Saturday, 9 February 2019

Lou Reed

Four albums here from one of rock's great enigmas....

Lou Reed (1972)

This is a strange album, released after the demise of The Velvet Underground, before they gained "cult" kudos and before Lou Reed gained his own David Bowie-inspired respect. Apart from BerlinGoing Down and Wild Child, all the material had been recorded before by The Velvet Underground while Reed was still with them. Most of The Velvet Underground versions have now come to light on "deluxe editions" of their albums. The versions on this album are, on the whole, far more "rock" in their sound, with more punch to them and a general feel of being more complete.

A lot of critics, over the years, have given this album a serious pasting. I do not have the same problems with it, in fact I like it.
I Can't Stand It is a rocky, riffy, latter-day unsurprisingly Velvet Underground-influenced number to kick off the album in fine glammy style (of course, as I mentioned earlier, it was also recorded before this album's release by The Velvet Underground, when Reed was still with them). Yes, the production is slightly grainy and tinny, but personally I don't find it too detrimental. It is still a good track. I have to say, though, that the "2014 remaster" that is on the remastered The Velvet Underground album is the better version. The next track, Going Down, has Reed going quiet and reflective, as he always could, over a fetching backing of piano (Rick Wakeman, would you believe), guitar (Steve Howe, would you even more believe) and female backing vocals. Again, I really quite like this one. A catchy riffiness and solid rock beat makes Walk And Talk It another more than acceptable track. The original Velvet Underground "demo" is much more laid-back and melodic, having none of the latter version's almost punky rock attack. There is a case for both versions. I like them equally.

Lisa Says
 is an enjoyable amalgam of two tunes - the first half of the track slower and rock piano-guitar-driven, the latter half lively, carefree and upbeat before it reverts back to the majesty of the first passage. It is the first half of it that forms the basis of the Velvet Underground "2014 remaster" original. 

Berlin is the first version of the song that appeared on the 1973 album of the same name. It is a long more appealing version, with a laid-back jazzy beginning and some solid slow rock parts in the middle. Personally, I would have preferred this version on the later album. I Love You is a short but catchy philosophical number with more muscular, mid-pace rock bits and a strong vocal from Reed. The Velvet Underground "session" recording of it is almost completely different, without the rock parts. It has a much looser vocal over a slightly jarring keyboard backing. The original "demo" is even more grainy and sparse, although plaintively moving and featuring some atmospheric guitar. This new version is a vast improvement. The rocking, typically Lou Reed Wild Child was, apparently a Velvet Underground "demo" from 1970 but there is no recording available of it. It is the most "glam rock" - driven by riffs, drums and bass - instantly infectious track on the album. Reed's vocal and lyrics are quite Dylanesque in places.

Love Makes You Feel is an airy, vaguely hippy track in both its sound and lyrics. It ends with some rolling drum work and a very Velvet Underground guitar break. The original Velvet Underground "demo" is once again slower and less powerful. The guitar bit at the end is still there, but with less of the thumping drums. 
Ride Into The Sun is a muscular number with some seriously good guitar soloing from Steve Howe. The old proggy could rock after all. It has a bit of a Doors vibe to it, for me. The Velvet Underground's "session" version is far more hippy-ish, led by some churchy organ and a quiet, plaintive vocal from Reed. It sounds very Beatles-esque, (something the later version on this album does not), featuring Lennon-esque vocals and a Sun King bass line. Ocean is another Doors-esque, psychedelic-influenced number that, even in its new, Lou Reed incarnation sounds very Velvet Underground. It is a throwback to those druggy days. Despite some good parts, it is a bit of a mess, I have to admit. The Velvet Underground "session" version is more trippy and actually is the better one, in my opinion. In fact, their "demo" version is even better than that one too. Overall, for me, this album is nowhere near as bad as many would have you believe. What were good Velvet Underground unreleased tracks are given an impressive rock makeover and are certainly listenable and energetic.

Transformer (1972)
Lou Reed’s Transformer, from 1972,  was an odd album to be honest. After The Velvet Underground had sort of drifted away at the end of the sixties, and nobody paid much attention to his debut album from earlier in the same year, it was time for Lou Reed’s solo career to be given a shot in the arm. The perceived mythology, similar to that which accompanies Mott The Hoople’s history, is that an ailing artist needed some help to break it big in the world of glam rock and there was only one person who could offer that - David Bowie. Personally, I am not convinced that either Mott or Reed went cap in hand to Bowie, begging for his all-knowing assistance. Bowie had only been acceptably successful himself for a few months, it must be stated. Anyway, whatever the motivations or true story behind it all, David Bowie and his band mate Mick Ronson produced the album and played on it, together with the far more than just competent bassman Herbie Flowers.

Was it therefore, given Bowie’s influence, a “glam album”? In certain places, yes. Ronson aded some guitar riffery and Reed glammed it up on some of the tracks, thinking, I guess that this was the thing to do in 1972. In many ways, he sounds a bit confused by it all, and certainly it was an album the like of which he never came up with again. His music moved in a different direction from then on. 
Nevertheless, it was a massive success and it still the album people talk about when they discuss Reed’s career as being his best.
Vicious starts the album with a chainsaw cut of a riff from Mick Ronson, stabbing in alongside Reed’s laconic vocal. It sounded “glam” and sat well alongside RCA stable-mate Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and Roxy Music’s first album. Some crazy guitar at the end of the song. Andy's Chest presumably referred to Andy Warhol and it was a weird, laid-back track that features an lazy, almost whispered vocal Reed, before a crystal clear drum kicks in, a chugging rock rhythm and Lou starts going on about shaving off a bear’s “baby hairs”. All very odd. At fourteen I listened to this album and hadn’t got a clue about it. I still haven’t in many ways! It is clear, in later years, though, what a gay album it was. I didn’t even particularly get the references on Walk On The Wild Side, incredible as it may seem, or the pictures on the rear of the album (of a transgender model and Reed in a gay peak cap, hand on hip and blatant bulge in jeans get-up). I just thought he looked glammy. Perfect Day is a masterpiece of superbly orchestrated, atmospheric ambience that sees Reed talking about his perfect day that everyone can relate to, even if it was probably going on about drugs, or had a darker message in the “you’re going to reap just what you sow” fade out lyric.

Hangin' Round was another Hang On To Yourself glam pastiche. Reed rocks out on this one, far more than on most of the album. Some more intriguing, beguiling lyrics abound, as they do on all the album. 
The afore-mentioned Walk On The Wild Side is just wonderful, of course. Herbie Flowers’ magnificent, hypnotic, throbbing bass providing a sparse backing, together with some gently shuffling percussion. Reed’s tales of the often tragic characters from his days with Andy Warhol at his Factory Studio. Lyrics about transgender, giving head, drug taking and male prostitution seemed to completely slip through the Radio One censors’ net, incomprehensibly! Whatever, it is marvellous and takes right back to summer of 1973. What a record. Bowie is not on saxophone, as popularly thought, but Ronnie Ross.

Make Up is a slow tuba backed number that has Reed telling his audience “we’re coming out of her closet” and telling of wearing make-up, with a decidedly effeminate vocal at times. Nobody caught on to this at all. Certainly not in my teenage circles, many of whom had this album. Bizarre. Satellite Of Love was the second hit single after Wild Side and tapped in to the Bowie-space travel thing. It has an addictive piano coda and an affecting vocal and backing vocals from Thunderthighs (who also backed up Mott The Hoople). The “bridge” bit about “being bold with Harry, Mark and John on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday..” always mystified me - firstly, what a naughty girl-boy, secondly, why was that verse in it? It bore absolutely no relevance to the rest of the song. 
Wagon Wheel has a T.Rex-inspired Get It On riff. One of the most rocky numbers on the album. New York Telephone Conversation is a short, almost spoken waste of time, really. Very camp. Some probably love it. Sorry! Not for me. Thankfully it’s over pretty quickly. Another T. Rex Slider style riff introduces I'm So Free, complete with “Oooh Oooh” glammy back up vocals and a Beatles reference in the "I’m Mother Nature’s Son.." lyric. Goodnight Ladies is a slowed-down, Berlin 1930s jazzy farewell. Some nice clarinet and New Orleans-style backing. Completely incongruous with the rest of what was a very incongruous album. As I said, I never quite knew what to make of this album. All these years later, I still don’t.

Berlin (1973)

This album was completely critically panned upon its release in mid-1973. Lou Reed’s previous album, Transformer, although distinctly demi-monde in its subject matter and characters had a real glam rock verve to it, under the influence of producers David Bowie and Mick Ronson. It was probably Reed’s most accessible solo album. Berlin was anything but that. It was, shall we say, a difficult listen. A concept album of sorts, covering the tragic end of a relationship between two characters, Caroline and Jim. Their marriage descends into depression, spousal violence, drug abuse, promiscuity, prostitution and eventually suicide. Not really ideal subject matter for a best-seller. Not that Reed cared. He would release what he wanted to release. He had a chance to build on the camped-up fun of the previous album and decided to make one of the most depressing albums of all time.

Musically, it is impressively delivered - atmospheric and at times captivating. Cream bass legend Jack Bruce and recent Bowie drummer Aynsley Dunbar are part of the session band used. Reed’s semi-mumbled, often laconic drawl seems to be perfect for this material. It is, as is pretty clear, not the easiest of listens, taken as a bleak, depressing whole, but there are highlights and, certainly, the album has now been totally re-assessed in later years and many now consider it a work of genius.
The brooding, mournful Berlin sets the scene for what is to come perfectly, with, initially some background chatter similar to that which opened Roxy Music’s debut album, but instead of bursting into life as that one does, it delves deep into bleak piano-driven soundscapes. Lady Day is a powerful and soulful number somewhat distanced from the rest of the album’s material in ambience. It has an appealing hook and a solid vocal. It wouldn’t have been out of place on the previous album, and can be listened to in isolation from the rest of the album as a stand alone regular rock song. The same can be said for the staccato, quirky How Do You Think It Feels. The drums on this track sound just immense, as does the blistering electric guitar solo. Both these songs often appear on “Best of Lou Reed” playlists/compilations without depressing their listeners.

Men Of Good Fortune has a simply beautiful bass/piano  backing to it and it bursts into to powerhouse drum passage and the music soars majestically around Reed’s sad, plaintive vocal. An underrated great song from the album. The sound on the remastered version is superb, by the way. Caroline Says 1 is also an excellent riffy, potent and vividly orchestrated song. At times it sounds almost joyful as the flute underpins the vocals, where Jim is moaning about Caroline. Again, taken out of context, it is a pretty fine rock song. The horn-driven, punchy Oh Jim has a similar effect when listening to it. In fact, I have just listened to these first six songs and I feel ok! Lyrically, of course, they have their moments, but musically, it packs an enjoyable punch. The second, acoustic part of “Oh Jim” starts to see things sink, though, fast. 

Caroline Says II is just so sad - “why is it that you beat me, it isn’t any fun..”. It really is a tragic song. At the same time it is sensitively delivered and incredibly moving. “You can hit me all you want to, but I don’t love you anymore…”. Ironically, the refrain is very musically uplifting. Despite its harrowing subject matter, I really love this song. I sort of feel bad saying this. Sort of guilty. Then we get the album’s denouement. Tracks like the heartbreaking, virtually unlistenable The Kids, particularly at the end, The Bed, which is similarly upsetting and Sad Song are a dispiriting bunch of songs to deal with. They end the album and most people would be feeling pretty down by this point. There is a strange sort of cleansing feeling at the end of it all, however. Sad Song has a bizarrely stirring, almost cathartic effect. Listening to it again, I had forgotten how musically perfect it is and how great it sounds. It is like watching a disturbing film, you can acknowledge the atmosphere and the points it has to make. It is a work of genius? Actually, maybe it is.

New York (1989)

After a career so intertwined with New York City, quintessential wry New Yorker Lou Reed finally put out an album dedicated to the city. It was a wonderful album, possibly the best of his solo career, and yes, that includes the ever-so slightly overrated Transformer. It is full of muscular guitar riffs, strong, confident vocals and an ear, as always, for a killer melody. All manner of subjects are covered - ecology, the environment, corrupt politicians, AIDS, parenthood, urban street life, abusive relationships and many more. It was as if after years in the comparative wilderness, Reed had undergone a renaissance. Personally, I hadn't bought a Lou Reed album since Berlin, but I bought this, and loved it. It was a solid, powerful rock album dealing with serious matters. Remember this was 1989, this was no throwaway vacuous pop album, and, thankfully, there was no synthesiser to be heard. Things started to change with the release of this album.
Romeo Had Juliette begins with a powerful electric riff before Lou's instantly recognisable voice arrives to remind just how strangely suited to rock was his semi-spoken, expressive vocal. The song is full of Springsteen-esque street imagery. It gets the album off to a seriously great start. Halloween Parade is a heartbreaking, mournful and tender song about those lost to the AIDS epidemic. Characters like those in Walk On The Wild Side are those mentioned, but they are now gone, as Reed sings, their voices never to be heard again. Reed is now sad and reflective and the awful reality of it all. 

Dirty Blvd. continues the street scene thing begun on Romeo Had Juliette in another captivating guitar-driven number. A huge Stonesy riff accompanies he chorus and Reed's cynical lyrics are a glory to behold. 
Endless Cycle has a fetching melody, but it tells a dreadful tale of child abuse. As on his 1973 "Berlin" album, Reed manages to cover awful subject matter very convincingly. Beneath the despair, the song has an infectious feel to it. This Is No Time is a thumping, protest song against corrupt politicians, destructive patriotism and "phoney rhetoric". Last Great American Whale uses an ecological metaphor to express Reed's woe at the loss of the American ideal, or any sort of morality. It is sung starkly against a moving solo electric guitar backing. "Americans don't care much for anything, land and water the least...". It sort of says it all for 1989 or 2020 - you bet your ass they don't. As Lou says - "stick a fork in their ass and turn 'em over - they're done". I must say it is refreshing to hear an American sticking it to his own country so virulently.

Beginning Of A Great Adventure is a jaunty, but low-key little song about possible parenthood, in the lyrical style of David Bowie's Kooks, to a certain extent. Far more cynical, of course. 
Busload Of Faith has the riffs returning for a punchy, upbeat number that once again tells us just what we need to get by in this miserable old world. There is hope in Reed's outlook - but only just - we need a busload of faith.
Sick Of You has the same carefree-ish sound of Beginning Of A Great Adventure with some brilliant rapped-out lyrics on all sorts of contemporary politics and politicians that an understandably pissed-off Reed is sick of. It references "the Trumps" too, from a time when he was comparatively harmless. The invective sort of spews out like Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues. There is some great additional guitar in the middle passage too. Hold On has Reed laughing demonically over a chunky guitar opening and he begins an aggressive but melodic rant about "the statue of bigotry.." amongst many other things. Again, it is full of great lyrics - it just keeps on giving. So much of it is so relevant today, too, sadly. On Good Evening Mr. Waldheim Reed raps his invective out over another riffy backing against Austrian politician and ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim but also against The Pope and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. I'm not quite sure why Jackson has got Reed's goat, something about hypocrisy, I believe. Basically, old Lou is fed up with the whole damn lot of them. I know how he feels. Xmas In February is a bleak, vocal and guitar song denouncing the Vietnam War and the plight of the veterans. 

My own favourite on the album is the barnstorming, fist-pumping Strawman, with its mighty guitar sound and spat-out invective against politicians. "Does anyone really need a billion dollar rocket?..". No. The album ends with the evocative, beguiling Dime Store Mystery. It has Lou going all religious, as he always did occasionally. It features some killer guitar in the middle. Lyrically, it ends an album of questioning and righteous anger with a bit of pious reflection. Overall, this was a mighty album, one of the best of its time. Highly recommended.

Related posts :-
David Bowie
Roxy Music
Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground

"The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band" - Brian Eno 

The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
1967 saw some great albums released - The Doors debut album and Strange Days; Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced; Big Brother And The Holding Company; oh, and Sgt Pepper, of course. Then there was this one - The Velvet Underground - Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker abetted on three tracks by the mysterious German chanteuseNico. It is never mentioned as much as other albums of the time. Yes, it had critical acclaim and certainly has done in retrospect. However, in many ways, its influence has been greater, maybe, than the album itself. David Bowie, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Roxy Music, Mott The Hoople, Magazine, Oasis, U2 and so many punk and post-punk bands owe this album so much. It is also probably one of the most drug-addled albums of all time.
It starts strangely, with the wistful, reflective and melodic Sunday Morning featuring Reed’s gentle, unthreatening vocal. He almost sounds like a college boy next door. Come the next track, though, and we get the real stuff - the insistent, drug-inspired anthem, I'm Waiting For The Man. Its repetitive piano coda adds to the somewhat frantic ambience and the riff is a killer. 

Femme Fatale features Nico for the first time. Her German accent is a bit bizarre at times, but her voice is haunting and beguiling. The sound, however, even on this 45th Anniversary remaster, is awful, with some real distortion in places in the music. The same applies to Sunday Morning. No amount of remasterings seem to make any difference, which is a shame. There is a mono version of the album available on the “deluxe edition” and it does have some of the attributes that mono recordings have - a definite raw, visceral edginess - but, unfortunately those same distortions are still there.

Venus in Furs is a masterpiece of menacing, drug-addled paranoia put to music. A cutting guitar riff cuts right through the song with no change of pace as Reed’s vocal remains deadpan and relentless. A very atmospheric, evocative track. 
Run Run Run is a frenetic, punky number which owes more than a little to Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, and The Rolling Stones’ Aftermath album. Again, the sound is dodgy but somehow it adds to the decadent feeling of the album. The guitar solo at the end is discordant and scratchy. I wish it could be remastered better, but I guess it is not possible. It is what it is. All Tomorrow's Parties is Nico’s finest moment on the album. A tambourine heralds a wonderful, spine tingling keyboard riff and then she arrives - floating in with her haughty, sonorous voice like that weird German guest at someone’s party that you can’t really remember. Just that voice, and that guitar, man. A memorable, captivating guitar joins in, sounding like U2 would do thirty years later, underpinning the whole thing. Magnificent.

Is one demi-monde classic enough for one album? Hell no. Next up is Lou Reed’s masterpiece - Heroin. It betters Parties, unbelievably, in many ways. Another sparse, iconic intro - lone guitar, some isolated drum sounds and Reed’s enigmatic vocal about injecting himself with heroin. Sombre stuff, indeed, but it is an incredibly hard-hitting creation. It is a difficult listen but no less mesmeric for it. Maureen Tucker keeps a slightly clumsy drum rhythm going throughout, and the guitar burns and slices while Reed’s trip gets worse. Nobody could possibly say that this track would encourage anyone to take heroin. Reed and the band make it sound like the nightmare it clearly is. From the chilled out relaxed beginning, the “high” soon becomes a sweating, hallucinating, paranoid trip from hell, both vocally and musically, as the guitar starts screeching out of control. A bad heroin trip set to music. Some achievement.

There She Goes Again lifts the mood with a bit of sixties Byrds-style jangly pop, albeit against some world-weary cynical lyrics. 
I'll Be Your Mirror is Nico’s third song and a brief, tuneful little one it is - nice bass line and tambourine and vocal delivery. A breath of fresh air in amongst all the comparative misery. The Black Angel's Death Song tried to out-Dylan early Dylan but fails, to be honest. This is a discordant and irritating song, if I am totally honest. 

European Son is very much a Lou Reed track, at least for the first minute or two, and if you added some Mick Ronson guitar to it and cleaned it up a bit you could imagine it would fit quite well on to 1972’s Transformer. It has some madcap guitar and drums and threatens to get completely out of control, however, with all that feedback, cascading bass lines and hyperactive drumming. An archetypal piece of 1967 instrumental indulgence. At times unlistenable, at the same times, though, completely captivating. Like taking drugs I suppose. Thankfully, I wouldn’t know.

White Light/White Heat (1968)

This was The Velvet Underground's second album, and and absolute masterpiece of demi-mode, drugged-up, psychedelic proto-punk, proto post-punk paranoid white noise. It is one of rock's most influential albums of all time, but, strangely, is never really mentioned in the list of true classics. The sound quality is "rough", to say the least, but seemingly intentionally so. It was meant to hit your nerve endings. It was recorded in only two days.

White Light/White Heat suffers from appallingly tinny, scratchy sound, despite numerous remasters. I guess it is always going to be like that. In many ways it doesn't matter - it's grainy, raw, edgy sound contains is massive, insistent, electric drill-like appeal. It is an iconic slice of late sixties adventurous sub-culture. 

The Gift is eight minutes of buzzy, "industrial" guitar long before Joy Division and features John Cale speaking the disturbing vocals in his appealing Welsh accent. Cale turns his hand to singing is a haunting, sonorous fashion on the oddly catchy Lady Godiva's Operation. The track once again features some absolutely killer guitar riffs and lyrics that just take your breath away in their avant-garde experimental, just plain weirdness. Lou Reed joins in near the end of this fetching bonkers composition. Was any one else doing stuff like this in 1968? Sure, I Am The Walrus had been decidedly odd, and The Doors would have their moment later in the same year, but this was genuinely ground-breaking stuff. Way, way, way ahead of its time.

Here She Comes Now sees Reed back on vocals on a perfect piece of late sixties psychedelic pop, with its intense drum sound and intoxicating slowed-down Byrds-esque guitar. Put this on and let it swim around your head and you are at one heck of a late sixties party. Just when you think your trip couldn't get any worse, man, you are assaulted by the gloriously feedback-drenched racket of I Heard Her Call My Name. Don't listen to this with a migraine. Its searing guitar drills into your head and Reed's vocals get more crazed as it careers along its beautifully bonkers path.

The final track is the epic seventeen minute Sister Ray, based around a three chord riff that never lets up. I am sure this is what Jonathan Richman used as his inspiration for his 1978 Roadrunner. Apparently the chords are different, but Richman acknowledges that he based the song on this. The Buzzcocks founder members, Howard Devoto (later of Magazine) and Pete Shelley initially bonded over a love for this track. The lyrics are about a drag queens' orgy, apparently, although at many points they are pretty incomprehensible. About half way through some stonking lead guitar augments the beat, while the organ has swirled around all over the place from the beginning. The Stranglers must have listened to this too. At ten minutes in, the beat finally slows up and quietens down ever so slightly, but the feedback grows in intensity, so there is no relaxation, anywhere. There are brief hints of Blondie's Rip Her To Shreds for a few brief seconds. The keyboard noises around twelve and a half minutes in are very Brian Eno. The list of those who must have been influenced by this piece of glorious insanity grows by the second. The track's last two minutes are a breakneck roller-coaster ride of mad guitars and ranting vocals. You can't listen to this album over and over every day. It needs to be experienced every now and again. Listen, you don't need no drugs, man, just give yourself half an hour of this.

The Velvet Underground (1969)

After the avant-garde art rock of 1967's The Velvet Underground & Nico and the pre-post punk feedback-soaked intensity of 1968's White Light/White Heat, this third VU album showed a surprising change in direction. The band's most innovative, experimental member had left in John Cale and was replaced by multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule. Lou Reed has always liked a contemplative, melodic song and this album had a few of those. It was, to a certain extent, the relatively subdued "come down" morning after the debauchery of the night before. If the first album was mid-evening, the second one was the dark, paranoid early hours and this one was the more peaceful quiet of morning. There was still an essential darkness to it all, though, that would never leave. It has a certain cohesiveness to it and is clearly far less of an all-out assault than its predecessor.

Lou Reed does look very "square" on the cover, however, more like a Harvard student than a ground-breaking member of the demi-monde.
The album begins on a really low-key feel with the sad, reflective and mournful Candy Says. It features Yule singing quietly (requested to sing by Reed) and plaintively against a sparse but melodic backing. In case you were thinking that VU had forgotten how to rock, however, we are reminded that they certainly could on the comparatively powerful and riffy, Stonesy What Goes On. A notable thing on this album, is that although the sound is still decidedly ropey in places, it is better than the deliberately rough "lo-fi" sound of the second album. There is some killer guitar in the middle of this track. 

Some Kinda Love is a corker, too, featuring some excellent guitar-bass-cowbell interplay and a menacing-ish vocal from Reed. "Like a dirty French novel, combines the absurd with the vulgar..." is a great line. There was always a bit of wry, observational humour about Reed's lyrics. Pale Blue Eyes goes all pious and self-analytical. Stuff like this really is nothing like the previous album. Beginning To See The Light sees the rock return with some trademark VU riffage, such as utilised on I'm Waiting For The Man. It also has some fetching, harmonious vocal parts in between the intense guitar. 

I'm Set Free has a bit of a feel of Heroin about it in its stark guitar backing, but the song has none of the despair of it. Exactly the opposite, as it tries to have a liberated, optimistic message. There is a nice guitar and drum passage a couple of minutes in. Musically, the band are becoming more melodic, more subtle and clever, less one-dimensionally hard-hitting. That's The Story Of My Life is almost carefree and poppy in its singalong refrain. It could be a country rock number. The Murder Mystery is an experimental number featuring all the band's members on vocals, often spoken. It doesn't quite work for me, if I'm honest. At nearly nine minutes it goes on far too long and Maureen "Moe" Tucker's voice is petty awful. After three or four minutes I've had enough. Unfortunately, good old Moe is back on lead vocals on After Hours, a song described by Reed as "so innocent and pure" that he couldn't possibly sing it himself. So, for me, the album finishes on a couple of comparative low points, but don't let that put you off. The previous eight tracks are all well worth checking out.

Loaded (1970)

This was the final album, to all intents and purposes, from The Velvet Underground (yes I know there was the Doug Yule-led album in 1973) and the last to feature Lou Reed, who was about to embark on a solo career. Despite that 1973 album, it surely really ends here for VU. Doug Yule is highly prominent on the album, however, John Cale had left and Maureen Tucker was away giving birth. Sterling Morrison was still there, though. It does have a bit of a feel of a Lou Reed solo album, you have to say.

It was far more commercial in its feel, leaving behind the avant-garde, experimental art-rock of their three earlier albums. It is not full of lyrics about drugs and sex anymore. They wanted, here, to produce a more radio-friendly, poppier album. Record label head Ahmet Ertegun had apparently asked for an album "loaded with hits". To a certain extent they achieved that, but they were still The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed was still the lyricist. It wasn't going to be a "I really love you, baby" type of album, was it?

The album begins with the gentle, rhythmic and almost country rock strains of Who Loves The Sun, with its already throwback hippy-ish "ba-ba-ba" backing vocals. There are hints of The Beatles circa 1964 in this. It really is rather delightful. 

Sweet Jane has that iconic riff and catchy melody, together with its perplexing lyrics. David Bowie surely borrowed the "just watch me now" line, too. Similarly infectious is Rock And Roll, with another insistent riff and some great guitar. Both songs are done with far more rock power on Lou Reed's 1974 Rock And Roll Animal live album, it has to be said. Also, Mott The Hoople's 1972 cover of Sweet Jane isn't half bad, either. Still, this was 1970, and these two tracks were pretty ground-breaking at the time, being a pop type of rock, but also thoughtful and mysterious. They managed to merge riffiness with a lyrical poetic appeal. The Doors had done so earlier in slightly different ways but there was something quite unique about this material. There is no doubt that this album paved the way for artists/bands like David Bowie, Mott The Hoople, Roxy Music and even T. Rex to do their thing a few years later.

Cool It Down is a track that I am sure influenced The Rolling Stones' output from 1971-74. Again, it is infectiously riffy. After three solid, rocking songs, it was time for some Lou Reed laid-back quirkiness. We get it in the beguiling, contemplative New Age. It is full of cynically observational lyrics. It ends with some heavier, rock passages, despite the quiet beginning. 
Head Held High surely was a blueprint for the New York Dolls in its frantic, glammy rock sound. Lonesome Cowboy Bill was a wild, upbeat Velvet Underground meets country rock romp. These songs were really bringing out the "fun" side of Reed and a personality that was sensitive and wryly humorous as opposed to depressed and angst-ridden over sex and drugs issues and the demi-monde.

I Found A Reason is a sixties-ish Beatles-influenced number, with some Doors-esque guitar. Train Round The Bend has echoes of White Light/White Heat in its underpinning beat. There is still a grainy edginess to it that leaves you in no doubt that this is The Velvet Underground. 
Oh! Sweet Nuthin' is an understated but gloriously soulful and atmospheric Reed song. It is a true classic on which to end the original album. Check out the guitar after Reed sings "let me hear ya...". There is something special about this track. Great stuff indeed. This was, overall, a commercial-sounding record that the band had only just discovered they had in them, but they didn't sell out their musical personality and uniqueness in producing it, either. It still has lots of Lou Reed-Velvet Underground hallmarks. What was so great about The Velvet Underground was that they pretty much changed their style for every album the released. Quite an achievement.

The Very Best Of The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground were an odd group - part sweet melodic sixties pop, part visceral, nihilistic no future drugged-up psychedelia. Even under the "poppy" numbers lay a bleak darkness, however. Although critically acclaimed, I have always felt that it was their influence that has been talked about more than the actual music itself, which I have to say is often tinny, distorted and of very poor sound quality, no matter how many remasters it undergoes. Maybe therein lies its raw, edgy, unsettling appeal.

Whatever, David Bowie, Mott The Hoople, The New York Dolls, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Roxy Music, The Buzzcocks, The Stranglers, U2, Magazine, Joy Division, Gang Of Four and many more punk and especially post-punk bands owe this disparate original foursome - Lou ReedJohn CaleSterling Morrison and Maureen "Moe" Tucker a serious debt of gratitude.

Sweet Jane has a sort of false beginning of melodic background noises before that trademark riff kicks in. Personally, I prefer the cover of it Mott The Hoople did and Lou Reed's own guitar-drenched live version on Rock And Roll Animal, but the original still has its good points. For me, though, the horribly twee I'm Sticking With You doesn't really do it. Time to get down to some serious business. We get it with the iconic drug song, I'm Waiting For The Man. While it has a huge, insistent riffy groove, this original recording is infuriatingly tinny and scratchy. Therein lies my big problem with a lot of VU material - the awful sound. As I said earlier, though, it perversely adds to its  grainy, dirty appeal.

What Goes On sees the group rocking as hard as they ever did, again featuring a killer riff and great vocal. White Light/White Heat is another copper-bottomed VU rocker, blighted by poor sound, but what the heck. The pace never lets up, it is full of furious punky energy, almost ten years ahead of its time. 
All Tomorrow's Parties is marvellously atmospheric, featuring the beguiling heavily accented vocals of guest vocalist, German chanteuse Nico. It is one of my favourite tracks of all from them. "Oll tomorross partiss" indeed. It really is very appealing in its essential sadness.

The plaintive Pale Blue Eyes is a typical Lou Reed ballad. There is a good sound on this one, funnily enough, with crystal clear percussion and melodic guitar. Despite the whole drugged up feel of pretty much every The Velvet Underground did, they also put out some serious good love songs. 
Femme Fatale has Nico returning on a haunting number - even more Teutonic this time, singing "what a clonn" instead of "clown", which, while slightly off-putting, is certainly unique and has such a quirky attractiveness to it.

Next up is Lou Reed’s masterpiece - Heroin. It betters Parties, unbelievably, in many ways. Another sparse, iconic intro - lone guitar, some isolated drum sounds and Reed’s enigmatic vocal about injecting himself with heroin. Sombre stuff, indeed, but it is an incredibly hard-hitting creation. It is a difficult listen but no less mesmeric for it. Maureen Tucker keeps a slightly clumsy drum rhythm going throughout, and the guitar burns and slices while Reed’s trip gets worse. Nobody could possibly say that this track would encourage anyone to take heroin. Reed and the band make it sound like the nightmare it clearly is. From the chilled out relaxed beginning, the “high” soon becomes a sweating, hallucinating, paranoid trip from hell, vocally and musically as the guitar starts screeching out of control. A bad heroin trip set to music. Some achievement. Here She Comes Now is a psychedelic slice of late sixties pop-rock, full of frantic riffs and intense drum sounds backing a mysterious vocal, while Stephanie Says is the unnerving, but strangely tuneful precursor to Lou Reed's Caroline Says II which featured on his 1973 Berlin album. It has a disturbing beauty to it that is irresistible. The track is full of hiss, but otherwise the backing is sumptuous. Venus In Furs is a masterpiece of menacing, drug-addled paranoia put to music. A cutting guitar riff cuts right through the song with no change of pace as Reed’s vocal remains deadpan and relentless. A very atmospheric, evocative track. Beginning To See The Light is a masterpiece of VU riffage, with that trademark guitar sound, such as utilised on I'm Waiting For The Man. It also has some fetching harmonic vocal parts in between the intense guitar. Talking of guitar, I Heard Her Call My Name is a glorious, feedback-drenched dollop of pre-punk viscerality. This was superbly noisy, discordant, ground-breaking stuff. Some Kinda Love has a captivating guitar-bass-cowbell interplay and another peerless, menacing vocal from Reed. 

I Can't Stand It is a track that didn't make it on to any of the band's albums. It is once more superbly riffy, with a great bass line and bags of grubby, subterranean atmosphere. Sunday Morning is Reed's oddly fetching number, with its nursery-style intro and Reed sounding like a harmless boy next door. It was a bit of a forerunner to Perfect Day. This excellent compilation ends with a slice of sheer classic VU in the upbeat, "fine, fine music" of the totally infectious Rock 'n' Roll. The beat is addictively insistent, Reed's vocals get increasingly madcap, and the guitar throughout is sublime. Fine, fine music it was. Great band. Huge influence. The "Gold" compilation gives you even more, but if you want to dip into the music of this seminal band, then these eighteen tracks will do you right.

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Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Jeff Beck/Beck, Bogert & Appice

Four albums from a blues guitar legend here, plus a supergroup one-off....

Truth (1968)
Released in August 1968, this is a ground-breaking album, a superb example of the burgeoning blues rock genre that Cream and Jimi Hendrix were pioneering at the time. It was before Led Zeppelin, and before Free. Jeff Beck's guitar is simply wonderful throughout, like a knife through butter and the (comparatively) little known Rod Stewart on lead vocals is a revelation. While Beck's guitar dominates, so too does Stewart's throaty, gravelly vocal and this was, for many, their first introduction to his precocious, earthy talent. The album is simply a must have for Stewart aficionados. Ronnie Wood plays bass throughout as well, so it is sort of a prototype Faces album. The sound quality is awesome, wonderfully bassy and powerful. It is one of the first heavy rock albums, but is not often acknowledged as such.
The cover of The Yardbirds' (Beck's previous band) Shapes Of Things is blindingly good, giving the song new power and muscle. Stewart's vocal is peerless. The remastered (2005) stereo sound is excellent, considering from whence it dates. Stewart's voice drops in sound at one brief point, but it just seems to be part of what feels like a "live" recording in its raw looseness, even though it was not. Willie Dixon's Let Me Love You (credited as a co-write with "Jeffrey Rod" - Beck and Stewart) is a sublime, muscular piece of searing, bluesy rock. It cooks at maximum volume. Just check out the bass/guitar/vocal interplay at about three and a half minutes. Morning Dew is just rumbling, bassy, soulful blues rock heaven. I know Nazareth did a great version of it in 1972-73, but this one is pretty definitive. It is simply magnificent. Beck's wah-wah guitar is breathtakingly atmospheric. 

You Shook Me was, of course, later done by Led Zeppelin, but this version is considerably different, featuring some unique drum sounds and guitar feedback before grinding to a premature halt. This was apparently due to Beck vomiting at the end of his feedback piece. The traditional Ol' Man River is given a huge, grand, thumping blues rock treatment and then we get Beck on his own playing Henry VIII's favourite, Greensleeves. It taps into the contemporary folk trend.

Rock My Plimsoul is another "Jeffrey Rod" offering, but it sounds like an authentic blues. This really is some of the finest late sixties British blues, without a doubt. They say this is one of the first heavy metal albums. Not for me. It is blues to its very fundament. 

Beck's Bolero is a psychedelic, swirling piece of guitar virtuosity, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page plays on it as well as Beck and Page is credited with writing it. Beck has since claimed to have had considerable input into it, which I am sure was the case. Keith Moon of The Who plays drums on this one too. Not half he does. Blues Deluxe is an extended slice of majestic blues with a rather bizarre overdubbing of audience applause, admittedly faked to give it a "live" feel. It came from a Beatles concert recording, apparently. There was no real need to fake a live feel, because the whole album had one anyway. I Ain't Superstitious is a great closer, full of wah-wah and yet another copper-bottomed Stewart vocal. The drum sound simply pounds out of your speakers. The deluxe 2005 remastered edition contains several "alternative" versions of the songs, plus a few other unreleased ones. What a pleasure it is. A truly seminal album. Great stuff.

Beck-Ola (1969)

After a wonderful blues rock album in 1968's TruthJeff Beck, again with Rod Stewart on vocals and Ronnie Wood on bass wanted to plough a heavier furrow. He brought in Tony Newman on drums and Nicky Hopkins on piano and produced his heaviest album. Huge thumping riffs abound, together with searing guitar solos and excellent rock vocals. There is still a bluesiness to it all, but there is a real powerhouse heavy hammer as well.
The opening cover of Elvis's All Shook Up is as heavy as can be, full of stonking, muscular guitars, pounding drums, clunking piano from Nicky Hopkins and a great gravelly Rod Stewart vocal. Spanish Boots is magnificently strong with a huge bass and drum sound. Girl From Mill Valley sees the feeling quieten down a bit for Hopkins' melodic piano instrumental. Another Elvis cover is up next, a feedback-driven slowed-down grinding Jailhouse Rock. While it undoubtedly has a huge rock power, it doesn't quite do it for me. Not that it is without good points Beck's mid-song guitar is visceral and Stewart's vocal sounds as if it follows a large consumption of Jack Daniel's.

Plynth (Water Down The Drain) featured some infectious cymbal work, hunky riffs and, of course, another great vocal. The drum-guitar interplay a minute in is spellbinding. It has echoes of Rod Stewart's first solo album from the same year in it, for me. 

The Hangman's Knee is another heavy industrial chugger. The solid approach doesn't let up for a minute. This is straight between the eyes stuff. Rice Pudding is an extended "jam"-style instrumental workout to end, with some gargantuan Led Zeppelin-influenced riffs in amongst some quieter passages. There is some nice bass-guitar and piano interplay near the end. The jamming suddenly comes to an abrupt end. So ends the album and, unfortunately, within months Stewart and Wood had fallen out with Beck and left to form The Faces and record Stewart's debut solo album, missing out on a booked appearance at Woodstock (just imagine how good that might have been). These had been two great albums from Beck, Stewart and Wood et al, however. Overall, though, I prefer Truth for its bluesiness. The deluxe remastered edition includes an excellent piece of Rod Stewart blues in Sweet Little Angel. Also included is a typically Stewart slightly folky rocker in Throw Down A Line. (It was, surprisingly, a Cliff Richard cover). Surely these two cuts could have been included on the original album?

Rough And Ready (1971)

After the blues rock of Truth and the heavy rock of Beck-Ola this was a somewhat different type of album for Jeff Beck's newly-formed band of musicians. No more Rod Stewart or Ronnie Wood and we had a very funk rock offering. The rock is still there, of course, but there were lots of funky guitar and organ breaks and also a soulful vocal style from new vocalist Bobby Tench. He had replaced Alex Ligertwood (who went on to be the vocalist on many Santana albums around ten years later). There was certainly no gravelly Rod Stewart sound to the vocals anymore. Cozy Powell is now on drums. Like many early seventies albums, there is somewhat of an indulgent feeling to it, but that mustn't be allowed to mask its good points.
Got The Feeling is a vibrant piece of breezy but tough funk rock to kick the album off with and Situation is similar, very Santana-ish in both its vocal style and Beck's guitar interjections. It has some funky keyboard soloing too. Short Business is a shuffling, chunky mid-pace rocker with a feel of seventies-era Traffic about it. Max's Tune is a jazzy, reflective instrumental that is based around Max Middleton's keyboards. It is very similar to some of the material Santana put out from around 1972 onwards, so maybe this was the influencer, not the other way around. The guitar work on it is very jazzy, melodic and laid-back, totally different from the huge, heavy riffage of the previous album. This sort of ambient stuff was certainly a change in direction. I believe that it alienated some fans at the time, who wanted more guitar-driven bluesy bombast. I've Been Used is one track that has a few echoes of previous work, in its slightly psychedelic rock sound, although the vocal is very much in the muscular, soulful Blood, Sweat & Tears style. 

New Ways/Train Train is similar to some of the soul-funk-rock that Chicago were putting out at the time. The guitar-drum interplay two and a half minutes in is one of the album's best passages. Sublime bass too and the percussion near the end. Impressive stuff. Jody ends the comparatively short album with a rock ballad driven by some Elton John-style piano. Jeff Beck contributes a buzzy guitar to this and again, the bass is infectious. Once again, it has hints of Chicago to it. Overall, I prefer the Rod Stewart era, but Jeff Beck was always an artist who evolved with different albums and different bands. This was just one more on his considerable journey. For 1971, it was quite an advanced album, ahead of many of its contemporaries.

Jeff Beck Group (1972)

1971's Rough And Ready had seen Jeff Beck merge rock guitar with a Memphis-influenced soul sound. On this album, released the following year, he employed legendary Stax soul guitarist Steve Cropper as producer, although the album moved slightly away from soul fusion towards jazz/rock fusion. As on a lot of Beck's albums, the quality of the songs is actually not that important, as his virtuosity tends to override that. Some of the songs are good anyway, but those that veer slightly towards the ordinary are invariably lifted by the musicianship. Beck can cope with rock, blues, soul and jazz with equal alacrity.
Ice Cream Cakes is a quirky, staccato slice of funk rock combining some solid drums, piano and guitar with a gritty, soulful vocal from Bobby Tench. It has a sort of Chicago meets Blood, Sweat & Tears soul-rock groove to it. The sound quality is excellent. Check out the organ/drum interplay around four minutes in. It is all very intense, "adult" stuff, which probably accounts for the fact that it wasn't incredibly successful, compared to the glam rock and prog rock that did so well in 1972. In many ways, it was ahead of its time, in that it sounds great today.

Glad All Over is a lively, boogie-ish rock number with some infectious guitar and percussion passages. Bob Dylan's Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You is given a deep, blues rock treatment with a strong bass line and bluesy guitar backing. 
Sugar Cane has a deliciously funky rhythm and a bit of a Doobie Brothers meets The Meters-style vocal together with some captivating percussion.

I Can't Give Back The Love I Feel For You was an Ashford-Simpson Motown song done by Diana Ross, Rita (Syreeta) Wright and Suzee Ikeda. Here it is done without vocals, allowing Beck's guitar to roam wild, to great effect. 

Going Down is a superb Faces-style bluesy barroom rocker, which would have been great, one would imagine, if Rod Stewart had sung it. It is one of the best cuts on the album. The guitar, vocal and piano all trading off against each other is steaming hot. It was also covered by Bryan Ferry on his Frantic album in 2002. I Got To Have A Song is a soulful number with great rhythm and a gospelly backing vocal. Highways is a Chicago-esque mid-pace rock ballad with a searing guitar solo mid-song and a funky jazz keyboard break as well. Definitely Maybe predates Oasis with its title by twenty-odd years. It is a slow tempo instrumental vehicle for Beck's slide guitar virtuosity. The sound quality on it is superb as Beck shows what he can do. This album was critically-panned at the time but in retrospect I think it sounds exceptional. Highly recommended.

Blow By Blow (1975)

After albums of blues rock, psychedelic rock, soul rock, funk rock and heavy rock, Jeff Beck was back (without his Jeff Beck Group, but with other musicians. Only keyboardist Max Middleton remained from earlier groups) to give us some funky jazz rock. It was an instrumental album and was produced by George Martin. The album is certainly nothing like his work with The Beatles. It was, for 1975, an innovative, quite ground-breaking album. You do find yourself wanting a few vocals every now and again, however.
You Know What I Mean is a catchy slice of funky jazz rock to open up, with some (for the time) adventurous synthesiser riffs thrown in. Beck's guitar soars all around the punchy rhythm and there is also some funky clavinet. She's A Woman is delightfully infectious with a slightly reggae-influenced keyboard sound and wah-wah guitar laying down a fine rhythm. It is an old Lennon-McCartney song, but its inventive arrangement means you don't really notice. Constipated Duck is a clavinet-led frantic workout jam. Air Blower is spacily funky, with a distinctive keyboard swirling riff as well as funky guitars. Stevie Wonder, who was present at some of the sessions for this album, and wrote two of the tracks, would do material like this on his Songs In The Key Of Life album a year later, notably Contusion. At the end of the track you get a sublime laid-back guitar, keyboard, drum interplay.

Scatter Brain begins with a funky drum solo intro before morphing into some almost prog rock-sounding guitar and keyboard work. There are elements of freeform jazz to Beck's guitar too. Beck had recently walked out on an audition arranged by The Rolling Stones. As you listen to this sort of thing, you realise how they probably would not have gelled at all at this particular time. Stevie Wonder's Cause We've Ended As Lovers is lovely. It appears as a song on the Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta album. Beck's guitar is wonderful on it. I always found Beck's involvement with Wonder a bit incongruous, however, it always seemed to work beautifully, so what do I know? Wonder's Thelonius is deliciously funky. This one doesn't appear anywhere else. 
Freeway Jam has an addictive, rumbling driving bass line and some great riffy interjections. Diamond Dust has Beck channelling his inner Carlos Santana for the meditative closer, while George Martin's strings give it a grandiose air at times.

This is album is instrumental rock music of the highest order. The lack of vocals can sometimes frustrated, but taken for what it is, you cannot help but appreciate it. It is forty-five minutes well spent.

Beck, Bogert & Appice (1973)                 

Having released albums that fused rock firstly with blues, then soul, then jazz, Jeff Beck recruited bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice (both once of Vanilla Fudge) to merge rock with, well, heavier rock. He seemed to want to produce a Cream
-style power trio. Heavy rock was de rigeur at the time with Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple thundering and hammering their stuff to the top of the album charts. It was also quite the thing to form a "supergroup", Derek & The Dominoes style. This one only lasted for this album, plus a live album. It was a bit of a shame because they had something about them.

The sound quality on the album is also seriously good. Now on to the tracks. 
While rocking heavily, Black Cat Moan is also a very bluesy number, with a conventional blues chorus and guitar riffs. Carmine Appice is a solid, powerful, inventive drummer and drives the song along impressively. Lady has some excellent, rubbery bass runs from Bogert and some searing Beck guitar. It has a very Eric Clapton-esque, laid-back vocals that has definite echoes of Cream in it too. There are funky little bits in it too, so it is certainly not all heavy metal bombast. Far from it. There is considerable subtlety here at times. The drum "solo" bit at the end is great. I like this track a lot. Oh To Love You has one of those typical heavy rock, yearning vocals and some nice guitar backing but, strangely enough, it is a bit washy-washy. The quirky guitar rescues it, though. 

Stevie Wonder's Superstition is given a serrated rock treatment, full of shedding guitar. Beck had contributed to the creation of Wonder's original. Although this is good in its heavy way, it lacks the sheer, irresistible funkiness of the original. Sweet Sweet Surrender has hints of Bob Dylan & The Band's I Shall Be Released about it. Again, it is not incredibly heavy, neither is the catchy, Status Quo-ish Why Should I Care. As with all of the tracks, there are heavy bits in them, but they are balanced by subtler parts and singalong refrains. Lose Myself With You has another of those high-ish pitched stereotypical heavy rock vocals. Livin' Alone is again very Status Quo-esque, with more superb bass. Curtis Mayfield's I'm So Proud is a grandiose and melodic ballad to end the album. This is not as bad an album as I have seen some rock journalists accuse it of being. Not at all. There are some appealing songs on there and, obviously, some impressive guitar on every track. It's Jeff Beck. Of course there is.

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