VMP ‘Raw Power’ Reissue Makes Case For 1997 Iggy Mix
An audiophile edition of The Stooges album “not for audiophiles”
In his liner notes for the new Vinyl Me, Please reissue of Iggy and The Stooges’ 1973 album Raw Power, Andy O’Connor says it’s “not a record for audiophiles.” Then why give this record a sumptuously packaged all-analog reissue?
Because despite the somewhat rough recording quality, few records are as historically important as Raw Power. It’s not even the best Stooges record, but it’s inarguably their most influential. Forget proto-punk; Raw Power was the first punk record, the fire that grew into a bigger movement, something huge yet simple and chaotic. 50 years later, it remains as electrifying as it probably was upon release. So yes, Raw Power deserves such distinguished reissue treatment, sonic warts and all.
What band was The Stooges, really? The original Detroit lineup with bassist Dave Alexander, or this revamped lineup with guitarist Ron Asheton moved to bass and James Williamson on guitar? Debate continues but you need all three early studio records anyway: 1969’s The Stooges, 1970’s Fun House, and of course, Raw Power. The former two, recorded with the original lineup, straddled rowdy rock ’n’ roll with droning avant-garde pieces (“We Will Fall” from The Stooges—listen to the originally rejected but eventually released John Cale mix of that album) and jazz freakouts (“LA Blues” from Fun House). Neither of those records sold, so Elektra dropped The Stooges. The band’s drug-fueled live shows were equally wild; Iggy Pop (James Osterberg) regularly tore his shirt off and rolled around in broken glass, and observers described The Stooges less as a conventional rock band and more a group of unhinged, primal creatures.
In 1971, the original lineup dissolved. Iggy Pop’s heroin addiction became unmanageable, even though the previous year he sacked bassist Dave Alexander for apparently being too wasted to play during the Goose Lake Festival in Michigan (Third Man’s 2020 release of that show calls this into question). Pop moved to New York, met David Bowie at Max’s Kansas City in September 1971, signed a management deal with Tony Defries’ Mainman (with whom Bowie would later have a decades-long dispute), reconnected with guitarist James Williamson, and somehow convinced Clive Davis to give him a two-album deal with Columbia. Relocating once again to London, Pop and Williamson failed to find a satisfactory rhythm section and soon re-enlisted Ron and Scott Asheton. Iggy’s Mainman and Columbia deals were as a solo artist, with Williamson his main collaborator and the Asheton brothers secondary. Hence, unlike the two Elektra albums, Raw Power is credited under Iggy and The Stooges.
Raw Power already sounds intense for its time, yet Defries considered the initial material too extreme. Mainman and Columbia also demanded one ballad per side: “Gimme Danger” on side one and “I Need Somebody” on side two. Regardless, Raw Power is a dazzling burst of back-to-basics rock ’n’ roll aggression and raunchiness. Iggy’s screams and wails sound even more deranged than on the first two records, with James Williamson’s guitar the perfect foil. Williamson’s leads are searing and abrasive, his rhythm playing dirty and jagged yet somehow well-organized, an exemplary balance of chaos and control. Iggy’s actual songs on Raw Power might not be as good as Fun House, but Williamson significantly elevates them and the Asheton brothers tie it all together. From Iggy’s first line on “Search And Destroy” (“Look out, honey, ‘cause I’m using technology/Ain’t got time to make no apologies”) to the blown-out closer “Death Trip,” Raw Power still packs a punch that a half-century of heavier music hasn’t diffused.
Of course, a band living this close to the edge can’t last, and The Stooges didn’t. Raw Power hardly sold, so both Mainman and Columbia dropped Iggy and The Stooges. Iggy unraveled further in LA, and by the time the punk explosion happened, he was in France with David Bowie making his debut solo LP The Idiot and Bowie’s Low. Still, there’s no doubt that the Raw Power-era Stooges ignited the first wave of punk. Shortly before Raw Power, on a night when Defries courted American press to see Bowie at the Friars Club in Aylesbury, The Stooges played London’s Kings Cross Cinema for an audience that included future Clash guitarist Mick Jones and The Sex Pistols’ John Lydon.
A Sonic History of Raw Power
Iggy Pop originally mixed Raw Power himself, but Mainman forced him to remix it with Bowie, who said, “Jim, there’s nothing to mix.” Yet they sat at Western Recorders and remixed it for the 1973 album release, possibly from already submixed multitracks. The “Bowie mix” pushed James Williamson’s bright guitars to the front, while Ron Asheton’s bass is hardly there. Iggy’s vocal moves up and down, and the guitar solos bounce back and forth across the soundstage. I like the Bowie mix’s rough and imperfect sound, even though the historical narrative says it’s anemic and flaccid. (Note that Iggy insisted on retaining his own “Search And Destroy” mix for the original LP. Many bootlegs, notably Rough Power, feature Iggy’s original 1973 Raw Power mixes.)
In the 1990s, Columbia/Legacy invited Iggy Pop to closely supervise a remixed CD reissue; if Iggy declined, they’d do it without him anyway. Many consider the 1997 Iggy remix CD definitive, and one of the best acts of rock ’n’ roll revisionism: clipped to hell and back, utterly unlistenable, and instantly fatiguing, presumably on purpose. There still isn’t a louder commercial rock CD. However, the remix, which also uses some different and extended takes (most obviously on “Gimme Danger”), has more of Ron Asheton’s bass, a wider soundstage, and paradoxically sounds more “professional.”
The 1997 remix CD better communicates the intent, but that doesn’t make it any less ear-bleeding. In 2010, then again in 2012, Sony released a digitally-sourced 2LP set with both the original Bowie mix and the 1997 Iggy mix, the latter much more listenable than the CD. Kevin Gray at Cohearent cut the US edition pressed at United, while Record Industry cut and pressed the EU versions (the Music On Vinyl and Sony EU editions are the same). United somehow hasn’t damaged the Kevin Gray Raw Power metal parts, as that cut is still in-print and widely available for $30 (I finally got mine a few weeks ago). The Iggy mix in that set lacks the CD’s mastering distortion, and is quite good if you’re willing to play United roulette.
Now there’s the new VMP Rock edition of the Iggy mix, cut from tape by Ryan Smith and Joe Nino-Hernes at Sterling Sound. (Note that VMP’s AAA Sony reissues say “cut from tapes” while those from other labels specify “original master tape.” Sony doesn’t let their first generation masters outside of their Iron Mountain vault, so I assume they send VMP flat tape copies.) Surprisingly, the 1997 Iggy mix was all-analog, and this pressing shows that the Iggy mix itself is more dynamic than the Bowie mix! Does that mean it’s any good?
I wish I could say that Sterling and VMP hit a home run here. Technically, this is the best you’ll ever hear Raw Power, with vastly improved separation and texture. For instance, focus on the snare drum on “I Need Somebody.” Here, it sounds as if you’re in the control room at CBS Studios, whereas it sounds kind of flat on Kevin Gray’s cut. Iggy’s voice is set further back here, presumably because it’s not compressed to shit, except Raw Power needs to sound powerful and direct. The VMP reissue is a dissected, forensic examination that while initially very impressive, misses the point. It has value, but ends up sounding like an entirely different, less viscerally exciting album.
Whatever source Kevin Gray cut from is more compressed, and as a result sounds “fuller.” It strikes a good middle ground between the unlistenable 1997 CD and the perhaps too digestible VMP LP. I also streamed Mark Wilder’s 50th anniversary 192kHz/24bit remaster of both mixes. The hi-res master of the Iggy mix, now with full dynamics, sounds similar to what Ryan Smith and Joe Nino-Hernes did. If you like those files, you’ll like this VMP pressing even more. The VMP also comes in a spot-varnished tip-on jacket with Andy O’Connor’s 8-page listening notes booklet, and the “Heart Full of Napalm” orange and black 180g vinyl pressed at GZ is high quality (not that you’d notice any small defects here). It’s a nicer package than the Sony twofer, but also costs 1.5x as much and gives you one record instead of two.
Whatever your preference, the all-analog VMP reissue makes a strong case for the Iggy mix, even if I prefer the digitally-sourced Kevin Gray cut of it. The original Bowie mix holds its own, though its issues become more glaring over time. I don’t intend to dissuade anyone curious about the VMP Iggy mix reissue. It’s still a highly worthwhile perspective, even if it’s nowhere near any Raw Power I’ve been accustomed to for years.