Ron Asheton: Influential guitarist with Iggy Pop and the Stooges
Thursday 08 January 2009
Along with their fellow Detroit-area residents Alice Cooper and MC5, the Stooges pioneered a style of garage rock which didn't find much of an audience outside Michigan in the late Sixties and early Seventies but fed into the psyche of the next generation of musicians and is still influential today. The New York Dolls and the Ramones, especially, picked up on the two albums the original Stooges line-up of Iggy Pop (vocals), Dave Alexander (bass), Ron Asheton (guitar) and his younger brother Scott (drums) made for Elektra Records in 1969 and 1970 and which also inspired the first wave of British punk-rock groups in 1976.
Both the Damned and the Sex Pistols covered Stooges songs early on in their careers. The Damned used the alternative title "I Feel Alright" when they included "1970" – from Fun House, the Stooges' second album – on their Damned Damned Damned debut in March 1977, while "No Fun", from the Stooges' first album, was the B-side of "Pretty Vacant", the third Pistols single in July 1977.
Very much the right-hand man and the perfect foil to the notoriously volatile Pop, Ron Asheton's dirty, guttural guitar sound, often on the verge of feedback, was an integral part of the Stooges' appeal and later informed the work of groups like Guns N' Roses, Nirvana and White Stripes. In 2003, Rolling Stone included Asheton among the 30 greatest guitarists in rock.
Born in Washington D.C. in 1948 and raised in Ann Arbor, near Detroit, Asheton recalled in Please Kill Me: the uncensored oral history of punk (by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain) that he was "just the weird guy. In school, I was either the complete oddball, the nerd or the freak. They always called me 'the Fat Beatle' when I used to wear Beatle suits on dress-up day... I didn't have a lot of friends. I was mostly into Nazi stuff. I took German class and did Hitler speeches. I'd wear SS pins to school, draw swastikas all over my books."
The Ashetons' father had died while the boys and their sister Kathy were in their early teens and their mother indulged their every whim, buying her sons Beatles and Rolling Stones records. In 1965, Ron sold his Honda 305 motorbike and travelled to the UK and Liverpool with his friend and neighbour Dave Alexander. "We went to see the Who at the Cavern... We muscled through to about 10 feet from the stage, and Pete Townshend started smashing his Rickenbacker. It was my first experience of total pandemonium," he remembered. "The whole room turned really primitive. For me, it wasn't fun but it was mesmerising. Never had I seen people driven so nuts. That's when I realised this is definitely what I wanted to do."
On their return to Ann Arbor, Asheton and Alexander were both thrown out of school for having long hair and decided that playing along to Stones records wasn't enough. They formed the Chosen Few and met James Osterberg, yet to acquire the name Iggy Pop, who was working in Discount Records and drumming with the Iguanas and the Prime Movers. Asheton did a few gigs with them but the blues-obsessed Pop disappeared to Chicago. "Iggy called me up from Chicago and said: 'How about you guys coming to pick me up?' That was the beginning of Iggy deciding, 'Hey, why don't we start a band?'"
The group rehearsed at the Ashetons' house and became firm friends. They tried to see the Doors in a gymnasium at the University of Michigan but only Pop got in while the others listened outside.
In January 1968, the Stooges made their first public appearance at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit with MC5. It was more performance art than music, with Ron Asheton miking up a blender and vacuum cleaner and his brother Scott banging oil drums with hammers instead of using sticks on a traditional kid. However, their next gig, supporting Cream, was a resounding failure and they didn't play again until September. This time, Danny Fields, a talent scout from Elektra Records, in town to see MC5, caught them and offered to sign not only MC5 but also "their baby brother group" to the underground label which already had the Doors on its books.
Ron Asheton remained the bad taste rebel, wearing a Luftwaffe fighter pilot's jacket when he was best man at Pop's wedding to a Jewish girl with their Jewish manager, Jimmy Silver, officiating. The union proved short-lived and the Stooges carried on much as before, though Asheton frowned on Pop's penchant for giving acid to his numerous girlfriends at the "Fun House", where the band now lived.
In 1969, the Stooges recorded their self-titled first album in New York with the former Velvet Underground member John Cale producing. "We only had three songs. So I went back to the hotel and in an hour came up with the riffs for 'Little Doll', 'Not Right' and 'Real Cool Time'. We'd never been into a recording studio before and we set up Marshall stacks and set them on 10. Cale kept trying to talk to us but that's all we knew. Our compromise was 'we'll put them on nine'. We couldn't play unless it was high volume. We didn't have enough expertise on our instruments. It was all power chords."
Issued in August 1969, the album also contained '1969' and 'I Wanna Be Your Dog', which became staples of the repertoire of many punk bands, as did 'Down On The Street' and 'T.V. Eye' from their 1970 follow-up Fun House, recorded at Elektra's studios in Los Angeles with Steve MacKay on saxophone. But the group was now heavily into drugs and becoming even more unreliable, with Ron Asheton the only one not using heroin. Pop sacked Alexander and Asheton recruited James Williamson, a local friend who had been sent to school in New York by his father and was a better guitar player than he was. None the less, Elektra dropped the Stooges. After a period in limbo Raw Power, their third album, was recorded in London in 1973 but the Ashetons nearly missed out.
"I ended up being the last guy at the Fun House," Ron Asheton explained. "Iggy had gone to New York. David Bowie was there, found out Iggy was in town, invited him to lunch and introduced him to [Bowie's manager] Tony DeFries. The next day, DeFries goes to Clive Davis at CBS and gets Iggy a $100,000 deal."
Ron Asheton was not part of Pop and Williamson's plans until the pair decided to involve him and Scott. "They tried everybody they could think of and then couldn't find anybody good enough, so the last choice was us, the original members."
The album was mixed by Bowie; Asheton switched to bass while Pop and Williamson co-wrote material like "Search And Destroy". Asheton enjoyed his return visit to the UK. He refrained from hitting Bowie when he allegedly kissed him and even had an affair with Angie, the singer's wife.
The Stooges hung out with Lou Reed, another Bowie influence-turned-protégé who was then making Transformer, but Raw Power only reached No 182 in the album charts in the US and both DeFries and CBS dropped them. Williamson then insisted that only he and Pop could write, leaving the Ashetons out of the frame.
Asheton stuck around long enough to appear on the infamous live bootleg Metallic K.O., recorded in front of an openly hostile crowd (1976), and on Kill City, the Pop-Williamson album issued in 1977, but spent the rest of the Seventies trying to get two bands of his own off the ground: New Order – he used the name several years before the Manchester group – with the MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson, and Destroy All Monsters with the MC5 bassist Michael Davis. In 1981, he toured Australia with New Race, a group comprising members of the Sydney proto-punk band Radio Birdman, along with Thompson.
In the Nineties, he contributed to the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack and appeared in several horror films, while in 2000 he hooked up with the Dinosaur Jr. mainman J. Mascis and the Minutemen bassist Mike Watt and began performing Stooges material with his brother, occasionally adding guests like the Primal Scream front man Bobby Gillespie. Ron and Scott Asheton subsequently appeared on four tracks on Skull Ring, Iggy Pop's 2003 album.
Two years later, Pop, the Asheton brothers and Watt reunited as the Stooges and made triumphant appearances at the Reading and Leeds Festivals before performing Fun House in its entirety during a particularly riotous concert at London's Hammersmith Apollo in August 2005. Last year, the Stooges recorded their fourth studio album, The Weirdness, with the alternative producer Steve Albini.
Ron Asheton, guitarist, songwriter, actor: born Washington D.C. 17 July 1948; died Ann Arbor, Michigan c 6 January 2009.
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