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

Story Of A Song: Queen & David Bowie’s Under Pressure

In the days since David’s sad passing, we’ve heard a lot about Bowie the personality, songwriter, performer, chameleon and producer, but it’s also important to acknowledge Bowie the singer.

Queen_&_David_Bowie_-_Under_Pressure

Though he was apparently very blasé about his own vocal abilities, he must surely lay claim to being one of the finest singers of his generation (this channel has been a revelation) with instinctively brilliant phrasing, breath control, tone and range.

David’s frequent collaborator Mike Garson has recently intimated that Bowie would have liked to do a full-on big-band jazz album, and that doesn’t seem so outlandish given the power of his baritone.

I’ll be looking at some other great Bowie vocal performances in future editions but for now we focus on the 1981 UK number one single ‘Under Pressure’. It was arguably the beginning of Bowie’s ‘pop’ period, when his lyrics and music generally celebrated positivity and unity.

In July 1981, Bowie was at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland, working on the ‘Cat People’ theme song with producer/co-writer Giorgio Moroder. Queen were in an adjacent room recording the Hot Space album, and, when Bowie popped in to say hello to his good friend (Queen drummer) Roger Taylor, a long-overdue collaboration was finally on the cards.

It was apparently no walk in the park for either party though: Queen guitarist Brian May later recalled that ‘to have his ego mixed with ours made for a very volatile mixture’ while Taylor also confirmed that ‘certain egos were slightly bruised along the way’. But the blend of personalities and approaches paid off; in a feverish, adrenalin-fuelled few hours, described by producer David Richards as ‘a complete jam session and madness in the studio’, they quickly came up with a song initially titled ‘People On Streets’.

The song is a fascinating snapshot of Bowie and Mercury’s vocal styles. Mercury is generally playful and operatic, while Bowie is brooding and understated, until he breaks out the extraordinary trademark ‘histrionics’ in the very moving double-tracked section: “Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word, and love dares you to care/And love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves”.

It’s also very moving to hear his mastery of breath control here, belying the idea that he was just a good ‘natural’ singer; close listening reveals that he takes short, deep breaths at exactly the same points throughout the section, demonstrating that the part was meticulously worked out in advance. Roger Taylor also clearly joins Bowie for a high harmony. David’s whole vocal in general sends chills down the spine.

It’s also impressive from a vocal and production point of view that neither Mercury nor Bowie ever ‘pop’ the microphone in their delivery of the word ‘pressure’ – no mean feat for anyone who’s ever sung in a studio. It’s also instructive to hear the mastery of David Richards’ production – check out the variety of effects added to the vocals, from the deep reverb of the first section through to the total ‘dryness’ of the subdued middle-eight.

The track was mixed in New York by Queen alone without any input from Bowie, a decision that apparently divided opinion; Taylor considered it ‘one of the best things Queen have ever done’ while Bowie surmised that ‘it was done so quickly that some of it makes me cringe a bit.’

EMI were understandably convinced it was a hit, Bowie and Queen less so, though on its UK release in November 1981 it knocked The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ off the top spot and stayed at number one for two weeks. In the US, ‘Under Pressure’ reached number 29, not particularly impressive but nonetheless Bowie’s best chart placing since ‘Golden Years’ six years before.

David returned to the song 11 years later for a very famous rendition at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert on 20th April 1992, and he would perform it frequently throughout the ’90s usually in duet with his bassist Gail Ann Dorsey.

Though ‘Fashion’ was the first Bowie track that hooked me, this was the second, and it’ll forever be a firm favourite. Let’s celebrate a beautiful song and performance. Thanks to Suzanna Noort for hipping me to the vocal-only version.