City Slang: Scott Asheton talks drums

Aug 5, 2011 at 2:24 pm

In January of 2010, I wrote a feature on Scott Asheton of the Stooges for Modern Drummer magazine. Here it is in its full, uncut glory.


With their first two albums, the Stooges redefined rock ’n’ roll and created the blueprint for punk, before slipping away into cult notoriety. Four decades later, the Stooges reunited, saw guitarist Ron Asheton pass away and have continued with guitarist James Williamson. For original garage rock powerhouse Scott Asheton, it’s been one hell of a bumpy ride.

Think about the Stooges and it’s inevitable that, like it or not, Iggy Pop’s cockroach-like figure will crawl into your mind. However, without the Asheton brothers, the Stooges would not have had the impact that they would go on to have.
Ron Asheton created a whole new way to play the guitar that wasn’t necessarily based on technical proficiency, or at least not in the way that conventional minds would consider. There was no precedent for Ron’s playing; nobody that he was looking to and borrowing riffs from. Similarly, without Scott Asheton’s primal, instinctive approach to the drums, the Stooges would have sounded completely different.
The Stooges, when they started in the late ‘60s, were unlike any band ever to have convened in a basement and thrashed out a song. Initially called the Psychedelic Stooges, the band would create instruments out of household appliances such as vacuum cleaners and just make noise for thirty minutes to an hour, to the annoyance and / or intrigue of anyone in attendance. Iggy Pop saw the overt sexual movements employed by the likes of Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger, and took them to a new level, often including violence in the mix. But without the Asheton brothers, Iggy would have just been a crazy guy at college parties.

Scott Asheton was born in 1948, a year after his brother Ron. The family would move around a lot but, when father Ronald passed away prematurely in 1963, Ann Asheton would settle with her two sons in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was a relatively happy upbringing for the brothers, and it was at school that Scott was introduced to the drums. “The teachers would look over the class and decide what everyone would play,” recalls Asheton. “The overweight guys would play the big horns, and the athletic guys would get the drums. So I was kind of told that would be playing the snare drum. That’s how it started. At some stage, I wanted to switch to guitar but my mom wouldn’t let me. She said ‘you chose, you picked the drums, now stick with it’.”
At high school, Scott and Ron would become friends with future Stooges bassist Dave Alexander and, along with another friend called Billy Cheatham, form a garage band (in the most literal sense) called the Dirty Shames. Asheton remembers the band had more ego than ambition. “We didn’t get very far,” say the drummer with a wry smile. “We liked the idea of being in a band, we looked like we were in a band, and we’d all hang out together. However, it wasn’t until Jim (Osterberg, AKA Iggy Pop) got involved that it actually became a real band.”
In Osterberg, Ron and Scott knew that they had on their hands a frontman with the potential to shock and titillate in equal measure. Says Asheton, “I was impressed by how many girls would just follow him. He only had to walk across campus, and there’d be five girls walking behind him, all giggling. Talk about a magnet.”
Their instincts were right. Osterberg, who would soon become known as Iggy Pop simply because he had played drums (yes, Iggy Pop was initially a drummer) in a pop band called the Iguanas, was only too happy to join up with the brothers and Alexander, and the Psychedelic Stooges was born. Initially, the band were playing at college parties for whoever was drunk enough to watch them. While the rest of the band were making noises with vacuum cleaners and power tools, Scott Asheton was banging away on whatever he could get his hands on. “My toms were timbales, a Latin drum. I had 50-gallon oil drums for my bass drums, a regular snare drum and regular cymbals. It was the oil drums that set everything apart. I really enjoyed playing with Dave though. When the band first started out, we technically didn’t have a bassist playing. We had a Custom bass amp. We turned it all the way, turned the reverb all the way, lifted the head up off the cabinet and dropped it. It just made this terrific sound. Dave’s first job was picking up the amp head and dropping it on the cabinet to make that big sound.”
The Stooges (as they soon shortened their name to) managed to get signed to Elektra Records when their ‘big brother band’ the MC5 secured a deal, and 5 guitarist Wayne Kramer suggested the Stooges to the label. However, when it came time to record their debut album in 1969, it soon became apparent that their structure-less party dirge noise wasn’t going to please the suits at Elektra HQ. “[The recording] was just so fast because we had to change the band overnight,” remembers Asheton. “The label gave us a week or two to figure out how to record, because they told us that we had to write some songs. We thought we had songs but they said that our material would be too hard to record. So a lot of that first album was written at the Chelsea hotel in New York City over two days immediately before we went into the studio. A lot of the songs we recorded, we had never played before, ever. One in particular is “Real Cool Time”. We were going over it in the hotel room the night before and decided to try it. The very first time we ever played it, they said ‘ok, that’s good. Next”. So it was a really short time period for actually recording.”
The following year, having made little commercial headway with their debut, the band returned to the studio to record Funhouse. Again, the album went by largely unnoticed by a record-buying public largely obsessed with guitar heroes like Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. The world just wasn’t ready for the Stooges yet.
With this in mind, Iggy Pop decided to shake the band up for the third album in 1973, which would be recorded in England with David Bowie behind the mixing desk and called Raw Power. Dave Alexander had been fired for turning up to a rehearsal too drunk to play (he would prematurely die in 1975 from a pulmonary edema) and, soon afterwards, the Ashetons were given the proverbial boot. James Williamson, a friend of Pop’s, came in on guitar. However, when Pop was unable to find an adequate drummer and bass player in the UK, the Ashetons were asked to rejoin, Ron shifting from guitar to bass. For Scott, this was an odd time. “[The Stooges] was something that me and my brother had worked at for years. It was more our band than it was James’s. We were going to be put in a side-man position in our own band.”
The band would tour Raw Power, but the relationship between the four men had gotten strained, and soon afterwards the Stooges ceased to exist. Iggy Pop would go on to have a successful solo career, while Williamson gave up music altogether. The Ashetons would soldier on throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, playing in a variety of different projects and playing the ‘session musician’ role from time to time. For Scott Asheton, of most note was the Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, the band put together by former MC5 guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith in the mid-‘70s. The band would create a stir within the Detroit scene, but would break up before recording an album. I enjoyed [playing with Fred] very much and we were getting really good,” says Asheton. “People were loving the band, and that’s when he met Patti and the band fell apart. There would have been an album, but Patti came along at the perfectly wrong time.”
The brothers sat and watched, perplexed, as countless bands under the punk banner would cite the Stooges as an influence and gain massive commercial success, while they were stuck in a rut. Later, when grunge hit in the ‘90s, nearly every guitar player would give props to the Ashetons’ unconventional playing styles, but ego boosts don’t pay the bills.

Scott Asheton all but disappeared off the radar between 1980 and 2000, occasionally playing on records by Scott Morgan (of Detroit rockers the Rationals) and Dark Carnival (also featuring his brother, and former Destroy All Monsters singer and artist Niagara). However, as the new millennium began, the Ashetons brothers set out on tour with Dinosaur Jr. front man J Mascis and Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, exclusively playing Stooges material. The crowds lapped it up and, when Iggy Pop heard what was happening, a reunion was inevitable.
The Stooges reformed in 2003, initially to record some songs for Iggy Pop’s album Skull Ring, but later that year for a show at the Coachella Festival, their first together in three decades. The band would later record a full record together, The Weirdness, that would received mixed reviews, but they would still become more popular than they ever were, playing at festivals and sold out theaters in front of thousands.
That came to an end at the start of 2009 when Ron Asheton was found dead in his home, having suffered a heart attack. As Detroit, and the rock ’n’ roll community in general, mourned, many thought that the Stooges story had once again reached its conclusion. However, the band made the decision later that year to bring back James Williamson and continue, playing the Raw Power material.
Understandably, Scott has mixed feelings about that. “It wasn’t an immediate decision. We kicked around ideas of guitar players that wanted to do it. Iggy and James were not even on speaking terms. Iggy was thinking that the best way it would work would be if James was in the band, but he didn’t know if he would be able to deal with James. As it turned out, they’re getting along fine. [Ron] would probably not want to have anything to do with it. That bothers me. I try to get over it and not let it beat me up too much. I really miss playing with my brother.”

Which, of course, is understandable. For many Stooges fans, the concept of once again seeing the Raw Power line up of Iggy & the Stooges, albeit with Mike Watt stepping into Ron Asheton’s shoes on bass guitar, is an exciting one. The tragedy is that it came at the cost of one of the most original guitar players ever to crank out a riff. Scott Asheton, meanwhile, is being torn between his need to work as a drummer with the Stooges and his overriding love for his brother. It’s an internal argument that he can’t win. However, one suspects that if Ron Asheton could, he’d tell his brother to just keep on hitting.

Know these two – Two more legendary Motor City drummers

Dennis Thompson
Dennis ‘Machine Gun’ Thompson was the drummer with Detroit’s MC5 from the mid-‘60s until 1972. Getting his nickname from his rapid-fire, rat-tat-tat drum style, Thompson played on the bands three classic albums (Kick Out The Jams, Back In The USA and High Time), before the 5 crashed to a halt in a drug and alcohol-blurred fury. Thompson went on to play with Stooge Ron Asheton in the New Order (not to be confused with the English ‘80s band) and, later, with Ron and Radio Birdman’s Deniz Tek in the New Race. At the start of the new millennium, the MC5 had a reunion of sorts, using the name DKT/MC5 (singer Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred Smith had both passed away in the interim, leading to a revolving line up of front men and guitarists). As of writing though, DKT/MC5 is on hiatus.

Johnny ‘Bee’ Badanjek
At the age of 16, Johnny Bee was making his name with rock ’n’ soul band Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels. Since that group came to an end, Bee has played with some the Motor City’s most notable musicians, including Bob Seger and Alice Cooper (on the Welcome To My Nightmare album). He would form the band simply called Detroit, also featuring Ryder, and later would write pretty much all of the material for the underrated rock ’n’ roll group the Rockets. Nowadays, he divides his time between a variety of projects including blues rockers the Howling Diablos, Detroit rock revivalists the Hell Drivers and a reformed Rockets. He’s also an accomplished and celebrated artist and, like Scott Asheton and Dennis Thompson, Badanjek still resides in Michigan.