Kevin Armstrong: 'Iggy Pop has settled into his legendary status like a comfortable pair of slippers''
Forty-five years on from its release, a supergroup of musicians, including several who have worked with Pop over the years, is touring the UK performing the album live in its entirety. Their musical director is Kevin Armstrong, who played guitar in Bowie’s band at Live Aid and went on record and tour with Pop from 1986-87 and again from 2014-19. He explains the band is the idea of Tom Wilcox, the curator and producer who also put together Holy Holy, another supergroup in whose ranks were Tony Visconti, Woody Woodmansey and Glenn Gregory.
“Tom also did an anniversary gig for Iggy’s Blah-Blah-Blah album and got me involved in that,” says Armstrong. “Iggy actually noticed that online and got me back in his band in 2014 because of that. So every time Tom has these crazy notions of his, it’s worth giving some time to because it usually turns out to be something great.”
Unfortunately Tony Fox Sales, who played bass on Lust For Life, has had to pull out of the anniversary tour, but his replacement, former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock, has his own connection with Pop, from the 1980 album Soldier. Meanwhile drummer Clem Burke, from Blondie, played on Pop’s 1982 album Zombie Birdhouse. The band is completed with Katie Puckrick, the American broadcaster and newspaper columnist, on vocals, Luis Correia on guitar and Florence Sabeva on keyboards.
“It’s a band of very talented people and everybody has worked well together on other projects, so I don’t anticipate any problems getting ready for this tour,” Armstrong says. “We’ve all done a lot of homework in twos and threes so by the time the band dates come, we’re all aching to get at it.”
Armstrong remembers “as clear as day” hearing Lust For Life when it first came out. “Someone played me The Passenger the week it came out,” he says. “My late brother Ross was a massive Bowie nut so we were interested in anything that had connection to Bowie. It was written in the music press – we all pored over these things at that time – that this protege of Bowie’s, Iggy Pop, was a wild guy.”
Reconstructing the album for this tour has “not been difficult”, the 65-year-old says, because he has performed many of the songs from it with Pop from 2014-19. “It’s my daily bread, I know these songs inside out,” he says. “When I was touring with Iggy, I was the band leader and I hand-picked the band and we went through the process, not only with this material but Stooges songs and everything else, of sitting down in studios and deconstructing it, saying what’s good about this and what do we need to pay attention to, why was this music so great, and we kind of put it together at quite a forensic level at that point, so I’m very familiar with all this material, it’s not a big stretch for me.”
Looking back to the mid-80s, Armstrong recalls receiving a phone call from Bowie, with whom he’d recorded Absolute Beginners and Dancing in the Street, asking if he could fly over to Switzerland to play guitar on Pop’s album Blah-Blah-Blah. “It was out of the blue,” he remembers. “I was in Cardiff doing an album with Alien Sex Fiend at the time. Of course I jumped at the chance, being a fan already. We met in Mountain Studios in Montreux and did the Blah-Blah-Blah record which was mostly just Bowie, Iggy, me, a Turkish musician called Erdal Kızılçay and the late Dave Richards, Queen’s engineer. Every day they would come in with a list of things to do and we did those things, we put it together like a kit of parts, it was great.
“Then at the end of that process, Iggy said, ‘Come on tour with me, you might as well put the band together’, so I did that tour in ’86-87 and then after a long gap, he was back with The Stooges and the brothers Ron and Scott (Asheton) passed, and he called me again and I got to go second time around with him, which was really great.”
“Like Bowie”, Armstrong found Pop “very easy to work with”. “Some of the biggest artists – and I’ve worked with a handful of real big ones – they mostly just want you to feel comfortable and do what you’ve been doing for all of your life. Someone might say, ‘Try something different here’, but they’re very easy to work with, Bowie and Iggy. They’re both very quick, everything’s about self-expression and just do what you feel. Iggy’s always been like that, even now. It’s a real pleasure, he likes people and likes what they bring to the thing, and Bowie was the same. Bowie had a real magic for that, I think, putting people together from really different musical backgrounds. I was watching a gig once with Mike Garson and Earl Slick, before I knew them, playing together on a stage, and thinking ‘There’s only one person who would’ve had them in a band together and had it work.”
These days, Armstrong says Pop has mellowed “in some ways as a person” from the ‘wild one’ of old. “He’s older, he’s better off, he’s better known, he’s settled into his legendary status like a comfortable pair of slippers,” he says. “He travels in style, he’s got some money these days – and that wasn’t the case when I first met him, he was really still struggling. I think on Blah-Blah-Blah, David was really helping him out. The first gig I did with Iggy was like a fish restaurant in Santa Barbara and there was a chalk board outside saying smoked halibut and Iggy Pop.
“Now, of course, in that 2014-19 period he’d be playing to 50,000 screaming people going crazy for him and he loves that. He’s changed as a person, but as a performer he still gives more than anyone I’ve ever seen, he’s absolutely incredible. He has a magical quality, when he hits the stage he becomes the monster and it’s really great.
“On one side he’s a soft spoken, gentlemanly, scholarly, polite, very nice guy and then he gets onstage and he is really the king at that point. It’s fantastic, he’s just developed that over the years. I think he must have watched James Brown, all sorts of people, and thought you’ve really got to own this. He gives a tremendous lesson to the kids how to perform still.”
Having worked with an array of artists over the past 40 years including Paul McCartney, Grace Jones and Morrissey, Armstrong says he has most enjoyed not having to get up early in the morning, but also, he says: “The travelling is really great. I used to really enjoy it before the world became a slightly tricky place to travel in, the whole circus of it. having to focus your energy on the evening so you can give that performance, then the rest of the time you can relax or you can take in a place. That’s been the real benefit of it, I absolutely loved travelling the globe, making friends all over the world. It feels good to get to my age and think there are probably 30 countries where I can make a phone call and someone will say ‘Yeah, you’ve got a bed for the night’.”
Becoming a sideman to several famous musicians who he’d grown up being a fan of himself, has helped “demystify” their characters, Armstrong says. “You get to meet them as people,” he explains. “A lot of fans have got an idea they know these guys and they don’t really know them. All of us have a relationship with famous entities and think we know what they’re about, but we don’t know what they’re about until we see them in their offguarded moments. That’s been a great privilege as well, to get to know some of these people who have amazing qualities and things we can all take something from, just in terms of sacrifice and the joy they bring to millions. It’s really interesting to see it at close quarters.”
Armstrong still has songwriting yen of his own. His most recent solo album, Run, came out in 2019. “I do one-man shows and I still sell that record,” he says. “I’m very proud of the songs on it. It’s not like a guitar show-off record particularly, it’s a real songwriter’s record. I’ve always written songs and I’ve had the opportunity to co-write with Bowie and Morrissey and even Iggy, and that’s been great.
“I figured early on, around about the time I started working for Bowie, it was a kind of bounce-back from trying to have a solo career and getting knocked off my perch, then suddenly finding myself next to Bowie and Iggy and these people felt like a real relief, somehow (I knew) this is what I’m supposed to do, some kind of supporting role as musician and I really inhabit that well and I enjoy it, but I also do like doing solo gigs. I’ve got no pretensions of ever being a rock star but I do write good songs, I’m proud of them, I like the fact that people buy them and I get a lot of good feedback from that.”
Lust For Life 45th anniversary tour visits Hull Social on March 3 and Hebden Bridge Trades Club on March 4. www.lustforlifetour.com