The Over/Under: The Stooges

stoogeover

Even a jaded old music hack hopes to move people occasionally. The record-setting outpouring of, er, emotion occasioned by our Ween Over/Under, when some members of the Ween forum came to hang out for a while, was a striking thing to behold. After a few dozen postings, the comment thread began predictably to devolve like a game of Telephone, until some of the poor befuddled dears were lambasting me—or a previous commenter or, at any rate, somebody somewhere—for dismissing Ween as a “joke band.” I’d argued exactly the opposite, but never mind; watching the train wreck was sort of fun. And now that we’ve aired out the joint and flipped the mattresses, the office is pretty much back to normal, except one of the interns got a tummyache from all the bad swears, and we’re still finding misplaced modifiers between the couch cushions. But since it’s just us again, and since we’re already talking about bands with active senses of humor (as opposed to some among their fans), let’s consider Michigan’s mighty Stooges. And let’s put it clearly: The Stooges represent one of rock history’s benchmarks. To call most any Stooges cut “overrated” requires the sheerest splitting of hairs, since the brilliant canonical albums number only three, with 2007’s The Weirdness serving mostly as a grace note. And the Stooges were utterly sui generis; though they drew openly from garage rock, electric blues and free jazz (and guerilla theater, come to think of it), the band wasn’t easy to pin, then or now. The sequential development heard on The Stooges, Funhouse and Raw Power has been quite accurately called the bridge between ’60s garage and ’70s punk. But the band’s real greatness, I think, lay in its open baiting and challenging of the audience. Cool cats like the Velvets, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis could play entire sets without even acknowledging the crowd, but no band before the Stooges had ever taken such obvious delight in overtly challenging, even openly antagonizing, the people who’d come to hear them play. (“I won’t fuck you when I’m workin’,” Iggy Pop famously snarled to one persistent heckler.) That seems to me the sea change—the moment when flower power died and your-pretty-face-is-going-to-hell sneering took over. I’ll go further and say that the Stooges were the first post-Manson rock band. Part of me can’t believe I just wrote that, but I’m standing by it. So this list is going to feel more subjective than most, and the criteria might be a little inconsistent from entry to entry, but I don’t think Pop and Co. would mind. No messier glory ever crawled across a rock ‘n’ roll stage beneath a shower of eggs and bottles.

:: The Five Most Overrated Stooges Songs
1. “I Wanna Be Your Dog” (1969)

Eventually covered by everyone from Sid Vicious to Sonic Youth to Uncle Tupelo, “I Wanna Be Your Dog” became to punk what “C’e La Luna” once was to wedding bands: the song you had to learn if you were going to mark yourself as a member of the tribe. And that opening blast is a real mother: the sound a power drill would make if it could play barre chords. Something about the overt masochism here seems to provide the draw, the declaration that, contra all that Aquarian Age optimism, no love’s ever “free,” and someone’s always ready to slap the collar on you, so you might as well get down on all fours. How this must have upset Haight-Ashbury in ’69. I get that it’s an incredible performance and a career opus. Still, it’s not the Stooges’ most brutal moment or their catchiest or brainiest or even their most thuggish or simpleminded, and so it’s always seemed unfair to me that “Dog” is so often the song from The Stooges that people think of first. The album deserves better than that.

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2. “Cock In My Pocket” (1976)
Just behind Dylan’s Great White Wonder, Stooges live record Metallic K.O. used to be the Holy Grail of bootleg recordings. In today’s era of constant amateur taping, it can be difficult to remember what a rare thing an audience recording once was, but Metallic K.O. had the special distinction of being rumored to document the Stooges’ final show (the real history is more convoluted, and easy enough to seek out if you’re interested), which ended in a mortar attack of shouted abuse and objects hurled at the band by the audience, all of which Pop inventories in the four-minute wake of “Cock In My Pocket.” Actually, “Cock In My Pocket”—more or less a three-chord swagger in the spirit of “Bo Diddley” or “Johnny B. Goode,” pushed to its horny extreme—isn’t anywhere near as interesting as the stage banter that follows, which presents the essence of the Stooges’ audience-taunting; the entire sequence is presented here. Pop’s nasal singsong, “Ya paid yer money, so you takes your choice, ya know,” sums up the big middle finger that is Metallic K.O.

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3. “Penetration” (1973)
Somewhere someone’s yelling at the computer screen, but hear me out: One of the things that’s most frustrating about digging the Stooges is hearing both casual and hardcore fans tout Raw Power’s aesthetic heart as rooted in blooze-riff repetition, with James Williamson’s blistering guitar riding the swells. That’s one approach the band used, but it isn’t the only one. The repeated chime run on “Penetration” is genius, but that minimal element is really the aspect of the song that’s the most interesting. Strip that away, and you’ve got a fuzz-guitar stomp that just stands there and keeps punching. That’s eminently cool. But to call “Penetration” a sleazy high point, unique though it sounds when heard in sequence on Raw Power, is to exaggerate more than a little.

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4. “Raw Power” (1973)
Just in case the inclusion of “Penetration” didn’t piss you off. I’m fully ready to cop that I might be alone in this opinion, but the centrality of “Raw Power” to the Stooges’ mythos feels wildly out of proportion to me, for most of the same reasons given in entries one and three above. I’d put anything on Funhouse, and two or three things on Raw Power itself, above this title track in terms of style points, attitude and execution. Again, a great track. But the summit of the Stooges’ achievement? I wonder.

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5. “Not Right” (1969)
It’s one of the strangest, sludgiest songs on The Stooges, so I can understand why “Not Right” is a touchstone for heavy metal and post-garage rock. But what feels like the requisite bottom end isn’t here, quite—a result of the state of production art in 1969, which might be remedied by the album’s upcoming re-release on Rhino—and the flat vocal delivery and descending chord structure make it sound thin where it wants to sound weighty. “Not Right” fits neatly into Pop’s extensive catalog of songs about how it feels to be doomed or damned by love, but it feels mostly like a dry run for the fuller, deeper explorations of that same topic that were to follow.

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:: The Five Most Underrated Stooges Songs
1. “Death Trip” (1973)

I know, I know—every Stooges fan in the world loves it. But if we’re talking about career summations, I’d stump for “Death Trip” over “Raw Power” or even “Search And Destroy.” It’s not as well-known outside the fan base as either of those songs, but perfectly slotted in the rideout position on Raw Power, it caps the Stooges’ career arc from Ann Arbor City lunks to knife-point punks. It’s also one of the tightest performances in the band’s catalog, and here, the thunderous riff structure actually works to frame and support one of Pop’s most terrifying lyrics: “Come and be my enemy … Turn me loose on you … We’re going down … You’re gonna save me … I’ll stick you, you’ll stick me … ” Yow.

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2. “Little Doll” (1969)
The Stooges didn’t do swamp rock, but “Little Doll” shows that they could, and the song is notable in the band’s playlist for feeling the most like the murky blues that fed their early approach. At first listen, it plays like a throwback, an exercise of the sort the Stooges were about to leave behind, considering that the glorious explosion of Funhouse is soon to arrive. Ron Asheton sounds like he’s doing his best Blue Cheer, and the final product is more Willie Dixon than David Bowie. And yet there’s something boiling underneath the surface of this unprepossessing cut, a glad blending of sex and death (or eros and thanatos, if you want to get all Freudian about it) that the Stooges would go on to exploit to fuller effect later. Of all the songs on the band’s first album, “Little Doll” is the one that most slyly signals the dark terrain where the Stooges are about to go; it’s a time bomb, not a grenade, but you can feel its sinister fragments all over later songs like “Down On The Street” and “Loose.”

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3. “Born In A Trailer” (1973)
I’ll be the first to admit that this is sort of a five-finger run-through, less a song proper than a sketch of a song. Still, “Born In A Trailer,” a heavily bootlegged track from the Raw Power era, maintains a loose charm and easygoing strut that little else in the band’s catalog replicates. Following a free-association lyric from Pop (“I got a mind so weird/I ain’t got no beard”), the song goes into a long keyboard and guitar workout that shows off the Stooges’ chops in a uniquely focused context. As a snapshot of the band’s creative process, “Born In A Trailer” reminds us, as if we needed reminding, that the Stooges’ art was the result of serious labor in the service of serious fun.

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4. “My Idea Of Fun” (2007)
I want to speak in favor of The Weirdness for a second—actually, just in favor of “My Idea Of Fun.” Most fans and critics called the Stooges’ reunion album a disappointment musically and lyrically, especially given the great live shows that preceded it. I understand that, but “My Idea Of Fun” recalls the angry Stooges of the early ’70s in a way that doesn’t fall over into nostalgia. The live version heard here, taped in May 2007 at Washington D.C.’s venerable 9:30 Club, is a little raw and sloppy, but so were the best of the Stooges’ live performances. The open rage of the lyric (“They break your skin/When you’re a kid/They steal your soul/And keep it hid”) is one of the more impressive moments on the studio album, and this angry performance suggests that at least some of the flaws of The Weirdness lay in its execution, not in its ideas. Had the song received the studio treatment it deserved, it could’ve been excellent; even in this version, it’s an underappreciated cut.

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5. “T.V. Eye” (1970)
Oh, come on: Friggin’ “T.V. Eye,” underrated? It’s one of the most beloved tracks on Funhouse, nimrod. Well, here’s one of those sliding-scale moments I was talking about in the introduction. This is a totally subjective call, but fuggit: The Stooges’ career high point isn’t “Raw Power” or “I Wanna Be Your Dog” or “Search And Destroy” or Metallic K.O.’s deranged reading of “Louie Louie.” “T.V. Eye” is the greatest thing the Stooges ever recorded. It’s five minutes, more or less, of one insistent chord pounded out again and again, over which Ron Asheton unspools the most aggro guitar line of the ’70s, and I’m putting it up against anything by Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine. Scott Asheton’s 4/4 beat hits like an axe, lopping off bloody chunks of the song as each measure passes. And (see number two above) the ecstatic merging of sex and violence that crept up on us in “Little Doll” blows the doors completely off the hinges here. (The “twat vibe eye,” according to the Asheton brothers’ sister Kathy, is the look of raw, aggressive lust shot by a woman at a man she wants to fuck.) By me, “T.V. Eye” is as important to ’70s hard rock and punk as Dylan’s infamous 1966 Manchester Free Trade Hall live performance of “Like A Rolling Stone” was to its own decade: an announcement that its very arrival changes the landscape, and nothing’s going to be the same after it. That’s lofty stuff, I know. But “T.V. Eye” is the centerpiece of one of the greatest albums in popular-music history and ground zero for the 1970s’ foul-mouthed reinvention of rock’s great triumvirate: young, loud and sexed up. The canonical song is widely known; for archivists, the version presented here is take eight from the Funhouse sessions, a little more ragged and scraped than the final version.

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—Eric Waggoner

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8 Comments

  1. J
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    COOL

  2. Don
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    You didn’t mention “I Got A Right” as underrated.
    EPIC FAIL on your part.

  3. Posted March 30, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    The writer references The Stooges’ “upcoming re-release on Rhino.” Rhino reissued The Stooges in 2005. I’m confused. Was this written over four years ago or does Rhino plan another reissue?

  4. Eric T. Miller
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Rhino Handmade is issuing a collector’s edition of the Stooges’ debut album that is made up of two CDs and a seven-inch single featuring previously unreleased song “Asthma Attack.” Go here for more info.

  5. Dr. Rock
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    $50 for the new reissue?!? Sheesh.

  6. Andrew the Noisy
    Posted April 3, 2010 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    You know, it’s weird. This is the first time that I agree more with the Overrated than the Underrated. The only beef I have with the former is on “Penetration,” as the logic of that inclusion is simply too convoluted to persuade. I would have put “No Fun” in its place, as it barely qualifies as a Stooges song anymore, since a) most people first encounter the Sex Pistols version and b) the Sex Pistols version is superior.

    But your underrated list makes no sense, according to the logic of previous Underrateds. “T.V. Eye” and “Death Trip” are simply not underrated, and any attempt to argue otherwise opens up to question the entire logic of this exercise, as you seem to be talking about insufficient crtical appreciation. By that logic, anything that suffers from excess critical appreciation can fairly be called overrated, even if it’s unpopular. I know how much you guys love that idea.

    And “My Idea of Fun” is simply boring. It’s not half as entertaining as “Mexican Guy” (Not that “Mexican Guy” is a great, or even good song). I get that you’re trying to put up a fight for a maligned album, but I honestly don’t think The Weirdness is worth it. Now if you’d stood up for “We Will Fall,” that would have been daring.

  7. Yeah
    Posted June 28, 2010 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    I Wanna Be Your Dog is one of the greatest songs in rock history. It is justifiably beloved, not overrated.

  8. Posted February 7, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    the comments on your ween over/under blog are hiLARious!!!! especially when gener called you out. really good stuff!!