1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions

(Rhino Handmade)

By Monica Kendrick

A seven-CD box set chronicling the making of a 36-minute album–was this really necessary? Back in 1970, with Elektra footing the bill for the casual slaughter of oxide particles and brain cells alike, it’s not shocking that they recorded everything and taped over nothing, but it’s still freak weather that every scrap from those sessions survived, not to mention that someone actually put this out. You know before you put your money down that 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions isn’t going to be a study in delicate studio science, like the four-CD Pet Sounds set from 1997. My first guess, which turned out to be way off, was that it would be more like the first disc of the 1995 Velvet Underground box set, which to hard-core VU geeks is one of the funniest comedy records ever made and to anyone else is mostly unlistenable.

The label responsible for The Complete Fun House Sessions is Rhino Handmade, a specialty division of Rhino that produces very limited editions for sale exclusively over the Internet. Late last year they guesstimated that there were 3,000 people out there to whom this monstrosity would be absolutely, immediately, urgently necessary despite the price tag: $119.98 plus shipping and handling. Upon learning that it would exist, I decided I’d pay for my copy by signing myself up to write about it–or at least that’s how I rationalized doing what I knew I was going to do anyway, just as an alcoholic insists that he’s going to the liquor store to buy cat food and toilet paper.

It turns out that 3,000 was an overguesstimation–the set is still available–but among the diehards word spread quickly. Not long after it came out, I was chatting with someone at a local record label, and he said that one of the heads of said label had been playing it incessantly in the office–in fact, it was going right then, as we spoke. A filmmaker friend told me that disc two, with its 17 takes of “Loose,” was quickly becoming one of his favorite records ever. When my copy finally arrived, I took it to my editor’s office. She snatched it out of my hand, put disc four, which includes 14 takes of “T.V. Eye,” into her tinny boombox, and pointed her browser to As she typed in her credit card number and shipping address, I watched powerlessly, feeling like an enabler. A week or two later, during a visit to New York, over the vaguely Stoogey shriek and clatter of the subway, a friend asked me, “So is that Fun House box really any good?” In the tone I reserve for breaking bad news, I said, “I’m afraid so,” and he sighed with briar-patch resignation.

Most of these people are not rich by any stretch, but once food, clothing, and shelter are accounted for, their thoughts turn next and naturally to finding more of the sort of rock ‘n’ roll that pushes all the pleasure buttons at once. And no record has ever activated the head-banging mechanism or stimulated that dirty little brain in the hips with more ruthless effectiveness than Fun House.

All three of the Stooges’ studio albums are classics, with sufficient charms to speed up to a stroke the savage breast. The first album represents the climb of the curve, in which a young band allows outside influences to fill the spaces not yet grown into–hence the chilly European weirdness of John Cale and Nico, who lurk in the wings like Gomez and Morticia Addams. The third album represents the downward slide, during which a powerful band inexplicably allows outside influences to hobble its power–hence David Bowie’s prissy, timid production, which Iggy finally corrected in a 1998 remix.

But the second album, Fun House, is the pure, uncut zenith of cocky, hairy, sticky Stoogeness, the product of extraordinary Detroit delinquents under the influence of Chicago blues, free jazz, Antonin Artaud, ultraviolent cartoons, horny women, and the kind of drugs they just don’t make anymore. For these seven songs, Iggy played the id-savant better than any other closet intellectual before or since, and he and the band spurred each other to reach that perfect climactic confluence of sex-lust, power-crave, and violence-terror that rock ‘n’ roll has to work its way through before coming out of Chapel Perilous to nab its Holy Grail. “I feel aw-rahht!” he howls and yowls and barks, over and over and over and over, until he can’t possibly feel all right at all and the words lose meaning and Ron Asheton worries the riff like a dog with a dead bird and Steve Mackay on sax is ululating and squawking overtime just to catch up.

On the original LP, the two sides are the two halves of the best bad trip you ever had: the serious rockers are on side one, the gibbering freak-outs on side two. The CD, with no stop-and-flip, sweeps you along on a wild ride with no place to get off. The only thing that’s better than Fun House is The Complete Fun House Sessions, because there’s so much more of it. Anybody who only wants a little bit of Fun House has failed to fully appreciate it.

Once you’ve gotten the objet d’rawk in the mail, opened it up and spread it out on the table and set it spinning in the CD drive, the full magnitude of what the Stooges did begins to reveal itself. Disc one features seven takes of “1970,” interspersed with early takes of “Loose,” “Down on the Street,” “Fun House,” “T.V. Eye,” and a song that didn’t make the album, “Lost in the Future,” which leads us to epiphany number one: There’s a tendency among fans to believe, or to want to believe, that the perfect punk record is a document of a singular moment of sloppy intensity, a moment that, in its scriptural perfection, could have happened only once. Lightning never strikes twice in the same place, right? Inspiration can’t be commanded to repeat itself, right? Speaking in tongues is more about the whims of God than the preparations of the individual, right? Wrong. If you thought Iggy’s vocal gymnastics sounded grueling on the official take of “1970,” listen to him try it again and again here. He tests out infinitesimal variations on the rhythm and phrasing, feeling for the G-spot between the beat and the sax. Take three: “I feel aw-raht! I feel aw-raht! I feel all-rawt!” Take four: “Ah veel all-rot! Ah veel all-ROT!” Take five: “Aie feel! Aw-raaght! AI PHEEL AL RAIIIIIT!” Iggy may have been the very antithesis of a jock, but he was the ultimate athlete, pushing himself–and pulling the band–into the red every time.

This is what separates great music from pretty good music: the sense that the players have exceeded themselves, pushed themselves beyond what they’d previously known was possible, taught themselves something they didn’t even know they didn’t know, made it physical, made it spiritual, made it stick. This is why most of the CDs that come into my possession, from all corners of the musical universe, are a million times more tedious than 17 straight takes of “Loose.” Nice changes, nice harmonies, nice solos, nice ass, whatever, but where’s the cry to God? Where’s the eureka when years of agonizing over the same equation finally yields up a secret of the universe? Where’s the yee-haw when the General Lee goes airborne?

Give me the rough drafts of genius over the finished product of not-genius any day. Take disc four, which contains three more takes of “Loose” (they still hadn’t gotten it quite right) but is mostly devoted to “T.V. Eye”–which is on my short list of flawless rock ‘n’ roll songs, a vicious cycle of lust and adrenaline able to withstand decades of overplay. In Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s oral history of punk, Please Kill Me, Iggy explains that the title has nothing to do with the idiot box: T.V. here stands for twat vibe, as in, she’s got a twat-vibe eye on me. In its final version, it’s a perfect hunter-and-hunted table-turning frenzy, but the buildup is pretty hot too. The first take is at a slightly slower tempo, and when Iggy screams “now RAM IT–RAM IT–RAM IT!!” it sounds like he’s coming on to the band. On take four Asheton, whose evil repetitive riff drives the song, turns in a solo that would have sounded fantastic on an Amboy Dukes record but isn’t quite what was being gone for, and Iggy’s vocalese–stuttering, growling, coughing, hacking–registers as commentary. They already knew that wasn’t the take they were going to use, but they finished it anyway, just to see what else might happen.

Actually, for the most part the tracks don’t differ significantly from the ones that made the final cut. The variations are there, but they’re usually a matter of refining a tempo, timing a break perfectly, landing a syllable in just the right spot, trying out one lyric over another. In many cases it seems like an alternate take would’ve sufficed as well as the one that ended up on the original release. But it’s the creative process you couldn’t hear until now that makes the record a life-affirming masterpiece: OK, now put your head through that wall one more time. Fun House is a perfect articulation of the inarticulate, of that frustrating point where our most urgent needs and desires ram up against the language barrier and reel with heavenly dizzy idiocy. You can’t put that into words, but you can put it into rock ‘n’ roll. i

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo of misc. Cds/boxes.