Snap, crackle and Pop: the eloquence of Iggy

Antonia Quirke on radio.

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Iggy Pop Show; John Peel Lecture
BBC Radio 6 Music

“I always hated radio,” gnarrs Iggy Pop, giving this year’s John Peel Lecture on Radio 6 Music (13 October, 7pm). “And all the jerks that pushed that shit music into my tender mind . . .” He sounds, as he always does, on some level amused, as though telling a slow-reveal gag, and the voice is so familiarly low that each vowel sounds exotic. As he warms to his theme – about the various (financial, ethical) challenges facing the musician in the era of free music – the striking phrases accumulate: “Not everybody is meant to be big. Not everybody big is good”; “I only ever wanted the money because it was symbolic of love.”

But then Pop was always great at lines. Who could forget the Stooges lyric “Now I’m gonna be twenty-two/I say oh my and a boo-hoo”? And, because of his delivery – this deeply Poppian, beguiled tone – he manages to situate both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones somewhat witheringly as “white entertainment from the parent culture” yet at the same time make them sound completely gorgeous and vital. As tones go, it is almost impossible to strike, but something Pop also managed with ease in the second of his new run of regular 6 Music shows this week (19 October, 4pm) with an ingenious little monologue about British v American spiders.

But then he is that rare thing: a public figure who has managed to stage his intelligence from the very start of his career – it has always been part of his act – and to keep that going convincingly. Usually when someone is described, as Pop often is, as “shrewd” and “smart” it turns out that they are not. He has also managed to evolve his onstage character – naked, tanned, anciently gnarled – into something approaching conceptual art without becoming Alice Cooper, who sits around talking about “Alice” and likes to play golf.

Iggy Pop knows – just as Little Richard knew (and, to a certain extent, the ankle-wobbling Elvis) – that an onstage persona works properly only if you are actually 100 per cent Little Richard or Elvis, too. So every time Pop strips off (again) and you find yourself thinking (again): “Is that brilliant? Or just an idea of rock’n’roll?” you settle on the former, with gratitude. A thrill still comes off him. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies