The Stooges are a tricky proposition on vinyl. Depending on who you talk to, they only have either two or three releases (four with Metallic K.O. for the really hardcore) The purists point to the 1969 Elektra debut and the 1970 follow up Fun House as being the holy grail of Stooges lore, the only recordings featuring the original band of Iggy Pop, brothers Scott and Ron Asheton (drums and guitar) and Dave Alexander (bass). A band that horrified Elektra Records label staff, John Cale their producer and pretty much anyone else who came into earshot. Known for a stripped down proto punk rock sound-virtuosos these guys were most definitely not. (you could make a strong case for the Stooges being the first actual punk band). Early shows leaned on an avant-garde bent: Scott pounding away on amplified oil drum percussion, vacuum cleaners and appliances whirring into microphones, all of this creating a pre-industrial music sonic cacophony. (Sadly, this stage of their career is the least documented by any recordings). In the days of flower power, this band was distinctly anti-hippie in look and vibe.
Their first album made few inroads as they were viewed by their label as the little cousins of the other more well known Detroit band, the political heavyweights MC5. The Doors-esque album cover of their debut highlights Iggy’s nascent snarl, both in photo and in sound. John Cale of Velvet Underground fame did all he could to tame these wild beasts from Detroit, and managed to capture their grim outlook in what could be termed a palatable style. (original recording sessions had the Stooges turning the amps up to aircraft landing volume and letting fly. When a horrified Cale explained that in the studio, things had to be less raucous and more controlled, the band just shrugged and said “That’s how we play”. Cale eventually acquiesced and made the necessary adjustments to the dials in the red). The label was unenthused by their new signing, but the infectious enthusiasm of Danny Fields, Elektra’s ‘in house hippie’ and publicist responsible for getting the Doors into the national spotlight kept the dollars flowing and the second album began to take shape. Funhouse, released in 1970, was an attempt to re-create the sonic maelstrom of their early days. Left mostly to their own devices in the studio, the band recorded what many consider their definitive album, culminating in the cacophonous LA Blues, a five minute free form explosion of sound that is akin to a recording of a riot in progress, all accompanied by wailing saxophone courtesy of prospective new band member, Steve Mackay. Overall, the maelstrom of sound the Stooges reveled in had been somewhat captured into the grooves. The public, however, was not enthralled. The burgeoning heroin habits of most of the band, the addition of the divisive James Williamson, the sacking of Alexander and the lack of record sales led to the early demise of the Stooges Mark 1. It seemed over.
When Iggy met David Bowie at the end of 1971, it was decided to give the band one more try, this time on Columbia Records with Bowie as the producer. Raw Power, recorded in 1972 is looked upon today as a punk rock masterpiece, but back then it was only mildly more successful than its predecessors-almost cracking the top 50 in America (likely due to Bowie’s involvement). Metallic K.O., a lo-fi recording of the last Stooges show ever in 1974, and released in 1976 as almost an afterthought, brought an end to the main releases of the band. Oddly this last release was their largest selling album to date.
Which brings us to Live at Ungano’s. You can really be forgiven for missing this release, a lost 1970 NYC recording that had circulated for a while as a bootleg cassette. Starting with the difficult Metallic K.O. in ’76, the last twenty years are replete with Stooges releases of dubious origin. Most releases are light on source information like dates and places, and light on quality has been the benchmark for, let’s see: eleven live albums and six compilations in the last twenty years. Genuine Stooges fans got scarred again and again by sub par bootleg quality recordings being foisted upon the public as ‘new found gems’ and ‘rare complete concert!’. Some beautiful packaging surrounds some of the most diabolical sounding recordings you could ever imagine being put to vinyl (or CD). Some releases literally were taken from those old school tape recorders your parents used to play with-size of a school book with push buttons on one end. Something along the lines of this:
Anyone who has ever owned one of these remembers the murky recordings they provided-internal microphones seemingly wrapped in flannel, an inability to record any conversation that could be translated back into English, and prone to distorting heavily when any loud sounds came anywhere near it. Perfect to record one of the loudest bands in rock n roll!
I initially dismissed Ungano’s as likely did many others as just another one of the plethora of shoddy bootlegs designed to look pretty and drain cash from the unsuspecting public. It wasn’t until one day I turned it over and noticed the Elektra Records logo on the back I began to suspect this was something different. Elektra PR wizard Danny Fields had set up a reel to reel deck (fairly high end sound recording unit) at the back of the club, and the band ran through all seven of their tunes from their upcoming release- Funhouse. Shambling, chaotic, out of control, out of tune-this is a glimpse of the Stooges like they saw themselves. A dose of raw power accompanied by a smack in the head as delivered by a line up never heard on recording before. The Asheton brothers guitar and drums keep Iggy glued, while newcomer (and former roadie) Zeke Zettner replaces the founder Dave Alexander on bass (Dave said: “I got everything I need at home with my mom: food, clean clothes, a bed, my record collection and my instruments. Why would I leave?”) and Bill Cheatham on second guitar give them a rare two guitar attack. The sound is what you would have actually experienced in the club on that long ago August 1970 evening. Glasses clink, folks yell at each other, Iggy interacts-a genuine window into an event that Stooges fans have been seeking for decades. Mackay joins the fray halfway through TV Eye, and nearly hijacks the whole set in two songs. The real treat here is the jam Have Some Fun/My Dream Is Dead, a multi faceted meltdown powered again by Steve Mackay, blowing his brains out in a rock version of Coltrane’s recent salvo approach to saxophone. The final song is the window into the other –Albert Ayler was skronking jazz saxophone squawks into the pop world in 1970, and the other side of the river or lake heard the call and squawked right back. Far from the cacophony of Funhouse’s L.A. Blues, this is another animal completely. Proto Stooge songs, improv vocals, solid jazz riffing, free form poetry and full on atonal free form improvs all melt into perhaps the single best encapsulation of this band ever recorded. Like some proto-fusion jazz rock NRG experiment, this nearly 11 minute jam shows that the Stooges were no slouches musically or conceptually–when they chose to be. I was dumbfounded that this record had languished until five years ago in the can. They finally had released a Stooges concert from their peak era, and one sounding like you might actually have been there, and actually have gotten IT. One thing that Iggy would agree with-the Stooges were a live band far more than a studio band. If there is one slab of Stooges I’d play to someone new to the band, I’d be hard pressed to choose between this and Funhouse to convey the volcanic power and volatility of this sound.
In conclusion, it’s no surprise this gem passed under most people’s noses. This isn’t a perfect sounding LP, but it is pretty damn good. The first thing to disappear on a cheap bootleg are the drums and bass, but here they are articulated nicely, once the house sound guy got a good EQ on the sound. (The tape also suffers from some phasing in the first five minutes of the show, but this sign of aging quickly disappears.) No club in 1970 had perfect sound, but overall this is the best sounding Stooges live recording out there. This is a highly authentic and faithful recording of what the Stooges actually sounded like in a small club with an imperfect sound system and some dodgy microphones. If you want a record that sounds EXACTLY like the Stooges would have sounded in a small club in 1970, this is your ticket. Turn down the lights, light up a pack of cigarettes and leave them around the room, and turn this sucker up as loud as your stereo goes. Close your eyes, and….you are there, a head twisting experience unlike any other band in 1970. That my friends, is a definitive Stooges album. Sem-in-al.