Just when you thought it pretty damn weird that the Stooges have been back together for nearly a decade, their tale has taken another turn, and doesn’t seem to be sputtering. Despite the tragic loss of original guitarist, Ron Asheton in 2008, the band has decided to keep kicking and made the next logical step last year by bringing back guitarist James Williamson, who took over lead git when Ron Asheton moved to bass for the band’s third and final album, 1973’s Raw Power. The band’s recent induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and a slot on the upcoming All Tomorrow’s Parties New York fest fit right into the plan. And now Raw Power is being reissued next month by Sony/Legacy, featuring a massive stash of demos and a DVD documentary that can be had in several configurations, including a deluxe edition available only through the band’s website. Turns out this isn’t the first connection to Sony for Williamson, who completely dropped out of the music scene altogether after the Stooges fallout and a few Iggy Pop solo recs dusted their working relationship at the end of the ’70s.
“By the time Iggy and I stopped working together,” Williamson remembers, “the rock & roll business had become uninteresting to me. And the computer industry was just starting and was very, very exciting to me. So I made a conscious decision to put all my energies towards that. I spent all these years working in that industry with no regrets.” Indeed. Williamson nabbed a gig in the burgeoning computer engineering division at Sony, eventually becoming vice president.
After Ron Asheton passed away, Williamson was back in touch with Iggy a bit, chatting about their old friend. Then later in the year, word that they would be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame had the present-day Stooges line-up considering a reunion for the induction ceremony. “But I had a day job at Sony with no intention of playing with these guys,” Williamson admits. “I told them I’d maybe do the Hall of Fame thing with them, and that’s it. But Sony is not immune to this economy. All of a sudden they started handing out early retirement packages. I took the package, and then I said to myself, ‘You know what? These guys were my buddies in our twenties, and they really couldn’t do this without me.’ I was the last remaining Stooge! So I decided I owe it to these guys, and said, ‘Let’s do it!’ And they had it all set up anyway. I didn’t have to do much besides show up and play the guitar.”
But aside from fiddling around with lap steel guitars on weekends, Williamson had barely tuned a six-string in years. “Yeah, when we decided to do this, I had a lot of woodshedding to do. But the good news is a lot of the Raw Power music I wrote, and all of it is in my style, so it’s natural for me to try it again. I seriously started practicing last June, and by August, I’d say I was decent. Then in September I had my first gig with a local band called the Careless Hearts, a band who knew Stooges songs and had offered me a chance to play with them. We did one gig in my town, San Jose, California, and that was fun. The Stooges had a few more rehearsals in L.A. and then we went to San Paolo, Brazil for our first gig. It was like 30,000 people—by far the largest crowd I ever played in front of—but once you’re out there, you just play. It was great!”
Though the Stooges have been reformed for awhile—with original drummer Scott Asheton and Mike Watt on bass—Williamson points out that they hadn’t been playing the Raw Power material, and they had to work up those songs all over again. Not to mention the job of getting the reissue together.
“They consulted me, and I approved tracks through Iggy and such, did some footage on the DVD. But it was mostly Iggy putting it together.” Heavy Stooges fanatics know what an endless bounty the long, stop-and-start Raw Power sessions birthed, spread out over countless bootlegs through the years. Was it confusing for even the Stooges to sift through the outtake options? “Yeah,” Williamson says, “I’d completely forgotten about the outtakes. So when those came up, that was really fun. It was like an archeological dig, ‘Hey, I remember doing that! That was really cool.’”
The reintroduction of Williamson on the heels of the Rock Hall induction has been fodder for blog debates, considering it took the Hall about 10 years too many to finally bestow the nod. But the situation does neatly parallel the original evolution of the Stooges, even to the agreement that this latest incarnation would be called Iggy and the Stooges to differentiate the Asheton-era monster stomping jams from Raw Power’s more succinct, stinging punk-rock templates.
How that chiseling took place is well covered in a recent book, Dave Thompson’s Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell, which documents the managerial miasma of Mainman Productions, who, in the early ’70s, had David Bowie, Lou Reed and the Stooges on their roster. When people usually think of the Stooges, the place that comes to mind is dying industrial-era Detroit, or maybe the infamous über-debauched Hollywood Hills of the band’s final months. But as this book reminds us, when the band’s perhaps most influential record (and their best selling one) was being made, the Stooges were ensconced in London for a year, where their management team demanded they stay in the studio working up songs while they went off to America with Bowie.
“That’s partially true,” Williamson recalls. “We certainly wanted to be playing gigs, and we only got to play one. We had such an impact on the English audience in that one show—if in a negative way because the crowd got kind of violent—that Mainman was afraid of what might happen beyond that, like the police busting us or something. We did see a few bands while we were there—Marc Bolan, a couple Bowie shows, a Lou Reed show—but mostly we were in the studio doing our thing. For a few months, it was 8:00 or 9:00 at night until 5:00 in the morning every day. The fact of the matter was we had a record deal with Columbia, and we had to make a record. That was on all our minds. So we rehearsed a lot. But Mainman never understood our music. When we’d bring them demos, they would continuously reject them. Eventually, Bowie got popular, and they started thinking about breaking him in the U.S. and they were consumed with him. But that was actually the saving grace of Raw Power, because that allowed us to be in the studio without somebody supervising us. We got to do what we wanted to do. They didn’t pay attention to us at all anymore at that point, which was perfect!”
The time-shined legend is that that one live 1973 gig showed the British crowd a more exciting, dangerous live act in the face of early ’70s corduroy folk and qualuded stadium rock—or even the more entertaining glam movement. It was an eruption that must’ve planted ideas into the drunken heads of the street thugs slumming around London’s still bombed-out outskirts who would soon be firing up the 1975 punk explosion.
“But the punk thing started happening two or three years after the Stooges were done,” Williams says. “Now frankly, I do think we were partly responsible for a lot of that because of that album, Metallic KO (the nihilistic, sloppy-ass live recording of the band’s final show, not released until 1978). I think unfortunately the violence on that record—which was not typical of a Stooges show—was glamorized by the media, and the punk movement itself. It resulted in this crap like people throwing stuff and spitting and all that. It’s an unfortunate side effect of the stuff we were doing. But I don’t remember any of that happening in the crowds while we were in London. It wasn’t so much that the audience was really violent. It’s just that no one had ever seen a singer come out and really get in the audience and confront them. They were visibly shaken by the whole thing.”