Ready To Die - Iggy and the Stooges (Fat Possum)
This one's just for the fans. By which I mean, if you're new to the Stooges, don't buy this record. Instead, buy "Fun House", then "The Stooges", then "Raw Power".
If you've already got those, plus "Metallic K.O.", "Kill City", all those quasi-legit James Williamson-era recordings on Revenge/Bomp/Easy Action, maybe even Rhino's "Fun House" box set and "Live At Ungano's", Easy Action's "A Thousand Lights" and "You Want My Action", and especially the post-reunion audio and video artifacts, pull up a chair. Because if you're a dyed-in-the-wool Stooge obsessive, you're probably still dubious after the disappointment that was "The Weirdness", and wondering whether this'll be worth it.
I feel you. I was there, too. I tried hard as hell to like "The Weirdness", wrote a highest-rating review of it for the I-94 Bar, even learned a song from it that the Stooges cover band I used to play in performed a couple of times before we realized there was a shit-ton of material we liked playing better than "My Idea of Fun." But I've never been motivated to listen to it since then, not even once. That album is not a fitting epitaph for Ron Asheton. But now there is one; I'll get to that in a minute.
But first, realize that this is a whole different band than the one that made "The Weirdness". Ron was the greatest at playing a certain type of bare-bones fundamental psychedelic blues-based rock guitar, which he perfected in the spring of 1970, and the songs that he and Iggy cooked up for the first two albums encapsulate the anomie of young 'Meercuns better than anything since Eddie Cochran. That said, Ron's track record post-Stooges was somewhat less than stellar (slight exception: New Race, but that was just for two weeks in Orstralia).
The partnership between James Williamson and Iggy was more long-lived and fecund, including Kill City and New Values, my pick for the last good Iggy album prior to the Oh-ohs' Stooge renaissance. James is a more developed songwriter than Ron, although you couldn't always tell on Raw Power. The fact that the lion's share of the material he and Iggy wrote for the Stooges wasn't released until after the band's '74 implosion has forced fans to listen to Williamson-era Stooges the way Paul Williams listens to Bob Dylan. That is, since no "official" release exists, one is forced to become attuned to nuances of performance between the myriad bootleg versions.
Indeed, some of us were hoping that with Williamson back in the fold, Ig 'n' James would pull a maneuver similar to what Rocket From the Tombs did with Rocket Redux before David Thomas broke terminally bad with Cheetah Chrome -- e.g., laying down the old repertoire with contemporary studio sonics. But boy, did we have something else coming.
Because in the same way that the Stooges never played "old shit" back in the day -- by the time you caught 'em live, they were playing a whole new set from the one you expected based on the current record -- so they went into this project determined to prove that they weren't just reliving former glories and counting the money. Rather, Iggy insisted, they're a real band with something to say in 2013.
On the basis of the first couple of spins, I'd say he wasn't bullshitting. Most crucially, the retired Sony VP behind the cherry sunburst Les Paul doesn't sound like he's lost a step since he walked out of the Soldier sessions wa-a-y back in 1980. James has grown as a musician in ways that Ron, bless him, never did, developing an interest in Hawaiian slack-key guitar, among other things. His guitar style remains equal parts propulsive chording a la Keef Richards and jagged-edged soloing, steeped in the mid-'60s masterwork of Jeff Beck and Mike Bloomfield.
More to the point, Williamson's more into the craft of songwriting; besides writing rockers with more chords than anybody's this side of Blue Oyster Cult, his slow songs like "Johanna," the "St. James Infirmary" rewrite "I Need Somebody," and maybe best of all, "Open Up and Bleed," were the most complete expression of the '72-'74 Stooges' psychodrama. While there's nothing here that sounds as terminally desperate as those excursions into the soul's dark night, there are a couple of opportunities for Iggy to explore some atypical emotions -- copping to some vulnerability in the acoustic slide-driven "Unfriendly World," expressing a sense of exhaustion on the Exile On Main St.-ish "Beat That Guy" (which features lovely, ethereal backing vocals from Petra Haden and a tortuously lyrical solo from Williamson).
The album's spiritual center, though, is closing track "The Departed," an elegy for Ron that was first performed at a 2011 memorial show in Ann Arbor (the DVD release of which is delayed but imminent). In it, the signature riff from "I Wanna Be Your Dog" is recast as a dirge for its author, played by Williamson on slack-key guitar, giving way to heartfelt lyrics, tinged with regret, which Iggy intones in his blasted sexagenarian's voice -- recorded with the same extreme-close-up quality as it was on "1969" -- over martial drums: "There's no one here but us / By the end of the game / We all get thrown under the bus." Listening to this song, I remember hearing Iggy interviewed on a local Detroit station immediately after Ron's death. He sounded dazed, and mainly talked about their early acquaintance back in the '60s. It occurred to me that that interview was probably the first time I'd ever heard Jim Osterberg speaking, rather than Iggy. That voice is in this song, too.
The rockers are a mixed bag. "Burn" fulminates with Williamson cranking out the chords and wrestling off-kilter solos from his axe. "The man of the future's a bully and loser," sings Iggy in a voice more seasoned and nuanced than his '70s snarl, but not as operatic as his post-Bowie incarnation. "Sex and Money" and "Job" echo the Ron-era Stooges in the same way as some of the songs on the first side of New Values did, but they provide a much rougher ride, with handclaps, Haden's sultry backing vocals, and Steve Mackay's sax adding a Roxy Music/Mott the Hoople pop veneer to the former. On the latter, Iggy sings, "I've got a job and I'm sick of it" -- a clue that he's contemplating retirement, perhaps?
The Stones influence on "Gun" is reminiscent of Raw Power's uptempo numbers, while on "Ready To Die," with its strutting riff, Williamson layers on the crunchy guitars the way Keef used to back when his well of inspiration still seemed bottomless. "DD's" -- yes, folks, it's a song about tits -- has a Memphis soul groove, while "Dirty Deal" sounds cut from the same cloth as "Death Trip."
By now, Mike Watt's worked the four-string axe longer than any other Stooges bassist, and while Scott Asheton is more workmanlike here than he was in his adventurous younger days, when the tension between his reach and his grasp provided palpable excitement, he's still an original and it's a drag that he's been replaced for touring; his traps still cut it on record.
Bottom line? Comparisons being odious, I think Ready To Die is actually a more consistent record than Raw Power was. It's not as ground-breaking -- how could it be? -- but I'm betting it'll hold up to repeated listenings, the way The Weirdness didn't. Come back and ask me again in six months. Or...you could try it yourself. - Ken Shimamoto
Most bands only get the window propped open long enough to shoot for greatness once. The Stooges, in their two major original configurations, hit the bullseye twice without even realising it. Should we really expect them to do it a third time?
Six years ago, the "comeback" album "The Weirdness" wasn't only weighed down by unrealistic expectations. It wasn't up to the mark - in songs, delivery or that undefinable thing called attitude. Iggy is inevitably the focal point of any Stooges line-up and his words, and singing, seemed forced. The original Stooges were juvenile delinquents - stoners and slackers before either term existed. Iggy is a smart and well read guy but "The Weirdness" had a sense of feigned dumbness.
"Ready To Die is not "Raw Power" and it's certainly not "Fun House". Nor should it have to be.
So that's what it isn't. Let's talk about what it is. "Ready to Die" is good. It becomes very good with repeated listenings. It's billed as Iggy & The Stooges and it's worthy of their oeuvre. It's raw (in parts) and ragged. The thwack of Rock Action's snare locks in with the grind and grooves of Mike Watt, the longest-serving bassist in any of their line-ups. James Williamson's sonic assault is brutal in all the right places.
As an album, first impression is that it's disjointed, flitting from straight-up rockers to a blues song to an off-key ballad, but somehow it still hangs together. It's the sound of Iggy - and The Stooges - facing up to mortality. They're not exploding. Their hides are not full of napalm. They're not lining up to buy a ticket for a seat on a Death Trip - at least not the express route. No songs about ATMs this time or alimony. Sex, money, gun policy and life, however, all get a look in. Iggy's lyrics are helpfully provided on an insert but you can hear them well enough and they're pretty good.
Remember when the Stooges were hated? Iggy does. These are the lyrics of is a man who's been out in the cold for so long that he can't believe that they've finally let him in. He's not entirely sure how he got there, he's not remotely comfortable with some of the people (industry types, mostly) who are in that room, but he's going to hang in there anyway.
"Burn" is the opener and lead single. A song about the whole shithouse going up in flames, it's burned to a crisp by Wiliamson's flamethrower guitar before Iggy's baritone drops in. Now, I know people who can't abide Pop's grown-up croon and long for the demented howl of his strung-out-on-the-road days. Iggy's older and so is his voice. It has its limitations. At times, Iggy sounds tired and dangerously close to lacking energy (something you could never accuse him of in the live context.) As someone who knows him recently pointed out: "Iggy's not a singer - he's more of a character." Understood.
"Sex and Money" next and it's a supercharged rocker with handclaps and female backing vocals that recalls "Kill City". Steve Mackay's sax weaves its way right through this one and his solo is a killer. Pop's vocal is also right on the money.
Some of these tracks are insistent growers that sneak up and sink their teeth in only after a handful of plays and "Job" is at the top of the list. You could take the song literally and bemoan the ridiculousness of a man with three houses singing about his pointless working day existence when we all know the last conventional job he held down was selling LPs at Discount Records in Ann Arbor in 1965. You'd also be a fucking knucklehead. This is Iggy role-playing. You never heard of that? Ask your brain to move on, there's nothing to look at here. "Job" does its job.
"Gun" is absolutely a pop song. It's about gun proliferation and maybe the self-centredness of American society and foreign policy and chickens coming home to roost, but where the Stooges stand on all this isn't clear - or all that important. It's sing-songy with a "freaking out in the USA" chorus and economical solo. A pop song not destined for commercial radio anywhere near you.
"Unfriendly World" is the surprise ballad. Languid and a respite of sorts after the four-song barrage that precedes it, it's also the point where all your preconceptions and pre-conditioning get kissed goodbye. The Stooges never sounded like this, you say. No shit, Sherlock. Deft, almost delicate, guitar sees us out.
And right into "Ready To Die", which on the other hand is an unbridled monster. Layers of scorched earth guitar, a defining moment on the album for James Wiliamson, and a Rock Asheton feel so heavy it could leave a hole in your stereo. It makes "DD", the bouncy ode to fun-bags that follows, sound like the horny/horns-tinged throwaway it is.
"Dirty Deal" is the second of the pigeon pair of "Kill City" songs. Ig's vocal doesn't quite cut it here but Mackay's sax and Williamson's stabbing guitar get it home.
An acoustic bed runs deep through "Beat That Guy" and for 30 seconds you're ready for another introspective blues trip. Then the drums kick in and the song builds. Keys (from no less than ex-Stooge Scott Thurston), strings and female vocals position the song on the crest of a wave before it surfs home on a minute of intense Williamson guitar.
The band debuted "The Departed" at the Ann Arbor tribute concert to Ron Asheton. It's also a tribute. Book-ended by the "I Wanna Be Your Dog" motif (thanks due also to Yusef Lateef) and flavoured by pedal steel, Scott Asheton's martial fills and Iggy's worn vocal, it's touching and entirely appropriate. "And by the end of the game/We all get thrown under the bus".
That would be the album - unless you bought the Australian edition which includes "Dying Breed". The vocal melody's wonky and the song sounds a touch under-done, but all you completists will want it. Strait James' six strings propel the thing and the fact is that Iggy and his compatriots s one of a dying breed. God bless The Stooges. - The Barman
There has been a high level of anticipation about this release with most of the focus directed to the tag line; the follow up to “Raw Power”. The thing is, this is also the follow up to “Kill City”, “New Values” and the bust up that was “Soldier”. Of most concern is the fact that this is also the follow up to “the Weirdness” no matter how you dress it up.
“The Weirdness” was pretty much written off by everyone upon its release. Frank, when he was down at Mojo, told me he couldn’t sell it to me in all good conscience. When the guy in the record shop feels dirty selling you something, you have to worry. There was a universal critical panning. I found myself backing away slowly. Then I spotted a copy going sub bargain bin cheap and I picked it up and gave it a day in court. I didn’t like it. And then an hour later, I wanted to hear it again. Slowly but surely, the damn thing worked its way into my heart.
It just hadn’t sounded like it was expected to sound. It was not the follow up to “Fun House” that the punters wanted. Christ did not walk on water and the blind did not see. Musically, the whole thing had more in common with Ron Asheton’s New Order than traditional Stooges. (In hindsight, some might say that is not a bad thing.)
The major problem that “The Weirdness” had was its lyrical conception shift. Iggy no longer wrote about feeling something. He wrote about observing something. And that marked the major attitude change. Iggy no longer rolled in broken glass, telling us what that felt like. He wrote about a sad, sick world that had once made him want to roll in broken glass. And, whilst I guess it is probably more appropriate for a man of his age to deliver wisdom, it is a fuck of a lot less immediate.
Furthermore, Iggy seemed to supply his wisdom without wit but drove the trauma home with blunt force fury. There was irony. There were different character voices. It didn’t quite match up to Bruce Springsteen’s use of such techniques.
Cutting to the chase, if you come at “Ready to Die” expecting “Raw Power” mark 2, you are going to be one unhappy camper. This disc is as different as “Raw Power” was to “Funhouse”, “Kill City” or “The Idiot”. The album this sounds most like is “The Weirdness”. There is no escaping the similarity of sound and lyrical structure and content. I know that is the excuse a lot of people have been waiting for to write this thing off but bear with me. If I tell you I have listened to this 10 times in the last couple of days, that has to mean something. It has to mean they have got something right this time. Hell, I woke up singing some of these songs. It’s been a while since I can say an album by anyone had that effect on me. This disc has pulled me over to the side of the road and demanded my full attention. Tick one in its favour.
The album clocks in at 34 minutes, another tick in its favour. The advent of the CD pushed the size of albums up to ridiculous proportions. In the ‘70s, all you needed to do was string four or five decent songs across one side of plastic and you had an album. Side one of “Fun House” got a hell of a lot more plays than side two! Recognising that too much really is too much benefits this disc enormously.
The album makes its points quickly and cleanly and moves on. The choruses are stronger than those of its predecessor and, predictably given James Williamson’s involvement, the songs are better structured. There is a good variation in style and mood but the albums presents as a unified whole. You’ll hear touches of “Raw Power” and “Kill City” in the overall sound but essentially this is a band that has had the presence of mind to move on and not hark over past glories. Studio recordings of “Open Up and Bleed” or “Cock in My Pocket” would have slid nicely into this package and improved accessibility and those songs were certainly highlights of recent live performances. But the Stooges don’t do accessible well. As an album, “Ready to Die” remains wilfully forward facing (albeit facing towards an inevitable decline towards death). The cover depicts Iggy posed to go out with a bang and not a whimper.
“Ready to Die” leads out with its greatest stab at brute force. “Burn”, “Sex Money”, “Job” and “Gun” chase each other’s heels. James Williamson’s guitar is at its perfect stabbing best. If any other band on Earth lined these four songs up in a row, you would raise your hands in the air, slap your money down on the counter and cry hallelujah. The temptation a lot of people seem to have upon hearing this album is to say “but there’s no Search and Destroy here” and claim disappointment. I fail to see how anyone could write these songs and performances off as second rate. I am frankly astounded.
Even the most cynical listener would immediately point to this as Iggy’s best album since “New Values” and most would point at albums long before that. This is a band that is absolutely shit kicking. Okay. The lyrics still suffer from a certain sledge hammer dumbness with “Gun” being worst offender. Maybe that’s my cultural prejudice. I still cannot believe the critical accolades Green Day received for their “visionary” (ie hackneyed, crass and speaking the bleeding obvious) lyrics to “American Idiot.”
It is the second half of the album where things start to get really interesting. Suddenly, the Stooges give up the pretence of being the Stooges altogether. The band branches off into wider vistas just as “Kill City” had done post the Metallic KO of their mid seventies demise. The mood turns introspective and not the loud introspectiveness we equate with the Stooges’ brand. We are used to a band on a Death Trip; young men flirting with death. The romance of living fast, taking drugs, dying young and good looking corpses. Well, they flirted in youth and to everyone’s surprise, Death didn’t take them as a job lot. Now they are staring that bad boy again for real and Iggy has some different tales to tell.
“Unfriendly World” might just be the best song Tom Waits never wrote. “The Departed”, a song top and tailed with a dobro version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is a tribute to Ron Asheton. Title track “Ready to Die” is as good a song as the Stooges ever recorded in any incarnation. “DDs” proves that Iggy remains a smutty little bastard. I could throw some adjectives around but you should explore these songs for yourself.
When the Stooges’ first album came out, critics called it primitive and beneath contempt. When “Fun House” came out, it was similarly dismissed. “Raw Power” was considered a sell-out by the band’s original fans. “Kill City” was considered a sell-out by punks who expected “Raw Power”. “The Idiot” upset just about everyone. Since when were the Stooges supposed to give people what they want? So I’m starting the backlash against conventional wisdom early on this one. I’ve been writing this for a couple of hours now and listened to the album three-and-a-half times while doing so. It gets better every time.
Why am I giving it five bottles? Because it fucking deserves it. Not out of any kind of misplaced sentimentality. Not out of nostalgia. Not out of wishful thinking. It is just a fucking great album. - Bob Short