Let’s be fair: there’s probably very little I can contribute to the enormity of writing on the righteous rock god status of that street-walking’ cheetah Iggy Pop and the incendiary power of The Stooges. The man and the band are untouchable in the annals of rock, stone cold classic purveyors of the form and I’m not going to dispute that. So instead I want to talk about how Raw Power, that nuclear A-bomb of ripping rock helped me to understand thats much of an album’s power comes from how you listen, as much as what is on it. So let’s get into the Bowie vs. Iggy mix…
My first copy of Raw Power was a “Best Value” stamped CD of the new (at the time) Iggy Pop remix. If you know the album and the original Bowie mix, Iggy basically turned everything up to 11, cut the hard panning of the guitars and brought it all up front. It makes for an angrier album, a complete in-the-red sonic assault that made even the soft tracks bleed with a distorted intensity. When I finally heard the original Bowie mix, it was shocking to hear the bass almost completely disappear, the guitars panned so hard. It was dirty and intense, but not in the way I wanted…certainly not in the way their previous albums were.
Fast forward more than a few years, and I’m now firmly in the grasp of the vinyl monkey on my back. My first new vinyl purchase is The Stooges Fun House. I’m in love all over again, and despite my reservations about the sound I picked up the legacy edition of Raw Power, a double LP containing remastered versions of both the Bowie and Iggy mixes. Now firmly in nerd-mode I clean my stylus, position my speakers in an optimal triangular formation to my chair and my ears, and let the Bowie mix play.
It was, in a word, a revelation.
I couldn’t believe it…there was no way the remastering did this good a job of bringing the tinny, hard-panned sound to such a beautiful, explosive head. It took a few minutes but I finally got around to the reason the listening experience was so much better this way.
It was the speakers.
I had become so used to listening to albums on my headphones, I forgot how the experience changes when you have a pair of speakers – any speakers – pushing the sound toward you. I want to be clear that I’m not saying it’s a better experience, just a different one. And I realized that when Bowie was mixing the album, he was (of course) very conscious of how the record was going to be played. Suddenly the hard panning made a lot more sense (though the lack of bass still doesn’t; sorry, Bowie) – when played through speakers it all crashes together in a beautiful way. And the louder you play it, the better it gets: I’ve over the moon with the ominous opening of “Gimme Danger” and the similar but tonally different riff on “Penetration.” The savagery of “Search and Destroy” and the bulldozing boogie of “Shake Appeal” – there’s a whole new dimension to the songs I was missing simply because of the method of transmission.
Which is not to say hard panned music benefits from listening on speakers as opposed to headphones. When I was talking about this new (to me) revelation, my buddy and music muse Erik turned me on to Low’s Drums and Guns, and that is a hard-panned album that lives and breathes in headphones. Again, this might just be new to me, but the feeling I got when I realized what changed and the music finally opened up to me was like a pathway back to discovering music as a kid again. I’ll cherish it even as I realize this is something everyone and their brother already knows.
Anyway, if this post does nothing else, maybe it’ll encourage you to try listening to some of your favorite albums in a new way. Move your speakers around, try open-backed headphones instead of ear buds…change the EQ in your car.
Maybe you’ll discover something new, too.