“We have drifted away from each other, and in a way I understand why. I’ve never talked to him about this and I probably shouldn’t talk to you about it… I think there was a moment where Jim decided that he couldn’t do a fucking article without my name being mentioned, and I don’t think that’s a very comfortable feeling. I completely understand—I really, really do. Unfortunately, I think Jim took it personally, and that’s a shame because I would have liked to remain closer to him.”
David Bowie interview with Gettingit.com, 1999
Bowie’s success with his own version of China Girl six years after Iggy’s ostensibly provided the older man with his Pop pension fund. Not only did the miscreant from Michigan still have that Lust For Life but he was set up for life.
But around 1987 the relationship cooled. Substantially. Part of it was related to a film project they didn’t see eye to eye on, but also The Ig must have intimated to The Dame to quit trying to help. His sobriety had given him a clearer head, and he now had a taste, at last, of commercial success, which bred in him a desire to succeed “on his own” and not as David Bowie’s occasional reclamation project. After the nadir of Never Let Me Down — Bowie’s hammy overlong sequel of sorts to the album he’d just made with Iggy — there were no more James Osterberg writing credits on a Bowie album, yet before that the Ig’s legal name was on four albums in a row if you count Blah-Blah-Blah.
Blah marked a turn in Iggy Pop’s career, going from cult figure to telly regular and everybody’s favourite godfather of punk, but it’s also the end of a partnership that had begun in 1971, when Bowie first met Pop at Max’s Kansas City in New York, and which had created Iggy’s Raw Power, The Idiot, and Lust For Life, the later two Bowie-helmed masterpieces from 1977 finally set to receive long overdue super deluxe treatments later this year. In fact, that reminds me that I was seventeen at the time of Blah, and although I was certainly aware of the name Iggy Pop, really it was this album that served as my main introduction to the man. I didn’t even hear The Idiot or Lust For Life until Virgin reissued them on CD in 1990.
Pop and Bowie would never make another record together, would never again collaborate on songs. Along with the dispatching of Mick Ronson and the soon-to-come excommunication of Carlos Alomar, it’s one of the saddest moments in Bowie’s career, the sudden close of a brotherly era. Ironically, Bowie’s next move was to rev up Tin Machine, a back to basics rock quartet which was clearly his attempt at doing an Iggy & The Stooges in designer suits.
Bowie produced Blah-Blah-Blah at the scenic splendour of Montreux’s Mountain Studios, where he’d half recorded Lodger with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti eight years earlier. Kevin Armstrong provided the guitar, while the jack-of-all-trades Erdal Kizilcay essentially made the rest of the album: playing bass, synths, keyboards and drums, writing a string arrangement and, along with Armstrong, singing backing vocals. Bowie and Pop were the roadies, hauling gear in and out of the studio.
That Dave’s drum buddy Roger Taylor is thanked in the credits for “the loan of his Linn” (he also owned Mountain with the rest of Queen, which is why the drum machine was at the studio, having just been used on A Kind Of Magic) speaks volumes about the production: it has more in common with Bowie’s then-recent output and Taylor’s solo material than The Stooges. The album is also engineered and co-produced by Taylor/Queen collaborator David Richards, so it’s all relative.
Blah is slick and sophisticated in a very ’80s suit ’n’ specs way, dominated by the preprogrammed percussion and slathered in synths. Clearly, the idea was to take Iggy out of the underground with a sonic makeover inviting comparisons with the likes of Japan and Simple Minds et al. It’s the work of a popmeister looking for hits and not afraid to sound cheesy about it.
“I’m not a singer, a walking instrument like Aretha Franklin. When you get an Iggy Pop record, you don’t get “Iggy Sings.” I am also a style of music, an approach. And if somebody’s going to produce me, they should be producing my sound for me. And that’s something I have to come up with myself. David and I had talked for a couple of years about him producing my next record, but why should he have to come up with the sound and the songs and the musicians? I wanted to do this myself, and, in fact, he had to nearly twist my arm to let him produce it once I was done with the demos.”
Labyrinth had wrapped, Live Aid done, and Absolute Beginners recorded, The Dame took on writing, production and mixing duties for Iggy’s record in April and May of 1986 right before the Never Let Me Down sessions began. Similar to Tonight and Never Let Me Down for many Bowie fans, Blah-Blah-Blah is Pop’s nakedly commercial “this is all crap!” period, apparently.
With delicious irony, the final Osterberg track Bowie covered in the studio was Bang Bang, a co-write with the recently departed Ivan Král which closed out Nadir Let Me Down, and a track Iggy admitted was shoehorned onto his 1979 album Party because he’d promised his record label a radio friendly single.
Pop’s own mid Eighties “nadir” certainly sounds like a product of its time but it also happens to also be his best selling record, so somebody enjoyed it. Iggy derisively called it “a Bowie album in all but name” but then so is The Idiot, just with edgier songs.
As is often the case, I find myself on the outside of all that blistering criticism wondering what the hell. Hell yes.
I’ve never really subscribed to the disliking of art just because it proves popular, but I also understand The Godfather Of Punk probably wasn’t self-mutilating at the microphone so it wasn’t as interesting. But on this record Iggy’s vocals are coming from the lowest end of his range, sounding positively vampiric at times.
But while there are certainly cases where Blah is more meh than rah, at least half the songs are actually really good. And it’s not that hard to cut through the synthetic sheen that dates it, especially not now that similar retro sounds have taken over the world of pop. For instance, one of the reasons Pet Shop Boys chose Hansa Studios to record their latest album was their vast array of vintage analogue equipment, as well as the duo wanting to bathe in the Berlin bathwater of Bowie and Iggy circa ’77.
This is an album that’s overdue for reassessment and celebration, and the Duke’s considerable influence and writing skills shine through. The best of his six composer contributions is Shades, a brooding, wistful quality enhanced by Pop’s velvety baritone and which is a much better Bowie song than the ones he was writing for himself at the time.
In fact there’s a case to be made that it’s very possibly the best “Bowie” single of the corporate ‘80s ie after the Thin White One swapped RCA for EMI.
It’s a dizzyingly romantic love song that Iggy carries off with surprising aplomb. “I’m not the kind of guy who dresses like a king / And a really fine pair of shades means everything,” he sings, enamoured with his new present from his sweetheart. “And the light that blinds my eyes shines from you.”
But despite a rare instance of lyrical input from Bowie (as well as the usual musical duties when writing with his old flatmate he penned a good chunk of the lyric, including the entire first verse), Shades wasn’t a commercial success.
Moreover, it must be a case of constant bemusement to Iggy and his many Stoogeholics that his biggest hit, and in fact the only Pop 45 to make the Top 10, is a cover of Sydney rocker Johnny O’Keefe’s ‘50s chestnut The Wild One, the single regarded as the birth of Australian rock and roll.
Though Iggy’s version did bugger all in Oz, in a savvy bit of counter-Christmas programming, A&M UK’s promotional team pushed the retitled Real Wild Child (Wild One) in the UK and it hit No.10 on 24 January 1987, the best chart performance of Pop’s life, helped in no small part by the hilarious furore of Iggy dry humping a teddy bear live on Saturday morning kids’ telly. Yup, he’s definitely a wild one alright.
The song, almost certainly inspired by the Marlon Brando movie The Wild One (1953) in which he’s the head honcho of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, is about someone who has just finished high school and is about 17 or 18 years old. Freed of the routines and seriousness of studying and exams for school, the singer wants to break loose and test the full capacity of their energy and vitality.
And why not, when you have the energy, go out late dancing with your friends and have a ball. The singer has got the message that they’ve got to be a wild one. Others see the wildness, raw energy, in them. And the singer confirms they also think they are wild, in contrast to others who are tame and straight-laced.
It’s still sad that Ig and Zig parted ways after this. I think Iggy sometimes comes off as a little ungrateful of Bowie’s contribution to his career, but I always felt David was trying to atone somehow for his neglect of his brother, especially since Iggy and Terry Burns look somewhat similar. For whatever the motives, there’s no doubting it was one of the most mutually beneficial musical collaborations of our times.
BONUS: After Bowie passed in 2016, Iggy did two notable Bowie-related things . Firstly, he spoke to Jon Parelesjan of the New York Times in great detail about his working relationship with Bowie in the recording studio. It’s a fascinating and emotional piece. Check it out here.
BONUS 2: Secondly, against all the odds Real Wild Child made a comeback in his live shows. Despite a bit of a limp, the 2019 concert at Sydney Opera House was incendiary. Ooh, yeah.