I needed to acknowledge the incredible talents of David Bowie somewhere in this list. Bowie’s work is a consistency over a lifetime achievement -especially the 70s and early 80s – and while I think Aladdin Sane (1973) and Low (1977) are his best with a nod to Blackstar his final album released days before his death in 2016, none are individually quite good enough for my top 10. Eventually I realised my favourite Bowie record wasn’t released under his name at all.
Initially I wasn’t a huge fan of James Newell Osterberg Jr or Iggy Pop as he was styled but I did buy one of his albums when I was busily adding to my Bowie collection around 1980. That was the live album TV Eye (1977) which I was intrigued with because Bowie’s paw prints were all over it. Bowie co-wrote most of the songs and also provided keyboards and backing vocals in the Cleveland gigs the album was recorded from. It would have been some concert to attend.
David Bowie first met Iggy Pop in New York in 1971. As Pop recalled in an interview after Bowie died, “David said something in Melody Maker about his favorite songs, and he said he liked the Stooges, which is something not a lot of people would admit at the time.” The song TV Eye was from the Stooges period as was the best song on the live album: Dirt. But the rest of it was from a fruitful artistic collaboration in 1977 in Germany when Bowie was starting his own Berlin residency.
The Idiot (1977) was the first album Pop recorded without the Stooges but it has Bowie everywhere. Many traditional Iggy Pop fans say it is his least typical album. There is a good case for calling it Bowie’s first album of a Berlin quartet (with Low, Heroes and Lodger).
Pop learned a lot from Bowie. “I first heard the Ramones, Kraftwerk and Tom Waits from him,” he said. Bowie had an important effect on the third Stooges album, Raw Power. “We did some sessions at Olympic Studios in London and sent the tapes to David,” Pop said. “He came back to me: ‘You can do better than that.’ So we did.” Pop said Bowie never wasted a piece of music or an idea. “I first heard his 1980 song ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ when we were in a house on Sunset Boulevard in 1974. It was called ‘Running Scared’ at the time. He was playing it on the guitar and wanted to know if I could do something with it. I couldn’t. He kept it and worked it up.”
The Idiot showed they both absorbed the lesson: Don’t throw stuff away. The opening track Sister Midnight was written by Bowie, Pop and guitarist Carlos Alomar which Bowie later reworked as Red Money on his 1979 album Lodger. Frankly the Idiot version is better. The second song Nightclubbing is another Pop / Bowie classic (most brilliantly later the title song of a Grace Jones album of covers). It also featured on the classic soundtrack of Trainspotting alongside the title track of the second Pop-Bowie collaboration that year Lust for Life.
The Idiot is named for Dostoyevsky’s novel that both men and producer Tony Visconti liked. Prince Myshkin is a young man whose goodness and lack of guile lead people who meet him to assume he is an idiot. Whether Pop and Bowie liked that conceit or just liked the read is not known but there is a disarming simplicity about the album that hides more than it reveals.
The Idiot was recorded in Munich and Berlin and the third song Funtime, another Pop/Bowie composition, reflected their fascination with the German music scene and resembled krautrock band Neu!’s 1972 song “Lila Engel”. Guitarist Phil Palmer enjoyed working with Pop and Bowie but called the recording “vampiric” as he never saw either during the day, alluded to in the lyrics of Funtime “Last night I was down in the lab / Talkin’ to Dracula and his crew.”
China Girls was another recorded by both artists, though again The Idiot version just shades Bowie’s later version on Let’s Dance. Bowie biographer Paul Trynka said the song was inspired by Iggy Pop’s infatuation with Vietnamese Kuelan Nguyen, who was staying at the studio. “China White” is also slang for heroin and both men had serious drug addiction problems at the time, so they were probably having a bob each way.
Side two opens with Dum Dum Boys, another Bowie/Osterberg composition. Reviewing the album in ClashMusic Amanda Arber said it was the best song on the album: “an ode to The Stooges’ glory days, it is a disturbing insight into Pop’s internal monologue of how he saw their rise and fall.” Pop admitted “Things have been tough / Without the dumb dumb boys” but now there was always Bowie to fall back on.
It’s a great song but my favourite is the last song – the brooding eight-minute long Mass Production (Pop/Bowie). In Jim Ambrose’s biography of Pop Gimme Danger, Iggy said he would always talk to Bowie about how much he admired the beauty of the Northern American industrial culture that was rotting away where he grew up (Muskegon, Michigan). The BowieSongs blog says it is draining to listen to and willfully abrasive “Mass Production offered the future: Joy Division, among others, starts here,” the blog said.
Arber’s assessment 35 years after its release of The Idiot was that it was bleakly revolutionary then, and it is now. “The Idiot stands as a dark, dense and desolate display of an artist confronting his demons head-on, and growing up in the process,” she wrote in 2012. I’d agree with one proviso – it was about two artists and their demons – not one.