Iggy Pop’s Blah-Blah-Blah: 30 Years Old Today

iggy

A&M Records, released 1st October 1986

Produced and mixed by David Bowie and David Richards

8/10

While David Bowie was turning in one of his finest live performances of the 1980s at Live Aid, his good friend Jim Osterberg AKA Iggy Pop was ensconced in LA, writing songs with ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones. Bowie’s use of six Iggy lyrics on the Let’s Dance and Tonight albums had given Osterberg enough royalties to buy some much-needed thinking time after a disastrous run of early ’80s solo albums and the termination of his Arista record contract.

Iggy and Jones came up with nine new songs, three of which – ‘Fire Girl’, ‘Winners And Losers’ and ‘Cry For Love’ – would make it onto Blah-Blah-Blah (though they were clearly inferior to the Bowie/Iggy material). The latter lyric especially had opened up a new vulnerability in Iggy’s writing. He later said: ‘Just expressing that openness frightened me. I didn’t want to admit I was in need of basic affection.’ Yes, Iggy was now singing boy/girl songs – love songs.

Bowie hooked up with Iggy in late 1985 to hear some of the new stuff. He was impressed. He suggested they co-write some more uptempo material and also offered to produce, apparently telling Iggy: ‘I can make this as commercial as hell.’ They disappeared off to David’s holiday home in Mustique with their respective girlfriends, then undertook a lengthy skiing holiday in Gstaad, taking a four-track tape machine with them. Mountain Studios, owned by Queen and scene of the ‘Under Pressure’ recording, was booked for April 1986, and co-producer/tech guru David Richards came onboard for the sessions too.

iggy-and-bowie-1986

Bowie recruited a crack band for Blah-Blah-Blah – Kevin Armstrong played guitar (joined by Steve Jones on one track), fresh from being David’s musical director at Live Aid and doing sessions for Prefab Sprout, Propaganda and Alien Sex Fiend! Gifted Swiss multi-instrumentalist Erdil Kizilcay, who had worked on the Let’s Dance demos and also epic soundtrack single ‘When The Wind Blows’, played (excellent) bass and shared live drums with the Linn machine borrowed from Queen’s Roger Taylor. Bowie played most of the keyboards.

David was apparently workmanlike and professional in the studio, ticking off daily tasks on a notepad with lots of nervous energy. He was focused on helping his friend to the very best of his ability. ‘He’d be chucking down the coffee and fags, and it would be pretty neurotic and manic around him’, said Armstrong. But Bowie was also a typically shrewd people-watcher – he apparently wrote the first verse of ‘Shades’ after watching Iggy give his girlfriend Suchi a gift, turning it around to make the guy the grateful, humble recipient.

Blah-Blah-Blah features Iggy’s best singing on record. He has developed a gloriously dark croon and finally has the right material to showcase it. ‘Winners And Losers’ particularly shows off his improved vocal range. It’s also a very funny album. Bowie and Iggy clearly had a great laugh writing these songs, with some preposterous couplets thrown in, especially on ‘Isolation’ (‘I need some lovin’ like a body needs a soul/I need some lovin’ like a fastball needs control, here I am!’). ‘Baby It Can’t Fail’ features some of the best opening lines in 1980s rock: ‘You have loved me with energy/Backed up hard work and guts!’ Iggy’s committed delivery always prompts a smile.

There’s some excellent, genuinely uplifting material in the shape of ‘Shades’, ‘Isolation’ (with gorgeous Bowie backing vocals) and ‘Hideaway’. The title track is a sample-heavy curio in the style of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s ‘Love Missile F1-11‘ (which Bowie later covered) with amusing ‘geeky’ vocal stylings by Iggy and some wilfully-gormless lyrics (‘Shimon Peres, whatcha gonna do?/I’m from Detroit’ etc etc).

‘Little Miss Emperor’ tellingly quotes Allen Ginsberg and features a classic Bowie piano flourish in the ‘Absolute Beginners’/’Life On Mars’ style. Blah-Blah-Blah even spawned Iggy’s first UK singles chart showing (number 10) with ‘Real Wild Child’, a cover of Australian rock’n’roller Johnny O’Keefe’s only hit. Promotional duties led to a very memorable appearance on the regional British kids’ TV show ‘Number 73’ wherein Iggy decided to simulate sexual relations with an oversized teddy bear:

Apparently Richard Branson heard an early pressing of Blah-Blah-Blah and phoned Iggy personally to invite him to Virgin Records. But he eventually went with A&M and delivered a reasonable hit for the company; the album went gold in Canada and made a decent dent in both the UK and US charts.

So is Blah-Blah-Blah the best Bowie-related album of the ’80s? It’s certainly up there. Older Iggy fans may have been shocked by the ‘poppy’ nature of some of the material, but there’s always an edge. The album was also arguably an influence on bands like The Mission, Sisters Of Mercy and Miss World with its monolithic drum programming, deep vocals and anthemic songcraft.

To a certain extent, Bowie tried to repeat the formula on his own decidedly patchy Never Let Me Down album, but the news was better for Iggy; he embarked on a ten-month world tour, laying off the booze and drugs for the entirety. For the band, however, it was a different story – apparently Kevin Armstrong and drummer Gavin Harrison were in a pretty terrible state by the time they got home to London in summer 1987.

But Bowie had done it again – he’d helped kickstart Iggy’s career for the fourth time and delivered probably the commercial apex of his solo work. Blah-Blah-Blah is definitely due a critical reappraisal.

Further reading: ‘Open Up And Bleed’ by Paul Trynka

 ‘The Complete David Bowie’ by Nicholas Pegg

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No Brown M&Ms: Great Backstage Riders Of The ’80s

brown-milk-chocolate-m-m-1-poundYou know you’ve made it in the music biz when your gig rider raises eyebrows. The rider: a contract drawn up by the promoter stipulating a band’s concert requirements including ‘dressing room extras’ – food, drink and drugs to you and me. And, if the general tenor of the 1980s was extravagance and exuberance, many artists’ backstage demands were no different.

Here are five corkers:

5. Howard Jones

He had barely registered a hit and was only undertaking a modest college tour of the UK, but his backstage demands included ‘eight pounds of brown rice, six large aubergines, three pounds of courgettes, three green peppers, one head of garlic, three pounds of fresh tomatoes, twelve mixed yogurts and twelve bananas.’ He also requested that security not have ‘guns or dogs’, that the dressing room possess a ‘sweet-smelling ambience’ and that he must have ‘physical contact with the audience’. And you thought he was just a slightly vapid though ultimately harmless pop guy…

4. Van Halen

They famously often requested ‘large bowls of M&Ms with the brown ones taken out’ but their legendary 1984 Monsters Of Rock show at Castle Donington also required ‘eight litre bottles of Jack Daniels, eight litre bottles of brandy, eight litre bottles of vodka, 16 cases of domestic beer and a worldwide selection of cheeses’. Those boys knew how to partay. And were also rather fond of continental cheeses.

3. Iggy Pop

Late great musician/writer Ian Carr once described seeing Miles Davis come offstage and collapse into the arms of two specially-placed roadies as soon as he was out of the audience’s sight, but that’s nothing compared to The Iggster’s post-show routine. His rider for a 1983 UK tour stipulated ‘it is absolutely essential at the end of the show that there is a nurse in attendance with two cylinders of oxygen and masks’. I wonder if maybe Iggy wanted the ‘nurse’ for a bit more than ‘oxygen’…

2. David Thomas

The portly Pere Ubu frontman demanded meticulous sandwich preparation for a University of London show in the early ’80s: ‘A sandwich is defined as three pieces each of meat and/or cheese, one-inch thickness of lettuce, a half-inch thickness of onion, mayonnaise, two slices of three-quarters of an inch of tomato, all between two thick slices of wholemeal bread. NO BUTTER. AND I WILL REPEAT: NO BUTTER OR MARGARINE. PERIOD.’ It’s as if punk never happened.

1. Aerosmith

The Bad Boys From Boston didn’t leave anything drug-related to chance when putting together their backstage rider for a particularly blitzed tour in the early ’80s. The stand-out clause read: ‘No snow, no show’! Well, at least they were honest. Allegedly, of course…

A tip of the hat to Simon Garfield’s excellent book ‘Expensive Habits‘.