James Williamson (Stooges, The Pink Hearts)

by Greg Prato

Origin stories behind the biggest songs James worked on with Iggy Pop, and what happened when they met David Bowie.

Iggy and James recording Raw Power
photo: Mick Rock

With the Stooges apparently laid to rest for good (they have not issued a studio album nor played a live show since 2013), guitarist James Williamson is refusing to remain idle. Case in point, the debut release of the newly-formed James Williamson and the Pink Hearts, Behind the Shade - which sees both the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs' Frank Meyer and That Dog's Petra Haden alternating vocal duties.

But for Round 2 with Songfacts (James and I originally chatted back in 2013), the man known for the killer guitar lines in "Search in Destroy" and "Raw Power" was willing to revisit his past once again, and mostly talk Stooges.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): What's the hidden gem in the Iggy & the Stooges catalog?

James Williamson: There's a lot of them. My personal favorites would be things like "Open Up And Bleed," "No Sense Of Crime" - although that is not Stooges, per se, it's in the same category. It would have been Stooges if we had been together at that time.

When I did the Re-Licked record [2014] and played it live, I always loved playing "Head on the Curve." I love "Johanna." There's so many of them. I think when we [James Williamson and the Pink Hearts] go out this time, playing this stuff live, there's 11 songs on this album, so we'll play them. But to play a live show is about 20 songs or more, so we will play my old catalog to fill in the remainder of the set. I think even though they're very different people, there's a similarity because of the riffs.

Songfacts: What Iggy & the Stooges song has most appeal to the younger generation?

Williamson: I think that when we were touring, it was kind of a mixed bag. But surprisingly, everybody seemed to know everything, and certainly, "Search And Destroy" was a huge song that resonated to every audience. Of course, I wasn't in the band at the time, but they all love "I Wanna Be Your Dog" - everybody can sing that. And "Gimme Danger" is always a strong one. There are quite a number of them that people have come to know over the years.

James and Iggy first crossed paths in Detroit during the late '60s, and the two became bandmates together in the Stooges in 1970 during a short-lived era that saw original Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton and Williamson doubling on the six-string. By 1972, a new Stooges lineup was formed, which included Iggy on vocals, James on guitar, Ron moving to bass, and Scott Asheton supplying drums - which resulted in the classic Raw Power album in 1973 (with a name change from The Stooges to Iggy & the Stooges).

The band was kaput a year later, but James and Iggy remained together as a duo, working on demos in 1975 in hopes of securing a recording contract that never materialized, at which point both went their separate ways. The material would be issued two years later as Kill City.

James served as producer of Iggy's 1979 solo album, New Values, and was in line to produce 1980's Soldier, which was ultimately produced by Pat Moran. The Stooges reunited in 2003 without James, but after Ron's passing in 2009, Williamson was welcomed back into the fold and remained a Stooge until what appears to be the band's last-ever shows, in 2013 supporting the album Ready to Die).
Songfacts: Were there any Stooges songs you had a hand in writing the lyrics for?

Williamson: No. I was not the lyricist. There must be some other ones where I put a word or two in. When I produced New Values [Iggy Pop's 1979 solo album], I helped him a little bit with a few things here and there, but they were very minor.

Iggy was a very good lyricist - and still is, for that matter. He has a very strong imagination and the ability to paint a picture with words. He didn't need my help - nor did I need his help on the guitar. We were all good that way. And the same thing with Frank, although Frank is a good guitar player. He just sort of stepped over and did the singer thing - although on "Purple Moon," that's him playing the solo, it's not me. He can do it. But working with him was the same way: Here and there I gave him my two cents worth, and he usually incorporated it. But mostly, he didn't need it.

Songfacts: What do you recall about coming up with the main guitar part to the title track of Raw Power?

Williamson: I wrote most of that album in my room in London, on Seymour Walk. So, it was mostly written on acoustic guitar. I had a little Gibson B-25 Natural, and we lived in a mews house - townhouse style - with lots of neighbors on both walls, so I couldn't really play through an amp in there.

I had to play everything acoustic. That turned out to be something I ended up doing for my entire career, because I found that the acoustic had a very clear tone. You could really hear what the music was. And then when it translated into electric, it was for all the better. That's how I wrote them... not all of them. On "Search and Destroy," the actual basic riff, I was playing around in the studio with the band. I think we were cutting some demos for "I Got A Right" and a couple of other things like that out near Wimbledon, outside of London. I started goofing about with machine gun sounds, and that's how that came about. I took that home and then worked on it and fleshed it out. It was a little bit of a different way to write it, but it came out great.

Songfacts: And you just mentioned the song "I Got a Right."

Williamson: I didn't write "I Got a Right" - that's an Iggy song. But we had been playing it from the time at the end of The Stooges, which was around 1970, until when we re-formed and came back over to London [in 1972]. We kept that, because it was part of the set that we had been playing. We had to play a live show, and we really didn't have that much material, so that made it, and "I'm Sick of You," which I did write, made it onto the King's Cross Cinema show that we did in London [on July 15, 1972] - that was part of the set.

Songfacts: "I'm Sick of You" is also an overlooked Stooges song.

Williamson: I agree. Oddly enough, "I'm Sick of You" was one of the songs that Frank Meyer subbed for me, for the Re-Licked live show. So, that's when I first started hearing him - he did a great job on it. And it's a great song. It's a simple song, but it has some very cool stuff about it.

At Max's Kansas City L-R: Ron Asheton, Scott Asheton, Iggy, James
photo: Danny Fields c/o Gillian McCain

Songfacts: And you mentioned "Open Up And Bleed" earlier.

Williamson: "Open Up And Bleed" was written following Raw Power, and was part of the group of songs that were meant for the follow-up album that we assumed we would make for CBS. Anyway, that never materialized until I recorded those songs on my album, Re-Licked. This particular song was sung to perfection by Carolyn Wonderland. Just like so many songs of mine, it began with playing around and stumbling on a cool rocking back and forth which would become the main verse to it.

Songfacts: What about the title track of Kill City?

Williamson: "Kill City" was written as the last song to the group of songs we would record as the album Kill City. Ben Edmonds, who had been instrumental in arranging Jimmy Webb's home studio to record in, felt like we were missing a hook song to round out the material we had come up with. The riff for "Kill City" just came to me one day, and was just barely written when we went into the studio. Turned out to be the pivotal track and title track.

Songfacts: And what do you recall about the song you co-wrote with Iggy, "Don't Look Down," which was later covered by David Bowie on his album, Tonight?

Williamson: The riff to "Don't Look Down" was written in my apartment one rather sad rainy day in my little duplex apartment in Hollywood. It almost came to me as a whole - including verses, choruses, and everything. I wasn't playing in the band or anything at that time, so it just laid dormant for a couple of years until Iggy asked me to produce his album, which would become New Values. During the pre-production, I showed him that song, and he immediately wrote the lyrics. I always loved the way it turned out.

Songfacts: What did you think of David Bowie's version?

Williamson: I always thought it was kind of lame, but I loved the royalties that started coming in from his recording.

Songfacts: How did you first cross paths with Bowie?

Williamson: The Stooges had broken up and I had developed hepatitis and was sleeping on my sister's couch in Detroit, trying to recover. Iggy had gone to New York and had hooked up with our prior manager, Danny Fields, and stayed at his house while he looked for the next step. Oddly enough, David Bowie came to New York, and had a number of people who he wanted to meet, like Andy Warhol, and he was a big fan of the Stooges. He heard Iggy was in town, and wanted to meet him, too. So apparently, Danny had gotten a call from probably Lisa Robinson or somebody, saying, "David Bowie is here, and he wants to meet Iggy. Have him come down to Max's tonight."

So, Danny relayed the message. Iggy is watching Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and he's going, "I don't really want to go. I'd rather watch this movie." Danny convinced him to do it, so he went and met David Bowie.

David had his manager, Tony DeFries, with him. They basically sold Iggy on trying to get a record deal and going to London. Essentially, while he was there, Tony DeFries took him to CBS and to Clive Davis, and got the record deal. So, the first thing Iggy did was call me up and say, "Do you want to go to London?" I'm like, sleeping on my sister's couch, and weighed that against going to London. It wasn't a tough decision!

I got my guitars, and it was really only a few days until I went over there with him. I met David the second day we were there. The first day, we were kind of zoned out from the flight, and then we went into the office, and there he was. We spent a lot of time with him in the first few months we were over there.

But David was always trying to get us to let him produce us, and we were not interested in that. In fact, we couldn't even find English musicians that we liked to play with, so that's how the Ashetons ended up being back in the band. Because we said, "This isn't working. Let's get some guys we know." I think it was actually me who pushed for that, because I knew Ronnie from way back playing bass, and he was really great. So, the two of them made a really badass rhythm section, and the rest is history. We put that together, but we continued to not want to be produced. [Eventually, Bowie would be credited as co-producer of the subsequent album, Raw Power].

Songfacts: You also mentioned "Search and Destroy" earlier. It's impressive the wide variety of artists who have covered that song over years - everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Def Leppard.

Williamson: Absolutely. And in addition to that, all of the commercial coverage that it's gotten - everything from the Nike commercial a couple of decades ago, all the way to the Audi commercial just last year. It's becoming like Christmas music at the mall. [Laughs]

March 26, 2018
The debut album by Williamson's new band, James Williamson and the Pink Hearts, will be released on June 22nd, entitled Behind the Shade, and can be pre-ordered at Cobraside Records.

For more James, visit straightjameswilliamson.com.

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