Although rightly famous for its iconic guitar riff, “The Passenger” is much more than just a bit of deft guitar playing.
That’s not to take away from the work of Ricky Gardiner, who composed the music for “The Passenger” and who played the track’s distinctive riff. There’s no question that’s an inspired piece of guitar playing.
“The Passenger” also conveys the spirit of life in a stark, harsh neon lit, black-and-white West Berlin in the middle of the Cold War better than any other song I can think of. Yes, we’ve got the German electronic music pioneers to fall back on too, but they were too stark…the neon light too harsh…the images too unrelenting black-and-white…to pick up traction.
So those pioneers passed most of us by. But Iggy Pop didn’t.
Back in 1977, he was one of the more thoughtful artists on the wild frontier of the punk revolution. There was a starkness to his work, but it was a more considered, less angry take on the world than, say, the Pistols or the Damned.
Iggy Pop’s position on the intellectual wing of the punk revolution owed a lot to his association with David Bowie in his Berlin years. They hung around together, made music together and tried to give up drugs together (the latter, allegedly, pretty unsuccessfully).
Bowie even helped out on backing vocals for “The Passenger”…the la-la-las on the record are supposedly his.
And ast as if his strong association with David Bowie wasn’t enough intellectual positioning, Iggy Pop also crafted his signature song with the aid of arguably pop music’s most famous poet…The Doors’ Jim Morrison.
To be fair to Iggy Pop, he acknowledges being inspired by a Jim Morrison’s poem and he crafted a tribute to it rather than ripping it off. One or two of the phrases appear in both places, as you might expect, but it’s not a straight lift. Iggy fully deserves the writing credit for the lyrics on “The Passenger”.
Both artistic works address the same broad concept, though. They ask us whether we’re just observing life around us or whether we’re fully participating in it.
It’s the story of a journey that never ends…involving a degree of detachment from normal life that was literally true in Cold War West Berlin, an island of Western materialism surrounded by the military might of the Warsaw Pact’s front line against capitalism.
Never mind Jim Morrisson. Iggy Pop could have been inspired to write “The Passenger” from a John le Carre novel…the detached observer of life, always alert, always looking, never participating, is pretty much George Smiley in musical form…
I am a passenger
And I ride and I ride
I ride through the city’s backsides
I see the stars come out of the sky
Yeah, they’re bright in a hollow sky
You know it looks so good tonight
It looks good. But not, apparently, good enough to actually join in.
It’s more “I’ll sit over here, nurse my coffee and read my book, but by all means you get on and enjoy yourself” sort of good.
It’s the sort of good that parents of young children feel when they take them to the park or an indoor play zone to play with their little friends, allowing the parents to have 10 minutes to themselves for the first time in months.
The theme of separation between observer and observed comes through strongly in “The Passenger”…
I am the passenger
I stay under glass
I look through my window so bright
I see the stars come out tonight
We’ve got glass between observer and observed. A physical barrier. A barrier to keep out the sound. A barrier to preclude any physical interaction or involvement.
For artistic or intellectual reasons, the observer isn’t coming into your world, but he’s happy enough for you to join him in his…
Get into the car
We’ll be the passenger
We’ll ride through the city tonight
See the city’s ripped backsides
But it’s not for everyone. Giving up the life you’ve known to embark on a never-ending journey to nowhere is quite a choice to make, even by the standards of Cold War-era Berlin.
And yet, if there was ever a time that might have seemed an attractive choice, it was probably in Cold War-era Berlin…a city full of spies, soldiers and people fleeing the only life they’d ever known — both literally as they tried to get across the Wall from the East and figuratively as Berlin’s rampant drugs scene extended its dehumanising tentacles into another troubled life.
“The Passenger” is a song very much of its time. But I find it a surprisingly moving song. It encapsulates the feelings of the dispossessed, the stateless, and the innocents cast alone into the darkness, victims of fate. The people who just do what they have to do to get through a hollow life.
It’s moving, but bleak. And a reminder that connecting with other people is what life’s all about. If you go through life as an observer, looking at life through the rear window of a car on a journey to nowhere in particular that’s an existence, not a life.
In three minutes, with a bit of help from Ricky Gardiner, David Bowie and Jim Morrison, that’s the world Iggy Pop invites us to explore…
(Iconic though Ricky Gardiner’s guitar is on “The Passenger”, can you also spare a moment to appreciate Hunt Sales’ drumming too…just as much of a contribution to what makes this song such a perfect piece of music as the iconic guitar playing, in my view.)
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/15BQ7vEDv2LJuh8TxWIhtd