Lust for Life

Lust For Life (Pop, 1977).
Lust For Life (Pop, live, 1977).
Lust for Life (Pop, live, 1991).
Lust for Life (Bowie, live, 1996).

So let us start with one average, stupid, representative case: Johnny Yen, the other half, errand boy from the death trauma…His immortality depends on the mortality of others—the same is true of all addicts.

William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded, 1962.

A boy slid off the white bar stool and held out the hand: “Hello, I’m Johnny Yen, a friend of, well, just about anybody.”

Burroughs, The Soft Machine, 1961.

During their days in France and Berlin, Bowie and Pop would watch American television shows on the Armed Forces Network, especially “Starsky and Hutch.” The station ident of the AFN at the time was a radio conning tower (like the old RKO logo) giving off a staccato signal: BEEP-beep-beep, BEEP-BEEP-be-BEEP. One night, watching TV with Pop in his apartment, Bowie took his son Duncan’s ukulele and played the AFN riff on it. The two started building up a song. “Call this one ‘Lust for Life’,” Bowie said.

Pop and Bowie transferred the riff from guitar to drums. Pop had started out as a drummer and he still worked out songs as a form of percussion. So the studio version of “Lust for Life” starts with a 1:10, 30-bar intro, the riff first pounded out on Hunt Sales’ open-tuned toms, soon shadowed by Tony Sales’ bassline. (This is the riff in its primal form—Pop sings most of the second verse over it.)

Sales’ drum riff distills a dozen influences, from the AFN ident to the bassline of “You Can’t Hurry Love” to the swinging, cymbal-rich sound of the jazz drummer Shelly Manne. A beat religion in 4/4, it converts the remaining players: Carlos Alomar and Ricky Gardiner appear, consider counter-melodies or launching a lead solo line (0:05, 0:30), but then, as if pulled into the drums’ orbit, they fall subservient and echo the riff, as does Bowie’s piano. The spell breaks only when Pop brings in Johnny Yen.

Pop improvised much of “Lust for Life”‘s lyric at the mike, though he was pillaging William Burroughs novels for random imagery (flesh machines, hypnotizing chickens). So the song opens with Johnny Yen, the ambisexual gigolo of the Nova trilogy, doing stripteases and getting wrecked on booze and coke (even the classic line “of course I’ve had in the ear before” calls back to Burroughs, as Yen once gets a scalpel shoved in his ear by his sadistic doctor).*

“Lust for Life” is one of the funniest things Pop ever did, bloody with life, filled with Pop non sequiturs that are better than many writers’ entire catalogs (“I’m worth a million in prizes!” and he sings “gimmick called love” like “gimp called love”). Yet there’s a desperation just under the surface, with Pop identifying with Burroughs’ gigolo, realizing he’s become a cartoon, a fool for the world to sport with, and hoping that this record will finally get him off the minstrel circuit. “No more beatin’ my brains,” he mutters in the second verse. “No more sleepin’ on the sidewalk.” Even the title is wordplay—it’ s a homage to Pop’s endless appetites for drugs and self-destruction as well as the over-the-top Vincente Minnelli film about Vincent Van Gogh, another tortured artist who didn’t sell (and who also had in the ear before).

Control addicts prowled the streets trying to influence waiters, lavatory attendants, clochards and were to be seen on every corner of the city hypnotizing chickens.

Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded.

If “Lust for Life” has a visual analogue, it’s Andrew Kent’s photograph used for the LP cover: a beaming, slightly mad-looking Iggy shot in a dressing room during the March ’77 UK tour. It’s the face of a man ready to harangue the world while he charms it, of a confidence man in sight of a score.

Some of what happened was RCA’s blundering. After Elvis Presley died in August ’77, RCA mass-released all the Elvis product they had in the catalog, and the newly-released Lust for Life became hard to find in record stores. It hit #28 in the UK, but once its first printing sold out, few more were issued. The record, the most commercial thing Pop had ever done, just died. And Pop, faced with success at last, bailed. According to Paul Trynka’s bio, Pop locked himself in the Schlosshotel Gerhus with a “small mountain of cocaine,” staring at the record. He decided he hated the cover photo, that he hated “The Passenger,” that it was all crap. He grew estranged from Bowie. A subsequent tour to promote the album started strongly, then fell apart. Pop fired the Sales brothers. He ended his RCA contract by issuing TV Eye Live, essentially a bootleg of a few ’77 shows. By late 1978, Pop was at the start of the board again, trying yet another comeback.

“Lust for Life,” which along with “The Passenger” was Pop’s post-Stooges masterpiece, had too much life in its bones to stay underground. In the mid-’90s, an edited version of the track used in Trainspotting finally gave the song an audience. It was released as a single and sounded fresher than some of the Britpop then on the charts. A decade later came the farcical climax: “Lust for Life” was chopped down to the opening Sales drum riff and Pop’s line about Johnny Yen for a series of Royal Caribbean TV commercials. It’s appalling, of course (its inappropriateness rivaled only by Chef-Boy-R-Dee’s use of “Hot Stuff”)—a wild junkie gluttony rant used to sell family cruise vacations. But the riff remained compelling, trapped in the TV spots like a feral animal in a cage, while lines from Iggy Pop and William Burroughs still echo through thousands of TV sets like the half-remembered language from a twisted dream.

Recorded 4-20 June 1977, Hansa, Berlin. Performed live by Pop in 1977 and 1991. Bowie, drawn back to the song after Trainspotting came out, performed it occasionally during his 1996 summer festival tours (the link above is from the Loreley Festival, 22 June 1996; Bowie’s set was aired on German television).

* Pop also used a sentence from Naked Lunch (“No one talks, no one reads, no one walks”) for the chorus of “Tonight.”

Top: “Still the Oldie,” “Horserace Experts,” Ripon, Yorkshire, 1977.

14 Responses to Lust for Life

  1. Gnomemansland says:

    Whilst from the hard figures Lust for Life may have been a commercial flop – it didn’t seem like it at the time in the UK. All of us Bowie fans snapped it up and played it (along with the Idiot) pretty much non stop. Seem to recall the reviews in the NME were very positive as well. In years to come RCA endlessly re-issued it

  2. Remco says:

    One of my ambitions in life is to make a compilation CD with songs based on the rythm track of ‘You can’t hury love’.This song as well as The Jam’s ‘Town Called Malice’, Elvis Costello’s ‘Love For Tender’ and a little part at he end of Arcade Fire’s ‘Wake Up’ would surely be included.

  3. diamond dog says:

    The album never quite hits the dizzy heights of this fabulous opener, something primal and irresistable about it. The casting in Trainspotting was genius and they could have picked better.
    Id not heard the Bowie version before, not keen , he should stay away from ‘reggae’ (tonight anyone!!!!)his ‘mockney’isms allover it sound daft and the aggressive beat is slowed to a crawl.Its almost like a cocktail group on gangja playing a Teen Spirit by Nirvana!!
    The pounding beat on this is infectious Hunt and Sales make a career best , always wondered what Bowies writing contribution was to this as its too snarling .
    Pops epitaph song i would imagine? and something to be greatly proud of .

  4. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I think the fact that Bowie returned to the song in later years suggests that he had quite a bit to do with it.

    It’s interesting to speculate as to why Lust for Life was not a commercial hit (in the UK); the conditions appeared ideal and, to be fair, Iggy Pop came up with the goods. Sure, there was the death of Elvis Presley and then the decision to issue ‘Success’ as the lead-off single, but own pet theory features the rise of punk. It was the ‘punks’ who denied the ‘godfather of punk’ his commercial reward.
    It’s difficult to overstate the feeling of change in UK youth culture at the time. History tells us that punk happened in 1976, but it wasn’t really known outside a very small circle until the mid ’77. There was a great sense of ‘do-it-yourself’ at this time, which, although not entirely anti-American, was less receptive than normal to outsiders. LFL should have been Iggy Pop’s commercial triumph, but the audience that he needed for that success were too busy listening to The Stranglers, X-Ray Spex or Eddie and the Hot Rods.

  5. Jeremy Earl says:

    One of the great rock songs – nuff said! Massively great production on this track, man, those drums! Years ago when I heard that Bowie had come up with the riff as described in the write up I was so fascinated, it seemed so inspired whilst being prosaic at the same time.

    I’ve always thought there was a bit of a 50’s feel to this track as well – the beat and its lineage possibly?

  6. solraC says:

    Disco Inferno (the UK band of the 90’s) sampled the intro drums on “It’s a kid’s world” , from the Technicolour album.

  7. diamond dog says:

    I don’t think it was a commercial success because RCA did not push it enough, look what happened with Low and Idiot and as said timing due to Presley and Punk.
    I was not too familiar with Iggy Pop till the reissue in 1979 ? on the black label with ‘produced by David Bowie’ on the front of The Idiot, i saw it and picked it up?

  8. Marvin G says:

    Maybe you can help me. I read someone that ‘Lust for Life’, the title itself, is in direct reference to something.. but I forget what. I think I read it online or in some book.. Do you recall any reference point?

    Thanks. It’s bugging me.


    • col1234 says:

      it could be the Vincent Van Gogh movie, as I mentioned in the post, but I don’t know if there’s anything definite—

      • Marvin G says:

        Thanks for the quick response. I was sure that I read something to the effect of Bowie or Iggy taking the title out of some magazine or book or some headline.. but then again I might have just as easily dreamt it. Kinda wish there was a clear cut story/reference to the origin of the song/album title, just as the morse code/AFN story is a general consensus/fact.

        Also, where’s your reference for the Bowie line “Call this one ‘Lust for Life'” from, by the way? Purely curious.

        Thanks again for a such a great blog/read.


      • Marvin G says:

        Nevermind, just saw this video.. haha

  9. Tin man says:

    Hi guys,
    concerning the recording of “lust for life” & its fantastic drums intro, i’d like to focus your attention on a recent interview given by “beautiful but evil” Hunt Sales (taken in web magazine) who performs these days with his new project “The Hunt Sales Memorial”.
    Here’s the link of the web page;

    Ref: The beat goes on for Austin legend
    Hunt Sales – the driving force behind ‘Lust for Life’ – gets behind the skins at the Continental
    By Michael Corcoran
    Special to the American-Statesman

    selected excerpts:

    “With Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life,” Hunt Sales laid down the most famous drum intro in rock history, the rollicking jungle beat heard on TV commercials, in the movie “Trainspotting” and daily on Jim Rome’s sports radio show. But that perch in posterity will have to be reward enough, as Sales has never received a dime in royalties for the distinctive beat. “Lust For Life” was written by Iggy Pop and David Bowie for the 1977 album of the same name; drummer Sales was paid a work-for-hire fee for the sessions.

    “At least ‘Trainspotting’ used the whole song,” said Sales, who has lived in Austin since 1993. “In most cases, they just use my drum beat or copy it.” Sales said the money he was paid should’ve covered only the album, not the music’s re-use in commercials and movies. But litigation is expensive and there has long been a gray area in copyright law about backup musicians receiving royalties. “At this point, I’ve moved on,” he said.

    “Iggy thinks that everything happens because he’s Iggy,” said Sales, who met fellow Michigan native Pop when he and bassist brother Tony were recruited by Stooges guitarist James Williamson to play on the “Kill City” LP in 1975. The Sales brothers and guitarist Ricky Gardiner backed Iggy on a world tour in 1977. Later that year they all went into the Tansa Studios in Berlin, right next to the Wall, to begin work on the “Lust For Life” album. Bowie and Pop were co-producers.

    “The band was so tight after ‘The Idiot’ tour,” Sales said. “I think we made the whole record in five days.” Among the better-known tunes on the LP is “The Passenger,” which has also been used in movies, Vera Wang commercials and as the lead-in instrumental music for “Anderson Cooper 360.” Again, no royalty cheese for Major Tom-Tom.

    “Iggy is a great songwriter and has a lot of good ideas,” Sales said, “and David was one of the only guys to catch on to that at the time.” Iggy directed drummer Sales to come up with a “George of the Jungle”-type rhythm for “Lust.” Sales also incorporated a favorite beat from 11 years earlier — “You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes — as well an intro he heard on Armed Forces Radio.

    Sales threw all those elements together to create an intoxicating rhythm that underscores Iggy’s lyrics about drugs and debauchery. The inclusion of “Lust For Life” at the beginning of “Trainspotting” is routinely included in lists of best-ever uses of music in film.”

  10. Gorm Gullo says:

    Shame on you! How could you illustrate this entry with the sacrilegious CD-version of the LFL-cover? You must make amends :-))

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