Iggy Pop, Skull Ring


It is fair to say that nobody present at Iggy and the Stooges' final gig in January 1974 ever thought that the quartet would reform to widespread excitement. In fact, it is probably fair to say that nobody present at Iggy and the Stooges' final gig ever thought the quartet were going to leave Detroit's Michigan Palace alive. The problem had something to do with their addled lead singer's curious notion of what constituted a promotional radio appearance. (He had a bad track record in this area: a radio interview earlier in the Stooges' career had ended prematurely when Iggy, for reasons best known to himself, had removed all his clothes and begun masturbating live on air.) This time, he had gone on local radio and challenged a biker gang called the Scorpions to come down to the Palace and fight him. You can hear what happened next on a semi-bootleg album called Metallic KO. As the rock critic Lester Bangs noted: "Nobody got killed, but it's the only live album I know where you can actually hear hurled beer bottles breaking against guitar strings."

Since their demise, public opinion of the Stooges has, rightfully, undergone a dramatic reappraisal. Their howling, basic take on rock, which met with derision and hostility in the early 1970s, is now counted among the most important and influential music ever made. David Bowie owed them a debt, as did the entire punk movement. In fact, no matter what the decade and the fashion, there has always been a band around somewhere that sounds like the Stooges, from the Jesus and Mary Chain to Primal Scream to the current crop of post-White Stripes garage bands.

Even today, however, it is hard not to shudder at the news that Iggy has once again teamed up with the surviving members of the Stooges: guitarist Ron Asheton and his brother, drummer Scott. (Bass player Dave Alexander drank himself to death in 1975.) A vast amount of evidence exists to support the theory that near-legendary bands should never reform, no matter how intoxicating the cocktail of money and nostalgia: the crushing disappointment of the Beatles' Free As a Bird, the depressing pantomime that was last year's Sex Pistols show at Crystal Palace and, perhaps grimmest of all, the sight of Lou Reed on stage with the Velvet Underground in the early 1990s, smoking a cigar and embellishing songs with wildly inappropriate whoops and extempore lyrics: "Shiny shiny, shiny boots of leather WOOH YEAH momma!"

Nevertheless, it's difficult to suppress a grin when Skull Ring's opening track, Little Electric Chair, explodes from the speakers. Like Search and Destroy, the opener from the Stooges' 1973 album Raw Power, it begins suddenly, as if someone had pressed the record button slightly too late. That's not the only similarity with their past. Scott Asheton still plays as if startled and angry to find himself behind a drum kit: if his style were any more basic, it would involve picking the drums up and hitting himself over the head with them. His brother's guitar style is also untouched by time, an unfeasibly thrilling, distorted blare. They sound fantastic.

Weirdly, given that he is the one with the ongoing career, Iggy emerges as the weakest link. On the original Stooges albums, his vocals and lyrics offered a barely controlled howl of youthful rage and self-disgust. Rightly surmising that to try anything similar at 56 would sound fairly ridiculous, he is forced into self-parody, making the appropriate fizzing and crackling sound effects on Little Electric Chair, offering some self-consciously overblown shrieking on Loser. Only on their final track together, Dead Rock Star, does everything gel perfectly. As the Stooges hammer away, Iggy dredges up some remarkably clear memories of the last time the trio shared a stage, back at the Michigan Palace. "I'm so afraid of failing, I hang on to the railing," he booms. "I gathered awful knowledge you cannot get in college... I'm a dead rock star." Tinged with regret and hard-won wisdom, it's moving in a way that the original Stooges were not.

The real problem, however, is that the Stooges' tracks cast the rest of the album in an unflattering light. Under the circumstances, it's difficult to muster much enthusiasm over the fact that Iggy has also teamed up with MTV-friendly pop-punk bands Sum 41 and Green Day. Another backing band, the Trolls, do their best on Private Hell and the closing Blood on Your Cool, and Iggy's solo acoustic number 'Til Wrong Feels Right is a well-intentioned if clumsy anti-music biz rant - but ultimately, Skull Ring's selling point is the four tracks featuring the Ashetons.

Dead Rock Star aside, if the songs don't exactly add anything to the Stooges' legacy, they do nothing to detract from it either. By the standards of most rock reunions, you have to class it as a resounding success.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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