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Iggy Pop, the ever-youthful godfather of punk

The 74-year-old musician, who has been hosting a show for the BBC since 2015, says the quest for new music keeps him young

Iggy Pop’s band, The Stooges, set the stage for punk in the 1970s.
Iggy Pop’s band, The Stooges, set the stage for punk in the 1970s. (

Iggy Pop, the American punk pioneer who has become an icon for generations of musicians and fans, turned 74 this year but his verve and vitality seem as indestructible as they were in the 1960s. Last month, when musicians paid collective tribute to The Velvet Underground by covering all the songs on their 1967 debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Pop sang a version of European Son that was so virulently punk that it even put the fine original Lou Reed-sung version in the shade.

He certainly seems to have found the secret to staying young. In a 17 September interview with The Guardian, Pop gives the credit to his constant quest for new music. He is quoted as saying: “I keep reading that we decline in our 70s so I try to keep using my brain. Discovering new music opens my mind and the element of surprise keeps me connected.”

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Pop has had a tumultuous career. When he broke on to the scene with his band, The Stooges, in the late 1960s, they set the stage for the emergence of punk in the 1970s. At the time—an era of anti-war protests, psychedelia, and the hippie movement’s mantra to “turn on, tune in, drop out”—Pop and his band were quite out of place. They were loud and raucous; he and his band hardly conformed to what was considered “cool”. It was only later that The Stooges’ music—particularly The Stooges, Fun House and Raw Power, released between 1969-73—became tremendously influential and, in many ways, triggered the birth of punk.  

Later, Pop succumbed to the rock scene’s darker aspects: addiction and burnout. But an encounter (followed by a collaboration) with British rock star David Bowie restarted his career—and he hasn’t looked back since.

In the later phases of his career, Pop reinvented himself as an exponent of post-punk, new wave and hard rock. What’s more, the reincarnation influenced yet another breed of young bands, including Nirvana, R.E.M. and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Pop has continued to evolve. More recently, he has collaborated with the likes of Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, and has ventured into projects such as an adaptation of the poet Dylan Thomas’ work.

His influence on musicians and fans continues, notably with some of his offstage projects. Since 2015, Pop has been hosting a Friday night show on BBC where he serves up a cocktail of music—old and, of course, in keeping with his quest for discovery, new.

That show, each past episode of which is available for a limited number of days online, is Iggy Pop’s biggest current influence on listeners as well as new bands. Amazingly, the septuagenarian is able to scour the scene and dig out some astonishingly good new acts—and his wry, often insightful comments make it a delightful listen.

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Iggy Confidential is, in fact, a demonstration of what Pop means when he says his secret elixir for staying young is discovering new music. But it is also a marvellous way to learn about both contemporary as well as classic rock and pop music. And about the backstories. On the 24 September episode of his typically two-hour show, he played Call Me In the Day, a track by the surfer noir rock band from Los Angeles La Luz, and then observed how the chord changes were similar to a much older song, Baby It’s You, written by Burt Bacharach.  Then he reminded listeners that when The Beatles debuted in the US, it was not with their first studio album, Please Please Me, but with an album released by Vee-Jay Records titled Introducing… The Beatles. Six of the 12 songs on that album were covers by The Beatles of other people’s songs—one of them was the Bacharach tune. For various legal reasons, the album didn’t get much of an outing and counterfeiting ensured original copies are hard to find.

In another episode, while introducing a song by The Doors, Roadhouse Blues, the opener on 1970’s Morrison Hotel, he observed that the song was one of the first where the band approached bass by way of the guitar instead of keyboards. This was because they had enlisted the noted southern lead guitarist, the late Lonnie Mack, to play the bass, giving the song by the Los Angeles band a southern twang.

Such insights apart, Iggy Confidential is a fine place to join Pop as he goes on his musical discoveries: new bands such as Manchester’s Calva Louise, a trio whose upbeat melodic pop is worth checking out; or Arushi Jain, an India-born, US-residing composer, modular synthesist and vocalist who reinterprets Hindustani classical music using electronic arrangements.

The never-boring thing about his shows is the way he moves backwards and forwards on his playlist. He might play I’m Not Like Everybody Else by The Kinks from 1966 and follow it up with Her by the 26-year-old American singer Poppy, whose music uniquely has equal influences of pop and industrial metal.

There seems little doubt that Iggy Pop’s magic potion for staying young is, indeed, music.

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