January 11, 2011

Funtime (Iggy Pop, 1976).
Funtime (Pop and Bowie, Dinah!, 1977).
Funtime (Pop and Bowie, live, 1977).
Funtime (Pop and Bowie, live, 1977).
Funtime (Pop, live, 1979).

Can I have some fun time? Might get killed!

Iggy Pop, 1977.

The last song that the Sex Pistols played before they split was the Stooges’ “No Fun.” Squatting on stage at the Winterland in San Francisco, glaring at the audience as if willing death upon them all, John Lydon tore open the song, singing the lines flatly but with malice, cursing himself, cursing his band, his manager, seemingly rock music itself. The word “fun” itself seemed to disgust Lydon—he had always hated rock & roll’s promises of hedonism, its easy good times, its unearned freedoms. At Winterland, exhausted and about to quit the band, Lydon used “No Fun” to flagellate himself, as well as anyone trying to enjoy his performance.

Iggy Pop’s “Funtime,” recorded two years earlier, is an echo of this performance, upstream in time. On its surface (and in some of its subsequent live performances and covers) it’s a basic rock & roll smash-it-up song, in line with something like Little Richard’s “Rip It Up” (“I don’t need no heavy trips/I just do what I want to do”). A guy’s out on the town, leering at girls, looking for action, his friends goading him on. But something’s off about the song, which is sordid and menacing. The lyric starts out in the first person singular, then moves to the plural (“we want some! we want some!”), giving the song a taste of the mob.

Bowie had told Iggy to sing the track “like Mae West,” to play the bawd, not the john, and whenever Bowie and Iggy shout “fun!” on the downbeat of every other bar, they sound like bouncers. The distorted chorus vocals churn around in the mix, with Bowie’s vocal starting out on top and Pop finishing off the phrase—they seem to be mimicking a train whistle in part, on the “all aboard!” lines, as well as some late-night television commercial aired from hell.

As with many of the Idiot tracks, there’s a mechanical circularity to the song—a four-bar chorus loops into a four-bar verse, over and over again (as with “Sister Midnight,” it’s mainly a one-chord song (the power chord D5—just the root note and the fifth), with the only variations being the Bb and C chords that begin the chorus, and the E chord in the bridge). The pattern’s only interrupted by a guitar eruption in the bridge, likely Bowie; it starts with two slashing chords and then trails off, unable or unwilling to advance, let alone resolve. Neither do the drums vary their deadened assault, with only processed cymbal hits as accents: the drums’ airless, dense sound is likely due to the Eventide Harmonizer (an ancestor of Autotune, and an important tool for the Idiot/Low period, as we’ll see). Piano and bass drone underneath it all, while guitar overdubs are smeared over the track, with a taste of Keith Richards’ “Satisfaction” riff buried in the mix (which Blondie, when they covered “Funtime” in 1979, made obvious). Iggy finishes it off with a scream.

Recorded July-August 1976, at either/both Château d’Hérouville, France, and Musicland, Munich. A recording from Iggy’s 1977 tour (the Agora in Cleveland) was included on Iggy’s contractual obligation live record TV Eye Live 1977.

Top: Ulrike Ottinger, “Lil Picard’s birthday party at the gallery Werner Kunze, Berlin, 1976.”