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!