Mass Production

Mass Production.

I would always talk to [Bowie] about how much I admired the beauty of the American industrial culture that was rotting away where I grew up. Like the beautiful smokestacks and factories—whole cities devoted to factories.

Iggy Pop, quoted in Jim Ambrose’s Gimme Danger.

The first thing you hear on “Mass Production,” the eight-minute industrial horror movie that finishes off The Idiot, is a synthesizer fading in, like a machine drawing breath; it’s suddenly confined to the right channel, where it now drones a single note, like a foghorn, and it’s answered by four piping notes in the left channel, a mechanical birdsong that repeats through much of the track (though often drowned in the mix). Dennis Davis’ drum fill kicks the song into a semblance of life, and Iggy Pop appears, sounding like a man holding a hostage. “Beforrrre you GO,” he drones, “Do me a FAV-orrr…Give me a NUM-berrr…”

Pop initially sings his lyric for “Mass Production” (modern life is so dehumanizing that finding a new girl is like finding a new toaster, while the singer eventually realizes he’s just as disposable a commodity) in a voice that Lester Bangs, reviewing the record for Stereo Review, called “synthezomboid.” Pop eventually builds to a groaning run of phrases that he inflicts more than he sings, placing emphasis on whichever sounds he can strangle the most: “you’re not NOTHING NEW,” “it’s THERE in the MIRROR,” “breasts turn BROWN—so WARM and so BROWN.”

The bedrock of the track was a tape loop of “overloaded industrial noises” that Laurent Thibault had assembled for Bowie and Pop—Thibault pieced the tape together in sections, then made a master tape of the sets of mixes. Thibault recalled Bowie sitting for an hour watching the tape spool around and around. “Like a child transfixed by a train set,” he told Paul Trynka. The tape, unrolled, would run the length of the room.

Bowie and Pop were inspired by Pop’s memories of seeing a machine press at Ford Motor’s River Rouge plant. “A great piece of heavy metal cut in a form,” pounding out a new fender every minute, as Pop later described it. The oppressive “Mass Production,” however, is far from any sort of triumphal Futurism; there’s no nobility of the machine found here, just a nihilistic realization that even the cold promise of machinery is a lie. If “Mass Production” has a visual analogue, it’s David Lynch’s street sets for Eraserhead: a city seemingly purged of human beings and reduced to abandoned train tracks, lifeless tenements and an encroaching darkness.

“Mass Production” is four verses (one instrumental) centered on a single chord (F7) and a single riff (on guitar and synthesizer, both likely played by Bowie), and two 12-bar bridges, which come as the track’s meager relief, with guitar arpeggios and the release of a chord change, while Pop’s vocal has a shred of warmth in it despite singing lines “though I try to die/you put me back on the line”: salvation as reprogramming. The instrumental verse is dominated by detuned synthesizers, which return towards the fadeout, their singsong patterns sounding like mockery; the track ends where it began, with the foghorn and birdsong noises, industry and industrialized. Draining to listen to and willfully abrasive, “Mass Production” offered the future: Joy Division, among others, starts here.

Recorded July-August 1976, at Château d’Hérouville, Musicland, Munich and possibly Hansa Studios, Berlin.

Top: Jean-Luc Weber, “La Sablière, Rouen, France,” 1976.

5 Responses to Mass Production

  1. Jeremy Earl says:

    I always remembered a quote from some Iggy interview in which he states something like: ” The Idiot- how could two friends end up making music like that!”

    I’m certain he had this particular song in mind!

    One on the most nihilistic endings to an album ever…

  2. diamond dog says:

    A great album which rewards the listener with every listen mass productions industrial oppresive noisescape closes the best side and foretells of more avant garde experiments to come from Bowie pushing the envelope and his fans to the max whilst Pop would return with a more forward looking brighter places.

  3. post it says:

    Also nicely prefiguring the whole industrial music scene.

  4. Tin Man says:

    A true “Post-punk genre” track recorded close to the first punk spurts. A great tune made by a great team. Sounds great even today!

  5. Asylums with doors open wide says:

    “Mass Production” offered the future: Joy Division, among others, starts here. Ian Astbury from The Cult: “This is very introspective. Some of the gigs were like temples where you’d go and worship and listen to some really philosophical stuff. Here was a young man who was very concerned with the internal mechanisms of the emotional process. And I know Ian Curtis was very influenced by Berlin-period Bowie and Iggy and he was also a Morrison fan.”
    Also, Jaz Coleman about Closer: “Such a fucking important record. My memories of this album are to do with going through East Germany in the corridor to West Berlin. They used to have all the SS20s [nuclear missiles] pointed towards England and you used to have to drive through this. It was wonderful going through East Germany in those days and we would always put on Joy Division for this run, and the last time we did it we had just heard Ian had died and we’d just been on tour with them. I have this lasting memory of seeing Ian Curtis holding hands with his girlfriend and he looked so in love, he wouldn’t let go of her, this couple, just totally in love. I remember playing High Wycombe with Joy Division and looking into the dressing room, and Joy Division were all sitting round all glum, then looking into Killing Joke’s dressing room where it was party central and thinking what different bands they were. They used to call us southern stomp and Joy Division were northern gloom and they’d put football scores to see who pulled the best gig off because we used to share the headline slot. That’s what it was like, there was a lot more fraternity in the industry than there is now. So that record as a soundtrack to going through East Germany is such a great, great thing.
    Conny Plank, who did our third alum, he really rated that record as well, he loved Martin Hannett’s production and it really is an incredible sounding piece of music. I haven’t seen Peter Hook since the nineties but we send messages to each other via people. Peter wanted to be in Killing Joke and we ended up recording some songs at Peter’s and it sounded like a real hybrid of Killing Joke and Joy Division. Killing Division. (laughs) We did all these recordings and there was some beautiful music. I think he’s frightened of us ‘cos he quit drinking. So have I, but I don’t think he knows that! [Laughs] We did everything to excess and I haven’t see him since those days when we were all participating, as it were…” (from The Quietus)

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