By Nikolas Schreck
40 years ago today, on March 18, 1977, Iggy Pop’s first solo album The Idiot was released. From the moment I gazed upon its stark monochrome cover in the racks of the long-gone Tower Records on Sunset Strip on the day of its release, that recording cast a spell on me that endures to this day, and profoundly influenced my music. To celebrate the anniversary of Mr. Pop’s powerful solo debut, this slightly abridged sneak preview from my forthcoming memoir, a work in progress:
In March of ’77, in the wake of my still ongoing Low high, the long vanished Iggy Pop returned from the realm of the living dead with his bleak comeback solo album, The Idiot.
Even if they were too heavy on electric guitar for me, some of Pop’s weirder and moodier work with the Stooges had a certain undeniable, well, raw power, that spoke to me. But this new slice of jaunty gloom and doom was a beast of a different color altogether.
Essentially a Bowie album with Iggy on vocals, it was drenched in the same sinister electronic sludge and harsh menacing ambiance I so loved in Low, only grittier and meaner. As cold as most of Low‘s music was, it hinted that some human warmth, however damaged, might survive in the bleak tomorrow that was surely coming. The Idiot‘s dehumanized jaded vocals and broken down robotics had much worse news to impart: the mass produced future the 80s would bring wouldn’t work at all.
In 1977, nobody else was singing, as Iggy did, about ”Talkin’ with Dracula and his crew” let alone having ”Visions of swastikas in my head and plans for everyone.” Lyrical themes guaranteed to sink their fangs as firmly into my adolescent influence artery as Low had in January, and as Kraftwerk’s Tran-Europe Express would a little later in that very same memorable March.
The Idiot’s proud advertisement of its spawning in haunted and walled West Berlin’s Hansa Studios only added to its appeal to me. I recognized the name Hansa from another much-played soundscape recorded in Berlin, the previous year’s Tangerine Dream disc Stratosfear.
The 1920s mythos of sexually depraved anything goes doomed and decadent Berlin cast its powerful spell on me since my childhood. Marlene Dietrich’s many bittersweet songs dedicated to the city of her birth were never far from my turntable, along with the Brecht/Weill modernist operas which provided part of the Weimar Republic’s soundtrack. The city’s particular mood of nightmare angst preserved in the UFA films of the 20s and early 30s had long since shaped my sense of aesthetics. Dr. Mabuse, M, and the Blue Angel were central cultural touchstones. Influences incarnated earlier that semester when I played Cabaret’s sinister nightclub Master of Ceremonies in drama class.
That heady backdrop helped me imagine Iggy crooning his disaffected dirges in an artfully monochrome fantasy West Berlin I created in my mind. A desolate war-scorched ruin as grainy gray and cold as the album cover’s color scheme. The grim city I invented appealed to my morbidity as the polar opposite of the sunny and vacuous ”have a nice day” L.A. I detested. I liked to think I could see an echo of the anguished Expressionist spirit of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari‘s Cesare the somnambulist in Iggy’s stylized pose on the cover.
Through some glitch in my unformed adolescent brain, until The Idiot fell into my hands, I conceived of the Berlin whose cultural legacy so bewitched me as being as lost as Atlantis. An urban void erased from time and space in 1945, no more worthy of visiting than a parking lot where once stood a razed palace. In 1977, Germany’s ghostly former capital wasn’t hip or trendy in the least. It was a nearly forgotten backwater, save when it showed up as the uninviting setting for the previous decade’s already dated Cold War thrillers.
I’d already worn out the grooves of Lou Reed’s album Berlin, which certainly made an impression too. But it was the fact that Pop’s music was actually recorded there that got me thinking about Berlin as a tangible locale where innovative art was still being created by the last of the bohemians. The Idiot, which I’ve always seen as the unfairly unacknowledged missing part of what should really be remembered as Bowie’s Berlin Quartet was probably the first consciously noticed catalyst drawing me to the city I’d end up spending more of my life in than any other.
I say ”conscious”, because deeper psychic deposits would later be stirred suggesting that this music and its associations only reawakened some pre-existing karmic connection between my mindstream and Berlin.
Some years later, I learned that Pop and Bowie had only briefly visited Berlin when they recorded The Idiot in 1976. So my fantasy of a ”real Berlin” which the album triggered in me was itself only based on the shaky ground of their fantasies of a mythic metropolis they barely knew. But that’s okay. I’d discover that Berlin doesn’t really exist anyway.
Much of The Idiot, like Low before it, was actually recorded in the Chateau d’Herouville near Paris. But we’re dealing here with the potent effect of myth to move the adolescent imagination, not anything so prosaic and ambiguous as fact. Worth noting but rarely mentioned: parts of the haunting Low and The Idiot were recorded in a studio famously rumored to be literally haunted.