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How The Stooges’ Debut Album Invented Punk A Decade Early
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In Depth

How The Stooges’ Debut Album Invented Punk A Decade Early

Hypnotic, aggressive and steeped in attitude, The Stooges’ debut album bypassed the charts, but it pointed to the future of refusenik rock.

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It’s often credited as the record that drew up the blueprint for punk, yet The Stooges’ self-titled debut album ended up sounding the way it did almost by accident. Indeed, it’s astonishing that the record was even made at all, for its creators were famously laissez-faire about the way they came up with songs during their early days.

Listen to The Stooges’ debut album here.

“They were more like industrial theatre than a ‘rock’ band”

“The Stooges were barely a band when they made their first album,” Rhino A&R man and lifelong fan Jason Jones told Vinyl Me, Please in 2020. “They were more like industrial theatre than a ‘rock’ band. Their material was made up of feedback-laced, repetitive riffs that mutated into extended, hallucinatory improvisations. Initially, they were more in the vein of [avant-garde composer and music theorist] Harry Partch.”

Both The Stooges’ debut album and its ferocious follow-up, Fun House, now sit proudly in the lineage of what Bobby Hackney, from The Stooges’ Michigan compatriots Death, refers to as “hard-driving Detroit rock’n’roll”. The term “punk” wasn’t in circulation when The Stooges’ debut was first released, on 5 August 1969, but making rock music with an edge was certainly on frontman James Osterberg’s agenda when he formed the band in the late 60s.

“They were too unique in their vision to be anything but themselves”

Having cut his musical teeth as a teenager in local Ann Arbor beat groups such as The Iguanas and The Prime Movers, Osterberg (whose stage name, Iggy Pop, was set in stone after his stint with the former) was inspired to create a new type of music following a memorable meeting to Chicago in 1967, during which he ended up as a guest in the home of former Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley drummer Sam Lay.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be an old blues man,” he said in a 2010 interview with Clash magazine. “But hanging around these blues guys in Chicago made me want to emulate them. I wanted to be like them, sound like them and write like them – but write about the things that concern who I am and who my people are.”

Upon returning to Detroit, Pop set about realising his vision – which broadly involved cross-breeding the tough urban sound of the blues with the energy of garage-rock trailblazers such as The Sonics and The Kinks. To achieve his goal, he recruited brothers Ron and Scott Asheton on guitars and drums, respectively, and brought Dave Alexander in to play bass. With hindsight, it was more or less preordained that the new outfit would be called The Stooges, as Iggy explained in 2010.

“Ron came up with the idea,” Iggy told Clash magazine. “It was inevitable that anything creative that Ron did in his life was gonna come back to The Stooges, because he’d already spent probably 17,000 man hours watching The Three Stooges’ films.”

Initially billed as “The Psychedelic Stooges”, the embryonic outfit made their live debut at their communal State Street house in Ann Arbor, on Halloween night 1967. By early 1968, they were playing well-known Detroit venues such as the Grande Ballroom, often in support of local heroes MC5, who were impressed by The Stooges’ audacious left-field leanings – not least the sort of stage antics which would, in years to come, make Iggy Pop one of the best frontmen in rock.

“You had to admire that kind of courage – assuming he lived!”

The Stooges also impressed Elektra Records A&R man and publicist Danny Fields, whose recommendation led to his label signing the group, along with MC5, in 1968. Elektra boss Jac Holzman trusted Fields’ judgement and also dug the band, even if he was slightly alarmed by Iggy’s onstage antics.

“I liked them because they were happy,” Holzman said in a Record Collector interview. “They were good guys – and so daring. At a Stooges concert, Iggy would jump into the crowd and they’d move aside and he’d land on his face. You had to admire that kind of courage – assuming he lived, of course!”

However, while Holzman was charmed by The Stooges as individuals, he was less impressed by their early repertoire. The band had intended to record the seven songs comprising their – still relatively loose – stage set for their debut album, but their new boss felt most of the tunes simply weren’t up to scratch.

“We auditioned [the songs] live in the studio and they refused it,” Iggy Pop recalled in the sleevenotes for the 2005 reissue of The Stooges’ debut album. “Jac Holzman said there weren’t enough legitimate songs that contained structured lead vocals. So we lied and said that was OK, we’d got loads more proper songs. Upon hearing this, Holzman then told us we had one week to prepare and record the album.”

“My dream was just to do something really good and really cool”

Under pressure, The Stooges knuckled down and came up with the goods. They rapidly wrote four new songs and reworked one of Iggy Pop’s early tunes, Ann, for inclusion. The closest thing to a ballad to grace The Stooges’ debut album, the latter song had been rehearsed and then discarded during 1968, but now made its return out of necessity. When added to 1969, No Fun and I Wanna Be Your Dog, the three songs which Holzman had approved of, the band had just enough material to get the record over the line.

Elektra thought outside the box when it came to capturing The Stooges on record. Instead of recording the band in their native Michigan or flying them out to Los Angeles (which they later did for Fun House), Holzman sent them to New York City and paired them off with producer John Cale, who had until recently been The Velvet Underground’s multi-instrumental savant.

“Elektra thought Cale was a good idea because of his pedigree,” Jason Jones told Vinyl Please, Me. “Cale is a classically trained musician with a foot in the avant-garde… many felt The Stooges had a sound reminiscent of the early Velvet Underground… However, Cale didn’t want to try to turn The Stooges into a carbon copy of the Velvets. He knew they were too unique in their vision to be anything but themselves.”

“The original punk rock rush on record”

In retrospect, Cale’s avant-garde leanings are easy enough to detect in the more outré moments on The Stooges’ debut album: it’s hard not to imagine the Welshman rubbing his hands with glee when the band laid down the lengthy, raga-like mantra of We Will Fall or lifted the bassline for the ultra-hypnotic Little Doll from jazz icon Pharoah Sanders’ Upper Egypt And Lower Egypt.

Yet, for the most part, Cale was savvy enough to allow The Stooges to be themselves – often to devastating effect. Simply letting the band fly worked wonders, and they sounded especially potent on the album’s quartet of classics, No Fun, Real Cool Time, I Wanna Be Your Dog and the Bo Diddley-deconstructing 1969 – all still contenders among the best Stooges songs.

Indeed, with Ron Asheton’s repetitive riffs and Iggy’s nihilistic drawl leading the way, this clutch of low-rent classics really did cross-pollinate the melancholia of the blues with the amphetamine energy of the finest garage-rock. Collectively, they were the sound of punk formulating, the best part of a decade before the term would officially be coined to describe music seething with similar reserves of aggression and refusenik attitude.

“A long-held well-kept secret by those in the know”

Seemingly inevitably, the wider public weren’t ready for anything as meaty and uncompromising as The Stooges’ debut album in 1969, so it was no great surprise to band or label when the record briefly appeared at No.106 in the Billboard 200 and then fell off the listings for good.

The record’s primeval power also confused the critics of the day, with Rolling Stone’s Edmund O Ward dubbing it “loud, boring, tasteless, unimaginative and childish”, before adding that he “kind of liked it”. It took more than a decade before the album’s lowly reputation improved, when the UK’s first wave of punk outfits began singing its praises, and Sex Pistols’ spirited cover of No Fun appeared on the flip of their third single, Pretty Vacant, in the summer of 1977.

Since then, The Stooges’ debut album has gone from being what Danny Fields called “a curiosity” to being hailed as one of the most influential rock albums of them all, with the BBC referring to it in 2019 as “the original punk rock rush on record, a long-held well-kept secret by those in the know”. But then those involved with creating the album were in it for the long haul anyway.

“The value is now evident to all who hear it”

“I always thought, that when we put out our first thing, there must be about 50,000 people in America who would be interested in this. And we sold 35,000… I thought that was pretty good,” Iggy Pop told Clash.

“And honestly, as a kid, [selling records] wasn’t the dream,” he furthered. “My dream was just to do something really good and really cool… That was all I really wanted.”

“We hoped people would see the uniqueness in the band,” Jac Holzman said in 2020. “At the time they didn’t, of course, but now The Stooges makes me feel like I was someone who received a special gift, the value of which is now evident to all who hear it.”

Find out where The Stooges rank among our most influential musicians of all time.

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