Wednesday, January 07, 2015

James Williamson, Re-Licked

James Williamson, Re-Licked

I don’t write a lot of record reviews these days, focusing mostly on poetry, but when something Stooges-related like this comes out I kind of have to.  So, James Williamson, Stooges second guitarist from late 1970 through 1971 and sole guitarist through the second phase of the band’s incarnation (as Iggy and the Stooges, 1972-74, playing on and co-writing their important third LP Raw Power), has released an album titled Re-Licked, remaking some of their later songs that never made it to an official album (but eventually surfaced on numerous bootlegs of live and rehearsal recordings).  Iggy Pop does not appear, and instead Williamson has enlisted a number of guest singers.

As someone who is very familiar with the bootlegs of these tunes and who doesn’t care all that much about their supposedly bad sound quality, Williamson was always going to have to a lot to live up to: the original Iggy and the Stooges in their raw, primal glory.  I’ve spent many hours listening to these songs and know them as well as any of the other Stooges material.  So, when I initially played this record, I thought it sounded a tiny bit tame in comparison.  However, with repeated listenings it has grown on me a lot, and I have to say that Re-Licked is overall quite a success, probably even better than the 2013 Iggy and the Stooges Ready to Die album.

My favorite song here is “Head On,” with Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys on vocals, and it’s no accident that this is the lead-off track.  I more or less stopped following Biafra’s career a while ago, although I always liked the first few DKs records, but he sounds great here and the uniqueness of his yodel-like voice adds a lot, and this is one of the most up and energetic pieces on the whole album.

Now, to “Open Up and Bleed,” which I know from reading various interviews is James’s own favorite on this album (which he repeats on the “making of” DVD that’s included), and particularly because of Carolyn Wonderland’s singing — but sorry to say I can’t share his enthusiasm for the vocal performance here.  It’s a subjective thing, but to me she sounds a bit too refined, a bit too practiced in a kind of mainstream FM-radio “blues” style of singing.  It’s not that she’s bad per se, quite the opposite, just that it doesn’t feel authentic to me.  So this is one instance where Iggy was really missed.  (I hope James isn’t mad; I know, from social media, that he tends to read these reviews.).  And, for whatever reason, the heavy, speeded-up part at the end of the song is dispensed with in this version.

Track three is “Scene of the Crime” with Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream on vocals, the song originally being recorded in the Stooges’ pre-Raw Power rehearsals in 1972.  I was kind of surprised to see songs from this period here (as they were previously studio-recorded and already had something tantamount to an official release), but this is a very good, faithful-to-the-original rendition.

“She Creatures of the Hollywood Hills” was one of my favorites from their bootlegs, and in those versions really intense and usually pretty freeform.  Williamson’s guitar on at least one version I can think of was especially loud and violent-sounding.  On this alternatively imagined version, with Ariel Pink, the electric piano and horn section are to the fore (there is no guitar solo, but instead a great tenor sax solo by Steve Mackay), but it makes for an absorbing song nonetheless, with kind of a percussion-y voodoo feel.  Ariel Pink does a straight-up Iggy impression, and it works.  “She Creatures” was written by the late Ron Asheton, and at one point Ariel Pink seems to say, “C’mon Ron” — just like Iggy did on “No Fun” — as kind of a tribute?  A nice gesture.

“Til the End of the Night” was another surprise inclusion, simply because of its rarity.  The song was never performed live that I know of, appearing only on one rehearsal tape.  It’s a slow, pretty ballad (perhaps recalling Iggy’s Doors influence), which I always liked in its original form, and though Alison Mosshart isn’t quite my favorite singer (again just subjective taste, but I do think she comes on especially in the choruses), it’s a pleasant listen here.  Williamson’s solo sounds almost exactly the same as it does on the original.  As with “Open Up and Bleed,” the fast, heavy ending section is omitted in this version.

“I Got a Right” is such a classic that it would be hard to live up to the original, but Lisa Kekaula from The BellRays does a nice job with it.  I liked her work with the BellRays and their punk/soul fusion a lot, and it was good thinking of James to get her in for this project.  Whether “I Got a Right” needs a horn section, though, is another question altogether (well, it’s not the worst thing in the world).  Kekaula especially shines on “Heavy Liquid” (a bonus track appearing later on the CD part of this package), a somewhat lesser-trodden Stooges tune where comparisons to the original are less necessary.  That song leans toward the bluesy or even southern-rock(!) end of the late-period Stooges’ sound, not quite representative of what they were really about, but still a good song.  I recently read a review in which someone suggested of this version that it’s what Led Zeppelin would have sounded like if they had horns, which struck me as kind of funny since I never would have uttered the Stooges in the same breath as Led Zep (Zeppelin is one of my all-time most hated bands), but I can kind of hear it.  Despite that, a solid performance, and this time the horns work well.

The inclusion of “Pinpoint Eyes” was a further surprise, because I always thought it was just a sort of random jam thing the Stooges played during a practice session, just a two-chord blues over which Iggy improvised some drug-themed lyrics, and I didn’t even think it was intended to be a real song.  But here it is, with Joe Cardamone of The Icarus Line (who I’d never heard of until now) doing his own Iggy impression (with a tiny bit of Mick Jagger tossed in for good measure) — not bad, though maybe tries too hard to come across as ultra-sleazy.  I guess the nature of the song calls for this, however.

“Wild Love,” rendered as a duet between Mark Lanegan and Alison Mosshart, is one of the standouts of Re-Licked (though again it took me a while to get into Mosshart’s style), with Williamson’s heavy guitar riff dominating.  The liner notes by Jack Boulware suggest that this song “should have been the centerpiece of a post-Raw Power album,” which again surprised me (surprises all over the place on this record).  I would’ve thought “Rubber Leg” or “Head On” would’ve been the anchor to the putative album (fulfilling the “Search and Destroy” / “Raw Power” role, with “Open Up and Bleed” being the album’s “Gimme Danger”).  But Boulware must get this straight from Williamson, so I guess we live and learn.

There are two versions of “Rubber Leg” on Re-Licked, one sung by Ron Young from Little Caesar and the other bonus version by J.G. Thirlwell (who I’m more familiar with as Jim Foetus).  I’m partial to the latter, as Thirwell’s vocal style is a bit more extreme and original (note: where songs are duplicated, the instrumental tracks seem to be the same, with the vocals simply dubbed over).  In any case, this was always one of my favorite later Stooges songs, with a particularly Stonesy vibe, which comes across here.  For me, definitely one of Williamson’s best moments, and, with “Head On,” the highlight of the album.  (Incidentally, the main riff in “Rubber Leg” has the same chord progression as that of “Wild Love,” just in a different key, speeded up, and accented slightly differently; anyone else who’s familiar with these tunes ever notice that?)

“I’m Sick of You” (with Mario Cuomo from The Orwells, another band I was unfamiliar with) is another faithfully rendered 1972 song.  Cuomo’s voice is so Jim Morrison-inflected on this track that the whole first half of it began to remind me of “The Crystal Ship,” something I’d never noticed in listening to the original Iggy version.  But kind of cool.  Williamson’s guitar in the middle section of the song is blazing, like in the original.

Then there are the bonus tracks appearing only on CD (which is included with the vinyl, a nice touch).  “Gimme Some Skin” features Caroline Wonderland again — well, see above.  There are two versions of “Cock in My Pocket,” one with Nicke Andersson of The Hellacopters, who’s good, but I prefer the Gary Floyd version as I was always a fan of The Dicks (get their Kill From the Heart album if you don’t already have it), and Floyd’s Austin-punk/blues singing is especially great on this, one of the album’s standouts in fact.  I’ve already discussed “Heavy Liquid” and the alternate “Rubber Leg,” which leaves “Wet My Bed” (with The Richmond Sluts), a sleazoid Chuck Berry-esque tune that the Stooges performed live at least a couple of times.  It’s done quite well here, a real cool listening experience.

All of the players, of which James Williamson and Steve Mackay (sax) are the only actual Stooges left, rise to the occasion and give it their all.  The instrumental tracks are split between two different rhythm sections, one being Mike Watt (who should sort of be a considered a Stooge at this point too) and Toby Dammit, the other being Simone Marie Butler (of Primal Scream) and Michael Urbano.  Gregg Foreman (keyboardist with Cat Power) appears on most of the songs and, in the documentary DVD, rocks a period Keith Richards/Rod Stewart/James Williamson shag haircut.

Williamson of course is the central figure, the linchpin — not only is it his project, but with only two exceptions, he wrote the music to all of these songs, and his playing throughout the album is impeccable.  At times I miss the rawness of the Raw Power-era sound (though often he still attains it), and because of that the album took a couple listens to grow on me; but Williamson’s greatness as a rock’n’roll guitarist certainly cannot be ignored.  I’ve always thought of him in the same category with Keith Richards, Johnny Thunders, Wayne Kramer, Fred Smith, Sterling Morrison, Lou Reed, and of course Ron Asheton, the guitarists who defined the proto-punk rock sound.  And though this is not an original Stooges album (due to the short-sightedness of their management and record label back in 1973/74), Re-Licked reminds us also that Williamson’s songwriting (as well as his playing) is some of the best in rock’n’roll, of any period, of all time.

Some further observations about the composition of the album.  A handful of other late-period Stooges songs are not included, “Johanna” and “I Got Nothing” being the most obvious omissions — but then, these have already had an official release on the Kill City album, so it makes sense.  “Rich Bitch,” which appears on Metallic K.O., does not make it to Re-Licked (perhaps the sexist lyrics had something to do with it?).  “Born in a Trailer,” on the Till the End of the Night bootleg, is also left off, but that seems just to have been a kind of a jam on a riff and was never fully fleshed out.  There’s another such track out there titled “Hey Baby” (on the My Girl Hates My Heroin bootleg) where James plays a Stones-influenced riff, Ron Asheton and Scott Thurston join in, and Iggy improvises some lyrics — but again it’s not a fully fledged song.  There’s no “Jesus Loves the Stooges.”  A track called “Rock Action,” provenance unknown, but bearing a passing resemblance to “Open Up and Bleed,” included on an EP called Siamese Dogs, similarly does not make the cut (I’m not even sure when or with whom that one was recorded).  None of the 1971-lineup songs (aside from “I Got a Right”).

So, what would a Raw Power follow-up album, recorded in 1973, really have looked like?  Re-Licked gives a strong hint of it, but the 14 or so songs included here would have had to be trimmed down to, say, ten at most.  It’s hard to know what songs they would’ve gone with in the end, and much of it would’ve been up to Iggy, who had no part in the Re-Licked project.  All of the pre-Raw Power songs would have been out, for sure.  “Cock in My Pocket” would probably have to have been left out because of its dirty lyrics; ditto “Wet My Bed.”  On the other hand, given how much of a staple “Cock in My Pocket” was to their live set, perhaps they would’ve re-titled it and changed a couple lyrics.  Given that Iggy and James kept “Johanna” and “I Got Nothing” through to the post-Stooges Kill City sessions, these would definitely have been on the album.  “Open Up and Bleed” is a definite.  “Rubber Leg” and “Head On” you would think as well, and given Boulware’s liner notes comment about “Wild Love,” that one too.  Since they played “Heavy Liquid” a lot live, I guess that one would get in, and possibly a version of “She Creatures” too.  And, given how practiced and thought-through “Till the End of the Night” was even back on the 1973 practice tape, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it too probably would have been included.  So the album might have looked something like this:

Side One:
Head On
Rubber Leg
Open Up and Bleed
Wild Love
She Creatures of the Hollywood Hills

Side Two:
Cock in My Pocket (probably with a new title?)
I Got Nothing
Heavy Liquid
Till the End of the Night

Suggested title for this album that, sadly, never was: Open Up and Bleed; released (in a parallel reality) on Columbia Records, 1974.

[For those of you interested in this sort of thing, I wrote a poem about the similarly non-existent Stooges third album on Elektra (1971) in my collection Future Blues, available here.]

Williamson w/the Stooges, 1974

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