It’s Iggy Pop’s seventy-third birthday today. Iggy the manic wildman, hair flailing, body convulsing, eyes wild, naked torso as he leaps into the concert crowd is not growing old gracefully, as you’d expect. But that doesn’t begin to tell the full story of this complex, enduring rock icon, with the spirit and flair for innovation like any entrepreneur.
The year 1969 is already half a century ago. That historic year gave us Woodstock, saw the election of President Nixon, a man in the moon and the Vietnam war. All of this might make one think that a simple 12 months could not be filled with any more history, yet the year also saw the debut of The Stooges, with Iggy as frontman.
In a time where music and popular culture in general was occupied with love, peace and flower power, the Michigan band formed by Iggy Pop suddenly introduced a totally new sound. The controversial, dark and aggressive atmospheres that the group conveyed were early signs that Iggy was about to become a significant voice.
The Stooges played their first public show at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, in March, 1968. Iggy had shaved his eyebrows and slathered his face with white paint. He wore golf shoes, a rubber swim cap decorated with several dozen strips of aluminium foil, and a frock described as ‘an old white nightshirt’. The Stooges generated a caustic, demented drone. The P.A. was cranked to inhumane levels.
The Stooges fell apart, for all the usual reasons – drugs, clashing agendas, poor sales. The band’s final performance was at the Michigan Palace, in Detroit, in 1974. In 2003, they reunited, and in 2010, the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Stooges played their last show in 2013. They are now confined to history, as from the original line up, only Iggy Pop is alive.
Iggy now has eighteen solo albums to his name. He is really just a persona he created in order to transmit his ideas more effectively. The shocking primitivism of the early records he made with The Stooges, as vocalist and lyricist, wasn’t just the howl of men possessed, it has a life-force, a personality, and a history, just like you and me. Music can be your friend. Iggy Pop is one of those performers for me.
To me, his approach is one of the reasons Iggy Pop can be seen as one of the most important artists of his time. A minimal processing of his songs, at times even making up lyrics on the spot, combined with a harsh, sharp and shrill sounding guitar, contributes to the rawness of his music. This ties in with Iggy’s infamous stage presence. He embraced the weird, angry, violent side every human possesses, and brings it out time after time during each of his live performances.
I can listen to his songs endlessly. The rawness, the pure human frustration translated into music, decorated by a pinch of humour, never ceases to amaze me. I first found out about Iggy as a 15-year-old. I was already into Bowie and Ziggy Stardust. I embraced the darker side. I found this noise was more suited to my listening. These were definitely people my parents didn’t like – Mum and Dad even cut off my pocket money so I couldn’t buy their records!
I first saw Iggy live in 1977 at the Manchester Apollo. He came on like some kind of demented wild animal. He was bare-chested, a dervish strutting on stage like I’d never seen before. I next saw him at the Factory Club, the pre-curser to the Hacienda. There were pipes that ran all over the ceiling of this grubby club and he sang while swinging off them like a monkey. It was astonishing.
But now over fifty years on, how exactly did his passion for reinvention and transformation manifest itself, and what does it teach us? He showed endless possibilities, extended out into the new spaces, metaphorically and physically. This man can move. Iggy the entrepreneur, the disruptor, the instigator, the craftsman of his own self, manifesting uniqueness and original thought.
What are the traits of this audacious showman that we can reflect upon as genuine entrepreneurial genes? Here are my thoughts.
1. The fearless frontman As the singer and driving force behind The Stooges, Iggy was a one-man whirlwind who revolutionised rock performance through his total physical commitment. Giving no thought whatsoever to his own safety, his antics risked personal injury. He’s credited with inventing the stage dive, although as usual, he was a little too ahead of the curve – late-60s crowds weren’t always hip to his intentions.
As a musical entrepreneur, he’s made clear statements of identity, a proud and profound declaration of autonomy and expression. It might have been over the top, but it never seemed unnatural. He simply made his mark. Like all entrepreneurial leaders, you have to be out at the front and set the agenda. Perhaps not diving into the crowd, but at least getting noticed.
2. Open Mindedness Although The Stooges were decried by critics as musical savages, nothing could be further from the truth. The Stooges’ own brand of howling minimalism was as much of an aesthetic choice as it was a necessity to suit their rudimentary musicianship.
Sure, on stage fronting a band cranking out Lust for Life or The Passenger or I Wanna Be Your Dog and the wildman instantly returns, but there are many more sides to Iggy Pop. His depth of purpose is what’s kept him relevant through the decades. As a punk pioneer in the 70s, an unlikely pop star in the 80s, a godfather of grunge in the 90s, through to a stint as BBC Radio 6 Music host, he’s stayed relevant.
Iggy’s work has always drawn from a huge range of influences – design, film, literature, contemporary art, and of course from music of all genres. His uniqueness is often the product of combining existing elements in new ways, producing something entirely his own, throwing them together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of an entrepreneur.
3. Collaborative & co-creative It’s fair to say that Iggy Pop wouldn’t be where he is today without the patronage of David Bowie. Iggy had a long collaborative and personal friendship with Bowie, after both musicians relocated to Berlin to wean themselves off their respective drug addictions. Iggy began his solo career by collaborating with Bowie on the 1977 albums The Idiot and Lust for Life, contributing the lyrics – Bowie famously wrote Lust for Life on a mandolin. In return, Iggy also inspired Bowie to make some of the greatest music of his career.
Iggy is apparently also really easy to work with, described as mild-mannered, patient and open to hear other people’s ideas. He listened, he read, he viewed, he engaged, and as a result he constantly evolved – all traits of a great entrepreneur.
4. Restlessness Although The Stooges were never fully appreciated in their lifetime, they have become one of most influential bands in history – they inspired Cobain to form Nirvana, the Ramones got together because they were the only kids in their school who liked The Stooges, and Johnny Marr cited Raw Power as the record that changed his life.
Throughout his career, Iggy is well known for his outrageous and unpredictable stage antics, poetic lyrics and distinctive voice. Not all of his experiments have worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every innovator needs.
5. Innovation and novelty In Iggy’s own words: When we started The Stooges we were organised as a group of Utopian communists. We shared the pursuit of a radical ideal. We practiced a total immersion to try to forge a new approach which would be something of our own. Something of lasting value. Something that was going to be revealed and created and was not yet known.
Iggy’s passion for novelty and spirit of experimentation is a constant presence in his music and vocal style. It’s important to make people feel something he said. He found his voice in large part through his wanderings in America. Sometimes it takes strange circumstances to provide a mirror in which to find yourself.
He had wilderness years when his novelty wasn’t generating commercial success – early works with The Stooges were flops – but they’re still in print and they sell 45 years later. Okay, it took twenty years for the first royalties to roll in, and Iggy didn’t return to the charts until Lust for Life was re-released in 1996 following its appearance in the Irvine Welsh’s film Trainspotting, but sometimes you just have to keep faith.
6. Stay relevant by creating your own future Musical tastes change, new artists emerge – your market can move in a new, unexpected direction. For a while in the late 1990s, Iggy was pushed to one side. But he stayed relevant. The unexpected is, after all, Iggy’s modus operandi. His 18th album as a solo artist, Free, released September 2019, was an incredible feat of subterfuge.
The penultimate track on Free is Iggy reading Dylan Thomas’s poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, over moody peals of guitar, synthesizer, and horn. If you can shake off its familiarity the central idea that a person should live vigorously, unapologetically sums Iggy up perfectly.
Of course, ultimately his legacy will replace the future, but the remastered releases of his Bowie produced solo albums The Idiot and Lust for Life in a new box set on 29th May will provide a fascinating insight into the unique creative alchemy that set the wheels in motion for a sound that went on to dominate and shape popular culture for decades to come.
Today, his voice sounds dark and deep, a greasy grumble, weakened by age. Sometimes it growls, like an empty stomach. But instead of mutating into a hungry animal, Iggy haunts like a dignified spirit himself a champion to all contemporaneous weirdos and every iteration of punk to come, the same way sparks of intelligence and smears of stupor commingle beneath all our skulls and fill our heads at any given moment. Or maybe that’s just me then.
The generation of music entrepreneurs that challenged life and shaped us are now being embraced by death and our high decibel tears are burying them. John Lennon, Joe Strummer, David Bowie, Lou Reed have gone. But as we celebrate his seventy-third birthday, this most sublime of artists remains hankering around innovation.
Still moving to a dislocated dance, he gives us ideas above our own imagination, a truly disruptive entrepreneur. Although his body, voice and energy might no longer be of the same quality as when I first saw him in 1977, he will continue to command the world’s attention, and show a Lust for Life that all startup entrepreneurs should embrace.