Success

April 7, 2011

Success.

Iggy Pop’s declaration of temporary independence, “Success” was nearly rewritten from scratch once Pop got into the studio. He rejected much of Bowie’s proposed arrangement, including the initial vocal melody, which, in Pop’s words, was “some damn crooning thing” (some of it remains in the lead guitar lines). Instead Pop reduced the song: three chords*; no verses, just a series of 8-bar refrains and two 4-bar guitar solos; a half-chanted vocal line built on four beats (‘here comes suc-cess,” “in the last ditch”) with a six-beat line on the move to the F# chord (“here comes my Chi-nese rug”).

Much of “Success” was owed to improvisation. Pop’s metallic-sounding vocal is due to a whim of Hansa engineer Edu Meyer, who plugged Pop’s mike into a Music Man guitar amp, while the infectious, boisterous backing vocals by the Sales brothers were done in one take, with the brothers singing lyrics basically on first sight, having had no rehearsals.

The Sales’ begin as a cheering section, hollering Pop’s lines back to him, then grow progressively unhinged and eventually try to take over the song. In the third refrain, Iggy drops out for two lines but the Sales keep on going, and later they whisper a line ahead of time, as if prompting Pop on stage (“let’s blast off!”). In its last refrains “Success” becomes a goofy duel between Pop and the Sales’, with Pop seemingly trying to get them to crack up (“I’m crazy!” “I’m gonna hop like a frog!” “I’m-gonna-go-out-on-the-street-and-do-anything-I-want!”), and it ends with the Sales’ chanting Iggy’s mutter back to him: “OH SHIT!”

In the early ’70s, Randy Newman had made his “Lonely at the Top” (a song he had intended for Sinatra) a centerpiece of his live act. The joke was that Newman, a cult act at best, was singing wearily about all the money he’s made, all the women he’s gone through. Pop’s “Success” on one level is a similar joke, Pop poking fun at his own rehabilitation, mocking the prospect of future riches.

But while the song is a loopy good-natured prosperity gospel, it’s not that much of spoof. Pop had really just bought a Chinese rug for his Berlin apartment; he thought he was finally going to be a rock star, that he would finally reach the level of comfort in which Bowie existed (though his finances during this period were sometimes catastrophic, Bowie always kept up appearances). So knowing what was to come—the commercial failure of Lust For Life, the chaos of Pop’s subsequent tour, his continued misfortunes in the late ’70s and early ’80s—“Success,” with its gonzo exuberance, now sounds a bit tragic.

As for Bowie, he might have been sidelined for “Success,” but he was watchful as ever: “Success,” with its sense of propulsion, the distortion and build of the vocals, and the guitar riffs that buttress the vocals, is arguably an ancestor to “Heroes,” recorded two months later.

Recorded 4-20 June 1977, Hansa, Berlin. Released as a single in October 1977  c/w “The Passenger” (RCA PB 9160; didn’t chart). It’s never been performed live, as far as I could find, though you’d think this would have been an ideal stage number.

* Much of the song is just B major to E major, with F# cropping up for one line. But I think the opening is D-G-D.

Top: Phillipe Auriac, “Iggy Pop, Paris, 1977.”