Iggy Pop and James Williamson: Where the Debris Meets the Sea
"For some time I kinda dismissed Kill City," Iggy Pop told me 20 years ago. "We did it on no money and I did the vocals on weekend leave from the psych unit. But I've been listening to it lately and I really like the stuff on that album a lot. A lot of them are real good, and I was surprised because I was in screaming mental pain when I did it."
Iggy Pop remains rock's ultimate proto-punk — the "world's forgotten boy" who took the menace of the MC5 and the demonic danger of the Rolling Stones to newfound levels of extremity and thereby spawned Sid Vicious, Stiv Bators, Darby Crash, G.G. Allin, Kurt Cobain and every other two-bit dysfunctional problem child who ever waged three-chord war on 9-to-5 life in the name of P.U.N.K.
Iggy is God as Dog, the antichrist of rock & roll, the six-packed, pint-sized Dionysus who smeared himself in peanut butter, slashed his chest with glass and helped turn turn-of-the-'70s Detroit into the anti-San-Francisco. Iggy and his band the Stooges made two proto-punk classics, The Stooges (1969) and Fun House (1970), before crashing into the '70s with David Bowie as their new patron. The Stooges Mk II featured a new guitarist, evil Keith Richards doppelganger James Williamson, whose dirty shards of Gibson riffology made 1973's Bowie-produced Raw Power the holy bible of the punk rock to come. (For years Bowie's "muddy" production of the album suffered as much abuse as Todd Rundgren's production of the New York Dolls 'debut. In 1997 Iggy himself remixed it along altogether grungier punk lines.)
Sometime between the madness of the Raw Power years and Iggy's "comeback" as Bowie's sidekick on the Station to Station tour, Pop and Williamson created one of the forgotten classics of '70s rock. The remarkable Kill City was recorded in Los Angeles in the summer of 1975, a year after the violent implosion of the Stooges at Detroit's Michigan Palace (memorialized on 1976's splendid "bootleg" Metallic K.O.).
I happen to believe that Kill City is at least as great as the incendiary Fun House and the crazed metallic blitzkrieg that is Raw Power. Made on a shoestring budget in a L.A. home studio belonging, improbably, to singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb, Kill City is an urgent and deeply moving collaboration between the enigmatic Williamson and an Iggy in such poor physical and mental health that he'd been sectioned in a UCLA Hospital psychiatric ward. Which only makes the album more extraordinary.
"[Iggy] was seriously ill at that point and I had to actually bring him out of hospital every day to do the tracking," Williamson told Sounds 'Jon Savage in 1978, the year Kill City finally saw the light of day on the late Greg Shaw's Bomp! label. "It was a really, uh, unusual situation, but the thing that's good about his singing on that — his voice isn't as good as on some of his other stuff, but he's like really singing out of his asshole, y'know, really valid singing… true feeling…"
Songs such as "I Got Nothin'," "Johanna" and "Beyond the Law" do more than validate Williamson's words. They come from the same place of dread and drugged torment as the Stones 'Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. Indeed, Kill City recasts Jagger and Richards as Pop and Williamson; the album's musical bedrock is the guitarist's raw, soulful riffing and the singer's strutting, hand-on-hip phrasing — especially on grooving rockers such as "Consolation Prizes" and swampy mid-tempo tracks like "Lucky Monkeys."
But there's also something of Big Star's legendary Third/Sister Lovers about Kill City, not least because of its murky sound — the result of the tapes sitting unfinished for two years on Williamson's shelves. It could almost be a semi-bootleg recording, not unlike such pre-Raw Power Stooges tracks as "I'm Sick of You" and "Gimme Some Skin." Kill City's more acoustic interludes "Sell Your Love" and "No Sense of Crime" sit somewhere on the spectrum of wasted rock between the Stones '"Moonlight Mile" and Big Star's "Big Black Car." It's all a long way from "Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell," especially when you factor in the ersatz soul-sister backing vocals by drummer Brian Glascock and long-time Iggy keyboardist Scott Thurston, as well as the brilliantly distinctive saxophone playing of John "the Rookie" Harden overdubbed by Williamson in the summer of 1977.
Kill City is the sound of a lost soul — part clown, part daredevil — coming down from cocktails of drugs in the City of Angels that also happens to be a City of Night. "The scene is fascination, man, and everything's for free," Iggy sings on the album-opening title track — a song at least as great as the more feted "Lust for Life" — "Until you wind up in some bathroom overdosed and on your knees."
There are those who maintain that 1977's The Idiot and Lust For Life — the albums Iggy made with Bowie after the latter rescued him from narcotic oblivion — outclass not only Kill City but Fun House too. Listening again to the heartrending despair of "Kill City" and "I Got Nothin'," I beg to disagree. I'm not sure that for sheer emotional intensity Iggy ever topped this record.