Iggy Pop was stuck at the piano during the early Idiot sessions at the Château d’Hérouville. He played the same set of notes over and over again, at a loss at where to go next. Bowie told him he should write a song about the Stooges, and offered a title: “Dum Dum Days.”
There’s a long tradition of self-mythologizing rock & roll songs, like the Barbarians’ “Moulty,” the Raiders “Legend of Paul Revere,”* or the Mammas & Pappas’ “Creeque Alley,” with variations like Creedence Clearwater’s “Lodi,” where John Fogerty offers an alternate life in which he never made it and was stuck playing one-night stands in bars. These songs usually end in the triumphant present, with the band on top, sometimes mocking their success, sometimes still tainted with dreams. “So I learned to play the drums, and got myself a band, and now we’re starting to make it,” sang Moulty, the Barbarians’ drummer.
But by the time of “Dum Dum Boys,” the Stooges’ story was long over; it had ended in recriminations, death, and wasted promise. Their records had never sold, many of the band had become junkies, and the Stooges hadn’t broken up as much as they had disintegrated. “Dum Dum Boys” opens with the tally: the dead, Zeke Zettner, who overdosed on heroin in 1973, and Dave Alexander, the Stooges’ original bassist, who died of pneumonia after being admitted to a hospital for alcohol-fueled pancreatitis in 1975; and the discarded, Ron Asheton, stuck at home in Ann Arbor, and his successor James Williamson, who Pop curtly notes has “gone straight.”
Pop offered legend based on fact: he did first see Ron and Scott Asheton standing on an Ann Arbor street (in front of Discount Records, where the then-James Osterberg worked), and they were a set of wild boys, described as Ann Arbor’s own set of droogs by those who knew them. Iggy gave them ambition, the Ashetons gave him ugly reality (Iggy “felt he was an outcast, but Ronnie, Scotty and I, we were outcasts,” Stooge Bill Cheatham told Pop’s biographer Paul Trynka.)
For Bowie, Pop offered in “Dum Dum Boys” a non-fictional rewrite of “Ziggy Stardust,” its lyric the perspective of a Ziggy who had somehow survived, digging up shards of the past, wondering whatever had become of the Spiders, who he had feasted on, then abandoned. Bowie was responsible for “that guitar arpeggio that metal groups love today,” as Iggy later said. Bowie had the guitarist Phil Palmer replay the arpeggio, mimicking his original performance note for note. (Bowie had Palmer recut the opening line for dozens upon dozens of takes, with exacting instructions, like “bend that note more,” Palmer recalled to Trynka.)
Palmer was Ray Davies’ nephew, and had been summoned by Bowie (via a 2 AM phone call) to Munich for overdub work. He recalled walking into a darkened room full of guitars and drum kits (the property of Thin Lizzy, who were recording during the day—Palmer would help himself to Thin Lizzy’s collection of pedals and other gear), while Bowie and Pop sat in the control room, giving cryptic instructions.
“Dum Dum Boys” was sequenced to lead off The Idiot‘s second side—it was the ruin of the past set against the airless future of the album’s closer “Mass Production.” A requiem and a feral boy’s tale, it’s the bruised heart of the record. Pop, like Keith Richards, would be fated to survive where so many of his friends fell, winding up a withered monument to excess. The song’s title was its greatest legacy, as it named a Norwegian band and, more recently (and gender-altered), a California one. It was also Stone Gossard’s suggested name for what would become Mother Love Bone, the ur-Pearl Jam.
Recorded July-August 1976, mainly at Musicland, Munich.
*The Raiders’ guitarist, Freddy Weller, cut his own “Legend of Paul Revere,” in 1979. The earlier “Legend of Paul Revere” was recorded when the group was at their peak and is slyly cynical, but Weller’s sequel is cold and lurid: the scorecard the band kept for groupies, the drugs, the eventual sell-outs (“Now Paul’s big in land deals and Mark is a company exec.”)
Top: Anthony Catalano, “Boro Park—Skateboards Old School Boys, 1976.”