Iggy Pop and the Stooges in Gimme Danger, a Magnolia Pictures release. Image via Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures / Danny Fields c/o Gillian McCain
There’s an often cited quote by producer Brian Eno, who said in 1982 that the Velvet Underground didn’t sell that many copies of their debut album, but that everyone who bought it started their own band. The same thing could be said of the Stooges.
The hard-rockin’, hard-livin’ band hailing from Ann Arbor, Mich. is revered by countless rock groups from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, yet their self-titled first album, released in 1969 (and produced by Velvet Underground’s John Cale) didn’t exactly burn up the charts, and neither did Fun House (1970) or Raw Power (1973).
Instead, they went through the prototypical rock band cycle: drug problems, shady records deals and break-ups in a short-lived existence. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s reserved but worthwhile documentary Gimme Danger starts with the group at their lowest point. It’s a device useful for dramatic effect, but it also serves another function. It’s a testament to how the music they created outlived all the bad times because it was so pure and had an energy that was never extinguished.
Formed in the late ’60s, the Psychedelic Stooges (as they were first known) consisted of vocalist Iggy Pop (humorously credited by his government name, James Osterberg, in the film), brothers Ron Asheton and Scott Asheton on guitar and drums, and Dave Alexander on bass. (Guitarist James Williamson is the other most consistent member of the Stooges amongst an ever-revolving door of players through the band’s volatile history.) Their explosive sound was not unlike the kind that the steel machines in a Detroit power plant make, but it was whipped into a whole lot of heavy, thumping rhythm.
The Stooges were one of the key groups that gave birth to punk (the Sex Pistols covered the Stooges’ “No Fun”), not just musically, but also in attitude. Iggy wouldn’t think twice about cutting himself and bleeding all over the stage and is said to have invented stage-diving (painfully so, as you’ll see when you peep the footage). But even more important, there was an ideology there. All these years later, Iggy makes his disdain for commercialized music quite clear. If you’re gonna do music (or any art), do it honestly, he seems to be saying.
The doc doesn’t spend much time on Iggy Pop’s long solo career, but does trace back his beginnings as a drummer who ventured out to Chicago to play with black musicians and chronicles the various garage bands the members had as teenagers. In a bit of entertaining trivia, Iggy reveals how ancient kids TV shows like Howdy Doody and Soupy Sales influenced his early writing, and in perhaps the film’s funniest moment, tells the story of how Ron Asheton called Moe Howard, of the classic comedy team the Three Stooges, to ask permission to use the name the Stooges.
Although they came up under the wing of the radical MC5, the Stooges are upfront about shying away from politics. They lived in their own world. During their formative days, the band lived together and shared everything equally—money, food, and other necessities. This type of communal living flies in the face of present day consumerism, where living beyond your means and creating the illusion of a lifestyle one can’t afford is so commonplace on Instagram.
The Stooges were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010. It’s a nice gesture and it seemed to mean something to the surviving members (Alexander passed away in 1975, as did Ron Asheton in 2009, and Scott Asheton, whom Jarmusch interviewed in the film, died in 2014). But their legacy was solidified a long time ago. That respected musicians like Mike Watt, of Minutemen, and J Mascis, of Dinosaur Jr., would be instrumental in resurrecting the band decades later speaks to that.
Rock music is dying—or is already dead, depending on whom you ask—but its spirit should not be forgotten. Iggy and The Stooges gave it their all, and in the process showed why rock couldn’t survive in a safe corporate world: It needs more danger.