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July 2012

  • Phil Kakulas

Lust For Life
Iggy Pop

Lust For Life comes blasting out of the blocks like a Motown song on steroids. It’s confident and caustic, a drum-propelled tale of survival from the World’s Forgotten Boy, Iggy Pop. Released in 1977, it was the title track from the second of Pop’s collaborations with David Bowie and signaled a return to the harder edged material of his proto-punk band The Stooges. More popular now than when it was first released, Lust For Life is famous for its stomping beat and defiant attitude of self-destructive ‘joie de vivre’. 

Pop has said the initial inspiration for the song came from an American armed forces television network ID that appeared on German TV. Having decamped with Bowie to Berlin in 77 to write and record his next album, the pair would tune in to the English language network each week to watch Starsky and Hutch. The ID featured a radio transmitter tower sounding out that distinctive rhythm in Morse code across the sky. According to Pop, Bowie ‘… grabbed his kid’s ukulele and came up with the format… and said call this Lust For Life’.

The song starts with those thunderous drums then bass, tambourine, guitar and keyboards join in to pound out a swinging beat. If first inspiration came from TV, the arrangement stands in homage to mid 60s Motown classic You Can’t Hurry Love by The Supremes. Yet what sets Lust For Life apart is its sound. The drums are huge; an effect most likely achieved through a combination of careful microphone placement (around the room and the drums), cavernous reverb and the powerhouse playing of drummer Hunt Sales. 

The melodic tension builds throughout the song’s introduction as the band moves through the unpredictable, almost arbitrary chord sequence until finally, after a minute or so, the vocal finally arrives. It’s Pop at his smart, sharp best.

Here comes Johnny Yen again

With the liquor and drugs

And a flesh machine

He’s gonna do another strip tease

 Johnny Yen may be a character from the William Burroughs novel The Ticket That Exploded, but the lyrics could as easily describe Pop himself. The ‘Jean Genie’ as Bowie called him, best known to the public for his bare-chested stage antics using peanut butter and broken glass, and his off stage appetite for excess. 

The song’s cyber-tinged world of ‘flesh machines’ leaves little room for sentimentality.  For the ‘modern guy’ love is nothing more than a gimmick akin to ‘hypnotising chickens’.  Time to wise up.

I’m through with sleeping on the sidewalk

No more beating my brains

…With liquor and drugs

The chorus is emphatic. ‘I’ve got a lust for life’ cries Pop, ‘I’ve got a lust for life’. He’s been knocked down but not out. His ‘lust for life’ is both a blessing and a curse that drives him to all extremes. A rallying cry for dysfunctional survivors everywhere.

Lust For Life shares its title with Irving Stone’s 1934 novel and the subsequent film adaption about the life of Vincent Van Gogh. In suggesting the title Bowie may have been drawing an analogy between Van Gogh and Pop as both were passionate artists who had spent time in mental institutions before being rescued by a Good Samaritan. In Van Gogh’s case it was his brother Theo, but in Pop’s case it was Bowie himself who had visited him in his darkest hour and suggested they work together after his release. 

Bowie was into saving lost causes. In 73 he had rescued Lou Reed from relative obscurity by producing his breakthrough album, Transformer. His two albums with Iggy Pop stand as high points in Pop’s checkered catalogue and his patronage crucial in establishing Pop as a solo artist with a career that endures to this day. 

Over the years countless bands like The Jam, The Strokes and Jet have deployed the song’s distinctive rhythm, which despite Motown’s prior claims to authorship is now widely known as the ‘Lust For Life Beat’. The song itself enjoyed its greatest popularity after it was perfectly placed as the main theme song in the 1996 film Trainspotting, whereupon a whole new generation discovered and embraced it as a classic.


Phil Kakulas is a songwriter and musician who plays double bass in The Blackeyed Susans.




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