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Week 64 | The Idiot (1977)

“The Idiot” is credited as an Iggy Pop album, and it is, but it is one of several collaborations between Iggy and Bowie.  In some respects, it is the first album of Bowie’s Berlin period.  

Bowie’s influence over the album is obvious, especially in retrospect.  Iggy was the lead singer and wrote most of the lyrics, while Bowie wrote most of the music (though to some extent they both contributed to both aspects).  He also played instruments and provided some backing vocals.  He supported Iggy on tour by playing piano, as Iggy promoted the album.  At the time of its release, Bowie had already performed the lead off song, “Sister Midnight,” live in concert.  The music from the song would reappear on Bowie’s final “Berlin” album as “Red Money.”  I have always liked the lyrics to “Sister Midnight,” more than those of “Red Money,” but I am at a loss as to the meaning of either song.  

The other song that is very obviously associated with Bowie is “China Girl,” which Bowie recorded six years later for “Let’s Dance.”  There is a world of difference between Iggy’s version of the song and Bowie’s.  “The Idiot” is a dark, moody album that properly should be heard as the opening event in the sequence that includes “Low,” “Heroes,” Iggy’s “Lust for Life,” and “Lodger.”  “Let’s Dance,” as everyone knows, is the epitome of Bowie as a pop superstar.  Even though the lyrics for many of the songs on that album are ominous, the feel is upbeat.  Not so on “The Idiot,” or really any of the “Berlin” albums, which together are a journey into darkness.

“The Idiot” sounds like a Bowie album.  I’m my mind, I associate it with “Low,” while I associate “Lust for Life” with “Heroes.”  Some of those songs that Bowie didn’t perform himself separately seem like he might have— for instance, “The Dumb Dumb Boys” can be thought of as one in the sequence of Bowie’s “Boys” songs— “The London Boys” (1966), “Boys Keep Swinging” (1979), “The Dirty Boys” (2013).    

On the other hand, “The Idiot” might not have sounded like much of an Iggy Pop album back in 1977.  To that point Iggy, either on his own or with his band, “The Stooges,” created loud, fast, proto-punk such as the album, “Raw Power.”  Iggy would continue with that style long into the future, with occasional departures, usually in the form of collaborations with Bowie.  Beyond the style-shift, about three years had passed between the release of “Raw Power,” his last studio album, and “The Idiot,” so I can imagine the album almost seeming like a debut.  And in a sense it was— though Bowie had mixed, “Raw Power,” “The Idiot” is really the first album he truly collaborated on with Iggy.  So it was a debut of the team, which would go on to make music (such as “Lust for Life” and “Blah Blah Blah”) that would be very different than Iggy’s more typical fare. 

Still, it is not a mistake that the name on the album cover is “Iggy Pop” and not “Pop and Bowie.”  As much as Bowie was involved in the album, listeners with the expectation of hearing him sing duets with Iggy would be disappointed.  “The Idiot” sounds more like a Bowie album than an Iggy Pop album, and it owes much to Bowie’s contributions, but Iggy properly gets top billing.  

I very much like, “The Idiot,” though I can’t really relate to it.  At best, for me it is a portal to a world very different from my own.  Iggy and Bowie collaborated on the “Berlin” albums in Berlin while trying to stabilize their drug-centered lives.  Iggy sings of “night clubbing” and searching for a broken band of “dumb dumb” boys of whom “gone straight” is a disparaging state of affairs.  The whole tone of the album is darker even than “Low.”  It is not a celebration of decay (like, for instance, “Diamond Dogs”), but is more from the perspective of a narrator who knows nothing other than decay.  One interpretation of “China Girl” is that it is somehow about heroin— that’s a tough interpretation of Bowie’s version but not so much of Iggy’s.  There is no reflection of happier memories of a more innocent past.  There is no hopeful aspiration to emerge out the other side.  The album’s closing track, “Mass Production, “ is a long, slow lamentation from the perspective of (presumably) a factory worker whose greatest identified pleasure is driving “along the freeways [seeing] the smokestacks belching.”  He [tries] “to die,” but the target of his lament puts him back “on the line.”  He likes her, too— whoever he is singing to, but he can’t event screw up the courage to ask her out.  Instead he asks for “a number of “a girl almost like you.”  Talk about low expectations.  

Despite the miserable existence of the narrator, the album is nearly great.  I discovered it years after I had acquired and came to know all of Bowie’s studio albums to date, so it was like discovering a new Bowie album.  While its subject matter is depressing, that it exists at all was a delightful surprise. 

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