Three stooges and one wildcat, James Newell Osterberg, launched a career in Ann Arbor on Halloween in 1967 that would carry the nihilistic force known as punk into the '70s. In the process, Osterberg (Iggy Pop) and the Stooges were responsible for four albums that still can detonate a small village from miles away -- "The Stooges," "Fun House," "Raw Power," and "Metallic K.O."
After the Stooges broke up in '74, Iggy continued to spread the heavy-metal gospel as a solo artist. Although their records never sold too well, the Stooges, like the New York Dolls, did have a local cult following. And Iggy attempted to build a new career upon that devotion.
"The Idiot," "Lust for Life," "TV Eye Live," and last year's "New Values" are all comeback maneuvers by an arrogant artist beset with long-windedness, concerned primarily with the fantasy of his own raw power. The man who had once sung "I Wanna Be Your Dog" with affectionate glee had become dogmatic, barking a faith that offered two alternatives -- join or be damned.
Iggy's latest album, "Soldier" (Arista AB 4259), perfectly illustrates that pose. "Loco Mosquito" (on which Iggy breaks into Larry Verne's "Mr. Custer" for comic relief) is a bumbling mismatch of a cascading organ and a reggae rhythm, while "Knocking 'Em Down" employs the standard Stooges' riff with the tired energy of Alice Cooper's grandma. On "Play It Safe," David Bowie offers some simpleminded assistance, and on "Mr. Dynamite," Iggy once again fabricates a powerful persona. One song, though, may endure as a minor punk classic. Entitled "Dog Food," it begins with a burp and ends with Iggy woofing like Rin Tin Tin to the rescue.
Like Iggy Pop, John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten, vocalist for the Sex Pistols) has been trying to avoid becoming just another punk has-been since the dissolution of his band. Unlike the former Stooge, however, Lydon hasn't become encumbered by methods of the past or by his own ego, choosing instead to form a democratic band, Public Image Ltd. (PiL), that aims in a future direction.
PiL has a unique sound rooted in the progressive-rock of Can or Hawkwind yet based primarily upon reggae structures: music existing in a sparse setting, loosely improvised, the bass and drums reverberating loudly as if competing to overcome a painful migraine.
PiL's debut, "Public Image" (available only as an import on Virgin), was so-excessively tortured (both by critics and in its approach) -- for being over-loaded with a myriad of shrill incantations and self-indulgent screams -- that Warner Bros. shield away from releasing it in this country. Considering the way their new album, "Second Edition" (Island 2WX 3288), is packaged in England, it is rather surprising that it didn't meet with a similar fate -- labeled "The Metal Box," it's three 12-inch EPs in a tin canister (here, a double-record set in standard cardboard).
Yet, unlike its predecessor, "Second Edition" is clearly a work of art, featuring the music that flutters in the air after Pandora's box has been opened. The sinew of Jah Wobble's bass provides the central grip, Keith Levine's guitar invents noises and effects never heard by the human ear, and John Lydon's voice convulses into high-pitched giggles, haunting mumbles and the demented chanting of someone searching for a new language.
"Second Edition" is like getting trapped in the hallways of Sam Fuller's "Shock Corridor." Once inside, there is no exit, except by submitting to the madness. On "Albatross" Lydon abandons traditionalism, a state of stagnation, by running away. He moves forward, beyond, "the spirit of '68," by simply refusing to tread the water of the mainstream.
On "Poptones," PiL creates a surreal pastoral, a place where a cassette constantly plays 'poptones' as a challenge to the chirping and tweeting of birds. The message, of course, is an ancient one -- the loss of innocence -- but PiL makes that overworked theme sound like a fresh idea.
The key to PiL's craft is perhaps best expressed on "Chant." Voice moaning in a speaker," whimpers Lydon, "never really get too close." Not getting close is exactly what PiL's music (its empty echoing down corridors in itself an act of distancing) is all about.
Yet there's a familiarity to the music's scraping and scratching that's bewitching. Included on the album are three instrumentals that careen around the borders of a territory that few -- not even Brian Eno (although he's the obvious reference) -- would dare traverse.
On "Careering," John Lydon wails in meditation, "There must be meaning-/Behind the moaning." The art of "Second Edition," unlike so many attempts to formulate a progressive-rock masterpiece, is that the meaning does not get lost in the game of experimentation. Certainly there's a method to its madness -- a meaningful assemblage of fragmentary chanting that speaks profoundly to the uncertain future.