Amidst all the hype about the fact that Iggy and the Stooges have gotten together recently, pretty much as a live unit born from the death of original lead guitarist Ron Asheton, and containing the musical unearthing of guitarist James Williamson, another influential game player who helped carve certain niches in the pre and post punk sounds and circles, finally comes the album Ready to Die.
The album, whose members have a median age around 60-66, is the first with the Raw Power lineup for the most part since that jolting sonic aneurysm of a release was released 40 years ago this year. Now think about that for a second. A 40-year gap between musical sounds done by the same artists. Reunions of that type in 1973 when Raw Power first hit record bins would have been of the Glenn Miller, Cab Calloway and Sidney Bechet variety. In 1933, Frank Sinatra wasn’t even on the charts yet. The point of that is, that music of that ilk around in 1973, 40 years after their inceptions, were as antiquated as they come, as out of place as a man in a three piece suit in a steambath. That kind of music wasn’t dated, it was double, even triple dated, and mainly reserved for a small contingent of fans who grew up with those sounds who still harked for those “good ol’ days” which were in full manifest by physical flesh and blood actualities of those artists they grew up with.
Now today, in a world that has people like those found on the television show The Voice as the standard and norm of what music is, supposed to be, and the roads to trailblaze on as a mainstream highway, the release of Ready To Die in a way is in an era and a time just like the aforementioned one. The crucial difference of course is that by the time The Stooges first came on the scene, hardnosed, concrete rock and roll was just coming into full fruition, helmed by The Sonics and Hendrix and all in between, the sounds of rock and roll played with sulfured matches sort of began in the late 1960s, and created a aural genre of noise that still somewhat exists today. Bands upon bands still try to emulate, mostly with very limited success, the sounds that were created during that turbulent and in hindsight, most necessary decade. So thusly, there’s nothing rather dated about it, and even though the norm of heavy rock and roll with raw razor blades firmly attached to it has reverted back somewhat to a cult status, it still exists, and is still scoped out and telegraphed by budding artists, most of who try to attack it’s components by numbers, and rarely by soul and attitude rote.
It is because of this that a record like Ready to Die can exist in today’s musical climates, and can also exist in an elbow to ribs jabbing of the mainstream genres. Rolling Stones comparisons aside, The Stooges, led by frontman/madman/down to earth and touchback off the gridiron everyman Iggy Pop, are also an ensemble that chugs along down a dirty mess of tracks, for some, reliving an image, for others creating one, unapologetic and crude, relentless and shocking, rock and roll with its cock firmly outside the box and spitting in the face of even its staunchest fans.
Having that fan base alone makes the challenge of Ready to Die tough to muster up to fit alongside the bands Raw Power (and even earlier Williamson-less records like their self-titled debut album and especially Funhouse) as a record on par, and while of course it doesn’t do that, it is shades above their record The Weirdness, which was the last recorded studio album with Ron Asheton.
Starting with a traffic mess of a jam with “Burn,” which bolts out at you like a more macabre, denser Search and Destroy, right away the sound of this album is in full force. It’s got a rich, big bodied, bottom ended tone to it, as Iggy croons like the punky almost sepugenarian that he is. In fact, Iggy’s vocals now sound even more doomy and creepier than ever before. Who would have thought that in a way, age would have added more peet and moss to the Iguana, and the result almost makes it like Lurch from The Addams Family crooning for The Dead Boys. Pop is now a gleefully unapologetic lecher, and when he sings on Ready to Die about having a fucking gun, how his job don’t pay shit, or how awesome tits are — so awesome that he’s still willing to get on his knees at its pulchritude pulpit — it now sounds like a vagabond in the park, graying hair and weathered face, spitting megaphone sized drivel into the wind. Again, for anyone else, it’s a detriment; for Iggy Pop, it’s just another mask he can wear to pull off his sonic bag of tricks. Age almost seems like a comforting visage to him, he’s like the fine wine in reverse, but it’s the dollar store liquor that he’s always been most associated with anyway and which has always been his strength musically.
The second track, “Sex and Money” sounds like a quick primer for all the Stooges elements that came before it, hand claps, slide whistle-eque saxophone (from Steve Mackay, who played with more of a bite that could cut through steel on Funhouse than he does here) and Iggy’s low-fi, hi-fi. Like the first track, it’s got just enough changes to progress the song from becoming a simple rat-at-at three chord progression that it is, and the simplistically yet strong drumming from always-a-Stooge Scott Asheton puts it in its rightfully sonic place. Iggy sings on this (and most of the songs on the record) with that patented up/down phrasing that’s become like a tool belt around his muscular frame, he saves the one-two punches for the end, he rope-a-dopes the listener to get them there. The lyrics, charmingly banal as ever, which has been expected of the Jiffy Pop ever since he sang “I’m only five foot one, I’ve got a pain in my neck, I’m looking up at the city, what the hell, what the heck” on New Values, speak of the clap traps of the world, the whole record does in a way.
Iggy simplistically compartmentalizes his feelings and opinions in a world that is still as dark, sinister and careless in many ways since he first came out of his starting gate, and refreshingly makes sure not to do it in an elder statesman, grandfatherly manner. He still slams his body, mind and politic against the rigid 2X4 that is America and the world and still waxes about its bullshit just like he did all those decades ago. Although now, like then, there could also be the possibility that no one gives a fuck, but the key for Iggy and the band is that stripped down, they really don’t either. They are just sonic parcels of this sound and attitude after all, they plug the chords in the electric church, if you want to glean something out of it, that’s entirely up to you. Iggy and the band aren’t gonna take you anywhere if you do, so don’t shoot these messengers.
Other tracks like “Job” and “Gun” are loud, snarl and come the closest to the older Stooges, the Ron Asheton era. In fact, “Job” has the first few notes of “Loose” before it does a little change to avoid self-parody and self-plagarism. “DD” has a kind of paunchy rhythm section to it that might have come out of Muscle Shoals and the Atlantic/Motown sound if it was produced by Tony Visconti. It’s interesting to note that a lot of what is on this record really doesn’t sound anything like the Raw Power lineup, even though it’s got everyone here except for the late Asheton on bass. That position is filled by Mike Watt, who has tackled so many genres of incredible force via bands like The Minutemen and Firehose and even stretching that boundless creativity of his ever more so with his solo projects. Watt is a great anchor for the band here, and he plays with a sharp ear for this music. In a way, he is almost channeling the late Dave Alexander (the first Stooges bass player), a musician all but forgotten in today’s fabric of rock and roll.
The odd man out strangely enough is Williamson, who has strong riffs for sure, who has attitude, who gave the sound to this record by way of producing it, but whereas he complimented Iggy on Raw Power and then some, where his playing was so dynamic and dirty that the songs would have arguably succeeded if you just heard them instrumentally, here it sounds like Williamson gets lost at times in the Iggy shuffle. In fact, a lot of times the record sounds like just another solo record of the Pop. Iggy has been making this kind of record for the last 20 years in a way, after he eschewed his sort of experimental period in the late 1980s to come back with some full force in the 1990s with albums that started to bring the Stooges sound back in his melee.
One has to wonder when Iggy sings on “The Departed” (the last track of the album), “The Life of the Party is Gone,” with its military style beat over ominous chords, is he speaking of himself and The Stooges? In full essence, Ready to Die isn’t supposed to technically grab new fans by their shirt collars in today’s 2013 world. It’s really just another chapter of the band for those who followed them since forever, or caught them at a time before their history was so shoved down our throats (see: 1990s’ Grunge Movement) that most newer generations rubbernecked to the band to see what all the fuss was about when bands like Mudhoney and their like were going on and on about how incredible and influential they were. Ready To Die doesn’t make the accessibility any easier, it’s pretty much catered and for those in the know. It’s not a pompous secret club by any means, anyone can ride The Stooges caravan, just know that there aren’t any seats on it and the food sucks a bit. But if they made things easy for their listeners, they wouldn’t be The Stooges. That’s always been the allure and appeal of them, whether it was the original band, or the lineup on Raw Power or Metallic KO, a live album which almost took the concept of a live album and spilled every ounce of its guts out on the turntable.
In summing up, Ready to Die isn’t 100 percent successful, none of the Stooges records ever were in many senses, but remains a fun ride and a record which stands out in today’s musical climate just by default alone considering what’s being offered on the table nowadays. Will you find the record for sale at Wal-Mart and Target? Probably, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from checking it out. Will a diehard Stooges fan be disappointed? Possibly, but you kind of knew that going in, but that doesn’t automatically mean that it out-and-out sucks. I could give you the line here that probably most other reviews of this record will, that Ready to Die sounds better than bands half their age who are ripping them off. Well, so did Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon records when all those English bands were electrifying those same sounds up in the 1960s, so what’s the point there Charlie? The only point is that it’s nice to have a sonic document that shows Iggy and the Stooges are still keepin’ on, and whatever may be heard when the needle drops (an old expression meaning “starting the record”) in a weird way becomes secondary.
Iggy once sang on his 1979 solo record New Values, “I Wanna Live to be 98.” That’s entirely possible the way his spirit, grit, and energy seems to take him further and further as each of the downer years roll on, as he swims against the tide again and again, still able to bounce up erect and poised to plunder on once more. He and his Stooges may be ready to die here on this album, but there’s still a little life here to be seen and heard, once you pull away the layers. If Raw Power has got the magic touch, Ready to Die still at least dances to the beat of the living dead.