Play It Safe

July 28, 2011

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.