Though many people trace the origins of punk music to New York City in the late 1960s, it was a group of misfits in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who formed what was arguably the most definitive punk rock band.
The Stooges consisted of brothers Ron and Scott Asheton, Dave Alexander, and a strange college kid with a once-promising academic future named James Newell Osterberg. Of course, that's not what the world would come to know him by. Osterberg adopted the name Iggy while playing the drums for a band called the Iguanas, and the name stuck even after he left the band.
He's credited on the Stooges' first album as Iggy Stooge. "Pop" came later, when Iggy shaved his eyebrows, because he resembled a hairless friend they had named Jim Pop.
Iggy Pop and the Stooges weren't interested in doing what everyone else was doing in the late 1960s—namely, imitating British bands who were in turn imitating the blues. They were influenced more by New York's the Velvet Underground, often considered the progenitors of punk. But even that didn't hit close enough to home for the Stooges.
They were middle to lower-class kids from the Midwest, and they wanted to make songs about what life was like for them. "Basically," Iggy said in an interview in 1986, "it was no fun and nothing to do. So that's what I wrote about." (Source)
But as life changed for the members of the band, their music changed, too, progressing from the boredom and disillusionment manifested on The Stooges, to the drug abuse and depravity that characterized Fun House. In fact, Fun House has been deemed the most Stooge-y of all Stooges albums, despite being the least commercially successful of the three.
"Where their debut was all deadpan restraint," writes Paul Trynka in Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed, "Fun House was aggressive, outgoing and, at times, almost expansive and cocky." (Source)
It was also the album that marked the beginning of the band's dalliance with heroin, a drug that would greatly define their lives for years to come. From the album's very first song, "Down on the Street," the dark transformation was evident, and this evolved sound is what came to define the band for future generations of artists.
That's why a deeper look at this song might help us understand what was so darn revolutionary about the Stooges. After all, what's unique about including "down on the street" in a lyric?
The "street" is commonly used as a metaphor in poetry, literature, music, and even everyday conversation.
Heard of street cred? Street smarts? Street slang?
The metaphorical street is often a place where chaos reigns, where the rules and hierarchies of bourgeois society break down. Sometimes, the street's a scene of urban poverty and decay, of lawless human interaction, or of the aimless wanderings of outcasts and derelicts. And other times, it's just a place to hang out with friends or meet strangers.
As you can read in our Introduction section, the street, unlike the road, doesn't lead you anywhere. Instead of being a path to your future, it holds you to the present.
Because of its urban connotations, the street is very important to hip-hop. When people claim to be "from the streets," they're usually trying to say that they're from a part of a city where there's a lot of crime, where life, as the Notorious B.I.G. so definitively put it, is an "everyday struggle." To have "street cred" a.k.a. street credibility, is to declare proudly that you're from a dangerous area of poverty and violence. It implies toughness, tenacity, and intelligence.
In rock music, the metaphorical street is just as common, but its connotations are less dismal. Big Star, Bruce Springsteen, the Who, the Count Five, Carly Simon, the Shangri-Las, Tim Buckley, Earl Hines, Willie Nelson, and countless others wrote songs called "Out in the Street" or "Down the Street," or some variation of the two.
For Springsteen, it's the place where you can shed your work clothes and be yourself, where you can get lost in "the crowd" and have a real good time. For Big Star, it's a place to hang out with friends and find something to do when you're bored out of your wits.
In punk music, the street falls somewhere in between, bridging a thematic gap between the two styles of music. Like hip-hop, punk was born and bred in a ragged urban area of New York City, and it likewise inherited a view of the street that was on the darker end of the spectrum.
And yet, the street's still a place where you're free to be yourself, like it is in rock. In punk, it was a place to cop drugs or turn tricks for money—a place filled with exciting possibilities and sexual desire, but often accompanied by violence and frustration. To see an example of this, check out the lyrics to the Velvet Underground's song "There She Goes Again."
Though the street is just one metaphor, it gives us a glimpse at one of the qualities that set punk music, and specifically the Stooges, apart from all of the other popular music at the time. It also gives us a clue as to why the band was so underappreciated, critically and commercially, in its own day.
"Down on the Street" uses the darker urban elements that hadn't been expressed in rock music, and hip-hop wouldn't enter the American consciousness for at least another decade. As you can read in more depth in the Lyrics section, the words concern trolling the streets with a "real low mind," which was a "drugged out state of blissful nirvana that was the aim of many drug users at the time" (source, 36).
Despite the talk of drug-induced euphoria, or being "lost in love," for that matter, the performance and the music throw the song into an unmistakably troubling light.
First there are the animalistic oomphs and grunts of Iggy's performance, and the unrelenting momentum of the rhythm.
Secondly, the lyrics, when you can even understand them, are brutishly erotic, isolated statements of a subhuman lust. Add to that mix a barrage of swampy, guttural guitars, and the song takes on a frightening tone. It's a bit like a horror story told from the killer's perspective:
Well, down on the street, where the faces shine
Floatin' around, I'm a real low mind
See a pretty thing
Ain't no wall
See a pretty thing
Ain't no wall
As this last line pummels the song into the chorus, essentially the same riff but played at high volume and with unprecedented ferocity, we can only wonder what depravity this "wall" was supposed to be keeping in.
All instinct and raw emotion, this song is a great example of what set punk music apart from everything that came before. The sinister chaos in "Down on the Street" was also unlike any other music coming out at the same time.
Just a year later, in 1971, people would be going crazy for the utopianism of John Lennon's smash hit "Imagine." Consider that next to the dark grittiness of the Stooges' music, and the contrast couldn't be more severe. In "Down on the Street," there's no message of peace and love, no hummable melody, no hopeful optimism or musical delicacy at all. Instead, there's the here-and-now of a man haunting the streets, lost in his own mind and his own desires, backed by a barrage of noise and violent passion.
Perhaps people weren't prepared for this type of musical vision because they were still dreaming, with Lennon, of a "brotherhood of man," or a world with "nothing to kill or die for."
Though this was certainly a lovely thought, and something to strive for, it didn't reflect everyday reality. "Down on the Street," though, showed a gritty truth that the world was perhaps not yet ready for.