[…continued from last post]
I’ll never forget what I once saw on a journey from Cleveland to Chicago in 1998 on Interstate 90. I was accompanying a Cle-based friend of JTs and we were headed to Chicago to see Kraftwerk and visit with JT. To this day, I am haunted by the sight of Gary, Indiana. As we passed Gary, the horizon looked like what William Blake decried in “Jerusalem.” Nothing but “dark satanic mills” as far as the eye could see. Desolate, inhuman, scorched earth desolation followed for miles. That was certainly the visual metaphor for “Mass Production,” the final song on “The Idiot.”
It began with a mechanical warning claxon warning off all comers for almost a half minute. Throbbing mindlessly up and down the scale as a four note synthetic chirp began making its rhythm on an off-beat; insuring that maximum anxiety was to be had in listening to this song. Eventually, the bass, drums and guitars began their death spiral rondo that formed the vast bulk of this song. Just when it couldn’t get any more foreboding, Iggy Pop finally made his entrance to the song, moaning the lyrics below with a death-rattle vibrato as he sounded completely smacked out and desensitized.
“Before you go…
Do me a favor…
Give me a number…” – “Mass Production”
Then he roared into a semblance of vitality in spite of the death-march tempo of the song as he scornfully dismissed a woman who was “nothing new” with the promise of yet another one “with legs almost like you” to replace her on the sexual assembly line of his life. For a song recorded in the waning days of 1976, I can’t imagine that much this horrifyingly dehumanized had ever gotten very far above ground. Then, in the break between verses, there were curdled synths squalling out of phase, with detuned lead lines sounding utterly nauseated; as if machines could now become this sick.
The song revealed the queasy machinery of a sexuality so stunted and benumbed that even machines, that could once be relied upon mechanically, were now falling prey to its thrall, and could no longer deliver upon their promise of repetitive perfection. The second verse had Iggy trying in vain to die, only to have the omniscient power he cursed keep him at his post on the production line in this hellish factory. Then the wordless chorus of atonal synthesizers once more bludgeoned the listener’s ears with their cries of anguish. This song was Hieronymous Bosch as a simulacra of rock music.
As the third verse began, Iggy actually managed to sound defiant as he proclaimed that he was going out for cigarettes and thus, it was once again time for the woman to leave, but not before he got the number of her replacement on the line. It was in this time that “Mass Production” manages the paradoxical trick of sounding nihilistic, yet epic, at the same time. But the song’s conclusion descended into the realization that both the women and himself were an endless series of inhuman ciphers as the song’s death-knell had the parts of the musical loop eventually drop out until there was nothing left but the warning claxon once more and an ever-expanding industrial hum obliterating everything in its proximity.
It’s horrifying, but I can’t tear my ears away from it.
It’s tempting to consider this song to be the ground zero of industrial music as we know it, but there were certainly rumblings far below ground dating from a few years earlier. Throbbing Gristle had a self-released demo tape that same year. DEVO had been recording their somewhat congruent sounding demos for several years by then, but I don’t think that they had reached Bowie’s ears just yet. Perhaps the most relevant touchstone was the self-releases debut single from another Ohio band, Pere Ubu. “Heart Of Darkness” had a very similar grinding, industrial nihilism to what was on offer on “Mass Production” and the key to all of these sounds was probably the fact that Iggy [Detroit], DEVO [Akron], and Pere Ubu [Clevelend] all had their roots in the American industrial Rust Belt. Where the promise of mechanization as a better way of life had ultimately fallen hollow as the vitality of the region had been sucked dry by machinery that was now falling into ruin. The sort of ruin as typified by this song.
One distinction to these possible predecessors that “Mass Production” was produced with a large budget by David Bowie in a professional studio like Château d’Hérouville, Munich and possibly Hansa Studios in Berlin. Never had alienation and dehumanization sounded so powerful. Listening to this song now, I can clearly see it as the antecedent to whole genres that were to come in the ensuing years. Much of Simple Minds’ masterstroke, “Empires + Dance,” can be extrapolated directly from this track. Producer David Bowie had always been candid about how he treated writing the music and producing “The Idiot” for Iggy Pop as an experimental lab for ideas he was interested in pursuing. As much as the “Low” album that followed this in the studio was admirably, avant pop and bracing to the 1977 ear, the fact remained that Bowie, as ever, filtered his internal experience through his intellect for an abstraction of his feelings with the details purposefully blurred.
He was too guarded to lay himself bare like Mr. Osterberg did on a regular basis. But Bowie had always sought to ally himself with artists like Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, whose grasp of the instinctual left him far in the shade. And it spoke volumes that “Low” preceded this album in the marketplace by several months in the winter of 1977, even though it had been recorded first; giving Bowie first cut on the innovation scale, even though next to “The Idiot,” “Low” resembled the safer follow up.
– 30 –