Great art does not always move units. Case in point: The Stooges' 1973 album, Raw Power, was a complete flop commercially. But, as with the story about the Velvet Underground, it seems that everyone who did buy it must have been inspired to start a band, because forty years after its initial release, Raw Power stands as one of the most influential albums in rock history.
The list of artists who acknowledge it as a primary influence reads like a who's-who of rock's royalty. Kurt Cobain called it his favorite record of all time. Henry Rollins has the name of its opening track, "Search and Destroy," tattooed across his shoulders, and everyone from the Dead Boys to Def Leppard have covered that same song. Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones claims he learned to play the guitar by playing along to the album.
When Raw Power was released on February 7, 1973, punk was still a few years away. When it arrived, Iggy Pop didn't need to get Maury Povich to administer a DNA test to announce that he was the father. Anyone with ears can hear that. Right from the opening track, the same swaggering nihilism fused to a skeleton of primal rock and roll is right there. The punks made it their own, but the blueprint was already drawn up, waiting to be dusted off and put to use.
Had the band managed to stay together, it's entirely possible that they would have been the biggest of the punk era, but even before the album was started, in fall of 1972, things were beginning to fall apart. The Stooges were well on their way to no longer being a thing. Iggy Pop had headed to London and hooked up with David Bowie and replacement Stooges guitarist James Williamson to record an album.
Fortunately, there was no suitable rhythm section to be found in London, so two of the original Stooges, Ron and Scott Asheton, were recruited, reconstituting the original lineup sans bassist Dave Alexander. Original guitarist Ron Asheton shifted to bass to replace him (begrudgingly, by most accounts), and the stage was set for what would be the band's last proper album.
Recorded in London, over the space of roughly a month in the fall of 1972, and produced by Pop and Bowie, Raw Power is the sound of a band tightly wound and ready to explode. The tracks "Search and Destroy" and "Raw Power" that open each side, anchoring the album in effect, are pure, searing primitivism, especially "Search and Destroy." Both feature a raw, thumping rhythm section topped off with incandescent sheets of gloriously shitty guitar, fuzzed out and fucked up beyond belief.
Atop this glorious mix of barely restrained sonic chaos sits Pop -- except he never sits. You can almost see him strutting, shaking and gyrating as he howls and moans and gargles his way through lyrics about being an A-bomb and raw power destroying a man. It's dark stuff, embracing self-destruction and aimless fury in equal measure.
The album's two "ballads" follow, with "Gimme Danger" on the opening side and "I Need Somebody" on the flip. The former finds Pop sounding serpentine and morbid in a way that Jim Morrison only ever dreamt of sounding, disturbing and desperate in a delicious way. The latter is slightly less creepy, if no less desperate -- an almost standard take on the needy, lonely-guy formula, or at least as close to standard as such a song can sound delivered in Pop's eerie, growling croon.
The remainder of the album sticks pretty closely to the "Search and Destroy"/"Raw Power" formula -- Pop screeches and shouts and cajoles over Williamson's shredded guitar and a hypnotically direct bass and drum thump. Songs titled "Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell" and "Death Trip" pretty much deliver on their promise, and there's not a bad song to be found on the album, even if nothing quite measures up to "Search and Destroy."
That's hardly a criticism, though, considering "Search and Destroy" is easily one of the greatest songs ever (Rolling Stone ranked it No. 468 in its top 500 songs of all time, and that's a criminally low rank).
Despite the terrible sales, critics saw the value in Raw Power from the beginning. Rolling Stone gave the album a rave review at its release, and Robert Christgau rated it a B+. Later reviews from outlets including Pitchfork, Spin and AllMusic concur, rating it near the top of their respective scales without fail and naming it to any "best of" list it qualifies for.
Listening to the album today, it still carries its weight and then some. The odd, lo-fi mix -- reportedly done by David Bowie in a single day -- doesn't always offer the sonic impact the tunes deserve, but later attempts to fix it, such as Pop's own mix reissued in the '90s, suffer from their own issues.
Mix issue aside, the album holds up as a timeless classic, linked inextricably to the bands that followed in its wake without ever being overwhelmed or bested by them. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of bands have since done their level best to follow in the Stooges' footsteps, creating dozens of albums that are classics in their own right, but no one has ever quite managed to top the album's unmitigated madness and pure, simple rock and roll power.
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