Back on tour with the Stooges in 2007, Asheton sports one of two 3-pickup Reverend Avenger models custom made for him by company founder Joe Naylor. Reverend’s proprietary bass contour knob was developed at Asheton’s request. Later, Naylor created a V-shaped signature model for Asheton. Photo by Frank White
Elektra RecordsThe band had a summer sublet, where they first practiced and got their act together, although the Asheton’s basement was their primary rehearsal space. Their first show was at a house party on Halloween in Ann Arbor. They gigged around town and in nearby Detroit, and became part of a scene that included the MC5, the Up, Bob Seger, and Alice Cooper.
“The whole music scene started in the early ’60s with the Rationals,” Kathy Asheton says. “Bob Seger was here. Alice Cooper ended up moving here as well. We had a huge music scene and lots of local bands, but by that time the Stooges and the MC5 were playing mostly ballrooms in the Detroit area, like the Grande, Cinderella, and the East Town.”
It was as part of that thriving local scene, and opening for the MC5 at a gig at the University of Michigan—at the Michigan Union building—when fortune smiled upon the Stooges. Danny Fields, the legendary A&R man who was doing publicity for the Doors at Elektra Records at the time, was sent to Ann Arbor to sign the MC5.
“Of course, this is well-documented and legendary,” Tek says. “Danny Fields saw the Stooges open for the MC5 and he was enthralled by their presence. He was motivated to call Jac Holzman [the head of Elektra] and say, ‘We’re signing the MC5 and we need to sign these guys, too.’ Holzman said, ‘Offer them $5,000.’”
And just like that, the Stooges were signed to a major label. They didn’t have a fan base outside of Michigan. They didn’t have songs. But they had something, and that something was to prove influential. They were whisked off to New York to record their first album, and John Cale, from the Velvet Underground, produced it.
“When they signed to Elektra, they had to come up with songs,” Tek says. “Ron told me that about two weeks before they went to New York, John Sinclair [the MC5’s manager and a famous ’60s radical] came by their house with a stack of albums—and among those albums were things like Pharaoh Sanders, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, and Yusef Lateef. They took some of those albums with them to New York. The night before the first session with John Cale, they were listening to those records and coming up with riffs based on that stuff.” “The bass line in ‘Little Doll,’” Watt adds. “That’s Dave Alexander’s version of Pharaoh Sander’s ‘Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt.’”
If they were worried about songwriting before arriving in New York, it doesn’t show. That first album, their eponymous debut, is chock full of classics. It contains the oft-covered Stooges’ staples “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “No Fun,” “1969,” and the 10-minute mantra “We Will Fall.”
“You've got to understand, being with these guys, I would ask them 10 million questions,” Watt says about the recording of “We Will Fall.” “I asked them about that tune. It came from a Dave Alexander chant. They ran out of hash and they wanted to get stoned. Dave Alexander said he knew this chant, that if you chanted this thing, you could get stoned. I had always thought it was from John Cale, so he could play viola.”
That first album also shows the hallmarks of Asheton’s songwriting and sound: one-chord vamps, ostinato patterns, unhinged-but-blues-based solos, fuzz, and copious amounts of wah. “He developed a style that was out of the electric blues,” Tek says. “But a very original and unique version of electric blues—much harder edged and cooler. Most guys who pick up a guitar play blues licks. It wasn’t that. It was back down to the really hard roots of blues. Then a little bit later on he added some jazz elements into it.”
Being the band’s only guitarist, keeping an open string ringing was a clever way to fill space and create the illusion of a second rhythm instrument. It was also in the air—part of the culture of the ’60s—and, along with quarter tones and other non-Western notes, owed an obvious debt to India and the Middle East.
Drones were integral to Asheton’s style, but he didn’t use alternate tunings. “He just used standard tuning,” J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr) says. Mascis toured with Watt and the Asheton brothers in the years leading up to the Stooges reunion. “I was impressed, you know. The first time he played you could tell he had never stopped playing.”
Asheton’s gear choices were standard for the times as well. “I didn’t see the Stooges until about 1968, so I can’t speak for before that,” Tek says. “But in ’68 Ron was using a Strat. I think it was a 1957 sunburst Strat. Initially he was playing through a Vox Super Beatle amp, and then he went to Sunns and Marshalls. He also had a Flying V in those early days. He had a Vox wah-wah pedal and an Arbiter Fuzz Face. I think he was then playing through 100-watt Marshall Super Leads and he may have had a Marshall Major as well.”
“His fuzz tone was the round one that Jimi used,” Watt says. “Jimi Hendrix played in Ann Arbor at the Fifth Dimension. There were about only 100 people there and no one would come up to the stage. Ron did, because he said he wanted to look at what Jimi was using. He said he had these fuzz tones that were kind of harsh, but they were round. Plus he had a wah-wah, curly chords, and he said that Jimi was wearing a high school marching band jacket. Ronny was the only one who walked up and went to the front of the stage to see fucking Jimi Hendrix. What a trip.”
The Stooges recorded their second album, their magnum opus, Fun House, in the spring of 1970 with producer Don Gallucci from the Kingsmen. (You know, “Louie Louie.”) The album is raw and was recorded somewhat live. It contains some of their most important songs: “T.V. Eye,” “Dirt” (the bass line is epic), “Loose,” and “1970.” Plus, the album’s closer, “L.A. Blues,” documents to tape—at least, as best as you can—the Energy Freakouts of their pre-record deal days.
“Their songs always had parts,” Watt says. “Especially something like ‘L.A. Blues,’ which is a big freak-out at the end of Fun House. But, for sure, that was never played the same way twice. We played it every gig, after the song ‘Fun House.’”
But despite being signed to Elektra, and with two albums under their belt, the Stooges weren’t able to grow their audience. “It became apparent very early on that they weren’t real popular, to put it bluntly,” Kathy Asheton says.
The band had internal problems as well—especially drugs, which were the beginning of the end. Alexander was fired sometime in August or September of 1970 and died five years later from the ravages of excessive drinking. Pop was struggling with harder drugs. Asheton was clean, but that wasn’t enough to keep the band together. “Ronny never got into the drugs,” Kathy says. “He was very angry when the Stooges broke up, because he was just sitting by and watching this all deteriorate.”
Near the end of their initial run, James Williamson was added as second guitarist, which turned out to be a harbinger of things to come. The band broke up, David Bowie befriended Pop and got him a deal with his management company—Tony Defries’ MainMan Management—and Pop and Williamson moved to London to write and record a new album.
Iggy and the Stooges
“When James and Iggy took off to go to London and regroup—what became Iggy and the Stooges—they had not considered Ronny and Scotty,” Kathy Asheton says. “But later on, both of them claimed that it was their idea to call them. So we really don’t know [whose idea it was to] call Ronny and Scotty to bring them over to England to do Raw Power. They both said yes. They were not ready to throw in the towel. They still wanted to play.”
On Raw Power, Asheton became the band’s bass player, with Williamson as sole guitarist. Ashton’s bass playing is melodic and tight—he’s not just playing roots—and the foundation he lays down with his brother is solid.
“I know by playing the bass parts that Ronny invested time,” Watt says. “Those are good parts. Smart parts. It’s stuff he’s doing in the moment. Also, they are playing to James Williamson, who’s got a whole different style. Ronny had a lot of little details in his bass playing—lots of detail and also fills between the changes.”