Winner of the 2020 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Iggy Pop’s music may be more familiar to contemporary audiences for its use in advertising and film than it is for its influence on punk. Over the last twenty years, his gnarled features and gravelly voice have become synonymous with car insurance, designer fragrances, travel agencies and surfwear. Like rock mythology itself, Pop is conceptualised as a ‘special case’ of mass consumption. The oft-repeated mantra that “he never sold out” is now offset by the commercial power of his legacy. Iggy himself is phlegmatic about this tension between art and commerce: “My policy on that is, use them for sausage, use them for cars. I do not care, because they were not commercially conceived,” he once said.
In the 21st Century, Iggy Pop has come to symbolise some kind of short-hand longing for a world that is less woke. A world in which heroin addiction seems glamorous and self-harm is a theatrical performance. In his later years, Iggy has found a new form of pop alchemy. The 1996 film Trainspotting habilitated his career in much the same way that Mamma Mia repositioned ABBA: as a ‘franchise’. Since then, the corporate sponsorship deals have flooded in and if, sometimes, this borrowed interest is a little incongruous it does not seem to have harmed the brand. In 2004, when cruise-line Royal Caribbean appropriated ‘Lust for Life’ for a series of promos, one customer commented ‘Nothing says maritime comfort like a song about shooting up junk’.
Riding the wave of this unexpected celebrity status, his 2016 album Post Pop Depression (produced by Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age) has been the best selling of his career: reaching number five in the UK and the top 20 in America. The accompanying film American Valhalla also earned plaudits. As did the documentary Gimme Danger, The Story of The Stooges: Iggy which won the Critics’ Choice Award for the ‘Most Compelling Living Subject of a Documentary Award’ (2016.) And, in 2019, GQ crowned him ‘Man of the Year’ to further compound his dominance. But what about the music? Here we take a tour (through the sewer) and explore the ten most commercial songs Iggy Pop never had a hit with, alongside those recordings (often by David Bowie) that did crossover.
Let’s get going.
Iggy Pop’s 10 most underrated songs:
‘Gimme Danger’ from Raw Power (1973)
When Iggy Pop quit High School and his band the Iguanas, he travelled to Chicago to study the blues. Returning to Ann Arbor he formed The Stooges with guitarist Ron Asheton, drummer Scott Asheton and bassist Dave Alexander. Determined not to fall into the trap of aping British Invasion bands like The Beatles and Rolling Stones, they set about creating something much rawer in their appropriation of R&B: aligning with the nihilistic minimalism of the Velvet Underground and attaching it to lyrics that reflected the frustration and inertia of growing up in a Midwest trailer park. While the band fell apart (twice) due to drug addiction and record label problems, they garnered enough interest for Columbia Records to finance the recording of their most influential record Raw Power in London in 1972.
The final mix was revised by David Bowie in Los Angeles, and alongside a one-off gig in London’s King’s Cross, the album is widely regarded as the genesis of punk. It was also the beginning of Iggy’s long-standing association with David Bowie. Many bands have covered Stooges tracks over the years (Sex Pistols, Rage Against The Machine, Depeche Mode, Guns ’n’ Roses, Sisters of Mercy etc): ‘No Fun’; ‘Raw Power’; ‘1969’; I Wanna Be Your Dog’ are all favourites. ‘Gimme Danger’, from 1973’s Raw Power, however, is less frequently tackled: its acoustic riff at odds perhaps with punk sensibilities; owing more to the blues sound he studied in Chicago. That said, it anticipates a sound revisited in Iggy’s later solo work. It is also one of the most cinematic of the Stooges’ songs: befitting then that it should lend its title to Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 movie.
‘China Girl’ from The Idiot (1977)
With The Stooges, Iggy chose not to ally himself with British ‘representers’ of American R&B; however, in his association with David Bowie, he embraced an altogether more conceptual approach to music. Decamping to heroin capital Berlin (to allegedly kick drugs), Iggy and Bowie collaborated on two albums that are considered by many to be masterpieces: The Idiot and Lust for Life. Interleaving neatly with Bowie’s Berlin trilogy (Low, Heroes and Lodger), from a 21st Century perspective they are understood very much within the context of a creative arch that includes the hits ‘Sound and Vision’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Boys Keep Swinging’. But finding a hit for Iggy proved elusive.
In an attempt to remedy this, Bowie curated a promo campaign that capitalised on Pop’s reputation as an architect of the punk movement. While Iggy distanced himself from the term, the endorsement from Bowie (who was playing keyboards in Pop’s band) cemented his kudos. Second single ‘China Girl’ failed to chart anywhere; however, when re-recorded with Nile Rogers for David Bowie’s 1983 album Let’s Dance, it went Top 10 in America and reached number two in the UK. When it won the best video award at the 1984 MTV Awards, stylishly Bowie sent Iggy to collect the trophy.
‘Tonight’ from Lust For Life (1977)
Lust for Life contains two of Pop’s signature songs, the title track and ‘The Passenger’. However, it would be some time before these would enter the collective consciousness of mainstream audiences: Siouxsie and the Banshees version of ‘The Passenger’ just missed the Top 40 in 1987 and it would be another decade before Trainspotting would position Iggy Pop’s legacy at the centre of pop culture. Less distant was Bowie’s cover of ‘Tonight’, recorded as a duet with Tina Turner.
Released as the second single from the album of the same name, it stalled at number 53 in both the UK and America but became a staple of MTV and mid-80s AOR Radio. Iggy’s original is notable for its spoken-word intro about a lover dying of a heroin overdose: Bowie’s version removed this and reworks the rhythm section in a parody of cruise ship reggae. In a similar vein, Grace Jones’ 1981 cover of The Idiot’s ‘Night Clubbing’ gives the Teutonic rhythm a compass point reworking as the title track for her fifth album for Island. It all could have been for Iggy Pop, if only for a few changes.
‘Bang Bang’ from Party! (1981)
Watching the video to ‘Bang Bang’ from 1981 is a fascinating insight into the way in which Arista conceptualised Pop as a solo artist in an age of MTV; and perhaps also why he failed to cross over at this point. The product they were attempting to sell was discordant with both Iggy’s presentation of self and the aesthetic rationale for the video—simply put, David Byrne he was not.
Once again ‘Bang Bang’ saw the light of day polished up for David Bowie’s 1987 release Never Let Me Down, and showcased as part of the Glass Spider concert tour and film. During the tour, he also covered ‘I Wanna be Your Dog’. The original of ‘Bang Bang’ made number 35 on the US dance chart, bookending his only other chart listing of the period, ‘I’m Bored’ from ’79, which peaked at number 68 in Australia. This garnered him a slot lip-synching on prime-time TV chart show Countdown, which is certainly worth revisiting, as is ‘Bang Bang’s’ follow-up single ‘Pumping for Jill’, with its unlikely gasoline themed double entendre lyrics.
‘Platonic’ from Zombie Birdhouse (1982)
An over-looked gem in Iggy Pop’s back-catalogue of LPs is the Chris Stein produced Zombie Birdhouse, which also featured Blondie’s Clem Burke on drums. ‘Run Like a Villain’ was the single, but the Roxy Music-sounding ‘Platonic’ stands out as a shimmering showing of the once-heavily-gritted punk. From the album, ‘The Ballad of Cookie McBride’ would subsequently be covered by Debbie Harry with electrifying ferocity on the 1993 Debravation tour, while ‘Ordinary Bummer’ would be the first new material released by the reformed Blondie in 1997 (under the moniker Adolph’s Dog), for the Iggy Pop tribute album We Will Fall.
With royalties starting to come in for ‘China Girl’, Iggy was able to take a break from continual touring and enter rehab once more for addiction to heroin and various narcotics. Co-writing two new tracks for Bowie’s 1984 album Tonight (which contained five Pop compositions in total), hinted at the direction Iggy’s career would take next.
‘Cry For Love’ from Blah Blah Blah (1986)
Four years on from Zombie Birdhouse and it was little surprise when Iggy emerged with the Bowie-produced Blah, Blah, Blah, serving as a natural continuation of Bowie’s sessions for the Tonight album. Notable for its determinedly commercial sound and his biggest hit single: a cover of Johnny O’Keefe’s 1958 rock ’n’ roll classic ‘Real Wild Child (Wild One)’. However, it is the lead single ‘Cry For Love’, a co-write with Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones that really stands out.
Peaking at number 34 in The US, it comes across like a hybrid of Billy Idol and Revenge-era Eurythmics. His first foray into big-budget MTV productions, in the video for ‘Cry For Love’ Iggy looks like James Woods in an excerpt from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, stalking desolate cityscapes and even starring intently at the white noise on an oversized television screen.
‘High on You’ from Instinct (1988)
The Blah Blah Blah album contained an unheard amount of releases with a total of five singles. For his next release, Iggy changed direction, working with Steve Jones on a more explicitly Metal oriented collection — Instinct.
Lead single ‘Cold Metal’ made number 37 in the US and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance. However, it is follow-up ‘High on You’ that is the real pop banger. It failed to chart but framed Iggy in a way that made sense to the new generation of rock fans interested in the LA rock scene and bands like Gun ’n’ Roses, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction.
’Living On The Edge of the Night’ from Brick By Brick (1990)
The emergence of the US Modern Rock Chart around this point (and the proliferation of alternative rock radio) gave Iggy an unexpected platform for new music as he entered his forties. Like many post-punk refugees, the cross-over with the emerging West Coast scenes provided a new context to Pop’s legacy. 1990’s Brick By Brick, produced by Don Was, contained contributions from Slash and Axl Rose from Guns ’n’ Roses. ’Home’ and ‘Candy’ (with ‘Love Shack’ freshness provided by Kate Pierson from the B-52s) were both big hits on the Alternative Chart, the latter going top ten in Australia and reaching the US Top 30.
However, it is album closer ‘Living On The End of the Night’ that is the real keeper. Beginning with a bluesier guitar riff, it recalls The Stooges more primitive sound, before exploding into a bustling chorus, augmented with staccato synths that underpin Iggy’s world-weary croon. A video for ‘Butt Town’ would also gain heavy rotation on MTV’s 120 Minutes.
‘Beside You’ from American Caesar (1993)
The influence of grunge and Nirvana’s Nevermind on the entire music world cannot be understated and can also be heard on 1993’s American Caesar, with the raucous lead single ‘Wild America’ making number 25 on the Alternative Chart. However, one overlooked classic, the anthemic ‘Beside You’ (another co-write with Sex Pistol Steve Jones and a minor hit in the UK) is a triumph in what has always made Iggy one of the greatest — some serious chops!
An ever collaborative artist, this record proved that his fascination with working alongside others hadn’t dampened with time. Two collaborations from this period include the tongue-in-cheek cover of Cole Porter’s ‘Well Did You Ever’ with Debbie Harry (for the charity album Red Hot and Blue) and a collaboration with Goran Bregovic ‘In the Death Car’ (from the soundtrack to Arizona Dream), which reached number two in France.
‘To Belong’ from Naughtie Little Doggie (1996)
As the nineties proceeded, Iggy Pop’s output of new music started to be eclipsed by his own legacy. ‘To Belong’ marks the denouement of Iggy as an artist on the pulse of contemporary culture. When he appeared bleached-haired on UK music show The White Room (to promote his new album Naughtie Little Doggie) it was clear from the audience’s electric reaction to ‘Lust For Life’ and ‘The Passenger’ that something had happened since American Caesar — he had been historicised. To the proto-millennials, high on the tinny beats of Britpop, who had come to his Berlin recordings via Danny Boyle’s cinematic adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel Transporting, Iggy was now a mythical figure.
The film positioned Iggy’s legacy central to the narrative that explored the theme of heroin addiction and urban deprivation. Only two tracks from Iggy are actually on the soundtrack: ‘Lust for Life’ (which appeared over the open titles) and ‘Night Clubbing’ from The Idiot. These are framed by a portmanteau of vintage decadence (Lou Reed/Blondie/Brian Eno/New Order) and nineties indie (Leftfield, Underworld, Blur, Pulp, Primal Scream). The ensuing rereleases of ‘Lust for Life’ and ‘The Passenger’ made the UK top 30 but did little to prepare audiences for the bleak themes of his fin de siecle 1999 offering Avenue B.
Twenty four albums into his career, including five Stooges records and three full collaborations with David Bowie, at the age of 73, Iggy Pop is arguably in the middle of his imperial phase. He is is the embodiment of romantic ideals of punk, while simultaneously embracing modernist schemas to do with innovation and technology.
However, at this point, it is the confluence in his performance of self with the music industry’s conceptualisation of Pop as-a-product that marks out his eighth decade from those that preceded it. In an age of digital media, Iggy has transcended the time-space continuum of his own career and become an avatar for all that rock ’n’ roll embodied in the 20th Century.