I thought, ‘why am I in this in the first place?’…to try to create a type of music that could explode me—like a rocket!—out of the type of life that was planned for me, as an American middle-class person.
Interviewer: Why the title, Blah-Blah-Blah?
It’s a way of saying that I disrespect the things that the media and the world in general are saying to me. It’s a very polite way of saying ‘fuck you.’
Iggy Pop, 1987.
Iggy Pop had been yelling at the television for most of his life, from the Stooges’ “TV Eye” [edit: uh, not quite...see comments] to Bowie’s “TVC-15″, inspired by a Pop dream about a TV consuming his girlfriend. And on Blah-Blah-Blah, TV kept infiltrating Pop’s lyrics—“bad TV that insults me freely” (“Cry for Love”), “raw greed and king TV” (“Hideaway”), “I have no time to watch TV” (“Fire Girl”)—until he made the title track a stream of rants and curses at TV: pacing around the box, hurling abuse at it.
Pop was a lower-middle-class kid from Michigan, who had grown up in the Fifties and Sixties, and while he and the Stooges had done their generational duty and had consumed countless hours of television (Ron Asheton was a huge Star Trek fan), Pop came to consider TV a bad narcotic and the rotten ad-man’s heart of the whole American enterprise. Sure, some of this was the sharp self-righteousness of a newly-sober guy living a fairly ascetic existence in New York. But Pop had no illusions that his own field, rock and roll, wasn’t just as complicit. As he said in an interview with Belgian TV at the time of Blah‘s release:
That phrase, ‘rock and roll,’ doesn’t mean anything to me now. All the governments have gotten behind it, all the corporations are behind it. In America, they use Fifties rock songs to sell corn flakes and baby diapers…I can see a day when rock music could be used during civil riots just to keep people quiet.
Pop said this two years before Navy SEALs, during the Panama invasion, besieged the Vatican embassy, where Manuel Noriega was taking refuge, and blasted, day and night, songs like “Welcome to the Jungle,” Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” Billy Idol’s “Flesh for Fantasy” and the Clash’s “I Fought the Law.” It worked: Guns ‘n’ Roses soon wore down the Vatican, who turned Noriega over to the Americans. If you wanted to say when rock and roll died, Panama City in 1989 is as good a place as any, when loud “rebel” rock anthems were used as sonic weapons by the military to beat down a church’s embassy.
So while “Blah-Blah-Blah” began as a sneer at television, its targets grew as Pop developed his rant. Designers, celebrities, politicians, frozen food manufacturers, commentators: all purveyors of garbage. Its singer is tarred as well. Who is “Iggy Pop”? Just another registered and approved provider of “danger” (it’s as though Pop was predicting becoming the TV pitchman of his old age). At the center of the muck was the corrosive idea of information itself—with Pop howling that we are drowning in televised nonsense, with insurmountable problems reduced to “issues” (“Johnny Can’t Read!!! BLAH BLAH BLAH!!!” and later Pop groans “WE ARE THE WORLD!“); that we have become a fundamentally unserious people, and we deserve whatever ills that we bring upon ourselves. The most spoiled brats on God’s green earth, as Pop mumbles towards the fade. And all of this was before the Internet, mind.
“Blah” has one of Pop’s most prescient and gonzo lyrics, one that would be mainly incomprehensible without the lyric sheet, as Pop’s vocal is sunk in the mix and attacked from all sides by echoes of his voice and rival noisemakers. The first verse finds Pop riffing on his stage name—“Pop” was the ground that he chose to fight on, serving as an off-key voice in pop culture, while “Iggy” symbolizes the grotesque dirty animal that he thought lurked within all of us. “I’m a bull mongrel—that’s me.” The later verses are a string of insults, inside jokes, names torn out of headlines and spat on (Israeli PM Shimon Peres or “Senator Rambo,” which Pop sings like “Rimbaud”)—there’s even an apparent dig at Bowie’s “Blue Jean.”
The song’s a variation of the unceasing stomp of “Lust for Life”, while it also seems a reworking of the vulgar goof “Dancing with the Big Boys,” the improvised two-chord rant session with Bowie that was one of the few human moments on Bowie’s Tonight. Like “Big Boys,” “Blah” is filled with whatever geegaws were on hand in the studio, so Pop’s echoed, distorted, delayed and reverbed vocal fights for space with Casio dog-barks, canned laughs, skips and Kevin Armstrong’s guitar, confined to the right channel, which gives a running commentary of shrieks, hammerings, feedback and little barbed riffs (some of them sound like scraps of rehearsal takes thrown into the soup). The vocal mix is so chaotic at points that it suggests the jumble and clatter of a Mekons track like “Trouble Down South.” Keeping a semblance of order is the Linn Drum and Erdal Kizilcay’s simple bass groove, while his garage band organ riff is pure Steve Nieve, suggesting another rant-inspiration for the track: Costello’s “Pump It Up.”
And for Bowie, the track is the clearest indication of his intentions for his upcoming album: Never Let Me Down, with its “topical” protest songs, its over-crowded production and its barrage of name-dropping, profanity and would-be social commentaries, seems one overlong sequel to “Blah.”
We have drifted away from each other, and in a way I understand why. I’ve never talked to him about this and I probably shouldn’t talk to you about it…I think there was a moment where Jim [Iggy] decided that he couldn’t do a fucking article without my name being mentioned, and I don’t think that’s a very comfortable feeling. I completely understand—I really, really do. Unfortunately, I think Jim took it personally, and that’s a shame because I would have liked to remain closer to him.
David Bowie, interview with Gettingit.com, 5 October 1999.
Is he still pals with Bowie? “No.” When did he last see him? “I can’t remember. I spoke with him on the phone about seven years ago, he got my number and we caught up, had a very cordial, nice conversation. He’s living a certain life, I’m living a certain life, there’s not a cross there right now.”
“Iggy Pop at 62,” Times Online, 17 April 2010.
Blah-Blah-Blah is the end of a partnership that had begun in 1971, when Bowie first met Iggy Pop at Max’s Kansas City, and which had created Raw Power, The Idiot, and Lust for Life. Pop and Bowie would never make another record together, would never again collaborate on songs. Along with the dispatching of Mick Ronson and the soon-to-come severing from Carlos Alomar, it’s one of the saddest moments in Bowie’s career, the sudden close of a generous era.
In this case, the break was apparently Pop’s doing. His sobriety had given him a clearer head, and he now had a taste, at last, of commercial success, which bred in him a desire to succeed “on his own” and not as David Bowie’s occasional reclamation project (so Brick by Brick, Pop’s best-selling (and Bowie-free) record, was a vindication.) Bowie and Pop’s friendship apparently has waned in the past two decades: whatever uses that the two had once found for each other, whatever roles that each had once played for the other, no longer worked.
So here marks the end of Iggy Pop’s intersection with this blog, though there’s a sad footnote on Never Let Me Down, which we’ll get to soon enough. It’s a shame, as he’s been fine company. Here’s to you, Jim Osterberg: hail and farewell.
Recorded late April-May 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland. On the album that it named. (Tom Petty and Bob Dylan’s “Jammin’ Me” seems like a response to “Blah”—with Dylan and Petty piecing together a lyric out of television spots and newspaper articles. & I just realized that there’s a dig at Steve Jobs (?!) in the song).
Top: Jeff Koons, Rabbit, 1986.