Everyone who loves rock and roll has an opinion about the best album ever recorded. Is it Electric Ladyland, Who’s Next, Led Zeppelin’s fourth, Abbey Road, something else? The arguments one way or another are endless, and fill a damn large percentage of late night bar talk. Every music magazine one could think of has lists all over their web pages. Top 100 albums ever, best 500 songs, best punk albums, folk albums, classic rock albums, alternative albums, ’60s albums, ’90s albums, all coming out the wazoo. For me, all the history of modern music, rock, blues, jazz, coalesced and circulated in a massive storm over a recording studio in Los Angeles in May 1970. For two weeks The Stooges channeled all the hectic and destructive energy of loud music and put it on tape. The result was Fun House.
Fun House is a lighthearted and very misleading title for anyone who has never heard The Stooges before. A follow-up to their self-titled debut from the previous year, Fun House was The Stooges unleashed. The previous album is a classic, but its production was so restrained it’s almost unlistenable compared to Fun House. The Stooges of the first album are a neutered band, something so new no one knew how to record them properly. But that spring in L.A., someone figured it out. Fun House is seven tracks of fury. Even the one song with a slow pace ratchets up the tension with its pain. There’s no kindness, no friendliness, no sunshine to Fun House. When Iggy Pop screams over and over, “I feel alright!” one wonders whom he’s trying to convince. Himself? Is he that fucked he needs to tell himself over and over again that he’s alright, that he’s not dying, dead, or just completely insane?
The music on all tracks, with the exception of the last, L.A. Song, a screaming wall of noise that plays like a supernova at the end of a star’s bright, short life, are set pieces of quick, repeating phrases, more rhythmic thumps that seem to stretch out to eternity than a standard verse, chorus, verse. But they’re deceptively simple. The songs are breakdowns of what makes rock work. The songs are stripped, the volume ratcheted up, frills and pretenses all blown away with the fury of it all.
The influence of Fun House is immeasurable. Punk owes a great deal of its sound to Fun House, as does alternative and the garage revival of the late ’90s. Without Fun House, it’s hard to picture what direction rock and roll would have taken with those who got sick of arena rock in the ’70s. And that’s its power today. Fun House is a great antidote to any music anyone ever told you was good, any shit that hits your ears when you walk into Virgin. To many, Fun House is the unlistenable album, a relic of excess and a celebration of useless noise. It has no point they can hear. Its aggression puts it in a place not very many people wish to spend much time, and that’s understandable. For others, Fun House is one of those albums that fills a hole one never knew existed until it was first heard. It’s that important to people who love it.
I saw The Stooges play a show at the United Palace on 175th and Broadway in early 2007. This was following almost forty years of breakups, reunions, betrayals, drug addictions, personnel changes, and piles upon piles of bullshit. But that night, the three original surviving members of the band, Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton, and Scott Asheton, were joined on stage by bassist Mike Watt, and Steve MacKay (who played sax on Fun House).
The Palace is one of those movie house relics from seventy or eighty years ago. A massive space with ornate plasterwork covered in rotting gilt paint, gigantic crystal chandeliers perched over the audience hung on decades old cables, red carpeting and mirrors everywhere in a grand entrance. Everything about the place screamed EVENT!! back when our grandparents were going there. Now there’s mold under the seats, but it still has a hundred times the charm of any venue I’d ever been in. There was class in that place in some far off time. Never having been part of it I could never truly know it, but even being in the remnants of luxury is a special moment. It’s the closest most of us ever get, and it’s sadly never a regular experience.
This wasn’t Carnegie Hall, where a normal person can feel overwhelmed. Just the expense a place like that burns through to make a person feel comfortable is a turnoff to anyone used to being handed the cheap end of profit margins. It made me feel suspicious. But being in a corpse like the Palace, now that was something I could understand, and it suited The Stooges perfectly.
The lighting sucked, the seats were cramped, the acoustics were deafening, and the opening band played only one good song. I’d seen footage of the reconstituted Stooges before and I hadn’t been impressed, but when the band that made my favorite album came to town, and I had never seen them before, of course I had to go see them. I was rewarded. I was lucky enough to see them on a night where they were uncommonly good. Iggy was nuts, the Asheton brothers and Mike Watt were tight, Steve MacKay was the perfect accent on a limited number of tracks, and the crowd was into it. It was one of those performances when audience and band feed off each other. At no point did it feel like this was just another night on tour. It was, but the band didn’t let the audience in on that secret once throughout the set. They fooled us all into believing they wanted to be there, that they were playing their favorite songs, too, and hadn’t heard them over and over again for far too long. It was an hour and a half of the loudest set I’d ever heard, almost too strong for my earplugs. It shook everything. Heavy hits went through my chest even as they vibrated my sternum. When it was over, as people filed out, there wasn’t much talking until outside the theater. It felt out of place, disrespectful.
Ron Asheton died a few days ago. New Year’s Eve or Day. No one’s really sure which, yet. He was found dead in his home, apparently from a heart attack. There are many bands that I regret not seeing before it was too late, either because of age or circumstance. Nirvana will always be at the top of that list. I’m damn glad The Stooges are not. Ron Asheton never found great fame or fortune from his music. The Stooges never sold well and self-destructed before they ever really had a chance, Iggy Pop the only member that really made it off that sinking ship. But for two weeks in 1970, they were the greatest band that ever lived.