The Idiot is the debut solo album by American rock singer Iggy Pop. It was the first of two LPs released in 1977 which Pop wrote and recorded in collaboration with David Bowie. Although issued after Low, the opening installment of Bowie's so-called Berlin Trilogy, the pair began writing and recording songs for The Idiot in mid-1976, before Bowie started work on his own album. As such, The Idiot has been claimed as heralding the unofficial beginning of Bowie's 'Berlin' period, being compared particularly to Low and "Heroes" in its electronic effects, treated instrument sounds, and introspective atmosphere. A departure from the hard rock of his former band The Stooges, the album is regarded by critics as one of Pop’s best works, but is not generally considered representative of his output. Its title was inspired by Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot, three of the participants in the recording – Bowie, Pop and Tony Visconti – being familiar with the book.
Recording continued in August at Musicland in Munich with guitarist Phil Palmer, who found the creative collaboration with Pop and Bowie stimulating but disquieting, never seeing them around during the day ("Vampiric would be the perfect word", he said later). Overdubs by Bowie's regular rhythm section of Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray, plus a final mix by Tony Visconti, took place in Berlin at Hansa Studio by the Wall. Given the almost demo quality of the tapes, the post-production work was, in Visconti's words, "more of a salvage job than a creative mixing".
Because of its ambiguous and in some cases non-existent credits, misconceptions have arisen over the years as to who contributed what to the album. Although the common belief that Pop wrote the lyrics while Bowie composed the music is generally accurate, their approach occasionally saw the positions change, with some music (such as "Dum Dum Boys") being Pop's and some lyrics (including the first verse to "Sister Midnight") being Bowie's. The album's cover photo, inspired by Erich Heckel’s Roquairol, is often assumed to be by Bowie but was in fact taken by Andy Kent. No instrumental credits were included on the sleeve, causing some speculation as to the musicians involved, however recent works by Hugo Wilcken, Paul Trynka and Nicholas Pegg have provided a generally-agreed list of the personnel involved.
Pop, speaking of Bowie, described the Krautrock-influenced "Nightclubbing" as "my comment on what it was like hanging out with him every night". The track was recorded one night after the other musicians had left, Bowie playing the melody on piano with an old rhythm machine for backing. When Pop pronounced himself happy with the result, Bowie protested that they needed real drums to finish it off. Pop insisted on keeping the rhythm machine, saying "it kicks ass, it's better than a drummer". Pop largely wrote the lyrics on the spot "in ten minutes", Bowie suggesting that he write about "walking through the night like ghosts". The riff has been described as a mischievous quote of Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll".
"China Girl", originally called "Borderline", was a tale of unrequited love inspired by Kuelan Nguyen, partner of French actor/singer Jacques Higelin, who was also recording at Château d'Hérouville at the time. The protagonist's "Shhh..." was a direct quote from Nguyen after Pop confessed his feelings for her one night. Production-wise it was raw and unpolished compared to Bowie's hit remake in 1983. Other songs included "Funtime", a proto-gothic number that Bowie advised Pop to sing "like Mae West"; "Dum Dum Boys", a tribute/lament for Pop's former Stooges band mates ("an exceptionally insensitive use of old colleagues for theatrical effect", in the words of biographer Joe Ambrose); and "Mass Production", a harsh, grinding piece of early industrial electronica.
The Idiot made #30 in the UK, the first time any of Iggy Pop's records had cracked the Top Forty. It also peaked at #72 in the U.S. charts. "Sister Midnight" and "China Girl" were released as singles in February and May 1977, respectively – both with the same B-side, "Baby". Biographer Paul Trynka has written that The Idiot "would remain an album that was more respected than loved, the reviews mostly neutral" but that it "prefigured the soul of post-punk". On its original release Rolling Stone termed it "the most savage indictment of rock posturing ever recorded ... a necrophiliac's delight".
"Poor Jim, in a way, became a guinea pig for what I wanted to do with sound. I didn't have the material at the time, and I didn't feel like writing at all. I felt much more like laying back and getting behind someone else's work, so that album was opportune, creatively.
Pop himself has called The Idiot his "album of freedom". Siouxsie Sioux described it as "re-affirmation that our suspicions were true - the man was a genius and what a voice!" The album has been cited as a major influence on a number of post-punk, electronic and industrial artists including Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails and Joy Division, whose lead singer Ian Curtis was found hanged in 1980 with the record still spinning on his turntable.