For me to properly communicate why I feel that the restored, remixed, remastered version of Iggy Pop and James Williamson’s ill-fated 1977 album Kill City is such a major event for rock snobs, my initial reaction to hearing it—yikes—34-years ago, is probably the best place for me to start, because I thought it sucked back then.
I was an 11-year-old budding rock snob at the time. My introduction to the Stooges had come a year or two earlier, via Lester Bangs rhapsodizing about them in the pages of CREEM magazine and due to the fact that David Bowie had produced Raw Power. To me this was the ultimate double seal of approval and after reading about the music and hearing it described so vividly by Bangs—who’d clearly had his life changed by the album—I just had to hear it for myself. I wanted to have that same sonic baptism Lester Bangs had. I wanted Raw Power to change my life, too. If I could only hear Raw Power, I’d get to enter some sort of druidic inner temple of rock and roll gnosticism. I wanted to hear this album so fuckin’ bad that I simply had no choice in the matter.
There was one problem, though. In 1976, I was a little kid in Wheeling, WV, which was not exactly a place with tons of great record stores (or anything else for that matter) even if I would have had any money. I was SOL when it came to being able to walk into a store and be able to purchase an Iggy Pop album. The nearest place where I could have done so was about an hour and a half away, in Pittsburgh, and that wasn’t ever gonna happen.
This will no doubt seem quaint, today, in the age of consumer enlightenment and instantaneous digital gratification, but back then I had to do at least two day’s worth of unpleasant chores and yard work and then resort to mail order, yes mail order, to be able to get my mitts on a copy of Raw Power. This meant getting my mother to write a check to Moby Disc Records in Los Angeles—one of the sole mail order outlets for prog, punk and imports back then—mailing it to them, waiting for the check to clear and then having them ship it to me. (It you got a defective LP, it was easier just to keep it and grin and bear it when it skipped).
The entire transaction took a little less than six weeks and with each passing day that it didn’t show up in the post, my desire for Raw Power to be completely incredible and totally life transforming—the most amazing thing I’d ever hear—grew and grew. Whenever younger folk look at guys my age with huge record collections with befuddlement, it was this sort of anticipation of a truly holy experience that started us on that road. These sorts of obsessions didn’t always pay off, but often times they did in spades. How could anyone ever feel the same today about something they acquired with a few clicks of a mouse?
When my copy of Raw Power finally arrived—it was a glossy import with a plastic lined inner sleeve, the first I’d seen—I slapped it on the stereo and cranked it to the max my speakers could handle and had every bit the experience that I wanted to—expected to—have. Truly, the speaker-shredding violence of the record did not disappoint! I listened to that ear-bleeding monster a gazillion times that summer and for years afterwards.
The next Iggy Pop album I bought via mail order was Metallic K.O. (Imagine how my mother would have felt if she’d have known what she was helping put into her preteen son’s hands!). I had the one on blue vinyl. I think what it was (and that it was a live album) overshadowed how awful it sounded, because this, too, I played endlessly. After that I bought The Idiot, which I was slightly put off by at first—because it was so different from the primitive insanity of the Stooges’ albums—but I quickly grew to love it.
Then came Kill City. This was on green vinyl, and although it was a studio album, it sounded as bad as Metallic KO did, which is to say, pretty bad. This I found perplexing, thinking it was a creative choice that it sounded so murky and dank. I never really listened to that album. I tried, it just sounded like total dogshit to my young—but reasonably sophisticated—ears. I concluded that the album sucked, didn’t play it for years and eventually I traded it in. Wanting to give it a chance years later, I owned a CD reissue briefly, but it was obviously mastered from the same source—the master tapes were long lost—and probably was played no more than one time before I traded it in, too. It was impossible to listen to that much tape hiss and muck. It sounded like there might be something great lurking underneath it all, but it was still difficult listening.
In 1996, an otherwise pedestrian Iggy compilation called Nude and Rude featured a much improved version of Kill City’s title cut—I bought it for that reason alone—but the rest of the album was sadly not forthcoming.
It would take another fourteen years before Iggy fans would get to hear Kill City in all its unhinged glory. In 2010, James Williamson and engineer Ed Cherney remixed Kill City from the original mulitracks and Alive/Bomp Records released it last Fall. I didn’t hear about it until a week ago and I’ve not stopped listening to it, or raving about it to my rock snob pals, since.
It’s as if a ripsnorting hotrod that was stored in a garage for three decades has gotten a major overhaul, a shithot Big Daddy Roth paintjob and is now screaming down the old highway, blowing off toxic exhaust fumes for the rest of the world to choke on. This isn’t a minor face-lift, it marks a tremendous difference with past releases. NOW it sounds like what it IS: the music recorded by Pop and Williamson after Raw Power. More specifically after Raw Power and the dissolution of the Stooges and before Iggy decamped to Berlin with David Bowie to record The Idiot. Not that it sounds like either one of those records. In many respects, Kill City is more accessible than both.
The back story of Kill City is that it was recorded during 1974, when Iggy had checked himself into a mental hospital to dry out and kick junk. The vocals were laid down during weekend leave. It was never intended to be a proper album, but rather a demo that was supposed to snare a record contract and resurrect Pop’s stalled career. Pop and Williamson were hoping John Cale would produce it, but nothing happened. Eventually Bomp Records gave Williamson enough money to finish the album due to the success of The Idiot and Kill City was put out on the substandard green vinyl pressing in 1977.
Heard in this vastly cleaned-up new version, Iggy’s vocals are nothing short of jaw-dropping. As in the best he’s ever done. Pop might have been in a diminished mental and physical state when this record was made, but to my ears, he sounds every bit the same “street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm” that he did on Raw Power. His performances here are outrageously good. Make no mistake about it, this is prime, primal Iggy Pop from his best period. It’s not like I’m blabbing on about an album’s worth of Avenue B outtakes!
Musically, like most reviewers, I hear something midway between Raw Power and Exile on Main Street (there are even touches of country). Johnny Marr of the Smiths had this to say about James Williamson’s guitar work:
“He has the technical ability of Jimmy Page without being as studious, and the swagger of Keith Richards without being sloppy. He’s both demonic and intellectual, almost how you would imagine Darth Vader to sound if he was in a band.”
Too true! On Kill City he does manage to sound like both Page and Richards within the same song. His treble-cranked leads will claw your eyes out. Williamson chords more furiously than any guitarist I can name. He’s quite ferocious on Kill City, although he’s not intending to recreate the incendiary slash and burn of the album that came before it.
Kill City is certainly more musically sophisticated an album than Raw Power—which is not necessarily to say it’s better. Kill City is much less monolithic—if no less nihilistic—than its predecessor. It’s horned-drenched with squealing 70s saxophones—in a very good way—and is one of the sleaziest sounding records this side of Lou Reed’s Sally Can’t Dance. It’s a tremendous musical high to hear rock and roll this primal and dark and just authentically weird in 2010. What can compare to (finally) hearing Iggy Pop and James Williamson’s Kill City with fresh ears over three decades since its ill-fated 1977 debut?
I tells ya, it’s a knockout, everything that it always should have been what never was. Pass this one by at your own peril, it’s not often that a reissue like this come around. For the first time ever, this significant batch of recordings from the partnership that gave the world Raw Power, can be properly evaluated and enjoyed. It’s nothing less than a gift.
Compare the difference between this (original) version of “Kill City” with the 2010 upgraded version below it. You’ll hear immediately why this is such a reason for rock snob rejoicing.
Below, the 2010 version. I always thought that “Lick It Up” by Kiss sounded like this song.
An interesting short video piece from Fortune magazine about about James Williamson, who after leaving the music industry, got a degree in technical engineering and became a Vice President at Sony.
Bonus clip of Iggy performing “Kill City” in an episode of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt in 1990: