How Iggy Pop and the Stooges Created an Iconic, Protopunk Anthem with “Search and Destroy”
Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
In 1969, The Stooges seemed to be ready to take on the world. Lenny Kaye prophesied in Fusion: “If 1967 was the year of the Beatles and ‘Get Together’, if 1968 was the year of the Band and Beggar’s Banquet, then 1969 may well be the year of the Stooges. You might not like it, but you can’t escape it.” In December 1970, David Marsh similarly wrote in ZigZag that Iggy Pop should prepare for “the adulation and acclaim I and a number of others find inevitably in store for him.” And yet by 1971, after the disappointing reception of Fun House (1970) and with most of the band addicted to heroin, Elektra dropped the Stooges, and the band broke up.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the band reformed in 1972, orchestrated by none other than David Bowie. Recording in England, they released their highly influential third album, Raw Power (1973), which included the single “Search and Destroy”. While neither the song nor the album sold particularly well at their release, their sound became one of the most important influences for the punk movement, which would emerge later in the decade.
The Stooges initially formed in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1967. Iggy cites two musical experiences as truly inspiring the band – seeing the Doors perform live at the University of Michigan and seeing the Untouchables (an all-girls band from New Jersey) – telling Bust magazine in 1995:
“I had the Stooges. And we did not have the balls to get out and do it. There were two things that made us do it; one was seeing that show (the Doors), we saw that show and I just thought, well, this is so brazen, there is no excuse for us not to do it anymore. And the other thing was we went to New York. We had gone to New York a couple of months before that just to check out the scene, and we had never been to a place like New York… we went down around Eighth Street there where all the young tourists hang out, and we met these girls from New Jersey, from Princeton, they had a band called the Untouchable, and we’re like, “Oh, you’ve got a band, sure, ha ha ha,” and they said “Well, come to our house and see us play.” And we didn’t have anywhere to crash, and they played for us, and they completely rocked, and we were really ashamed.”
The Stooges began playing around the Detroit area, where they gained a reputation for their exciting (and shocking) stage show, and they were picked up by Elektra in 1968. They released their self-titled, debut album in 1969, followed by Fun House the year after. Their debut had been disappointing, but Fun House received scathing reviews; Roy Hollingworth of Melody Maker called the album “the worst album I’ve heard this year”. On top of all that, the band was in complete disarray from addiction.
Enter David Bowie. While Iggy would later focus on Bowie’s role in kickstarting his solo career (“He resurrected me” Iggy told the New York Times in 2016), the rock legend had first stepped into Iggy’s career when the Stooges broke up. Iggy reminisced to Rolling Stone in 2016:
“I met David in New York in 1971. I was staying at [publicist] Danny Fields’ little funky-ass loft. It was late one night, and Danny went to Max’s Kansas City. I didn’t want to go. I was watching TV — Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Danny rang me: ‘There’s a guy down here. You remember him.’ And I did. David had said something in Melody Maker about his favorite songs, and he said he liked the Stooges, which is something not a lot of people would admit at the time. Danny said, ‘You really gotta get down here.’”
Bowie had an eye for talent, constantly supporting and surrounding himself with creative individuals who worked outside the box. “He appreciated oddballs” Iggy reflected, “- people who looked different and spoke in a certain way.” And in 1972, Bowie invited Iggy to come to London to record an album. Iggy also brought along guitarist James Williamson.
Williamson had joined the Stooges as a second guitarist shortly before the band had broken up, but he was the first call Iggy made to go to London:
“I had nothing to look forward to, I had no money, no prospects. Then Iggy calls and says David Bowie wants him to come to London to make an album, and that he’s not going without me. We get a contract for £10,000 – a huge amount of money back then – stay in Kensington Gardens Hotel, and hang out with people that drive Bentleys. We go from absolute poverty to the lap of luxury. It was amazing.”
Williamson’s guitar playing is a huge element of Raw Power’s proto-punk sound. Iggy described the guitarist’s groundbreaking style saying:
“The first time I heard him play, which was in a basement in Ann Arbor, he did something that later became known as punk or speed metal – a great number of chords, almost all at once – but which at that time came from no known musical vocabulary. His playing had dirt, but it did not lack authority. You could hear the intelligence in it.”
“Search and Destroy” was written by both Iggy and Williamson, and was inspired first and foremost by the Vietnam war. Vietnam is often considered the first televised war, not just transmitting back images but the sounds of warfare, as well. Williamson explained that in rehearsal with Pop, he had started trying to emulate those sounds, specifically that of machine gun fire, using his guitar.
The lyrics also were grounded in an awareness of the times. The title references a warfare tactic that was a major strategy during the Vietnam War. The lyrics also use other war imagery, notably “a heart full of napalm” and “a runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb”. Iggy pulled little pieces, phrases and words from articles in Time magazine, and reimagine them for the context of the song:
“The lyrics, I just sorta took out of Time Magazine, the concept of search and destroy. I used to read Time obsessively, because they were the representatives of the ultimate establishment to me. They were giving the party line that represented the power people and the powers that be. So I kinda liked to look in there and see what they were talking about, and then I’d use that inventory in other ways. That’s what I was doing in that song.”
Because of this song, the phrase “search and destroy” has become an unofficial punk slogan, including inspiring the title of the San Francisco punk ‘zine Search and Destroy, which chronicled the emerging West Coast punk scene in the mid-to-late seventies. Black Flag’s frontman Henry Rollins even has the phrase tattooed across his back.
Ultimately, the song depicted an anti-establishment attitude, which along with Williamson’s playing and Iggy’s vocals, would eventually earn it the reputation as one of the most influential songs on the future of punk. In fact, in his book on the history of punk, England’s Dreaming, author Jon Savage provides a detailed discography of punk music, but ultimately declares: “if you have to listen to just two records out of this discography make it this one [Raw Power] and Never Mind the Bollocks” (by the Sex Pistols, 1977).
“Search and Destroy” and Raw Power were released by CBS Records, after Bowie’s introduction. The group was rebranded under the band name Iggy and the Stooges. At first Williamson and Iggy had auditioned British musicians to fill out the band, but ultimately couldn’t find anyone that fit with their vision. “We parachuted into the ground zero of glam,” Williamson explained, “We’d hang around at [Bowie manager] Tony DeFries’s office and see musicians that we thought might be suitable […] but that was the period of big hair and ruffled cuffs and it just wasn’t us. We’re two guys from Detroit, we don’t have that sensibility. I mean, we could barely tolerate Bowie’s band [laughs].” So they brought in former Stooges bandmates, brothers Ron and Scott Asheton, moving Ron from guitar to play bass on the album.
The final component of the release, and a controversial one at that, was finding the right mix. Several versions of the story exist, but generally can be summarized to Bowie coming in to mix the album after DeFries (Bowie’s manager) refused to release the album as mixed by Iggy. While Iggy and other members of the band would often claim that the mix did not capture the sound they wanted, they generally understood that it was the only way to get the album released. Williamson recalled: “DeFries called in his golden boy to salvage the album at Western Studios on Sunset. We’ve been grousing about the mix Bowie did ever since, but we can’t complain too much because we were in the studio when it was done. And the truth is that Raw Power would never have been released had it not been for Bowie.”
While Iggy Pop would remix the album in 1997, in an attempt to capture what he had initially envisioned for the song, the original Bowie mix is the sound that can be credited with inspiring so many of the musicians of the punk scene. “Search and Destroy” and the Raw Power may have failed to garner the commercial success the band had hoped, but the project brought the Stooges back together at a critical moment in rock history. The band toured after its release, inspiring aspiring punk musicians, not only with their recorded tracks, but with their powerful stage show. Reviewing their performance at the Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood in 1973, Metal Mike Saunders of Phonograph Record wrote: “The Stooges have come back from the dead to become one of the most powerful groups in the world today […] If they can ever develop a feel for dynamics, and if their material keeps improving until it matches their indisputable capacity for mania, the Stooges might etch their name into the annals of rock history in a big way.” Referring to the “Search and Destroy” single, Saunders concluded: “All Stooges fans should acquire a copy, if for nothing else to nail it up on the wall beside ‘My Generation’. You won’t be sorry!”
With “Search and Destroy” Iggy Pop and the Stooges created an archetype for what punk would aim to be. It was hard, aggressive, and had incredible attitude. Sex Pistol’s guitarist Steve Jones claimed to have taught himself how to play the guitar by taking speed and listening to Raw Power. Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe recalled: “When I was fifteen years old, I remember Iggy and the Stooges’ song “Search and Destroy” reaching out from my speakers to me like my own personal anthem. It was a theme I would carry for decades as my own hell-bent mantra. The song might as well have been tattooed across my knuckles ‘cause there could be no truer words for a young, alienated teenager.”
The legacy of the song has outlived the relatively cool reception it received at its release in 1973. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked “Search and Destroy” among their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and VH1 named it in its top 50 best hard rock songs of all time. In 2010, the Stooges were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Through “Search and Destroy” and Raw Power, Iggy Pop and the Stooges created a revolutionary sound that would inspire generations and earn them their place in rock history