Iggy Pop: the John Peel lecture, annotated
In his first public lecture Iggy Pop covers broad topics on creating art, his own history and the music business. It should be required reading (or listening) for anyone making music or art a career choice. Filled with good practical advice and a positive swipe at this boring juncture in time — as a sincere statement and breath of fresh air, Pop’s statement is something “Heroic & Vital” by itself – but “try explaining that to a weasel.”
A Semi-annotated hyper-linked “pop” transcript of the BBC John Peel 2014 lecture:
Hi, I’m Iggy Pop. I’ve held a steady job at BBC 6 Music now for almost a year, which is a long time in my game. I always hated radio and the jerks who pushed that shit music into my tender mind, with rare exceptions. When I was a boy, I used to sit for hours suffering through the entire US radio top 40 waiting for that one song by The Beatles and the other one by The Kinks. Had there been anything like John Peel available in my Midwestern town I would have been thrilled. So it’s an honor to be here. I understand that. I appreciate it.
Some months ago when the idea of this talk came up I thought it might be okay to talk about free music in a Capitalist society. So that’s what I’m gonna try to talk about. A society in which the Capitalist system dominates all the others, and seeks their destruction when they get in its way. Since then, the shit has really hit the fan on the subject, thanks to U2 and Apple. I worked half of my life for free. I didn’t really think about that one way or the other, until the masters of the record industry kept complaining that I wasn’t making them any money. To tell you the truth, when it comes to art, money is an unimportant detail. It just happens to be a huge one unimportant detail. But, a good LP is a being, it’s not a product. It has a life-force, a personality, and a history, just like you and me. It can be your friend. Try explaining that to a weasel.
As I learned when I hit 30 +, and realized I was penniless, and almost unable to get my music released, music had become an industrial art and it was the people who excelled at the industry who got to make the art. I had to sell most of my future rights to keep making records to keep going. And now, thanks to digital advances, we have a very large industry, which is laughably maybe almost entirely pirate so nobody can collect shit. Well, it was to be expected. Everybody made a lot of money reselling all of recorded musical history in CD form back in the 90s, but now the cat is out of the bag and the new electronic devices which estrange people from their morals also make it easier to steal music than to pay for it. So there’s gonna be a correction.
When I started The Stooges we were organized as a group of Utopian communists. All the money was held communally and we lived together while we shared the pursuit of a radical ideal. We shared all song writing, publishing and royalty credits equally – didn’t matter who wrote it – because we’d seen it on the back of a Doors album and thought it was cool, at least I did. Yeah. I thought songwriting was about the glory, I didn’t know you’d get paid for it. We practiced a total immersion to try to forge a new approach which would be something of our own. Something of lasting value. Something that was going to be revealed and created and was not yet known.
We are now in the age of the schemer and the plan is always big, big, big, but it’s the nature of the technology created in the service of the various schemes that the pond, while wide, is very shallow. Nobody cares about anything too deeply expect money. Running out of it, getting it. I never sincerely wanted to be rich. There is a, in the US, we have this guy “Do you sincerely wanna be rich? You can do it!” I didn’t sincerely want to be rich. I never sincerely felt like making anyone else that way. That made me a kind of a wild card in the 60’s and 70’s. I got into the game because it felt good to play and it felt like being free. I’m still hearing today about how my early works with The Stooges were flops. But they’re still in print and they sell 45 years later, they sell. Okay, it took 20 or 25 years for the first royalties to roll in. So sue me.
Some of us who couldn’t get anywhere for years kept beating our heads against the same wall to no avail. No one did that better than my friends The Ramones. They kept putting out album after album, frustrated that they weren’t getting the hit. They even tried Phil Spector and his handgun. After the first couple of records, which made a big impact, they couldn’t sustain the quality, but I noticed that every album had at least one great song and I thought, wow if these guys would just stop and give it a rest, society would for sure catch up to them. And that’s what’s happening now, but they’re not around to enjoy it. I used to run into Johnny at a little rehearsal joint in New York and he’d be in a big room all alone with a Marshall stack just going “dum, dum, dum, dum, dum” all my himself. I asked him why and he said if he didn’t practice doing that exactly the way he did it live he’d lose it. He was devoted and obsessive, so were Joey and Deedee. I like that. Johnny asked me one day – Iggy don’t you hate Offspring and the way they’re so popular with that crap they play. That should be us, they stole it from us. I told him look, some guys are born and raised to be the captain of the football team and some guys are just gonna be James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and that’s the way it is. Not everybody is meant to be big. Not everybody big is any good.
I only ever wanted the money because it was symbolic of love and the best thing I ever did was to make a lifetime commitment to continue playing music no matter what, which is what I resolved to do at the age of 18. If who you are is who you are that is really hard to steal, and it can lead you in all sorts of useful directions when the road ahead of you is blocked and it will get blocked. Now I’m older and I need all the dough I can get. So I too am concerned about losing those lovely royalties, now that they’ve finally arrived, in the maze of the Internet. But I’m also diversifying my income, because a stream will dry up. I’m not here to complain about that, I’m here to survive it.
When I was starting out as a full time musician I was walking down the street one bright afternoon in the seedier part of my Midwestern college town. I passed a dive bar and from it emerged a portly balding pallid middle aged musician in a white tux with a drink in one hand and a guitar in the other. He was blinking in the daylight. I had a strong intuition that this was a fate to be avoided. He seemed cut off from society and resigned to an oblivious obscurity. A bar fly. An accessory to booze. So how do you engage society as an artist and get them to pay you? Well, that’s a matter of art. And endurance.
To start with, I cannot stress enough the importance of study. I was lucky to work in a discount record store in Ann Arbor Michigan as a stock boy where I was exposed to a little bit of every form of music imaginable on record at the time. I listened to it all whether I liked it or not. Be curious. And I played in my high school orchestra and I learned the joy of the warm organic instruments working together in the service of a classical piece. That sticks with you forever. If anyone out there can get a chance to put an instrument and some knowledge in some kids hand, you’ve done a great, great thing.
Comparative information is a key to freedom. I found other people who were smarter than me. To teach me. My first pro band was a blues band called The Prime Movers and the leader Michael Erlewine was a very bright hippy beatnik with a beautifully organized record collection in library form of The Blues. I’d never really heard the Blues. That part of our American heritage was kept off the major media. It was system up, people down. No Big Bill Broonzy on BBC for us. Boy I wish! No money in it. But everything I learned from Michael’s beautiful library became the building blocks for anything good I’ve done since. Guys like this are priceless. If you find one, follow him, or her. Get the knowledge.
Once in secondary school in the 60’s some class clowns dressed up the tallest guy in school in a trench coat, shades and a fedora and rushed him in to a school dance with great hubbub proclaiming “Del Shannon is here, Del Shannon is here.” And until they got to the stage we all believed them, because nobody knew what Del Shannon looked like. He was just a voice on some great records. He had no social ID. By the early 60’s that had really changed with the invasion of The Beatles and The Stones. This time TV was added to the mix and print media too. So you knew who they were, or so you thought anyway. I’m mentioning this because the best way to survive the death or change of an industry is to transcend its form. You’re better off with an identity of your own or maybe a few of them. Something special.
It is my own personal view having lived through it that in America The Beatles replaced our assassinated president Kennedy, who represented our hopes for a certain kind of society. Didn’t get there. And The Stones replaced our assassinated folk music which our own leaders suppressed for cultural, racial, and financial reasons. It wasn’t okay with everybody to be Kennedy or Muddy Waters, but those messages could be accepted if they came through white entertainers from the parent culture. That’s why they’re still around.
Years later I had the impression that Apple, the corporation, had successfully co-opted the good feelings that the average American felt about the culture of the Beatles, by kind of stealing the name of their company so I bought a little stock. Good move. 1992. Woo! But look, everybody is subject to the rip off and has to change affiliations from time to time. Even Superman and Barbie were German before America tempted them to come over. Tough luck, Nietzche.
So who owns what anyway. Or as Bob Dylan said “The relationships of ownership” That’s The Gates of Eden. Nobody knows for long, especially these days. Apparently when BBC radio was founded, the record companies in England wouldn’t allow the BBC to play their master recordings because they thought no one would buy them for their personal use if they could hear them free on the radio. So they were really confused about what they had. They didn’t get it. And how people feel about music. ‘Cause it’s a feel thing, and it resists logic. It’s not binary code. Later when CD’s came in, the retail merchants in American all panicked because they were just too damn tiny and they thought that Americans want something that looks big, like a vinyl record. Well they had a point but their solution was a kind of Frankenstein called “The Long Box.” It didn’t fool anybody because half of it was empty. It had a little CD in the bottom. You’d open it up and it was empty. Now we have people in the Sahara using GPS to bury huge wads of Euros under sand dunes for safe keeping. But GPS was created for military spying from the high ground, not radical banking so any sophisticated system, along with the bounty it brings, is subject to primitive hijacking.
I wanna talk about a type of entrepreneur who functions as a kind of popular music patron of the arts. It’s good to know a patron. I call him El Padron because his relationship to the artist is essentially feudal, though benign. He or she (La Padrona) if you will, is someone, usually the product of successful, enlightened parents, who owns a record company, but has had benefit of a very good education, and can see a bigger picture than a petty business person. If they like an artists’ style and it suits them, they’ll support you even if you’re not a big money spinner. I can tell you, some of these powerful guys get so bored that if you are fun in the office, you’ll go places. Their ancestors, the old time record crooks just made it their business to make great, great records, but also to rip off the artist 100%, copyright, publishing, royalty splits, agency fees, you name it. If anyone complained the line was “Pay you? We worship you!” God bless Bo Diddley.
By the time I came along, there was a new brand of Padron. People like this are still around and some can help you. One was named Jack Holzman. Jack had a beautiful label called Elektra Records, they put out Judy Collins, Tim Buckley, the Doors and Love. He’d started working in his family record store, like Brian Epstein. He dressed mod and he treated us very gently. He was a civilized man. He obviously loved the arts, but what he really wanted to do was build his business – and he did. He had his own concerns, and style, and you had to serve them, and of course when he sold out, as all indies do, you were stranded culturally in the hands of a cold clumsy conglomerate. But he put us in the right studios with the right producers and he tried to get us seen in the right venues and it really helped. This is a good example of the industry.
Another good guy I met is Sir Richard Branson. I ended up serving my full term at Virgin Records having been removed from every other label. And he created a superior culture there. People were happier and nicer than the weasels at some other places. The first time he tried to sign me it didn’t work out, because I had my sights set on A&M, a company I thought would help make me respectable. After all they had Sting! Richard was secretly starting his own company at the time in the US and he phoned me in my tiny flat with no furniture. He said he’d give me a longer term deal with more dough than the other guys and he was very, very polite and soft spoken. But I had just smoked a joint that day and I couldn’t make a decision. So I went with the other guys who soon got sick of me. Virgin picked me up again later on the rebound. And on the cheap. Damn. My own fault.
Another kind of indie legend who is slightly more contemporary is Long Gone John of the label Sympathy for the Record Industry. Good name. John is famous with some artists for his disinterest in paying royalties. He has a very interesting music themed folk art collection – its visible online – which includes my leather jacket. I wish he’d give it back. There are lots of indie people with a gift for organization who just kind of collect freaks and throw them up at the wall to see who sticks. You gotta watch ’em.
When you go a step down creatively from the Padrons who are actually entrepreneurs you get to the executives. You don’t wanna know these guys. They usually came over from legal or accounting. They have protégés usually called A&R men to do their dirty work. You can become a favorite with them if your fame or image might reflect limelight on their career. They tend to have no personalities to speak of, which is their strength. Strangely they’re never really thinking about the good of their parent company as much as old number one. Avoid them. If you’re an artist, they’ll make you sick or suicidal. The only good thing the conglomerate can do for you – and they’ve done it recently for me – is make you really, really ubiquitous. They do that well. But, when the company is your banker, then you are basically gonna be the Beverly Hill Billies. So it’s best not to take their money. Especially when you’re young. These are very tough people, and they can hurt you.
So who are the good guys?! They asked me when they read this thing at BBC 6 Music. Well there are lots of them. If fact, today there are more than ever and they are just about all indies, but first I want to mention Peter Gabriel and WOMAD for everything they’ve done for what seems like forever to help the greatest musicians in the world, the so called world musicians to gain a foothold and make a living in the modern screwed up cash and carry world. Traditional music was never a for profit enterprise, all the best forms were developed as a kind of you’re job in the community. It was pretty good, it was “Yeah, I’m a musician, I’m gonna skip like doing the dishes or taking the trash out.” It’s not surprising that all the greatest singers and players come from parts of the world where everybody is broke and the old ways are getting paved over. So it’s crucial for everyone that these treasures not be lost. There are other people of means and intelligence who help others in this way like Philip Glass through Tibet House, David Burn with Luaka Bop, Damon Albarn through Honest John Records. Shout out to Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Almost all the best music is coming out on indies today like XL Matador, Burger, Anti, Epitaph, Mute, Rough Trade, 4 A D, Sub Pop, etc. etc.
But now YouTube is trying to put the squeeze on these people because it’s just easier for a power nerd to negotiate with a couple big labels who own the kind of music that people listen to when they’re really not that into music, which of course is most people. So they’ve got the numbers. But the indies kind of have the guns. I’ve noticed that indies are showing strength at some of the established streaming services like Spotify and Rhapsody – people are choosing that music. And it’s also great that some people are starting their own outlets, like Pledge Music, Band Camp or Drip. As the commercial trade swings more into general show biz the indies will be the only place to go for new talent, outside the Mickey Mouse Club, so I think they were right to band together and sign the Fair Digital Deals Declaration.
There are just so many ways to screw an artist that it’s unbelievable. In the old vinyl days they would deduct 10% “breakage fees” for records supposedly broken in shipping, whether that happened or not, and now they have unattributed digital revenue, whatever the **** that means. It means money for some guy’s triple bypass. I actually think that what Thom Yorke has done with Bit Torrent is very good. I was gonna say here: “Sure the guy is a pirate at Bit Torrent” but I was warned legally, so I’ll say: “Sure the guy a Bit Torrent is a pirate’s friend” But all pirates want to go legit, just like I wanted to be respectable. It’s normal. After a while people feel like you’re a crook, it’s too hard to do business. So it’s good in this case that Thom Yorke is encouraging a positive change. The music is good. It’s being offered at a low price direct to people who care.
I want to try to define what I am talking about when I say free. For me in the arts or in the media, there are two kinds of free. One kind of free is when the process is something that people just feel for you. You feel a sense of possibility. You feel a lack of constraint. This leads to powerful, energetic, sometimes kind of loony situations.
Vice Media is an interesting case of this because they started as a free handout, using public funds, and they had open, free-wheeling minds. Originally a free handout was called Voice and these kids were like “Just get rid of the old! I don’t wanna be Vice, yeah!” Okay. By taking an immersive approach with no particular preconceptions to their reporting, they’ve become a huge success, also through corporate advertising, at attracting big, big money investment hundreds of millions of dollars now pumped into Fox Media and a couple of others bigger than that in the US. And they get it because they attract lots of little boy eyeballs. So they brought us Dennis Rodman in North Korea. And it’s kind of a travesty, but it’s kind of spunky. It’s interesting that capital investment, for all its posturing, never really leads, it always follows. They follow the action. So if it’s money you’re after, be the yourself in a consistent way and you might get it. You’ll at least end up getting what you are worth and feel better. Just follow your nose.
The second kind of freedom to me that is important in the media is the idea of giving freely. When you feel or sense that someone that someone is giving you something not out of profit, but out of self-respect, Christian charity, whatever it is. That has a very powerful energy. The Guardian, in my understanding, was founded by an endowment by a successful man with a social conscience who wanted to help create a voice for what I would call the little guy. So they have a kind of moral mission or imperative. This has given them the latitude to try to be interesting, thoughtful, helpful. And they bring Edward Snowden to the world stage. Something that is not pleasant for a lot of people to hear about, but we need to know.
These two approaches couldn’t be more different. To justify their new mega bucks Vice will have to expand and expand in capital terms. Presumably they’ll have to titillate a dumb, but energetic audience. Of course all capitalist expansions are subject to the big bang – balloon, bust, poof, and you’re gone. As for the Guardian I would imagine that the task involves gaining the trust and support of a more discerning, less definable reader, without spending the principal. There is usually an antipathy between cultural poles, but these two actually have a lot in common in terms of the energy and nuisance to power that they are willing to generate. I wish red and blue could come together somehow.
Sometimes I’d rather read than listen to music. One of my favourite odd books is Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry by Clinton Heylin. I bought the book in the 90’s because a couple of my bootlegs were mentioned. I loved my bootlegs. They did a lot for me. I never really thought about the dough much. I liked the titles, like Suck on This, Stow Away DOA or Metalic KO. The packaging was always way more creative and edgy than most of my official stuff. So I just liked being seen and heard, like anybody else. These bootleggers were creative. Here are two quotes from the dust jacket by veteran industry stalwarts on the subject of bootlegs in 1994.
“Bootleg is the thoroughly researched and highly entertaining tale of those colorful brigands, hapless amateurs, and true believers who have done wonders for my record collection. Rock and roll doesn’t get more underground than this.” – that was David Fricke, the music editor of Rolling Stone “I think that bootlegs keep the flame of the music alive by keeping it out of not only the industry’s conception of the artist, but also the artist’s conception of the artist.” – that was Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith group, musician, critic and my friend.
Wow!! Sounds heroic and vital!
I wonder what these guys feel about all of this now, because things have changed, haven’t they? We are now talking about Megaupload, Kim Dot Com, big money, political power, and varying definitions of theft that are legally way over my head. But I know a con man when I see one. I want to include a rant from an early bootlegger in this discussion because it’s so passionate and I just think it’s funny.
This is Lou Cohan “If anybody thinks that if I have purchased every single Rolling Stones album in existence, and I have bought all the Rolling Stones albums that have been released in England, France, Japan, Italy, and Brazil that if I have an extra $100 in my pocket instead of buying a Rolling Stones bootleg I am going to buy a John Denver album or a Sinead O’Conner album, they are retarded.”
So the guy is trying to say don’t try to force me. And don’t steal my choice. And the people who don’t want the free U2 download are trying to say, don’t try to force me. And they’ve got a point. Part of the process when you buy something from an artist. It’s a kind of anointing, you are giving people love. It’s your choice to give or withhold. You are giving a lot of yourself, besides the money. But in this particular case, without the convention, maybe some people felt like they were robbed of that chance and they have a point. It’s not the only point. These are not bad guys. But now, everybody’s a bootlegger, but not as cute, and there are people out there just stealing the stuff and saying don’t try to force me to pay. And that act of thieving will become a habit and that’s bad for everything. So we are exchanging the corporate rip off for the public one. Aided by power nerds. Kind of computer Putins. They just wanna get rich and powerful. And now the biggest bands are charging insane ticket prices or giving away music before it can flop, in an effort to stay huge. And there’s something in this huge thing that kind of sucks.
Which brings us to Punk. The most punk thing I ever saw in my life was Malcolm McLaren’s cardboard box full of dirty old winklepinkers. It was the first thing I saw walking in the door of Let It Rock in 1972 which was his shop at Worlds End on the Kings Road. It was a huge ugly cardboard bin full of mismatched unpolished dried out winkle pickers without laces at some crazy price like maybe five pounds each. Another 200 yards up the street was Granny Takes a Trip, where they sold proper Rockstar clothes like scarves, velvet jackets, and snake skin platform boy boots. Malcolm’s obviously worthless box of shit was like a fire bomb against the status quo because it was saying that these violent shoes have the right idea and they are worth more than your fashion, which serves a false value. This is right out of the French enlightenment.
So is the thieving that big a deal? Ethically, yes, and it destroys people because it’s a bad road you take. But I don’t think that’s the biggest problem for the music biz. I think people are just a little bit bored, and more than a little bit broke. No money. Especially simple working people who have been totally left out, screwed and abandoned. If I had to depend on what I actually get from sales I’d be tending bars between sets. I mean honestly it’s become a patronage system. There’s a lot of corps involved and I don’t fault any of them but it’s not as much fun as playing at the Music Machine in Camden Town in 1977. There is a general atmosphere of resentment, pressure, kind of strange perpetual war, dripping on all the time. And I think that prosecuting some college kid because she shared a file is a lot like sending somebody to Australia 200 years ago for poaching his lordship’s rabbit. That’s how it must seem to poor people who just want to watch a crappy movie for free after they’ve been working themselves to death all day at Tesco or whatever, you know.
If I wanna make music, at this point in my life I’d rather do what I want, and do it for free, which I do, or cheap, if I can afford to. I can. And fund through alternative means, like a film budget, or a fashion website, both of which I’ve done. Those seem to be turning out better for me than the official rock n roll company albums I struggle through. Sorry. If I wanna make money, well how about selling car insurance? At least I’m honest. It’s an ad and that’s all it is. Every free media platform I’ve ever known has been a front for advertising or propaganda or both. And it always colors the content. In other words, you hear crap on the commercial radio. The licensing of music by films, corps, and TV has become a flood, because these people know they’re not a hell of a lot of fun so they throw in some music that is. I’m all for that, because that’s the way the door opened for me. I got heard on tv before radio would take a chance. But then I was ok. Good. And others too. I notice there are a lot of people, younger and younger, getting their exposure that way. But it’s a personal choice. I think it’s an aesthetic one, not an ethical one.
Now with the Internet people can choose to hear stuff and investigate it in their own way. If they want to see me jump around the Manchester Apollo with a horse tail instead of trying to be a proper Rockstar, they can look. Good. Personally I don’t worry too much about how much I get paid for any given thing, because I never expected much in the first place and the whole industry has become bloated in its expectations. Look, Howling Wolf would work for a sandwich. This whole thing started in Honky Tonk bars. It’s more important to do something important or just make people feel something and then just trust in God. If you’re an entertainer your God is the public. They’ll take care of you somehow. I want them to hear my music any old which way. Period. There is an unseen hand that turns the pages of existence in ways no one can predict. But while you’re waiting for God to show up and try to find a good entertainment lawyer.
It’s good to remember that this is a dream job, whether you’re performing or working in broadcasting, or writing or the biz. So dream. Dream. Be generous, don’t be stingy. Please. I can’t help but note that it always seems to be the pursuit of the money that coincides with the great art, but not its arrival. It’s just kind of a death agent. It kills everything that fails to reflect its own image, so your home turns into money, your friends turn into money, and your music turns into money. No fun, binary code – zero one, zero one – no risk, no nothing. What you gotta do you gotta do, life’s a hurly-burly, so I would say try hard to diversify your skills and interests. Stay away from drugs and talent judges. Get organized. Big or little, that helps a lot.
I’d like you to do better than I did. Keep your dreams out of the stinky business, or you’ll go crazy, and the money won’t help you. Be careful to maintain a spiritual EXIT. Don’t live by this game because it’s not worth dying for. Hang onto your hopes. You know what they are. They’re private. Because that’s who you really are and if you can hang around long enough you should get paid. I hope it makes you happy. It’s the ending that counts, and the best things in life really are free.