James Williamson made his mark in rock history as guitarist and co-writer of two brilliant records: Iggy & the Stooges’ Raw Power and Iggy Pop & James Williamson’s Kill City. Then he disappeared for 35 years. But now he’s back!
When Williamson joined Detroit garage punk legends The Stooges as second guitarist in 1971, the band was struggling with poor record sales and debilitating drug use. Although his influence pushed the band to adopt a faster and more aggressive sound, they had broken up – unrecorded -- by the end of the year.
The following year, Pop signed with David Bowie’s MainMan production company, who secured a deal with Columbia Records and invited Pop and Williamson to London to record a new album. Unable to find a suitable rhythm section for their menacing new sound, they brought in the Asheton brothers and rechristened the band Iggy & the Stooges.
The resultant album, Raw Power, is a masterpiece in spite of Bowie’s bizarre and tinny production (later remedied by Pop in a controversial 1997 remix). Unfortunately it failed to sell, Columbia dropped the band, and they broke up for good in February 1974.
However, Pop and Williamson continued working together, and in 1975 crafted the awesome Stooges-meets-Stones album Kill City. Sadly, the record remained unreleased until 1977, by which time Williamson had begun tiring of the music business. Following a brief tenure in record production (including Pop’s 1979 New Values LP), he returned to school to study electrical engineering, and ultimately accepted a position with Sony. He remained with the company until his 2009 retirement.
Meanwhile, Pop maintained a successful solo career for over two decades before suddenly reforming the Stooges in 2003. This line-up, featuring Pop, the Asheton brothers and former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, toured extensively and released one lackluster CD before guitarist Ron Asheton tragically suffered a fatal heart attack in January 2009.
At some point in 2010, Mr. Williamson kindly allowed me to interview him via telephone for Crawdaddy.com. Since that site no longer exists, I've reprinted our discussion here.
Crawdaddy!: What convinced you to rejoin the band?
James Williamson: It’s kind of a complicated thing. Ronnie died in January 2009, and I got a phone call from Iggy – I’d already heard about it by then, but I got a phone call from Iggy, and he was trying to make sure that I was aware of it. We talked mostly about the funeral arrangements and things like that. But it wasn’t very long -- maybe a month or six weeks or something -- that he called me back because he had some gigs. All these festivals get booked between six months and a year in advance, so he had some shows that were already scheduled to be played, and he asked me, “Would you want to play?” At that point I was still working for Sony, so I had to say no. I was flattered that he would ask me, but we had a couple of problems; one was that I was rusty as hell after 35 years, and two was that I had a job. So it wasn’t going to happen, and we left it at that. But it wasn’t much longer after that that Sony started giving out early retirement packages, and they were voluntary but they were very attractive. So I ended up taking one, and called him back and said, “You know what? I’m available.” And that’s how it happened.
Crawdaddy!: Did you still remember how to play all your old songs?
James Williamson: Well, it took a while. Essentially I started wood shedding, and as I’ve said to other folks, you form all these synapses in your brain from learning anything, so if you ever couldn’t play, you still have them. You just have to dust them off a little bit. But I got going again. I practiced hard, and a local band by where I live called The Careless Hearts had offered to rehearse me and that was helpful because you can’t really…. It’s hard. It’s not the same playing in a band as when you’re playing for yourself. So that ended up being very helpful, and in fact in payment to them I offered to play a live show with them, which I did in September 2009. So that was the first live show I’d done in 30-35 years. And shortly thereafter we actually got a job down in Sao Paulo, Brazil – my first show with the Stooges. So in the meantime we were rehearsing the Stooges, so we’d be ready enough to play that. And boom, my first time playing out with the Stooges, there was like 40,000 people!
Crawdaddy!: Did you still have your equipment? Or did you have to buy all new equipment?
James Williamson: I still had my two main guitars from back then, the Les Paul and my B25 natural acoustic that I wrote the tunes for “Raw Power” and several others with. Most people don’t know that, but I wrote most of the riffs on that acoustic guitar in my living room. I had those, but I didn’t have the amps, so I had to start accumulating all that stuff. Now I have so many guitars, my wife is threatening to leave me because there’s no room in the house! I have like a guitar store.
Crawdaddy!: Are you guys touring now?
James Williamson: No, we’re in kind of R’n’R time for us. We did 35 dates this summer – mostly in Europe, but we had some US dates – and we finished up in September. Now we’re off for a little while, and then we start back up in January in Australia and New Zealand.
Crawdaddy!: Let’s talk about your early days with the band. I just recently bought a copy of this new 1971 Stooges box set, You Don’t Want My Name, You Want My Action. There are some great unreleased songs on there! Have you heard it?
James Williamson: Yeah, yeah! That was when I first joined the band in 1971. That was the short period of time when I was playing with the band in a two-guitar line-up. Yeah, there were some good tunes. A couple of those were from when I’d just started coming up with music for the band.
Crawdaddy!: There are some really fast ones on there! Were any other bands playing that fast in 1971!?
James Williamson: No, we never really played or sounded like anybody else. It was pretty unique. But that was kind of a problem for the band too, because nobody could really relate to us either!
Crawdaddy!: Had you written all the Raw Power stuff before you started working with Iggy, or did you guys write those together?
James Williamson: We did it together when we were in London. What happened was -- out of that 1971 stuff, the only thing that survived from there was maybe “I Got a Right.” And we had started playing “I’m Sick of You” towards the end of that, so we had a few songs. But when we did demos in the studio, the management company that we had couldn’t hear any hits in there, and that’s what it was all about in those days, especially for the guys that were managing us. They were Bowie’s managers, and they wanted a Bowie-style radio hit. And of course that wasn’t going to happen, but they kept hoping anyway and so they kept rejecting all our stuff. But by the time we went to London, we had a record deal so we had to deliver a record. So we started writing Raw Power, and we wrote all those songs over there.
Crawdaddy!: I’ve read that when it came out, it didn’t sell all that well. How long did it take the world to finally catch on to the fact that it was such an amazing record?
James Williamson: Well, I think probably 20 or 25 years! We did it in ’73, and it came out and hit the charts. It was in the Top 200 for like two seconds and then just dropped like a rock. I think what had happened was that the initial shipment from Columbia had slipped it onto the charts. The critics liked it, but the kids weren’t buying it. Iggy says it best: there really was no vocabulary for that music at the time, so people didn’t have any frame of reference for it, and it just sounded weird. But I think subsequently all these bands that became popular started imitating the style of the music and so on, and so it became something that people became familiar with. So eventually people came around to the originals.
Crawdaddy!: Okay. I gotta tell you, I first heard the record pretty late – it must’ve been around 1988 – and personally I liked the songs but I couldn’t stand the mix. And I know you disagree with me here, but I loved what Iggy did with the remix. He really made it sound heavy, and I just thought it sounded great. I love that version.
James Williamson: Well, don’t get me wrong; I think that the Bowie mix is really weird. But it’s the one that’s historically significant because that’s the way the album was released. So that’s the way people remember it; that’s the real super guitar-forward kinda thing that it’s famous for. So it has a place. Frankly, I’d like to get a shot at it myself! As I’ve said to others, maybe the fun thing to do would be to just let the fans mix it. Just put the tracks out there and let everybody have a go at it, since it’s so controversial.
Crawdaddy!: Ha! Were you involved in the recent Kill City remastering?
James Williamson: Yeah, it wasn’t just a remaster; it was a remix. Basically, earlier this year I was discussing with the Bomp! people and the Alive people the situation with a re-release of Kill City; they had been re-cutting records off of other records because they no longer had the two-track master mix. I was interested in remixing it anyway, because the original one that I mixed I felt like suffered from low budget and not enough time and all the kinds of things that happen. So I felt like I’d like to have a do-over! And I was fortunate enough to be able to get a favor from a good friend, Ed Cherney, who has been a super A-list go-to engineer who has mixed everybody’s albums. So we went in together to the old Capitol Records in Hollywood, and they have this old analog mixing console and analog machine so we could do it old school and really remix it analog.
Crawdaddy!: Did you have the old tapes?
James Williamson: Yeah, we had the old multi-track masters. So we were lucky on that. The only one that was missing was “Night Theme,” which it turned out was lucky because of all the ones that would suffer from transfer, “Night Theme” was okay to do it that way. It sounds perfect. But the rest of them were all there, and we remixed them from scratch, and I don’t know if you’ve heard it –
Crawdaddy!: Yeah, it sounds amazing! The original album, I loved the songs but it really does have kind of a ‘70s mix. I don’t know how to describe that, but the new remix sounds like something that could’ve been recorded this year. The production is so strong!
James Williamson: Yeah, he’s got an incredible ear and a unique talent for creating audio space for all the instruments, so you can hear everything. They don’t clobber each other in the mix. You can really hear a bunch of stuff you’ve never heard before on that album.
Crawdaddy!: Why were the Ashetons not on that album?
James Williamson: The Stooges had broken up by that point. Basically at the end of the Michigan Palace gig that was captured on Metallic K.O., everybody just kinda gave up. So they were already back in Michigan by then, and Iggy and I decided to see if we could get a record deal. We had written up this material – initially actually we played it for John Cale (who was in Hollywood at the time) in hopes that he might have some record connections to get us something. The thing was that that didn’t pan out, but Ben Edmonds, who you might know from Creem and so forth, also was around and he suggested, “Well, if you’re gonna shop this for a record deal, it would be best to get a little better recording than the one you did in your living room with a cassette machine.” He had a buddy, Jimmy Webb who wrote “Wichita Lineman” that Glen Campbell recorded, so he lent us his recording studio as a favor and we recorded it in there. So basically, to answer your question, the Ashetons weren’t around. But Scott Thurston was, and we rounded up some other backing men who were around then, and I think it sounds great!
Crawdaddy!: Considering what great records those were – Raw Power and Kill City – I personally think it was a real loss for the rock world when you retired from it. Did you ever have the desire to join another band after that? I know you did some production, but did you ever miss performing? And did you even continue writing songs over the years?
James Williamson: No, I didn’t. I did write one song that we recorded on New Values, one of Iggy’s solo albums. But I had really walked away from the music business entirely. I’m kind of funny in that my style of guitar playing is not really transferable that easily, so I’m kind of a one-trick pony, if you will. It’s the Stooges or nothing. You can’t imagine me playing with, you know, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. It’s just not gonna work! That band was kind of a family and when it broke up, everything changed. The singer went off and did his own thing, and the drummer and the bass player and I all went our separate ways. I did think that maybe I wanted to be a recording engineer/producer, just because my orientation had been around music. But I really found out that -- you can’t really play with musicians you don’t like, so there’s only one thing worse than playing with musicians you don’t like, and that’s recording bands that you don’t like every day all day long! So I found out I wasn’t cut out for that. At the same time I became fascinated by the computer world, which was really just in its infancy as a personal electronics item at that time, so that whole thing was very exciting for me. So I felt like I had something else that was my passion at that point, and I didn’t want to come back and play in a band anymore. But times change, things change, and now here I am! I’m back in a band.
Crawdaddy!: Wow! Okay, final question: will we be hearing a new Stooges CD at some point?
I hope so. The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of components to that equation, not the least of which is we gotta have songs that we like. So that’s number one. We’re continuing to work on new material, even though we haven’t had much time off the road yet. So this is the period when we’re starting to do that. But we have to have new riffs that capture our imagination, and the lyrics have to match that, and finally the performance has to be such that we can feel proud of it. The bar is set pretty high I guess is what I’m trying to say. We don’t want to release something that’s not up to par with the Stooges material, but I think we can do it. Some people say we’re playing better than ever! So we’ll see how it works out. I think probably rather than shoot for an album-type release – I think today’s albums don’t really mean much anyway – I think we’ll shoot for a single or two and see how that goes.
Crawdaddy!: Cool! Okay, well thank you so much for your time.
James Williamson: My pleasure. I’m thrilled that Crawdaddy is still around! Please let everybody know that.
The man knew his rock, and I’m glad he’s back killin’ em live.
Great interview Mark. You always sound like a fan rather than some bastard sent by some website to talk to some dinosaur, and that’s definitely a good thing.
At last, James Williamson is finally getting his dues as one of THE great modern guitarists. I saw The Stooges play in London last year, and they wiped the floor with ninety nine per cent of today’s bands. And to think, that was only his third performance with the band !
I wish them well. They have nothing left to prove.
A lot of boo’s from the crowd, as people just couldn’t relate to the intensity of their performance. Ron on bass with his Nazi storm trooper get up didn’t go over well with the Long Island crowd that had come to see the headline act: Blue Oyster Cult!!
BTW – Kiss was the opening act! The Stooges blew ‘em all away for my money.
Never thought I’d see that day when James hit the stage again with iggy – I wish them all the success in the world – they’ve earned it.