Thursday, February 7, 2013

The World's Forgotten Boy: The Stooges' Raw Power at 40

 The Stooges - Raw Power
The Stooges
Raw Power
Rating: **** 1/2

It was 1973. Glam rock was at its peak and punk rock was just starting. On February 7, the Stooges released their third studio album Raw Power. The album, produced by David Bowie, was a flop in the charts and the band split soon after. Now four decades after its release, Raw Power is seen as one of the greatest punk rock albums of all time as well as one of the most influential album of all time. Thanks to its underground following, Raw Power has stood the test of time and remains a classic album.
            The Stooges were formed in Detroit, Michigan in 1969. The original line-up consisted of singer Iggy Pop, bassist Dave Alexander, guitarist Ron Asheton, and his brother drummer Scott Asheton. The band were signed to Elektra Records and released their self-titled debut album, produced by John Cale, in 1969. Their sophomore effort, Fun House, was released the following year. By the early 1970’s, the Stooges were at the end of their rope. After being rejected by Elektra for their excessive drug use, the band had hit rock bottom. The band also suffered from changes in their line-up. Alexander was fired after being too drunk to perform at one gig (he would later die in 1975). After the band was dropped from Elektra, their future was in question.

            In 1971, David Bowie came to the rescue. Bowie, an avid fan of the Stooges, wanted to help Iggy form a new band. Bowie flew out both Iggy and guitarist James Williamson, who had joined the Stooges in 1970. The two auditioned several musicians for a new band but Pop eventually decided to have the Asheton brothers join, the only difference being that Ron was now demoted to bassist. With the band set and a record deal with Columbia Records, the Stooges were back and began work on what would become Raw Power.

            “Search and Destroy” is not only a great way to open the album but it’s just a great punk rock song in general. It’s a simple little punk rocker with some great guitar work by Williamson. The lyrics could be best described as punk poetry. I mean, how can you not love lyrics like this: “I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm/I’m the runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb.” It’s just a great track with great lyrics. “Gimme Danger” and “I Need Somebody” were supposedly both written as the “ballads” for the album. The band’s manager kept bugging the band about it and this is how close they got to making a ballad. “Gimme Danger” is a dark chilling track while “I Need Somebody” is a good-ole’ rock n roller.

If there is any hint of glam rock on this album, it can be heard in “Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell” though it is a bit heavy to be considered glam rock. Williamson plays some aggressive riffs while Iggy’s rough voice suites the song just fine. “Penetration” is a psychedelic punk track of sorts with a hypnotizing riff from Williamson while the self-titled track is just a great rocker. “Can you feel it?” asks Iggy towards the end of the track. “Shake Appeal” sounds something like you would hear on the early Beatles albums (in fact if you listen to the Iggy remix, there is an added count of “1-2-3-4”). The album closes with the brutal “Death Trip”, which has more furious guitar work from Williamson.

When Raw Power was released in 1973, the album was a commercial flop. Much like the Stooges’ first two albums, it barley charted and Columbia soon dropped the band. The band managed to go on until 1974 when the band split (their last performance can be heard on the live album Metallic K.O., along with the sounds of beer bottles being pelted at the band). Pop would go on to have a successful solo career with the release of albums such as The Idiot and Lust for Life. Towards the early 1980s, Pop’s career had hit rock bottom to the point when he couldn’t afford to make anymore albums. This changed after Bowie covered “China Girl”, a song Bowie and Pop wrote for The Idiot. Bowie’s version became a hit and the money started coming in. With this, Pop was able to make more albums.

In 2003, the Stooges reunited with Pop and the Asheton brothers at the helm. Also joining the band was bassist Mike Watt and Fun House saxophonist Steve McKay. This reunited version of the band released The Weirdness in 2007. In 2009, Ron Asheton died from a heart attack. He was replaced by Williamson, who had been out of the music business for years.  

At the time of its release, Pop was not happy with the way the album was mixed. Bowie produced the final product, which Pop found to be very tame. Despite Pop’s dislike for the mix, the album achieved cult status amongst musicians such as Kurt Cobain and various others. When Raw Power was released on CD for the first time towards the end of the 1980s, the results weren’t all that great (much like other albums that were released on CD for the first time).

In 1997, Columbia Records told Pop that they would be re-releasing and remixing Raw Power whether he decided to be involved or not. Pop decided to be involved with the remixing of the album, as he was unhappy with Bowie’s original mix. The result: Pop’s remix of Raw Power was (and still is) one of the loudest albums ever released. The remix was met with mixed reviews. The negative reviews complained that the remix was too loud and lacked the heart of the original mix. Positive reviews praised the remix for being more aggressive compared to Bowie’s tame approach. Pop’s remix of Raw Power now falls into the category of what is known as the so-called “loudness war”, in which albums are mixed too loud and suffer from massive clipping.  

Soon enough, Bowie’s mix of the album went out of print. People such as Ron Asheton and James Williamson spoke out for their dislike of the remix, saying the original mix is much better. David Bowie himself prefers his mix and credits it to what would later become punk rock. In 2010, Bowie’s mix of the album was finally reissued and remastered.

Raw Power is seen by many as one of the greatest albums of all time. It was an album that heavily influenced countless bands and serves as a blueprint for what was to become punk rock. 40 years later, Raw Power still holds up. 

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