Gimme Danger and The Stooges: A legacy devoid of meaning or substance
As Jim Jarmusch’s documentary Gimme Danger is thrust upon art-house cinemas across the UK, I question why The Stooges are still not given the credit they deserve as a pioneering, avant-garde group of miscreants. All modern music has a genesis. It has a definite point of reference, whether deliberate or not- a blue print which laid the foundations for the sound, for the aesthetics of a record, or even for an attitude or mind-set that can be associated with it. This is often an inadvertent origin. Bands, whether they like it or not, have to take heed from a particular style or genre that has gone before them, particularly in the modern age we live in in which even the most desirable gems of rare memorabilia can be unearthed. For bands in the 60s- arguably the ‘golden age’ of musical blue-print laying, it was less obvious to see where their influences were obtained. With The Velvet Underground perhaps it was the primitive droning of La Monte Young. Perhaps it was a calculated ‘anti-influence’, as I affectionately term it- a band riling against sounds they found monotonous, or just plain shit, i.e the Doo-Wop sounds they were exposed to by their blue-blooded parents.
Whatever the influence was, VU managed to obscure it and create a gloriously original brand of music which helped to shape virtually every genre that isn’t ‘pop’. They are the poster-boys for alternative musicians to label their guiding light in the path to challenging soundscapes or interesting and innovative new notions of what music should sound like. Though most musical archaeologists will give credit to The Stooges - and later, Iggy Pop himself - for helping to create a new sensibility towards music, the actual widespread effect of their music is often overlooked. Many misguided music fans will find their minds idly floating to the concept that The Stooges are some heavy metal forerunners, or a torch-carrier for classic rock. Say it ain’t so. In Lord Jarmusch’s new documentary Gimme Danger, he is direct and brilliant in shining light on the frequently mythologised biography of The Stooges, something that is often attempted, but not always with the clarity that Jarmusch provides. Featuring interviews, sometimes through archive footage, of all members of the band, the documentary is insightful, and at times enlightening. It touches on often-overlooked elements of The Stooges formation, including a fetish for Sun Ra and Miles Davis, along with obvious mentions of the MC5 etc etc. But inevitably Gimme Danger lacks a desire for progress. It lacks a desire for rethinking, or a new found analysis for which the legacy of The Stooges has been crying out since their tumultuous implosion in 1974. To understand the frequent misconceptions of The Stooges is to re-address your total perception of the band. Firstly, they were not just a ragged, extremely loud garage band, as Jarmusch often portrays them to be. Instead they were a far more forward-thinking band, a far more ambitious and innovative band.
THEIR debut album- released in 1969 to virtually no sales and a critical cold-shouldering affair, the LP channelled aggression in a way far more advanced than that of bands like The Kingsmen or even The Sonics. The levels of feedback and distortion channelled in No Fun were virtually unheard-of, save perhaps on the visionary White Light/White Heat of messers Reed and co. The Stooges first album contained a 10 minute drone track- filled with ominous middle-eastern sounding gong playing, chanting and general menacing sounds- the resplendent We Will Fall, channeling much of their producer John Cale’s own ambitions. Contrary to popular belief- and widespread journalistic word of mouth, they had a mixed repertoire. Their albums possessed variation in both song length and sound: some were fast-paced and guttural while others could lull you into a false sense of security, before shattering into searing hot pieces of feedback drenched hysteria. This not only foreshadowed the punk ethos of the 70s, it foreshadowed almost all ‘interesting alternative music’ that we are familiar with today. If ‘The Stooges’ was a statement of intensity and a rallying cry for disaffected wasters sick to death of lurid folk music, or chiming country melodies- then Funhouse was their ultimate hour of barely contained rage; repetitive droning bass-lines as heard in bands like Faust years later; burning, jagged and explosive guitar crunches; and pounding and ferocious drums underneath pained, sprawling vocals. Funhouse was hardly a “proto-punk” garage record. Funhouse was a prophetic, experimental, audacious and uniquely visionary record. Dave Alexander’s sadly maligned bass playing set the blue print for almost every post-punk band you’d care to namedrop (I’ll avoid…). A constant, loud, spine for the music to develop over, placed unusually high in the mix, and essentially driving the sonic direction of the song. The Stooges Funhouse should be regarded as a luminary of experimental music. Not only was it, musically, more ferocious and aggressive than any album released before it- but it also contained such modern elements as combining guitar noise with avant-garde free jazz. It contained a track, the album’s namesake centrepiece Funhouse, which clocks in at over 9 minutes. The album closer is constructed purely of guitar feedback and frantic screeching, following almost no rhythm whatsoever. To create an album like this 46 years ago borders on insane. At a time in which pop groups chimed out 3-minute pop singles and funk was viewed as the vanguard of musical innovation, The Stooges built on the legacy of trailblazing drones like John Cale’s La Monte Young and created a totally unique, and highly inaccessible sound. Any genre of alternative guitar music- from post-punk, to space rock, to post-rock, to noise rock owe The Stooges an inestimable debt of gratitude.
This being said, Gimme Danger is a fine film, and one that is most certainly worth a watch- if purely for watching Iggy Pop suspended above the crowd of a raucous live performance, smearing peanut butter over his chest, from the comfort of a cinema. Jarmusch is precise in the footage he presents- it is an homage and acknowledgment rather than an analysis. Yet my frustration lies more in the elements he disregards, rather than includes. Ron Asheton- lead guitarist on both their debut album and the seminal Funhouse, is given (typically) painfully little credit for his elegantly brutal guitar work. In fact he is dismissed as being ‘primal’, something that the avid listener will realise is far from the truth. Could the iconic riff-tactic I Wanna Be Your Dog really be described as amateurish? Gimme Danger is the realisation of a criticism I would angle at most music journalists and scholars: The Stooges are, believe it or not, underrated- and rarely given the credit they deserve for being a truly pioneering rock band. The Stooges are, in my not so humble opinion, the most important rock band the U. S of A has ever produced. Jim Jarmusch agrees, but perhaps not for the same reasons. Jack Young