What makes a voice great? It's a question NPR is tackling in a year-long series called 50 Great Voices. We took your nominations and came up with a list. Some of the voices we'll profile are beautiful, some are soulful and some just slap you across the face, as is the case with our first great voice. It's Iggy Pop.

NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH: Okay, punk rock haters, put your earplugs in now.

(Soundbite of song, "Search & Destroy")

SMITH: Iggy and the Stooges, 1973 sounds as nasty and as raw as it did almost four decades ago.

(Soundbite of song, "Search & Destroy")

Mr. IGGY POP (Singer): (Singing) I'm a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm. I'm a runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb.

SMITH: I know you haters didn't actually put in your earplugs, and you're probably writing complaint letters right now. Just know this: Iggy Pop still doesn't care what you think.

Mr. POP: After how many years I've been doing this, I've never been willing to either bait myself or justify myself. I don't have to.

SMITH: See, here's the thing. Up until the era of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, a great voice was usually one that charmed the audience, made the girls swoon or the men jealous. Iggy proved that a voice could be a weapon.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. POP: Let's hear it for the singer. I am the greatest.

SMITH: On this cold Detroit night in 1974, Iggy is once again waging war using his vocal chords. Half of the audience worships him; the other half wants to kill him. Bottles and cups come hurtling out of the crowd.

Mr. POP: Grenades, eggs they want to through at the stage, come on.

SMITH: Iggy doesn't remember a lot about that night. They were high on some hard drug or another. They'd been touring relentlessly for months.

Mr. POP: It was just a big, heavy night. It was the Wild West.

Paper cups. Oh, my. We're getting violent.

SMITH: Iggy had been punched out by bikers at a show the night before. And on this night, he had dared them to come back. And Iggy just stood there, bare chested as usual, taunting the crowd. By the end, he wouldn't even play his own music. Iggy told the crowd he was going to do a 55-minute version of "Louie Louie."

(Soundbite of song, "Louie Louie")

Mr. POP: I never thought it would come to this, baby.

SMITH: It is a gorgeous raw mess, a raunchy version of the classic that I can't play on the radio. So let's just skip to the end.

Mr. POP: Thank you very much to the person who threw this glass bottle at my head. It nearly killed me, but you missed again, so you have to keep trying next week.

SMITH: Sorry, suckers. There wasn't going to be a next week. The band broke up that night in 1974. The original punk rockers missed out on the worldwide punk revolution by a couple of years, well sort of.

The Stooges' three albums and this final performance would be listened to over and over again by the guys who would later form The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Ramones. The voice of Iggy Pop would be their muse. He made nothing seem more exciting than provoking a crowd to frenzy and mayhem. So, where did Iggy learn this technique? Easy: Frank Sinatra.

Mr. POP: I'll never forget riding in the back of my parents' Cadillac, and my father was singing along.

(Singing) Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you if you're young at heart.

And I thought, gee, I'd like to do that, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: It wasn't the tone, necessarily, that he wanted to imitate. It was the distinctiveness of the voice.

Mr. POP: People tend to jump on the bandwagon, and the bandwagon at that time was, like, dumb members of the British yob classes growing their hair and butchering the American blues or quasi-classical adaptations of prog rock, bleh.

SMITH: So were you sitting around going, I don't want to sound like that, I don't want to sound like that. I want to sound like that?

Mr. POP: Yes. Yes. Exactly. It was very important what not to do. It has to get up off the couch, walk around and be original.

(Soundbite of song, "No Fun")

SMITH: When the Stooges released their first album in 1969, they stripped away rock to the bare essentials: a couple of notes, a few chords, good to go.

(Soundbite of song, "No Fun")

Mr. POP: (Singing) No fun, my babe. No fun.

SMITH: Iggy sang about suburban teenage hell: boredom and alienation.

(Soundbite of song, "No Fun")

Mr. POP: (Singing) No fun to hang around. Feeling that same old way.

SMITH: Iggy didn't follow that punk rock road, though. He got lost. Then he followed David Bowie to Berlin for the nightclubbing and "Lust for Life" eras. He dabbled in ska, new wave, finally recorded that album of standards he always wanted to do. But the spirit of the original Iggy lives on wherever bored teenagers gather to listen to painfully loud music.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: It's a Saturday afternoon, the all-ages punk rock show on the Lower East Side: Mohawks, leather jackets, singers without shirts diving into the crowd. And Iggy's there, too, at least on the iPods.

Milo Geary(ph) is 18 years old.

Mr. MILO GEARY: The sound of his voice is good because he's a lot slimier, kind of, than the stuff that was out like that. He was dirtier sounding. He was meaner. It was more authentic and unprofessional sounding.

SMITH: Catch that? Forty years in rock music and you still get described by a teenager as authentic. Iggy endures. In fact, he's back on tour this summer, still bares his chest, stage-dives. At 62 years old, the voice is stronger than ever, but it is missing something.

Mr. POP: The part you can't get is the attitude. I've got the same kid in me, but when he was ignorant, he was more compellingly dangerous vocally, and I can't quite get to that place.

SMITH: So he'll have to settle for another kind of place. Iggy Pop and The Stooges will be inducted this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bring on the bottles.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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