The legendary bootlegs and dubious live recordings of Iggy and the Stooges at their chaotic, disintegrating and provocative best, collected in one box set.
If there is any loss that seems to some up the blandification and corporate gobbling of the modern music industry, it must be the bootleg. I’m not saying that bootlegs don’t exist any more, though frankly I’d be startled to find a whole bunch of recent releases being sold anywhere – it’s just that you can’t imagine the universe where these illicit recordings proliferated existing today. While YouTube is still (for now) awash with audience footage of murky quality, it’s surely the footage rather than the music that attracts viewers. The days of rummaging through the boxes at record fairs or the racks of less scrupulous record shops in search of madly expensive vinyl recordings of your favourite acts caught live and uncensored, complete with eccentric cover art seem a long way away.
Of course, bootleg buying was always something of a gamble. With few guides beyond the estimable Hot Wacks, you could never be sure if the album that you’d just paid twice or three times the price of a regular release for would sound something like a ‘proper’ live LP or be so muffled that you suspected that the person taping it wasn’t even in the same building as the show taking place. Sometimes, you could never be quite sure that the records inside the sleeve were actually the product advertised – a common bootlegger trick was to pass recordings through less fussy pressing plants under false names, some of which would make their way to the actual label on the vinyl, assuming that there was a label at all. This was all part of the excitement, frankly.
When you got past the stuff that made it to vinyl – which, after all, was an expensive process fraught with dangers – then things became even wilder and less predictable. The less documented world of the cassette bootleg really was a wild west of quality, offering everything from tape recordings of vinyl bootlegs to stuff that went straight to tape by a much wider range of artists. Tape trading was the way that bootlegs proliferated in the fan community – the investment in buying stuff would pay off in the amount of stuff you could then get in trade for copies, even though tape-to-tape recording in the Seventies and Eighties was often a case of ever-deteriorating quality, much like VHS trading. At least tape dealers might have a cassette player to let you check out the quality before buying, and fan traders would develop scrupulous quality ratings to let you know pretty much what you were going to get.
Bootlegs, at their best, had a rawness – a ‘raw power’, if you like – that official recordings could never match. Gigs, particularly before everything became autotuned and polished within an inch of its life, were messy affairs, loud and distorted, performed in run-down, overcrowded venues, awash with feedback and noise and errors, and bootlegs captured the glorious, chaotic sound of rock ‘n’ roll at its best. This was true for any band, from the Stones to the Floyd – the bootleg album captured a reality that was usually produced out of official live albums. Sometimes, a bootleg would make you see a band in a new light. Back in the day, a friend passed me a tape recording of U2 at Manchester Apollo, and the sweaty band-audience interaction captured – from the point of view of the audience – was so intense and passionate that it briefly made me a fan (I know, I know). None of their official recordings had done that – so rather than eating into sales, the fatuous claim made against bootlegs, this tape actually boosted their record sales – without hearing that album, I wouldn’t have spent money on two of their albums.
There are, of course, bands who are more suited to the bootleg world than others. Bands who might never really have their sound fully captured on studio recordings, or even live recordings, especially in the days when extensive overdubs, extra crowd noise or complete fakery was not uncommon on official live LPs. The bootleg is as authentic as you get, and for those acts who thrived on a brutal, primal live sound and shows, the bootleg became not just additional content for obsessive fans to collect – they were authentic, essential, even definitive records of a band at their prime. Or even past their prime. For some bands, a bootleg recording comes closer than anything else could to capturing not just the sound, but the feel of a show – the blood, sweat and tears of a no-bullshit rock ‘n’ roll act in full flow. For these acts, the muddy inconsistency of the bootleg is authenticity – as close to being there as you can get. The smarter bands – or perhaps those who have now passed into the rock ‘n’ roll history of issuing archive material that they may have once baulked at – have embraced the bootlegs that they might have once bristled at. There was always something of a love-hate relationship between bands and the boots – Peter Grant sending the heavy round to beat up sellers and recorders at gigs even as Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were adding the best Led Zeppelin titles to their own collections. For most acts, the bootleg was as much an ego boost as an annoyance – after all, what better sign that you have arrived than the vinyl bootleg? Most acts would archive the best bootlegs, especially in the days before recording each and every gig was practical or even possible. For the performers too, these albums were a record of their lives. The especially smart operators – Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa – realised that if the fans wanted this stuff, they might as well issue it officially and make some money from it.
Which brings us, finally, to the newly-issued box set by Iggy and the Stooges, You Think You’re Bad, Man – subtitled The Road Tapes ’73 – ’74. By any definition, this is a release aimed at the hardcore fan – five discs of live shows from a six month period, featuring pretty much the same songs on each disc (Gimme Danger appears on all five, most other tracks make three of four appearances), each one a bootleg recording of varying quality. Some of this stuff has been issued before, at least in part – disc two went to make up Metallic K.O., while the two volumes of Double Danger emerged through Bomp! Records, quasi-legal releases from a band who by then had long since disintegrated and were – if not exactly forgotten – not the legends that they have become except for a dedicated band of followers, all of whom revelled in the unpolished (to say the least) sound quality and sense of danger and chaos that is present on some of these discs.
A brief history lesson first: in 1972, Iggy Pop signed a solo deal with Bowie’s manager Tony DeFries and CBS/Columbia, and then used the deal to reform the Stooges, who had broken up in chaotic fashion a year earlier. It was a messy reunion – Ron Asheton had been shunted from guitar to bass, replaced by James Williamson, and was none too happy about it. And Iggy was now, no question, the man in charge. A born frontman but perhaps, in 1973, not the most stable of leaders, he would take his band through the recording of Raw Power, showcase gigs in London at the Kings Cross Cinema and Los Angeles at the Whisky A Go-Go, before then heading out on a predictably doomed tour that ended with the Stooges finally calling it a day and Iggy Pop setting out on a solo career that everyone probably expected to end with a messy heroin-related death, but somehow defied all odds – Iggy lived through it all, cleaned up, churned out endless increasingly forgettable albums and even brought the band back together in the early 2000s. Everyone likes a happy ending.
The first disc of this collection is the one that comes closest to an authentic live release – recorded at that LA showcase, it is just the right side of muddy, having a thick, meaty sound – this is heavy stuff, relentlessly brutal and uncompromising. It feels as though you are there and rips through a set that would be tweaked as the tour went on – New Orleans and She Creatures of Hollywood Hills make their sole appearances on the collection here. Released in 1988 as Live at the Whisky A Go-Go, this is perhaps the Stooges at their peak, and certainly the best recorded disc here.
Auburn Hills is disc two, and there’s a definite jump in quality, familiar from Metallic K.O., which this helped make up. It’s a lot sharper and tinnier, Iggy’s voice to the fore and everyone else rather buried in the mix. Williamson’s guitar makes the occasional valiant attempt to climb out of the mud, but this is definitely Iggy’s show and eight minutes of the disc are taken up with audience interaction – a mix of self-pity, crowd-baiting, a spoken-word I Wanna Be Your Dog and odd provocations that show how, once the band were out of the comfort zone of playing to London and Los Angeles hipsters, things became a lot more fraught, even on their home territory of Detroit. Gigs are just not like this any more – and if they are, you can bet your ass that it is entirely contrived and controlled – and that’s a shame.
Double Danger Volume 1 (first ‘officially’ issued in 2000) was allegedly recorded on a cassette recorder hidden down a biker’s Y-fronts, and there are probably all manner of jokes and dismissals that wittier people could come up with in relation to that. This has a better sound than Auburn Hills, but it’s still all over the place, with the sounds that appear in each ear very much dependent on where the recorder’s groin was facing at any moment. Bootleg enthusiasts will be familiar with this interesting use of stereo. But the band are on fire here, everything faster and angrier and more brutal. At least it seems that way. This is what always excited me about bootlegs – by any standard interpretation, it sounds fucking awful, but it’s real and it’s magnificent. Everything comes together here in a blasting, belting slice of… well, Raw Power. Who cares if you can actually make out very much individual sound beyond Iggy’s yelps and, oddly, the piano – the music melds together into a furious and deranged assault on the audience. Oh, what a show this must have been to be at.
Double Danger Volume 2 is recorded at a New York New Year’s Eve show, and everyone seems very much in the mood for celebration. The audience is certainly the largest-sounding at the start – it feels like a professional live album, at least until the band start up. This is similar to Volume 1, but hampered by a much worse sound. The band sound very far away, and no doubt they were. Iggy’s voice breaks through from time to time but the rest of the band are rather lost in a general mush. There’s still a lot of energy at work, even if none of it seems very focused. Iggy described it as the worst show that the band ever played, and he might be right – but you can learn as much about a band from their worst moments as you can from their best, and while this sounds like it would’ve been more fun to witness than experience, I’m glad that it is here.
And so we come to the final act – the last show, an infamous night back in Detroit on February 9th 1974. This is the album that made Metallic K.O. the legend that it became; it might be the recording that also made The Stooges legends for a generation who had just missed them. Lurching straight into Heavy Liquid (already underway as the recording begins), this is a slightly distorted by unexpectedly well-recorded album, definitely the most professional recording of the collection. More significantly though, it’s the sound of a near-riot captured on tape, as a biker gang that Iggy had taunted on a radio interview battle it out with security, audience members and the band themselves, with Iggy as the taunting ringmaster. Songs stop abruptly, bad vibes and broken glass permeate everything and it is all very dramatic. Gimme danger indeed. This is what both rock ‘n’ roll and bootleg recordings are all about, the capturing of moments of history that no band now would allow to happen (could you imagine Idles staying on stage during a reception like this?) and no record label would sanction releasing. The albums ends with a profane Louie Louie and a final bottle breaking. What a way to finish a career.
I’m aware that this makes me sound like an old fart, hankering after a golden past – but this collection really is a record of a time lost to history, a time when rock ‘n’ roll still seemed rebellious and dangerous, when shows didn’t look and sound like musical theatre or featured faux anarchy and consensus rebellion for the masses, and when people were there, right in the middle of it all with clandestine tape recorders ensuring that fifty years later, we can still relive those experiences. A thousand camera phone lighting up an arena just isn’t the same.
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