Play It Safe

Play It Safe (Iggy Pop).

If Bowie left the Seventies (relatively) cleaned up and prosperous, in gear for the upcoming decade, Iggy Pop exited in a shambles, with much of the salvage work of the Idiot/Lust for Life era unraveled by the typical chaos.

In late 1978, Pop was living a fairly domestic life in West Berlin with his girlfriend, the photographer Esther Friedmann. Things were on the up: he had a new contract with Arista and he released a fine, still-underrated record in April 1979, New Values, which was a minor success in the UK and produced a few FM radio hits like “I’m Bored.'” The next record, Iggy’s circle agreed, could be the big one—at last, a commercial smash. So Iggy set about assembling a punk rock supergroup for the sessions, including former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock, former Rich Kid Steve New and Barry Andrews, whose manic organ playing had defined the first two XTC albums.

But the result, Soldier, was a mess and didn’t sell. The album sessions, held in a remote Welsh farm, were plagued by sloth, drugs and paranoia, with producer/former Stooge James Williamson pacing the studio with a bottle of vodka and a gun, ordering retake after retake, or spending days trying to create a 48-track console by synchronizing tape machines. Iggy, who had just come off a tour and had little time to rehearse, was having trouble with lyrics. The general vibe was awful.

Then Bowie appeared—as Pop recalled to Paul Trynka, Bowie showed up looking like “the Scarlet Pimpernel,” wearing an all-red outfit (including a cape). Bowie, who was worried about Pop, soon tried to lighten the mood. Gathering the musicians around him (including some Simple Minds members who showed up when they heard Bowie had arrived), Bowie spun tales of London lowlife, particularly the notorious John Bindon, a former gangster (an alleged Kray Brothers enforcer) turned actor (Get Carter, Performance) who had once run security for Led Zeppelin and who was known for having an enormous penis, which, Bowie said, was a favorite of Princess Margaret’s.*

That was enough for Iggy. He went into the vocal booth and soon improvised an obscene rap about Bindon and the Princess that spread into a rant on how being a criminal was like being a rock star, was better than being a rock star. The refrain came from the idea that the safest thing you can be is a criminal. I’m gonna play it safe! Iggy beamed. The band perked up, found a groove centered around a droning synthesizer line. Bowie went around the studio, politely offering suggestions, tweaking sounds. Williamson, angered by what he saw as Bowie’s usurpation, retaliated by sending a dose of feedback into Bowie’s headphones.

Bowie (and the disgruntled Williamson) left Wales the next day. Later that year Bowie apparently had second thoughts, asking for “Play It Safe” to be cut from the album. Instead the track was edited, losing not only the Princess Margaret verses but most of Steve New’s guitar (Pop allegedly was angry that New wasn’t going to tour with him, though there’s an apocryphal story about New punching Bowie when New thought Bowie was hitting on his girlfriend**). The final Soldier, which limped out in early 1980 and promptly sank without a trace, suffered from a poor mix, with a batch of songs that ranged between the funny-dumb (“I’m a Conservative”) and the dumb-dumb (“Dog Food“).

Even in its bowdlerized form, “Play It Safe” was the best track on a mediocre record. Iggy’s improvised lyric starts with Dwight Eisenhower and ends with the Son of Sam and Jim Jones, and there’s a poignancy to how Pop sings the title line—it’s the sound of a man trapped in his own diminishing legend.

Recorded ca. September 1979, Rockfield Studios, Monmouthshire, Wales. On Soldier, released February 1980. Trynka’s Open Up and Bleed, particularly his interview with Barry Andrews, is the main source for this entry.

* Among Bindon’s many girlfriends were, reportedly, Christine Keeler, Dana Gillespie and Angela Bowie. The latter two, one assumes, provided Bowie with his anecdotes.

** If this story is true, 1979 was a year Bowie got punched out a lot, most notoriously in the Lou Reed brawl in London.

Top: Pete Shacky, “Four Afghan Hounds,” West Berlin, 1979.

16 Responses to Play It Safe

  1. Jeremy Earl says:

    I had absolutely no idea about this one. More later, when I’m not drunk….

  2. pinstripehourglass@gmail.com says:

    That story you linked is absolutely heartbreaking. Poor David, he was just trying to help!

    Perhaps he was succesful, though. Reed actually did start getting his act together as he entered the new decade, finally culminating in 1982’s The Blue Mask (a fantastic album, by the way; it was Fernando Saunders’ bass playing on that album as well as Tina Weymouth’s on Fear of Music that inspired me to take up bass), the first in a trio of critically acclaimed and commercially well-recieved (for Lou Reed) albums.

    Reed is certainly an odd duck – is there ANY other rock artist from the ’60s for whom the ’80s were an artistic high, as opposed to a low?

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Good point. Thinking about it for 20 seconds all I can think of is Paul Simon? The LP he did in South Africa – Graceland. I’m not a fan but it did really well and the music was good commercial music. Other than that Lou could be all alone.

      • Neil Young had his lows and highs and the 80’s, too. Rust Never Sleeps capped his 70s output – Hawks and Doves and Re-Ac-Tor being good old stuff followed by not so good new stuff. His Geffen output – coincident with dealing with his newborn son’s disabilities – was odd, at best. Not bad, just Neil. As they say, he was going through some shit. Proving Geffen may be a genius, but scores zero in the empathy department. He ended the 80s ready for his spot as the Godfather of Grunge (I hate that phrase too.), but I wouldn’t say it was his best period.

  3. At the risk of thread-crapping, Iggy Pop must be a really, really nice person when he’s not wasted.

  4. Jeremy Earl says:

    I’m not drunk now. So did Bowie co-write this one? Or did he merely play the role of arranger/inspiration? Was this info in Open Up and Bleed? I’ll have to read it one day, we have it in the library I work in too.

    • col1234 says:

      yes, Bowie is a co-composer, officially, hence its inclusion. What he actually wrote is up for conjecture.

      • Jeremy Earl says:

        Probably the keyboard drone! It’s a pretty good song actually. I’ve never heard that album even though I’m an Iggy fan.

  5. Everything said about “Soldier” being sloppy and dumb is absolutely true.
    But….. I do really like Soldier in its own doofy way.
    The two bonus tracks on the newest CD releases are arguably better than anything on the album though.

  6. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Rather than ask for the track to be removed, why didn’t he just skip the ‘credit’? He doesn’t seem to have invested that much in the song, and I doubt that he needed the little money it would bring in. Why not just leave his name off?
    I wonder how they go about deciding upon who gets credited. George Murray and Dennis Davis get a writing credit on Breaking Glass, but nothing on Stay; Mick Ronson never got anything but Reeves Gabrels got a whole album; John Lennon strummed a couple of bars and sang backing vocals and got credit for Fame. Are there any more?

    • col1234 says:

      yeah, credits on DB songs/albums are an odd thing. All the “Man Who Sold the World” tracks really should have been Bowie/Ronson/Visconti, for example.

      i think the “Play it Safe” story is that DB was more worried about Iggy running afoul of UK libel laws if he actually had released a song that talked, in graphic detail, about Princess Margaret hooking up with John Bindon.

      • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

        Well, Lennon getting credit on “Fame” was partly a good marketing move – the Lennon association helped “Fame” get a lot of airtime.

  7. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Didn’t know that about Play it Safe. I only ever heard the song once and that was live. It left quite an impression- I’ve always been able to remember the hook- and I thought it was very good – until I listened to it again on this site. (My memory had plut Bowie on backing vocals!)
    Surely chunks of MWSTW should have been ‘Ronson /Visconti/ Bowie’!
    I think Eno said something like credits were down to who was paying the bills, but in that case why give ‘Warren Peace’ a credit?

  8. diamond dog says:

    Not at all familiar with this track so many thanks ….somthing new ish. The 80’s was a tough time for many giants from the 70,s but let’s not forget I’m not alone in loving Let’s Dance at the time and not all his output in the decade was shit. He did some great singles ..absolute beginners this is not america …when the wind blows most of blah blah blah.

  9. Rufus Oculus says:

    I love this track but never knew about the John Bindon/Princess Margaret story. Thanks for sharing that. By the way, the John Bindon story I heard was that he used to be able to balance a pint glass on his huge penis. Fancy.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Soldier’s not so bad. At least it’s an entertaining mess. Too many of the songs seem to wander aimlessly, but at least Iggy’s personality is all over it.

    It’s like his version of The Bells (why is that the comparison that comes to mind?)

    Anyway, Knockin’ ’em Down (In the City) rules.

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