Share via Email Guitar grit James Williamson in his Stooges days. Its clientele today consists chiefly of grizzled former roadies, ageing 80s hair-metal bands still waiting for their moment, and greying women who appear to view Pamela Anderson as the pinnacle of taste and sophistication. But in late it was the only place to be in Los Angeles, and this was where David Bowie , Iggy Pop and James Williamson met for dinner to celebrate the completion of Raw Power, the third album by Pop and Williamson's proto-punk band, Iggy and the Stooges.
We are standing in the semi-gloom of the Rainbow's tarnished interior as Williamson points out the vinyl-upholstered booth where the historic dinner took place. For the last few decades, however, the man who gave Raw Power its air of menace has been something of a mystery. James Williamson joined the Stooges in , when they were at their lowest ebb after two commercially disastrous albums and the development of serious drug habits. Photographs of Williamson at the time depict a dark, brooding presence; a juvenile delinquent in platform boots.
When he disappeared from view in it was assumed he had either died of a heroin overdose or gone off the rails entirely. In fact, he did nothing so cliched. Until taking early retirement late last year, Williamson was vice president of Sony Electronics.
For the last 30 years he has lived with his wife and children in Silicon Valley, California, working from nine to five and wiping his shoes on the doormat each evening after a hard day's work at the cutting edge of technology. He's both demonic and intellectual, almost how you would imagine Darth Vader to sound if he was in a band.
When I heard rumours that James had got involved with computer chips, I could only guess he had become a cyborg. His playing had dirt, but it did not lack authority.
You could hear the intelligence in it. But I wasn't paying too much attention to him as a person, only as a guitar player. The band quickly collapsed under the weight of drugs and dashed expectations, but a year later, when Williamson was living on his sister's couch in Detroit, recovering from hepatitis A, he got a call from Iggy to say the band had been given another chance. Then Iggy calls and says David Bowie wants him to come to London to make an album, and that he's not going without me.
We go from absolute poverty to the lap of luxury. After trying out English musicians and finding them wanting Willamson calls them "a bunch of sissies" , Williamson and Pop arranged for the Stooges' original guitarist and drummer, Ron and Scott Asheton, to fly over from their home in Ann Arbor, Michigan and complete the muscular lineup, with Ron moving to bass.
The band wrote and practised constantly during their six months in London. Iggy reputedly came up with the famous opening line to Raw Power's opening track, Search and Destroy — "I'm a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm" — under a tree in Kensington Gardens, high on Chinese heroin.
Williamson remembers it differently. The most we could score was a bit of pot. So we got our heads down and worked, realising this was a shot at being a real band. It was only when [Bowie's manager] Tony DeFries turned up that they actually let us into the country. Then Bowie got big and they forgot about us. We were left with no adult supervision. All of the Stooges were big characters. They weren't the easiest guys to manipulate. Noting how glam rock bands presented themselves, Iggy and co decided they needed a striking look for their UK debut.
So they headed off to a joke shop and bought clown makeup. On the back cover of Raw Power is a photograph of Williamson at the concert, looking extremely pale. That is because he went overboard with the pan stick shortly before going on stage.
Iggy, meanwhile, put on a performance so shocking that DeFries all but ensured the Stooges would never play in the UK again. We didn't help people get us.
We made it up as we went along. Iggy Pop's malodorous lyrics "Gimme danger, little stranger, and I will feel your disease" were mirrored by Williamson's wild, complex guitar style, which sounds, if you can apply such a word to music, unhygienic. There's thought going on behind the swagger. When the Stooges left London for Los Angeles in October , DeFries got Bowie to produce and mix Raw Power in a last-ditch attempt to create something vaguely palatable for the record-buying public.
And the truth is that Raw Power would never have been released had it not been for Bowie. It ended on February at the Michigan Palace in Detroit, when a gang of bikers beat up Pop after he challenged the entire audience to a fight — the show is captured on the legendary bootleg album Metallic KO, described by the critic Lester Bangs as "the only rock album I know where you can actually hear hurled beer bottles breaking against guitar strings".
Williamson and Pop returned to Los Angeles in the hope of kickstarting their musical careers once more, but by then pretty much all was lost. While Williamson seems sanguine about its initial failure, Pop clearly feels that Raw Power's current status as a classic album is long overdue.
He was at my place, then he was at his girlfriend's, and then nobody wanted him so he was on the street. He was despondent and desperate. He couldn't manage his life anymore, so he did the right thing and checked into a mental hospital. It didn't work, although the tracks were eventually released as the album Kill City. So that was that. Meanwhile, Williamson was left high and dry.
So he went back to school. He studied electronics and, apart from a rare foray to the studio to produce Iggy's album New Values, he gave up on rock'n'roll. Soon after becoming a father he landed a job at a pioneering microchip company, Advanced Micro Devices, leading to engineering work at Sony Electronics. He didn't go near a guitar for the better part of three decades. His son referred to the collection of vintage guitars gathering dust in the family living room as "the coffins in the corner".
I'd be myself, asking questions like, 'Isaac Newton — how did he come up with that? While Iggy Pop became a worldwide superstar, Williamson made personal computers user friendly. The only clue to his whereabouts came on a line from Pop's song The Dum Dum Boys, a tribute to his old gang, which contains the line: At first it was the occasional fan or journalist trying to track him down.
Then in , responding to the cult that had built up around the Stooges since their demise, Pop decided to get the old band back together.
The Asheton brothers heeded the call but Williamson explained that, being a top-ranking executive at Sony, he wasn't really in a position to take off around the world and crank out ultra-malevolent rock riffs when there were board meetings to attend.
Then events were to take a turn for the surreal. In February Ron Asheton died of a heart attack, not long after the Stooges' triumphant reunion tour. A few months later Williamson got a call from Pop, who wanted to play Raw Power in its entirety, live, for the first time.
Then the recession caught up with Sony and they offered me early retirement. And then I remembered the Stooges. We aren't for everyone. Pop is now an ultra-smart professional who knows how to put on a brilliant show. Raw Power is a huge album. It's fun, but nobody wants to get so old that playing rock'n'roll becomes a joke.
The rebirth of Williamson is one of the more heartwarming stories in the brutal world of rock'n'roll. Does he have any regrets at leaving it all behind for so long? I look back at everything I've done and think, it worked out OK. At first, that reputation was as a monumental disaster. Intended to revive a career you would have described as dying had it ever shown any signs of commercial life in the first place, it succeeded only in hammering the final nails into the Stooges' coffin.
Muddily mixed by David Bowie, Raw Power was adduced either as evidence of a hitherto-unnoticed fallibility on the part of its patron, or of Iggy Pop's unfailing ability to screw up every opportunity presented him: Either way, within months of its release, the Stooges were reduced to playing the kind of gigs you hear on the notorious live album Metallic KO, shows people attended specifically in order to jeer and throw things: Within a couple of years, however, Raw Power's reputation had changed to one of vast importance.
In his history of punk, England's Dreaming, Jon Savage claimed you need hear only two records to understand the genre: Whatever its reputation, nothing can really prepare you for the experience of hearing Raw Power. Over the years, Pop has tended to describe the album not in terms of music, but violence. On one occasion he explained its sound to a journalist by wordlessly smashing a glass; on another he noted "that band could kill any band at the time, and frankly can just kill any of the bands that built on this work since".
He has a point, although you might point out that, based on the opening seconds of Search and Destroy, the Stooges play not as if they're ready to kill every other band, but as if they're on the verge of killing each other: Over the top, in every sense of the phrase, Pop howls one of the greatest opening lines in rock history: Almost immediately, however, the swagger vanishes, replaced by a palpable panic and distress; for all the heroic look-out-honey strutting, something is clearly desperately wrong here.
Somebody's got to save my soul! All that, it should be noted, takes place within the first minute of Raw Power. What's remarkable is that it maintains that level of musical and emotional intensity for another half an hour. It's as purely, viscerally thrilling as the earliest rock'n'roll, but deeply unsettling listening at the same time.
It's not for want of trying, but almost 40 years on, there's still nothing in rock music quite like it. Legacy Edition is released on 13 April on Sony Legacy.