By Bill Adams
As of this writing, it will have been about forty years since Iggy and The Stooges released their seminal 1973 album, Raw Power. More specifically, it has been 14685+ days since Iggy and The Stooges’ first album hit new release racks and started growing within the mainstream (underground or above ground is irrelevant); ultimately reshaping a portion of the pop music landscape in its own image. The album’s impact and influence on pop culture has been incredible and, as a result (combined with the fact that Raw Power was the last album of new material to bear The Stooges’ name in any capacity at all for thirty-four years), it has become an incredibly difficult act to follow. To this day, Raw Power is the standard by which new releases by The Stooges, by Iggy Pop in his solo career, by James Williamson and more (many, many more) have been judged. Those standards haven’t always made sense, but they’ve become the default setting because Raw Power is the sort of classic which deserves the appreciation it gets. It is timeless rock music and sounds as good in 2013 as it did in 1973.
Appreciating the name and legacy of Raw Power is all well and good – everybody does – but when Iggy and The Stooges announced that they’ve recorded a new album and it will be the follow-up to Raw Power (which, chronologically, it would be – Iggy and The Stooges featured James Williamson on guitar – a key sonic aspect to the group – and Ready To Die is the first album of new material to once again feature Iggy Pop, The Stooges and James Williamson), they had the have known that they’d be poking a very large critical beehive with a very large and pointy stick. So why’d they do it? Making such a claim is an instant attention-getter and conversation-starter; everyone who likes anything about The Stooges and the other semantic variables on the name and member lineup will have an opinion, so saying that Ready To Die is the long-awaited follow-up to Raw Power basically ensures that everybody with a potential opinion is going to be paying attention. Some will be waiting breathlessly because they want to hold the claim up, and others will be waiting breathlessly because they want to burn it down.
All of the above is just common sense right? More ridiculous would be to assume that invoking the name of Raw Power would somehow cause the pit of Lazarus to erupt from the ground and Iggy Pop to emerge from it, twenty-seven years old and ready to pick up precisely where Raw Power left off; ready to roll in glass and nearly impale himself on mic stand while out of his mind. It might be inconvenient for some readers to note that Iggy Pop is now sixty-six years old and, while he still has an incredible presence and still crowd surfs nightly at shows, he’s still sixty-six years old. Keeping that in mind as one listens to Ready To Die, it’s easy to hear that the raucous spirit of Iggy and The Stooges is alive and well here and James Williamson’s awesome guitar work drives these ten songs as it did on Raw Power too – but the unhinged, untamed, drug-addled and at least occasionally blathering fury and fervor of that album has been tempered and focused by time. Ready To Die is not a kamikaze run like Raw Power was; it is sleaker, more streamlined and more certain than its predecessor.
That Ready To Die is more streamlined, solid and certain doesn’t mean it starts strong though – the best that could be said of “Burn” is that it starts Ready To Die. Here, Iggy sticks more to his “crooner” vocal tone than his “rock singer” tone, and it really does coast on top of the “slightly too static” wall of guitars. There’s a general lack of fire and frenzy here that wouldn’t necessarily be seen as out of place on one of Iggy’s solo albums (an easy comparison would be “Preliminaires” off Avenue B), but it feels disconcertingly wrong for an Iggy and The Stooges album; it feels staid and sterile. “Sex & Money” (the song which follows “Burn”) is a bit of an improvement – the singer doesn’t seem as disconnected or outside the mix – but he’s still not in it yet either and, now two tracks in, fans who play the record sequentially on their first time through will be getting good and nervous that maybe the only thing they can hope for from Ready To Die is that it won’t just be the biggest farce they’ve ever heard.
Those unnerved by the questionable start of Ready To Die will start chastising themselves (I did) the second “Job” rolls over and locks into a fantastic stride. There, Iggy breaks off the croon and raises his register, Williamson ignites the venomous guitar tone that just can’t stop itself from seeming like it’s growling and Steve Mackay’s sax asserts some presence and starts searing a few senses. NOW – three songs in – it feels right, and Iggy and The Stooges are earning the right to call Ready To Die a return or a follow-up to Raw Power or whatever they like.
The band keeps earning that right regularly through the rest of Ready To Die’s runtime too. Very possibly the closest (in spirit, tone, vibe and Motor City drive) to Raw Power is “Gun,” where Iggy forgets about not being anti-social and starts waving a gun around (with bombs going off in Boston! It’s perfect from a ‘chaos of the times’ standpoint) while Williamson and bassist Mike Watt get a perfect Motor City swagger swinging in the rhythm guitar and bass parts of the song. After that, both the title track and “Dirty Deal” amp up the volume and get close to “Burn” again but, now, Iggy sounds right in the thick of the mix with the band – not riding on top of it – and the songs cut listeners just perfectly.
All that sounds pretty good right? It IS good – but there’s no denying that Ready To Die isn’t perfect. “Unfriendly World” and “Beat That Guy” aim to be the next emotionally stunted, acoustic and sombre answers to “Gimme Danger,” but both of them miss, and “DD’s” tries to get a little randy but fails to get it all the way up. Some detractors will point to those tracks and say, “SEE?! It’s not perfect! How dare anyone even attempt to call Ready To Die a followup to Raw Power?” but the truth is (and those who get it will understand) that no Stooges album has ever been perfect; in fact, one of their greatest charms is that they flaunt their imperfections as much as they wear their greatness on their sleeve. The flaws are what make it real and make the great songs that much better.
So who ultimately wins and was right then? Were the fans right to hope for a “follow-up to Raw Power” and did they get that, or were the detractors right that “there is no way to follow up Raw Power”? Well, this writer contends that this album serves both perfectly; Ready To Die has some great moments which live up to the standard of Raw Power, and some which fall so short it’s laughable. Some may curse and call that contention a soft option, but wasn’t the dichotomy that Iggy and The Stooges – and The Stooges before them – always straddled? Weren’t they they band who rocked like hell, even as they were shooting themselves in the foot, rolling in broken glass or setting themselves on fire? Wasn’t it all as fun, silly, stupid and lighthearted as it was dark and dangerous? Yeah – it was. Ready To Die is too – that’s why it’s the perfect follow-up to Raw Power, or the next in line after The Weirdness or even just the next chapter in the story of Iggy and The Stooges.
Bill Adams is also the editor-in-chief of groundcontrolmag.com