hit, mentally and physically drained by a growing drug addiction, alienated from some of his most important collaborators, this is Iggy at the edge of the abyss; he has little left to give, but he’s still out there punching night after night.
In Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed, author Paul Trynka describes the Iggy of this era as a drunk, depressed man in his mid-thirties, given over to crying jags and self-loathing, “irrevocably committed to repeating the destructive behavior of his youth, seemingly without any clue of how to extract himself.”
How this translated to the paying customers was in a series of uneven albums, and hastily assembled backing bands; most troublesome was Iggy the performer.
On some nights, Iggy was up. On others, he was way down.
(If I may intrude with a personal note, I saw him during this era at Boston’s Orpheum Theater. Let’s just say it wasn’t one of the good nights. We’ll leave it at that.)
Rees was an important music chronicler of the period, recording everyone from Devo to G.G. Allin. Rees’ footage shows an Iggy Pop in reasonably good form. His band is fired up, too, playing with controlled fury. Rees gets some intense close-ups of Iggy, giving viewers a rare view of the singer’s mercurial quality.
At various times, Iggy looks statuesque, like a demon poised in the middle of hell. His voice is in relatively good shape, too, still the bratty yowl he’d used on his classic albums with The Stooges.
At other times, though, he looks distracted. There’s also a sense that he’s restraining himself from his more outrageous behavior in order to be a more compliant, approachable performer. He even keeps his shirt on.
The audience doesn’t seem like an Iggy crowd, either. It’s made up mostly of fresh-faced teenagers; a few wear their hair chopped and dyed, but they’re a harmless looking bunch, as if they’d been recruited from a local high school assembly.
The bikers and misfits who once threw bottles at Iggy during the recording of Metallic KO were gone, replaced by well-groomed mallrats.
The callow audience is indicative of the challenges facing Iggy Pop in 1981; even as he was being hailed as the godfather of punk, he was still misunderstood, still struggling to find a niche in the fickle music industry.
He’d left RCA for Arista, and was trying to appease his new label with what, to him, probably sounded like commercially accessible music.
Tarquin Gotch, Arista’s head of A&R, had taken on the challenge of turning Iggy into a mainstream star; however, if Gotch wanted Iggy to be Sting, he’d picked the wrong guy.
In fact, Iggy Pop! Live San Fran 1981 inadvertently reveals the confusion going on in the music industry at the time.
David Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar is part of the band but looks slightly out of place.
Musicians wearing the trendy garb of the day – jump suits, bleached hair, sunglasses, striped shirts, and two-tone guitar straps — surround him. It’s as if Alomar wandered into a B-52s video.
Along with Alomar is guitarist Rob Duprey, formerly of The Mumps, and Gary Valentine of Blondie.
The trio of guitars creates a thick wall of noise, and though the sound isn’t fluid enough for Iggy to slither between the cracks – which could explain why he doesn’t do as many of his iconic dance moves here — it’s probably as good a band as Iggy could pull together on short notice.
Unfortunately, drummer Clem Burke, also on loan from Blondie, makes every song sound slightly stiff and constipated.
For all of his quickness, he can’t swing. Even on the dirge-like “Dum Dum Boys” he sounds like he’s aching to increase the tempo. Burke proves it’s possible to be both great, and totally wrong for the job.
And then there’s Iggy, inexplicably dressed in a leather jacket, mini-skirt, and black stockings, topped off by one those S&M biker hats that Al Pacino wore in Cruising.
Though he’s missing a front tooth and was dealing with many personal problems, Iggy seems alert and willing to rock, especially during the show’s early moments.
The Old Waldorf Theater gig was part of a tour to promote Party, an album Arista had hoped would be Iggy’s breakthrough.
Unfortunately, the tour got off to a drastic start and never quite righted itself.
Iggy and Ivan Kral
First, multi-instrumentalist Ivan Kral, who had helped Iggy write and record Party, grew disgusted by Iggy’s dissolute lifestyle and quit after only three dates.
Also, Arista claimed Iggy had drained so much money from the company that the tour would have to be a barebones operation; it was mostly small gigs in hole-in-the-wall venues.
This was also the tour where Iggy was hired to open for The Rolling Stones in Detroit. Showing up in a ballerina dress, Iggy was pelted by debris; he got through the show but didn’t come back for encores.
Iggy adding alcohol to his massive drug intake didn’t help the gigs. “I feared playing without being drunk,” he’s said of that time.
In Gary Valentine’s excellent book, New York Rocker: My Life in the Blank Generation with Blondie, Iggy Pop, and Others, 1974-1981, he describes the frantic feel of the Party days:
“Party needed to be a hit; Arista pretty much told (Iggy) that if it wasn’t, he’d have to look for another label. There was a sense of desperation, a feeling of last chance hovering around the tour. ”
Party was full of scratchy guitars and punchy riffs, but it didn’t have the big, catchy hooks of New Values (1979), the album that gave Iggy some minor FM radio hits (“Girls,” “Five Foot One”).
Hell, it wasn’t even as fun as Soldier (1980), a messy but underrated album that saw Iggy collaborating with former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock.
Party, though good in places, was full of potholes. The songs were co-written by Iggy and Kral while they were staying at a hotel in Haiti; Iggy took the tunes into the Record Plant in New York and promptly demolished Arista’s recording budget.
If the label execs were unhappy with Iggy’s spending, they were even more disappointed in the end result. They’d had success with Patti Smith’s Easter album, and had hoped Party would do something similar for Iggy.
Certainly, Kral had been Smith’s collaborator and was viewed as a kind of punk genius, but the fact that there are not one but two cover songs on Party – “Sea of Love” and “Time Won’t Let Me” – indicates that Arista didn’t trust the songwriting team of Kral and Pop.
Arista was so unimpressed with “Bang Bang,” a song written to meet the label’s demand for a single, that former Monkees producer Tommy Boyce was brought in to remix it.
“Bang Bang” enjoyed a wee bit of airplay, but with Party reaching no higher than #166 on the Billboard Top 200, Arista quickly dumped Iggy at the curb.
Iggy’s next album would be Zombie Birdhouse (recorded on Chris Stein’s Animal label), which was downright incoherent.
In comparison, Party was a kind of power pop masterpiece.
For instance, “Pumping For Jill,” which Iggy sings as an encore at this San Francisco gig, sounds like a cross between The Cars and The Go-Gos; it shows the range Pop had as an alchemist of styles. It also suggests he could’ve been a New Wave hit maker if he’d chosen to go that way, complete with its “la-la-la-la” chorus.
Other songs from Party – “Houston is Hot Tonight,” “Bang Bang,” and “Eggs on Plate,” sound strong here, too.
Yet, there’s no denying Iggy’s distracted look during the show. Perhaps he already knew Arista had given up on him.
It would be many years before he’d find his niche as a scarred up rock and roll survivor, and a new audience would discover him through movie soundtracks, and the use of his songs in ads for Nike and Royal Caribbean. However, in 1981, such a dramatic turnaround seemed unlikely.
In a way this San Francisco concert shows us Iggy at the crossroads, unsure of what to do. There’s plenty of energy and volume, but it all ends with a shrug.
“Thank you,” he says after the last song. “You’ve been really lovely.” And then he’s gone.
The Set List
Some Weird Sin
Houston is Hot Tonight
Rock and Roll Party
Dum Dum Boys
Eggs On Plate
I’m A Conservative
I Need More
Lust for Life
Pumping for Jill