Sunday, October 19, 2008

New Content Coming

Thanks for everyone's posts and emails. I've finally gotten in touch with Laurent Thibault! He's been very gracious and is providing lots of details. I'm going to go back through and make additions in BOLD text. Take a look at the "Sister Midnight" post, for starters.


I just finished a 1.5 week tour of France which was great. We played some great shows including the Printemps de Bourges. Laurent Thibault kindly met me and we had some great time hanging out and chatting together about "The Idiot" recording and his music career.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Track 5: China Girl

With the surname of "Nguyen", Kuelan Nguyen is unlikely a girl of Chinese descent. Kuelan Nguyen is the China Girl in "China Girl" who was at the Chateau with French performer Jacques Higelin with whom she had a child and would later marry despite Iggy's courtship. Somehow "Vietnamese Girl" doesn't really roll off the tongue, and the year being 1977, most of the world would have some issues related to the Vietnam War which just ended 2 years earlier.

The interactions between Iggy and Nguyun were complicated as they spoke no common language and communicated without language mostly. Iggy pursued Nguyen and when he confessed his feelings to her, she responded with "Shhhh...". This concept was of course incorporated into the song's lyrics.

Originally titled, "Borderline", Iggy and Bowie penned this pop hit with lyrics dealing with desire, culture corruption (European / Western world dominance) with a brief reference to Nazi-ism. Both Iggy and Bowie had some Nazi dalliances independently.

The stand-out instrument on this track is a toy-piano which was owned by then-8-year old daughter of Laurent Thibault. As with most Bowie works, the guitar production on this song is top notch, the lead guitar part sounding very balanced. Notice in the background the hammering, distorted Baldwin piano. Later in the song, electronic strings add a very appropriately cold crescendo.
Tony Visconti, in his autobiography said: "Iggy often started a song singing very quietly and then gradually built up to a scream (as in ‘China Girl’), distorting the microphone preamplifier. This was one of those ‘happy accidents’ again, because the vocal wouldn’t be the same if it were any other way now. Usually there was no take two to correct the over-modulation. I love this album! This over- modulation is obvious when Iggy sings "WHITES of my EYES".

"China Girl" was the song that finally put some real money into Iggy's pocket after David Bowie recorded and released it. (This was not the last time that Bowie would record an Iggy song himself thereby netting Iggy some songwriting royalties, see "Neighborhood Threat", "Tonight", "Don't Look Down" and others).

Friday, February 22, 2008

Of Course I've Had It In The Ear Before!

The photo to the left shows Roy Young and Carlos Alomar attempting to hide at The Chateau, while David Bowie (on the left) counts to a hundred. This picture was taken during the "Low" sessions.

Tony Visconti, Brooklyn-native, has been a fairly constant presence behind the glass of Bowie's work records among others. He's produced, mixed, engineered and / or played on the following Bowie records: "Diamond Dogs" (1974)," Young Americans" (1975), ""Heroes"" (1977), "Low" (1977), "Lodger" (1979), "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)" (1980) "Heathen" (2002), and "Reality" (2003). And of course, he mixed (some of) Iggy's "The Idiot", which Bowie produced.

In email exchanges with Visconti where I have asked about some of the details from the Idiot sessions he's been kind to reply, but cannot recall the details of what the gear he used, which is understandable. However, he also stated, "I use the same gear as all engineers do, the same mics, pres, consoles, etc. The way I use them is really my own business." My first reaction was puzzlement, "Why would someone protect some recording technique that is over 30 years old?". Well, back in 1977 after the release of "Low" engineers were clamoring to figure out what Visconti had wrought, and he wasn't telling then either.

Visconti's main secret behind the sounds of "Low" and "The Idiot" lies in the Eventide Harmonizer. I should say this is also a success for Thibault because he states that the Château was the first studio in Europe to have an Eventide Harmonizer. [Memories are fuzzy, we may never know who used it first and where] The Harmonizer is a real-time pitch-shifting device that one would typically use to fabricate vocal harmonies. In the hands of Bowie, Visconti and Thibault this device was used to pitch drum sounds DOWN. It's effect is more pronounced on "Low" but can be heard on "The Idiot" as well (remember both albums were recorded pretty much simultaneously at the same studio).

Here's Visconti talking about the Harmonizer in the context of the "Low" sessions:

Before we recorded the first piece, I had to get sounds from each instrument, and in the case of the drums, one for each drum. I immediately set up my Harmonizer and decided to use one of the coolest tricks I’d discovered before I’d left London. I sent a feed from the snare drum mic to the Harmonizer, I dropped the pitch by a semi-tone, and then I added feedback of this sound to itself. In simple terms it means a very deep snare sound that keeps cascading downwards in pitch; the initial impact had the ‘crack’ but then the ‘thud’ never seemed to stop, and, not only did it go on at length, but it got deeper and deeper in pitch, kind of like the sound a man makes when he gets punched in the stomach – ‘ugh’. Everyone was amazed.

David scratched his head and said, ‘I agree it’s an amazing effect, but I’m dubious whether we’ll use it.’ But as we grew more familiar with it – we eventually loved it. Of course, it made the final cut and it has since been regarded as one of the most revolutionary drum sounds ever created.

The harmonizer's effect can be heard quite clearly on "Funtime" where the snare sounds like a descending "Dush" sound.

The Eventide Harmonizer was designed by Eventide's Anthony Agnello. The Harmonizer H910 offered pitch shifting (±1 octave), delay (up to 112.5 ms), feedback regeneration and more from a $1,600 box. Users found all sorts of applications, ranging from regenerative arpeggios to bizarre sound design effects to lush guitar or vocal fattening. The first customer—New York City’s Channel 5—immediately put an H910 to work, downward pitch shifting “I Love Lucy” reruns that were sped up to squeeze in more commercials.

Frank Zappa put one in his guitar rack. Engineer Tony Platt used it for the memorable snare sounds on AC/DC's Back in Black. Eddie Van Halen had a pair (set to either 18-cents sharp and 18-cents flat with a 12ms delay on one side or +12c/-15c/18ms) as part of his trademark guitar sound. Tom Lord-Alge’s setup for Steve Winwood’s soulful vocals on “Back in the High Life” also employed two slightly detuned H910s (one sharp/one flat) with an 18ms spread. The twin Harmonizer effect was so popular that Eventide recreated it as the “Dual 910” program in the H3000 UltraHarmonizer that followed it a dozen years later.

New Music Night and Day

I just completed Hugo Wilcken's 33 1/3 book on Bowie's eleventh release: "Low". "Low" was the first of Bowie's "Berlin Trilogy". I searched it out to gather some background research on "Low" because it was recorded simultaneously with "The Idiot". The record shares some of the same personnel and some similar production techniques. More on that later.

Wilicken's book is well written and very comprehensive. In fact there is a whole chapter on "The Idiot".

Station to Station

"The Idiot"'s genesis can be traced all the way back to Bowie's tenth release, "Station to Station". Here we find Bowie firmly in the grips of cocaine mania and backed by an R&B ("Americans of color" according to Tony Visconti) band. Dennis Davis on drums, George Murray on bass and Carlos Alomar. Station to Station is definitely a fusion of funk and then-modern European influences like Neu! and Kraftwerk.

Iggy Pop had figured into Bowie's life at this time, inspiring songs "TVC15" and joining Bowie on the Station to Station tour.

The left image shows Bowie in Red Square on the Station to Station tour.


"Low" was created after / during (depending on who you talk to) "The Idiot" even though "Low" was released before it. Laurent Thibault said that during the creation of both records, the personnel didn't know which songs would appear on which album. In fact, "What in the World" actually was intended for "The Idiot" and was recorded as "Isolation". Iggy's backup vocals can be heard on the track.
Bowie famously said of Iggy and "The Idiot": "Poor Jim, in a way, became a guinea pig for what I wanted to do with sound. I didn't have the material at the time, and I didn't feel like writing at all. I felt much more like laying back and getting behind someone else's work, so that album was opportune, creatively."

Friday, February 8, 2008

Dr. Jim Osterberg and Mr. Iggy Pop

The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde concept is a generally a literary cliché that authors use as a convenient way to explain the diversity of persona used by artists. Even in music, there is a great deal of theatre and character. Paul Trynka uses this concept in his book, "Open Up and Bleed" and I felt that it was the same old cliché carted out again. Trynka refers to "Iggy" and "Jim" as two different entities.

In the case of Iggy Pop (and Jim Osterberg) this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde device used by Trynka is well used, as I've been watching plenty of video interviews lately. There is a definite certainty and deliberateness that Iggy conveys while performing but in interviews, Jim Osterberg possesses none of these qualities. When young, Jim Osterberg is either boyish (Iggy on Tom Snyder), or sophomoric. The aging, present day Jim Osterberg comes across as dopey in interviews. This interview is the closest to Iggy Pop that Jim Osterberg gets during an interview (and one of my favorite interviews, ever).

Track 4: Baby

While not the strongest track on "The Idiot", "Baby" is an icy ballad which showcases plenty of distorted piano, icicle synthesizers and a world-weary lyrical view.

Baby you're so clean
Baby please stay clean
Baby you're so young
Baby please stay young
Baby, don't you cry
Baby, I've already cried

This track is the conclusive point where Iggy shifts from being a "wild boy" to his more introspective period. In the context of his work with Stooges, this song, both lyrically and musically is one of the furthest departures.

An interesting thing from the production side of this record is the snippet of talking or incomplete mutes that pop up at 0:47.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Honky Château

The Idiot's first recording sessions were convened July 1976 at the Château d'Hérouville located in Pontoise, France just outside of Paris. The Château is where the "basics" for "The Idiot" were tracked. The studio was dubbed "Honky Château" by Elton John during his 1972 sessions for his record by the same name.

Bowie had recorded "Pin-Ups" in July 1973 at the Château and he said, "The studio itself was a joy, ramshackle and comfy feeling. I liked the room a lot." and "[Its] a lovely place to record an album. Warm, summer sunshine, a lovely château and a fantastic sixteen-track recording studio." Its widely mentioned that the studio and grounds were haunted by the ghosts of Chopin and George Sand.


Château d'Hérouville was conceived in 1969 by Michel Magne, a French film music composer. An article written by Adrian Hope in the May 1975 issue of Studio Sound magazine (one year before "The Idiot" sessions began) describes the Château as follows:

"There are two wings to the main body of the building and a large complex of outhouses that were probably stables. These outhouses now house two studios, one (as yet unnamed) under construction and one (Chopin) under repair. When I visited the Château last October only the third studio (Sand), at the very top of the right wing, was operational. Even the Sand studio was, in fact, not really open, but (like the Who's Ramport studio) was remarkably busy all the same. Hérouville has clearly been built at different times by different gentry, and there is a haunted bedroom in the left wing which is kept permanently locked. The right wing houses the Sand studio, the offices and the family living accomodation; the left sign houses the echo chambers (large rooms with their windows bricked up), dozens of single bedrooms for accomodating visiting musicians, a 'star name' residential suite where the likes of Elton John and David Bowie stay, several vast kitchens, a huge restaurant, and a fun-room for the musicians. Thus, on the whole, those booking the studio live in the left wing and those running the Château in the right."

In February 1974, with personnel turnover and financial difficulties facing the studio, Michel Magne chose Laurent Thibault, Jean-Claude Delaplace and Pierre Aupetit to partner to get the studio running profitably again. After plenty of work addressing electrical problems, equipment absence and disrepair and even a 50 cm high lawn, the partners get a console and tape machine and a steady stream of clients.


I plan to conduct some interviews to sort through some of these equipment and setup details, but as a starting point, here is more information about the Château from Franck Ernould's page from around the time that "The Idiot" was recorded. Franck has collected the below information from an issue of Studio Sound from 1975.

"Wherever possible the Château engineers try and record as flat as possible, without equalisation on the desk, even on a drum kit. But with most artists having days rather than weeks or months to spend at the Château, pressure of time often prevents this. The studio microphone setups are really much as usual with D224C on drums, AKG C12A or AKG 224 on piano, and sometimes those little Sony condenser mikes or Neumann U87 s on snare or top kit."


AKG C12A, the precursor to the C414. These days, the C12 is in a green cylindrical housing.

The venerable Neumann U87.

"On the day that I watched Michel Magne record, Jannick Top was producing a very curious recorded sound for his bass by using a high-powered Ampex amplifier and a deliberately overdriven small cabinet of the wrong impedance. If it's not a contradiction in terms, the result was a clean fuzz of a very individual character. Available in the studio for musicians' use are a full-sized Fender 88 , one of the lovely old large Hammonds with two of the original Leslies, and an Ampex bass amp feeding a Sunn horn cabinet. There is a Farfisa, a Steinway grand, timpani, marimba, spinet and clavinet. Separation in the studio is with screens and to aid this the Steinway piano has an interesting box-like cover which completely encases the open top."

"As I mentioned previously, the echo system is by means of walled-up rooms of the Château, and although only one is currently in operation there are several more available for use when the need arises. A nice idea is to identify each room (residential and utility) by its colour. thus the black echo chamber has a reverb time of around five seconds, and the red chamber next door somewhat less. A single Altec speaker is used in the black room, with a Blumlein pair of AKG 224C s."
The picture to the left is the Château's MCI-500 and MCI tape machine photographed in 1978, very likely the same gear used to record "The Idiot". Apparently the Château was very state of the art for its time and aside from the MCI 500, it had the first Westlake monitors to be installed in Europe.

The picture below shows Bowie during his "Pin-Ups" recording sessions which took place in 1973. Bowie seems to be singing into an AKG C12A, there's a Neumann U87 in the forground a rhodes suitcase piano in the background.

The Château today

Roq and rol?

...look familiar?

The pose that Iggy Pop struck for the cover of "The Idiot" is mimicked from the expressionist painter Erich Heckel's work: Roquairol. The album cover photo was taken by Andy Kent, bass player for "You am I".

Erich Heckel was a German painter and printmaker, and a founding member of the Die Brücke (translated as "The Bridge") group which existed from 1905 to 1913. Heckel and others members of Die Brücke aimed to make a "bridge" between traditional neo-romantic German painting and modern expressionist painting.

The cover pose of "The Idiot" gives us further insight into the artistic work inside.

"The Idiot" as a work of Expressionism

Expressionism is an artistic movement or classification characterized by willful distortion of reality for emotional effect. In 2oo1, Bowie said of Expressionism, "It was an artform that mirrored life not by event but by mood. And that is where I felt my work was going"

One reality that is distorted for emotional effect on "The Idiot" is ambiance. The human ear is a clever device which can discern sound origin, motion, and physical volume. If you were to clap your hands in your bedroom and then clap your hands in a gymnasium, listening carefully each time, your ears would tell you most of the basic information your eyes do. You would hear the room size, wall hardness and whether or not there was something soft and absorptive (a bed) present. Most listeners hear ambiance on a sound recording on an unconscious level. Ambiance defines the acoustic space where the musicians performed; they have to exist somewhere. Ambiance on recordings is created during tracking and / or mixing. It can be captured by the microphones in the room or added to / created with an effect. Bowie (as producer) and the engineers manipulated this facet of reality to give the listener feelings of dread, coldness, desolation and unconsciously force the listener to fathom the world in which these performers existed.

Ambiance is most noticeable on impulse sounds, like the aforementioned hand clap. Impulse sounds excite the room briefly and end quickly, leaving the listener hearing only the room's response. (The Impulse response is used to characterize "systems" other than rooms.) Drums are terrific impulse sources and offer the best way to hear the ambiance on a recording. "Nightclubbing" is the track with the most obvious example of distorted ambiance.

A second distortion of reality used within "The Idiot" is dissonance. Dissonance is present most overtly on "Mass Production" and "Funtime" and is used to make the listener feel that something is going wrong, but since the "mistakes" remained on the record, the listener wonders what kind of musician would purposely do this? Who is in control here?

The third distortion of reality present on "The Idiot" is literally distortion; the distortion on the piano instrument. Normally, you could not pass distortion off as an indicator of expressionism, but since the piano is such a foundational instrument, its sound known to all, distorting it adds to the feeling that something is not quite right.

"The Idiot" as a Bridge

Wikipedia research on Erich Heckel's Die Brücke finds the following: "Die Brücke aimed to eschew the prevalent traditional academic style and find a new mode of artistic expression, which would form a bridge (hence the name) between the past and the present. They responded both to past artists ... as well as contemporary international avant-garde movements. The group developed a common style based on vivid color, emotional tension, violent imagery, and an influence from primitivism. "

Bowie said, "When I was in Berlin, I'd find old woodblock prints from the Brücke school, in small shops, at unbelievable prices, and to buy like that was wonderful."

It seems as if "The Idiot" would be quite at home among the works of Die Brücke. Iggy's work with the Stooges can be described as primitive. Iggy's many whoops, screams and hollers, his violent stage antics and the band's musical limitations drove their knuckle-dragging sound. For any Iggy Pop / Stooges fan in 1977, "The Idiot" was a massive departure. Bowie and Iggy's vision for "The Idiot" was to bridge Iggy's primal past to the 1977 present (and future) where bands like Kraftwerk and NEU! were creating mechanical and electrical music.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Track 3: Funtime

All aboard for funtime!

After "The Idiot" album was released, Pop and Bowie put together an incredible live band to tour in support this unique record. The rhythm section was made up of Hunt and Tony Sales, who Iggy knew from his collaborations with Ray Manzerek (of the Doors) back in LA. Its a bit of a distraction to bring up Hunt and Tony Sales when discussing the recording of "Funtime" because they did not play on the recording. However, I always think of them when hearing this song because I can see them rowdily barking "FUN!" in the vocal breaks.

Iggy and his new live band performed Funtime (and Sister Midnight) on the Dinah Shore show on April 15th, 1977. The above stills are from the performance of "Funtime". Here you can watch the actual performance and interview in B & W.

Back to the album recording. ..
As we have seen and will continue to see, "The Idiot" draws from a multitude of varied inspirations. Of "Funtime", Iggy said, "But [Bowie] had good ideas. The best example I can give you was when I was working on the lyrics to 'Funtime' and he said, 'Yeah, the words are good. But don't sing it like a rock guy. Sing it like Mae West.' Also, it was a little bit gay. The vocals there became more menacing as a result of that suggestion."
The opening gives us some eerie ambient feedback, a cough and giggling. The cough betrays what could be the ambiance processing on the drums or other instrument(s). Almost immediately, the listener is greeted by a zombie-like, dissonant chorus: "All aboard for funtime". Watching and listening to the above live version of "Funtime" illuminates a stark difference between the live version and the album version. We notice that on the album version, this chorus is sung in monotone while the live version has a melody.
The guitar on the first bridge starts with an off-note, but its kept as it is part of the dissonant mood. During the bridges where the singers are whipping themselves into a frenzy, singing, "Ooooo, we're having fun!" and "whhhoooooooooh c'mon!" the listener feels helpless as if he/she is strapped into some kind of horror show carousel that is careening out of control. This final part brings many screams swelling with a slow rise and fast decay which intensifies this wild, spinning effect.

This out of control feeling and ever present dissonance on this song makes the listener feel that something very UN-fun is actually happening and this is the main thrust of "Funtime". The juxtaposition of "Fun" and "Funtime" with the aggressive subject matter, monster references, leering sexual content and terrifying soundscape leaves the listener not with feelings of irony but unease. To the performers, with their depraved nervous systems, this song is all about genuine "funtime" with no irony intended. Its a glimpse into a world you could never join nor hope to understand.

Funtime Fetish ... my point exactly.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Recording / Mixing Personnel and Locations

The Idiot was recorded and mixed from July 1976 to February 1977 and released March 18, 1977 on RCA records. The recording sessions took place at Château d'Hérouville in Pontoise, France, Musicland, Munich, Germany and the record (minus "Sister Midnight" and "Mass Production") was final mixed Hansa 1 Kurfurstendamm, Berlin.

Personnel Involved

Iggy Pop – vocals
David Bowie – Baldwin electric Piano, Roland Drum MachineArp Axe Synth, guitars, piano, saxophones, xylophone, backing vocals
Carlos Alomar – guitar
Dennis Davis – drums
George Murray – bass
Phil Palmer – guitar
Michel Santageli – drums
Laurent Thibault – bass, recording engineer, mix engineer
Tony Visconti - mix engineer

Château d'Hérouville
The Idiot was engineered by Laurent Thibault who was the house engineer at Château d'Hérouville. Thibault, also known for his work as a bass player for French prog band, Magma played bass on much of "The Idiot". (In true prog form, he used a Rickenbacker bass.) Thibault is a key member in the production of "The Idiot" as he acted as bass player, recording engineer and mixing engineer. The basic tracks were recorded at the Château by Bowie, Iggy, and Michel Santageli, who is best known as Alan Stivell's drummer. After basics were tracked, Bowie overdubbed some guitar parts and Thibault was let loose to track his bass parts. Near the end of the sessions long-time Bowie rhythm section Dennis Davis and George Murray were called in to overdub rhythm tracks on some of the songs.

After Bad Company arrived at Château d'Hérouville to begin their "Burnin' Sky" recording sessions, Bowie, Iggy, and Thibault relocated to Musicland in Munich to do overdubs and begin mixing the record. Musicland is where Phil Palmer, recommended by longtime Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti, entered the picture to do some guitar overdubs. Musicland was hosting Thin Lizzy during the day and The Idiot Sessions at night. Palmer spent 5 days experimenting with guitar sounds, sometimes using Thin Lizzy's equipment. Again, Bowie's excellent ear for guitar sounds guided Palmer to deliver a bounty of excellent material. (Note: The Image is from a Sahara Music session at Musicland)

Hansa Studios
Thibault left Bowie and Iggy to return to his engineering duties at the Château d'Hérouville and "The Idiot" crew relocated to the now famous Hansa Studios in Berlin. Bowie summoned Tony Visconti to mix the record and handle a few final overdubs. Visconti, Bowie and Pop mixed over a couple of weeks and created "a great, new sonic landscape, full of angst and torture" according to Visconti. It is speculated that Thibault's original mixes of "Sister Midnight" and "Mass Production" ended up on the final album.
(Note: The image shows David Bowie, producer Tony Visconti and engineer Eduard Meyer at Hansa Studios in 1976)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Track 2: Nightclubbing

I didn't like this song when I first heard it. But then I got my act together.

No other song captures going out late at night quite so well.

"1.. 2.. 1.. 2"

Let's talk about the sounds! Obviously we've got some really processed drums, they give a feeling of claustrophobia. The kick is tuned pretty high and the delay gives a small-sounding ambiance. Notice also the synthesized sound that pans from left to right at each snare hit, that is most likely Bowie playing his Roland Drum machine? If you're listening on headphones you can hear some strange balance problem at 1:21. The vocals lurch to the right. I also hear a mystery "blip" at 1:41, it doesn't sound like this this is a late mute but rather something else.

The unprocessed piano with the synth really combines well to create doomed cabaret sound. Possibly the most overt sound is the loud, reverbed synth siren sound. This sound coupled with the "nuclear bomb" reference makes me think of the cold war or even going nightclubbing in some post-apocalyptic scene. Bowie and Iggy both had some flirtations with Nazi / fascist elements, more on that later.

I love the last chorus where three vocal parts come together. The foreground voices are monotonic while the background one is singing a melody. Overall, Iggy's singing compliments the mood with his drags and decays at the ends of words.

I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that this track was the rhythm section of Michel Santageli and Laurent Thibault. But that's something we hope to discover for sure later on. Phil Palmer (nephew of Kinks' frontman, Ray Davies) was the guitarist who played on this track and according to "Open up and Bleed" he used a telecaster. He was given the instruction to play what he would have heard walking in the streets outside nightclubs.

We'll see this all over this album, but Bowie's production on the guitar sounds are always incredible, always different and always appropriate. Guitar sounds is a definite Bowie strength, and can be heard all over his albums as well.

This track is the most covered song from the album, there's even a YouTube out there with Johnny Depp playing with Iggy.
Johnny and Iggy


[This post was edited by, Wm. Crain]
A quick definition of an "academic": Someone who values rarity over content, someone who values chronology over how something makes you feel, and anyone who champions music they don't like just because someone else said it was important.

More often than not "academics" reserve their
praise for Iggy's records with the Stooges while ignoring his more textured and nuanced material from the mid to late 1970's.

Those first three Stooges records are seminal, no question, but at the same time they are also relatively one dimensional... its a tough, wild, adolescent reflection of Jim Morrison and his Doors. What really excites me about Iggy's mid-career work from the Idiot through New Values is the multidimensionality of it. On these records Iggy is alternately and sometimes all at once; dumb, funny, smart, sarcastic, sincere, vulnerable, ambiguous, tough, depraved, seedy. We see his maturation after being shattered by his failures and drug abuse. Going through this dark period in the early and mid 70's he obviously must have had a much greater pool of experiences to draw from. (Of course, Bowie helps dredge this out of Iggy). People who dismiss Iggy's mid-career work while hoisting up the Stooges material are just not paying attention.

I would love to see the 60 year old Iggy Pop redoing his mid-career work instead of the Stooges work.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Iggy and Ziggy

Tonight, I got on the subway thinking about "Lust for Life". I cued it up on my iPod and the Sales brothers hammered that endless chord progression on my head. Lust for Life is a great record but its very different from The Idiot. (I plan to explore that record more later on). Thinking about the two records, I really see them as a result of a perfect storm of creative forces.

I'm not such a big fan of David Bowie. He's a great song writer, amazing singer (see the outro to Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love" on Transformer) but something rings hollow about many of his songs. They don't seem meaningful. I also don't like many of the drum sounds he put to tape, especially earlier in his career.

But Bowie as a mentor and producer is outstanding (Again, check out his production work on "Transformer"). From my reading, it seems that he rescued both Iggy Pop's career and Jim Osterberg's life.

Regardless, Iggy Pop is a compelling singer and performer. We see this in greater relief on "Lust for Life" but at this mid-career period, we see much more emotional range from him than from the Stooges days (more on this later). And this gets to the back story behind "The Idiot". Iggy is cleaning up his life after basically living on the streets doing whatever he can to stay high.

Perhaps each saw in the other what he could never be... Iggy was free and wild, Bowie was refined and controlled. The creative union of these two musicians is quite incredible. Iggy's life experience and wild, menacing, hypersexual, self-destructive ways, mated to Bowie's refined consistency, strong melody / harmony writing and pop sensibilities simply clicked.

Postscript: True, Ziggy and Iggy turned out great work (including Blah Blah Blah?), but lest you think that Iggy was incapable of turning out a decent record without Bowie's help, see New Values.

Track 1: Sister Midnight

What a great intro to a song! In fact, this is my windows OS start up sound. I love how dead the drums sound and the oscillation speed on the synth adds a subtle off-tempo swagger. Listen to how the oscillation tempo changes between the 2 intro notes and then slows once the verse starts. Notice the perfectly placed guitar slide capping off the intro. Do you hear the similarity between this intro and Bowie's "Fame"? Some research finds that Dennis Davis is the drummer on both songs. Could the intro be his creation or Bowie's?

We're only 4 seconds into the song and already we've got this much to talk about...

Speaking of Bowie, he uses the Sister Midnight instrumental track slightly sped up for Red Money on Lodger. It seems a little bit lazy to just re-use the original tracks and not re-record it, but Bowie should have a free pass to do as he pleases as originator and producer. Originally, Sister Midnight was a song written by Bowie and Carlos Alomar (left) and they performed the song live before Iggy recorded it. The song was based on a Carlos Alomar riff.

Bowie wrote the lyrics to the first verse and Iggy wrote the second, Oedipal verse.

Here's a video of a soundcheck with Bowie doing "Sister Midnight" in 1976, the year "The Idiot" was recorded.

Sister Midnight Soundcheck

Apparently, Carlos played with "The Idiot"-drummer Dennis Davis in Roy Ayers' band before getting together with him working on Bowie projects.

Notice the distorted piano / keyboard sounds. This sound is all over this record, never in the foreground really, but very much present. I think its a key driver of the mood of this record. According to Laurent Thibault, this is an Yamaha Acoustic piano played by David Bowie. This piano was mic'ed and run through the Harrison desk at Musicland Studios to get that fuzz / distorted sound. The guitar is played by Phil Palmer (or Carlos Alomar) depending on who you ask. On the radical sounds on this track, Phil recollects, "I remember they got me plugging in to all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff. I’m sure there was a Leslie in there as well.. " Most of the guitar effects and amps were the stuff left in the studio by Thin Lizzy.

I noticed that all / some of the crash hits are muted (listen in the solo), I wonder if Dennis Davis grabbed it after each hit, or someone else did, or they seriously dampened the kit with towels and / or tape.

Update: Laurent Thibault said this about the piano sound and a curious sound embedded in this song:

"So as we were working on Sister Midnight. David was playing, and I was trying to tune the sound using a compressor to get a nice distortion. As I turned an equalization button on the desk, I got a sudden noise, like a 'bip'. I saw David, with the headphones on, startled in his chair. But he didn't stop playing. When he came back to the control room, he asked me 'What was that noise?' I told him that I made a mistake on the desk. We listened to the tape. The 'bip' was clearly distinct. 'It's nice ! We'll keep it. I love noises', said David. You can hear it in the song: it's on the record!"

This sound is located at 1:05 and a similar and much briefer sound is also at 1:40.


Unless otherwise stated, most of the factual details have been taken from Paul Trynka's book, "Open Up and Bleed" and Hugo Wilcken's 33 1/3 book "Low".

If you are a fan of Iggy Pop (and David Bowie), both books are a great resource to own and I highly recommend both.

Background Information

I just got Paul Trynka's book, "Open Up and Bleed". The past 2 nights I have been devouring the writings about the Idiot. It is really incredible. I suggest you check this book out if you are a big fan. I will include some of the information, as appropriate from the book in this blog.

If you haven't yet, take a look at the Wikipedia entry on "The Idiot".

The Idiot on Wikipedia

Plenty of good information here to get started.


All tracks written by Iggy Pop and David Bowie except where noted.

  1. "Sister Midnight" (Pop, Bowie, Carlos Alomar) – 4:19
  2. "Nightclubbing" – 4:14
  3. "Funtime" – 2:54
  4. "Baby" – 3:24
  5. "China Girl" – 5:08
  6. "Dum Dum Boys" – 7:12
  7. "Tiny Girls" – 2:59
  8. "Mass Production" – 8:24

Let's get started...


I was 1 year old when "The Idiot" hit the shelves. Since discovering this recording in my 20's, I consistently return to it over the years. The balance of light and darkness of the album, the dissonance, the grooves and the romantic locations in which it was recorded somehow gives this record a multi-dimensional quality that captures my interest and doesn't let go.

I plan on filling this blog with reviews and listening details (ear candy) about the individual songs, biographies on the personnel involved, lots of detours and related trivia and musings and hopefully interviews.

I look forward to your comments!