Though he’s hardly a household name, to fans and followers, Iggy & The Stooges guitarist James Williamson’s contribution to music is equal to any of his more famous contemporaries. His guitar playing on the band’s cataclysmic third album, Raw Power, a combination of furiously down-stroked power chords and sputtering, vicious leads, created the punk rock guitar style which has echoed down through the ages in the music of the Ramones, Black Flag, and all their cantankerous progeny. Like Tony Iommi in heavy metal, his actual sound is as important as what he played, an aggressive, high-end, overdriven roar, with little recorded precedent. When you think of the sound of punk rock, real punk rock, what you hear is the sound he created in 1973 by plugging his Gibson Les Paul Custom guitar into a Vox AC30 amplifier and cranking it up until your ears bleed.
Joining The Stooges in 1970 after the release of Fun House, Williamson took over songwriting guitar duties on its malevolent follow up. The band would implode soon after its release, leaving behind a slew of material that became fan favorites via bootlegs and semi-official releases. Though Williamson had been M.I.A. for over 30 years, and amazingly had spent that time as a highly successful computer engineer, he rejoined the reunited Stooges following founding guitarist Ron Asheton’s death in 2009. After the band went on hiatus last year, Williamson entered the studio with an all-star cast of guest musicians and has just released the new album Re-Licked, which features new recordings of the aforementioned lost Stooges classics. We caught up with him and talked about his musical history and how the new record came together.
VH1: How old were you when you moved to Detroit?
James Williamson: I was born in Texas. My father died and my mom moved to San Antonio when I was five or something like that. And she remarried an army guy so then we started moving around. I was in San Antonio until first grade then moved to Lawton, Oklahoma from second grade to through seventh grade. So it would have been the summer before eighth grade when I moved to Detroit.
How soon was it before you were checking out the local music scene and playing in bands?
It wasn’t that long. I already had a guitar. In Lawton, Oklahoma I took a couple lessons. It turns out the guy I took lessons from, Rusty McDonald, had played with (Texas swing pioneer) Bob Wills. He was pretty accomplished in his own right, had his own TV show there in Lawton. He taught me three or four chords so I could play “Good Old Mountain Dew” and put me on the TV show and I started getting a bunch of calls from local girls and I thought “OK, I’m going to stick with this.” So I was already playing a little bit then I moved to Detroit and I moved right next door to a family where all the kids played folk music and stuff like that. The kid closest to my age was a pretty good electric guitar player and he taught me barre chords and all the basic things you need to know. I spent that summer doing that and the next thing I’m trying to get in a band. It took about a year before I met (Detroit musician and future SRC member) Scott Richardson and we formed the a little cover band called The Chosen Few where we did The Beatles and Rolling Stones and Them and so forth.
It was with The Chosen Few that you first met Ron Asheton, right?
Exactly. I was out of The Chosen Few at that point because I had some problems with the law, you know? (Laughs) I had problems with the culture. I wanted to grow my hair long and they didn’t want me to. So I got kicked out of school and then I became truant. I had to go see the judge and got put in juvie so I ended up not being in the band anymore. After juvie, they moved me to New York because there was a boarding school that would maybe straighten me out. Anyway, one time on vacation I came back and went up to Ann Arbor with the other band members to see this new bass player they had added, Ron (Asheton). And that’s when I met him. I met Iggy (Pop, Stooges lead singer) at the same time. He was hanging out at the same frat party and they were buddies. Ron had played in The Prime Movers and Iggy was a drummer for The Prime Movers so they knew each other from high school.
What do you think set the Detroit bands apart from those in other parts of America? There’s a really authentic soul and R&B influence that comes out in you and the MC5 and that ilk.
I think you pointed out the obvious thing, and it’s true. The first thing I heard when I moved to Detroit was Martha & the Vandellas’ “Heatwave” and there was a heatwave in Detroit. It was just like wow, you know, this is not Lawton, Oklahoma anymore. When you’re learning an instrument you’re always trying to figure out what all the gear is and what you need to get a sound and everything. I used to hang out at a music store on Woodward Blvd. and there were a lot of really badass soul guys that would go in and try out an organ or whatever and I’d listen to those guys and just go, wow. So the environment was very musical in Detroit. And there were lots of other bands. I was a little bit of an oddball in that regard. I didn’t even know the MC5. I met Fred (“Sonic Smith,” MC5 guitarist) later on and Wayne (Kramer, also of the MC5) I met only recently when we were touring. So I just wasn’t part of that like the other Stooges were, but I did go to (famed Detroit music venue) The Grande Ballroom a lot, so I heard everybody who came through town and all the local bands who would play there. And the competition was rough. I mean, you got local guys like Bob Seger and Mitch Ryder, who were great, so it just was like, you better be good or don’t bother to go on stage.
Raw Power is so much more aggressive musically than anything else that had come out before it. Were you consciously trying to make such extreme music or was it just what naturally came out?
I can’t speak to the earlier albums because they were actually quite a bit more primitive. Part of that was because the band couldn’t really play their instruments at first. They were simple tunes, and there’s a beauty in that. But I know for me, I just always had my own style, and I always wrote original songs, so from the very beginning I developed that style. It was a way for me to entertain myself. Reflecting on it years later, all my stuff is pretty frenetic and at first, when I didn’t have the songwriting craft perfected, Iggy was the only guy who could make any sense out of all that crazy s**t. Iggy saw the beauty in it. He could write lyrics to it, and help me mold it into a song and that helped a lot. I think that was the secret to Raw Power because otherwise, I’m not sure who else I would have partnered with. Then of course I became proficient myself and could write songs. Some of the songs are totally written by me. But that’s the key, it was the combination of the two of us.
The first two Stooges are great, but to me, Raw Power is the one that if you played it for a Martian, they would say, “Oh, this is punk rock.”
But you know, that was the beauty of it but it was also its weakness. Because it was so different from anything else that anybody had ever heard before, it took all of these years for other people to start imitating it enough that it became a recognizable or acceptable sound to the record buying public.
You eventually got out of music and worked in the computer industry for almost 30 years. Was there anything you learned in The Stooges that was useful in your straight life?
Of course. I grew up a lot when I was in the Stooges. I moved up to Ann Arbor right after I graduated from high school, so I was just barely 20 I guess or maybe even a little younger. We started touring out of state when I was in the two-guitar lineup briefly in 1970 and that was big for me. I was going out of town and making money with the band and then all of a sudden we get this deal with CBS and we’re going over to London. Neither Iggy nor I had any clue about anything outside of the country. So we did a lot of growing up, both of us did. By the time I decided to become a computer engineer, I was older than most other people in that field. A lot of those people go to college right out of high school. So I was quite a bit more mature I think at that point. I appreciated it more and I can’t say that I regret any of it, The Stooges or the tech thing. It was just all good stuff for my life.
When you were working as a computer engineer, did you ever think that this other chapter of your life would happen?
Oh no way. No inkling of that. And really, I didn’t even have any interest in it. I had laid my guitar down years ago and pursued other interests that I really enjoyed. But when this came along the timing was good and you know, The Stooges were kind of a family. We went back a long way and I felt like I kind of needed to do it for them. But I wasn’t sure I could do it. Luckily I had six months or so to woodshed and everything and got it together so that I could do it. It was a little bit of a struggle to begin with but everybody pulled together and made it happen.
Moving into the present, what was the genesis of Re-Licked? You’re re-recording old Stooges songs that have only been heard in live versions and on various bootlegs.
It started out a couple of years ago when we were getting ready to make another record and Iggy and I discussed the possibility of doing that kind of an album because the fans had been begging for it for years. We discussed doing it as The Stooges but when you’re in the Stooges and you made Raw Power and it’s the same lineup, immediately people compare whatever you’re doing to Raw Power. Ready To Die (Iggy & The Stooges 2013 album of originals) was compared to it. Basically it would really beg the direct comparison of the old Stooges and young Stooges and so we didn’t want to do that. But I still wanted to do it because it just needed to be done. When we stopped touring and went on hiatus in September of last year I had free time. It actually started out with one song. I rearranged “Open Up and Bleed.” My wife and I love that song and decided we should have a Janis Joplin type singing it. I looked around and had a hard time finding somebody like that but a friend forwarded me a Youtube video of Carolyn Wonderland and I heard her and I thought she was perfect. So I got ahold of her and she was totally cool about it. She didn’t know me from anybody but she had a lot of people going “Hey, answer this guy’s email.” (Laugh) So I started doing it one by one and every story was a little bit different in terms of how to approach the singer or how they came to me. Jello Biafra demanded to do “Head On The Curve.” Then I lucked out to get Lisa Kekaula (of The Bellrays). She came over and we put her on “I Got A Right” and she just floored me. It was all people who were really well steeped in the Stooges and were big fans to begin with. Bobby Gillespie (Primal Scream) did one or two takes. He knew that song, “Scene Of The Crime,” like it was ingrained in his DNA. That’s the way it was.Some of the material is even more extreme than Raw Power, either lyrically, like “Cock In My Pocket,” or musically, like “I Got A Right.” Do you think if The Stooges had recorded them for your planned fourth album they would have been cleaned up more or were you just ready to play with fire?
At that point in time all we would have had was the record company. We had managers but they were just out there working on live shows and stuff. We had nothing to lose. If we could’ve got the record company to let us make a record like that, we would have, but the thing is record companies don’t want to make records like that. That’s an interesting point. I hadn’t really considered that. But yeah, had we made another record for CBS, there’s no doubt they would have wanted it a little more commercial than the one that I just made.
Are there any plans to put a band together and tour behind the album?
We’ve got a TV thing lined up for the first of the year for a few of the songs which is good. The fact of the matter is it’s very challenging to put 14 singers on the road, almost all of which are already working people. You’d need a lot of lead time and a promoter who would have to come in and really step up to the proposition because it’s expensive too to get that many people in one place. But you can certainly imagine a showcase in major markets or whatever so I’m hopeful that people like you will get that message out and if the album does well, that promoters will want to do that. I would love to play it live and I know the singers would too. It’s just the logistics of it.
And I know Iggy has said he’s taking the year off, but are there any future plans for The Stooges at this point?
Yeah, who are we talking about here? What plan are you talking about? (laughter) No, you know, he’s not indicated whether he’s ready to go back out on the road or not and the honest to God truth is none of us are getting any younger. Every year that goes by, I wonder how much stage diving he’s got left in him. You know what I mean? It’s not like we’re just out there standing at the mic and singing. It’s a serious physical show for him. I hope he will for his own sake, if he’s up for it, do one or two things or maybe half a dozen things, but who knows. For me it’s not as big a deal because I do just stand there and play the guitar and but I also don’t want to become like The Rolling Stones. I don’t want to be too old to be playing.