Theme: Passengers – The Passenger by Iggy Pop

Iggy Pop’s song The Passenger springs to mind now that Simon has launched another theme of the month.

David Bowie and Iggy Pop (but not in Berlin). The alternative photo was of the 1997 Avensis and I thought that was too boring to use.
David Bowie and Iggy Pop (but not in Berlin). The alternative photo was of the 1997 Avensis and I thought that was too boring to use.

In the great tradition of advertisers misunderstanding lyrics, Toyota chose Iggy Pop’s 1977 song to sell the 1997 Avensis, a car so incredibly uninteresting** that even I won’t be caught trying to discover its appeal. The external appearance is as close as you can get to a characterless vehicle while still being convincingly realistic. The theme Toyota were trying to get us to understand was that by being so incredibly relaxing, driving an Avensis was like being a passenger.

An amalgam of dullness and derivation.
An amalgam of dullness and derivation.

To get this across the controls are seen moving by themselves and the passenger (or driver) is seen nodding off in the back or just looking revoltingly self-satisfied. On that superficial level, the ad failed since it really said this is not a car you are ever going to be involved with. Certainly nobody believed the Avensis was going to be so sybaritic an experience as driving one would make you feel as if you’d been nursed to the rear of a Rolls-Royce in a haze of Montrachet.

1975 Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL 6.9. It´s not black or silver or dark blue, is it? And it´s not in Berlin.
1975 Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL 6.9. It´s not black or silver or dark blue, is it? And it´s not in Berlin.

What I find more interesting is the deeper meaning of the song itself. Toyota thought it was just about passengers. But there’s more. The credits for the song go to Iggy Pop for the lyrics and to Ricky Gardiner for the catchy guitar riff. Mr David Bowie produced it and sung the backing vocals. This happened in 1976 during an exceptionally busy period in Bowie’s career.

As is well known, Bowie was living in Berlin and Iggy Pop, for a time, shared a crumby flat with Bowie at Hauptstrasse 155 (I think Bowie asked him to leave). If Toyota had listened to the song carefully they’d see the text as being a sharp critique of the passenger. He’s sitting behind glass, looking indifferently at the poverty and deprivation outside. It’s not a pretty picture of long drives in the country but of mysterious night time rides in the city’s darker corners.

The implications are of sordid, seamy activities perhaps. Is this passenger collecting hookers? Is he out to score some cocaine? Is he just driving around, bored as only the rich can be, to see just how far he is from the rest of humanity? It’s a picture not of plutocratic luxury but of a person cut off from the rest of the world, imprisoned in some way inside the car, rich but not free. If he gets out he might be torn limb from limb by hungry zombies.

That’s one reading. The other is that perhaps Iggy Pop is singing about David Bowie. Bowie can’t drive and I could imagine the rather impecunious Pop experiencing some jealousy over Bowie’s more exalted position in the rock pantheon. Perhaps the passenger is Pop’s host in Berlin and the car is a Mercedes S –class (see above).

Of course, the text of the song refers to winding ocean drives of which Berlin is rather in short supply. But allowing for a little artistic licence, Iggy is just having a little stab at his successful host, or perhaps drawing attention to Bowie’s indifference to the Berlin world in which he is doing his social tourism. I have not read this interpretation elsewhere but it is possible that the song is a mix of all of these ideas. Personally, I can’t help thinking that there was more to Iggy Pop’s relationship with Bowie than just clubs and some song-writing.

Rather, there may have been a tension that came out in the song as a resentment of what, to Pop, might have seemed like Bowie’s easy ride and effortless rise to the top. Thus, we have now several reasons why Toyota’s PR firm might have thought again about using this song with these lyrics to push their sleeping pill: buy a Toyota Avensis and be a callous jerk. Now that’s a fantastic pitch….

1976: Bowie and Pop on tour while Eno does the funny noises at Hansa.
1976: Bowie and Pop on tour while Eno does the funny noises at Hansa.

**No, seriously. It’s dull. Did you imagine I had some snippet of trivia to reveal down here?

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

3 thoughts on “Theme: Passengers – The Passenger by Iggy Pop”

  1. I remember the Avensis ad and I actually thought it worked OK on the level that the Avensis is not a driver’s car, nor does it want to be. No, it’s not what those of us with longer memories would think of as an ‘Iggy Pop’ sorta car and, as for the inappropriateness of the rest of the lyrics, that’s a problem with so much ‘contemporary’ music since most of it is written by gawky youths concerning crappy love affairs, general discontent, half-hearted brushes with lawlessness or gratuitous sexual boasting. Usually, the parts of the lyrics that grate are faded out or re-edited.

    There was a time when most ad music was purpose composed and so guaranteed to be completely on message. About 25 years ago there was a big deal made of the fact that Pink Floyd had ‘allowed’ their music to be used in an advertisement for the first time because they felt the visuals were of sufficiently high quality. This was probably at the fag end of the conceit that musicians lived in some higher plane and that they shouldn’t ‘sell out’. Today’s record companies fall over themselves to get music placed into advertising and Iggy Pop’s people are no different. ‘The Passenger’ has certainly been used in other ads since (I think one was for another car) including, so I find, a Dublin bus company.

    Ad folk, who like to think of themselves as effortlessly hip, naturally prefer to choose Iggy Pop over, say, The Bay City Rollers, since Mr Osterberg only wears tartan trousers when he’s on the golf course. Actually, I’m really sick of having both good and bad music inextricably linked to products in my mind and I wish that tinkly music and vacuous jingles would return.

    It’s not sporty, it’s not sleek
    It’s perfect for your working week

    Avensis, Avensis
    That’s where your common sense is

    All you need’s a boring motor
    So why not buy a dull Toyota?

  2. An interesting and plausible reading of the song’s lyrics Richard. Reading Thomas Jerome Seabrook’s excellent ‘Bowie in Berlin, it does appear that his own ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’ from the ‘Low’ album also stems from this time where the thin white duke and his American sidekick would cruise the Berlin streets in an old Mercedes, drinking heavily while trying to get off the white powder.

    On the subject of ads, Danny Boyle’s use of ‘Lust for Life’ in Trainspotting propelled a whole slew of Iggy and Stooges tracks back into the mainstream, making them ideal ad-fodder. Not that ol’ Iggy minded too much – witnessed by his shameful Swiftcover insurance ads. Mind you, I don’t see anyone wanting to use ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ any time soon.

    Another point raised by Sean’s lovely little ditty above is my perception that the last automotive advertising jingle was the fragrant Petula Clark exhorting us to Put a Chrysler Sunbeam in our lives. Those were the days…

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