Saturday, 9 February 2019

Lou Reed




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The albums covered here are:-

Lou Reed (1972)
Transformer (1972)
Berlin (1973)
Rock 'n' Roll Animal (1974)/Lou Reed Live (1975)
and New York (1989)

Scroll down to read the reviews.

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LOU REED (1972)

1. I Can't Stand It
2. Going Down
3. Walk And Talk It
4. Lisa Says
5. Berlin
6. I Love You
7. Wild Child
8. Love Makes You Feel
9. Ride Into The Sun
10. Ocean         

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 new 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.

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TRANSFORMER (1972)

1. Vicious
2. Andy's Chest
3. Perfect Day
4. Hangin' Round
5. Walk On The Wild Side
6. Make Up
7. Satellite Of Love
8. Wagon Wheel
9. New York Telephone Conversation
10. I'm So Free
11. Goodnight Ladies           

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 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 at 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 bulge in jeans get-up).


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.

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BERLIN (1973)

1. Berlin
2. Lady Day
3. How Do You Think It Feels
4. Men Of Good Fortune
5. Caroline Says 1
6. Oh Jim
7. Caroline Says II
8. The Kids
9. The Bed
10. Sad Song        

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.

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ROCK 'n' ROLL ANIMAL (1974)

1. Sweet Jane
2. Heroin
3. How Do You Think It Feels*
4. Caroline Says 1*
5. White Light/White Heat
6. Lady Day
7. Rock 'n' Roll                                                     

* not on the original vinyl album release

After the disturbing, acquired taste and overall shock of 1973's Berlin album, Lou Reed won some of the perplexed fans back with this barnstorming, full-on guitar-powered rock live album. Featuring a blistering dual lead guitar attack from Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner (who went on to play with Alice Cooper), it is full of swaggering rock grandeur and elevates four Velvet Underground tracks and three Lou Reed solo numbers (from Berlin) into veritable, majestic anthems. The quirky, drugged-up, trance-like enigmatic vibe of the Velvet Underground originals is replaced by a clean, muscular, almost glam rock performance and Reed's slightly vulnerable Velvets voice is given a street-suss makeover such as he started to develop on 1972's Transformer. It is one of rock's truly great live albums.

The greatness of this album begins from the very start. You can imagine the atmosphere in New York as the two guitarists come on stage and launch into some searing, exhilarating guitar interplay that lasts for a tantalizing, teasing four minutes of crystal clear sound before the man himself arrives, like a rock 'n' roll caesar greeting his adoring populace. After two minutes you think it is going to break into the Sweet Jane riff, but it teases you again until finally it arrives "da-da-da-dah-Dah..." and the crowd breaks into applause and you know he is on stage - "standin' on the corner, suitcase in my hand..." drawls Reed. There you have it - one of the best live introductions of all time, if not the best. Simply wonderful stuff. The remastered sound quality is fantastic too. Just turn this mother up loud.

The Velvets' paranoid drug anthem Heroin is turned into a grandiose masterpiece, full of crashing cymbals, shredding guitar and intoxicating, dare I say addictive, atmosphere on the quiet parts, with Reed's voice completely captivating. The organ break in the middle is positively Deep Purple-esque. There are some excellent funky, rhythmic parts near the end too, plus some stonking guitar. This rendition really does justice to what is difficult song to play, surely.

The original album only contained five tracks and did not include the next two tracks (also, the remaining six tracks from the complete concert were released on 1975's Lou Reed Live). How Do You Think It Feels and Caroline Says 1 were actually played before Heroin in the original set list. The former track it brought to a new life by some stunning guitar and impressively solid drums. The latter is far more upbeat and rocky even than its version on Berlin. It is given a sort of Ziggy Stardust glam makeover, which, although depriving it of some of its intrinsic sadness, gives it a new riffy verve and vigour.

 

The Velvets' effervescent White Light/White Heat has the breakneck, punky vibe that David Bowie used when playing it live in 1972-73. There is a bit of a funky feel to Reed's delivery of it here, though, at times. The slow and stately Lady Day is bestowed with a crunching backing which while again removing some of the original's pathos turns it into a much more powerful number. This album, and the original concert, end with The Velvets' wonderful Rock 'n' Roll, which here is ten minutes plus of rhythmic, guitar-powered heaven. It features a quirky funky guitar break in the middle played out between the two guitarists most effectively. Then the bass and drums join in. Brilliant.

If you are wondering, the original concert set list is below. A playlist can be made using this album and Lou Reed Live:-

ORIGINAL CONCERT SETLIST

1. Sweet Jane
2. How Do You Think It Feels
3. Caroline Says 1
4. I'm Waiting For The Man
5. Lady Day
6. Heroin
7. Vicious
8. Satellite Of Love
9. Walk On The Wild Side
10. Oh, Jim
11. Sad Song
12. White Light/White Heat
13. Rock 'n' Roll

Whatever way you listen to these tracks, they are simply superb live recordings. Seventies rock music at its absolute finest.

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LOU REED LIVE (1975)

1. Vicious
2. Satellite Of Love
3. Walk On The Wild Side
4. I'm Waiting For The Man
5. Oh, Jim
6. Sad Song        

This album featured the remaining six tracks from Lou Reed's storming late 1973 New York City concert that were not included on 1974's Rock 'n' Roll Animal (and the subsequent expanded CD release). By digitally arranging the tracks along with the others you can create the entire original set list.
                                 
Vicious showcases the double lead guitar attack of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner and has that same up-front power that Sweet Jane has on Rock 'n' Roll Animal. It has more "oomph" to it than the slightly tinny version that appeared on 1972's Transformer. The guitars are far more solid and chunky. For me, it is an improvement. Satellite Of Love is also turned into a glammy, guitar anthem, as it has no piano on it. That is a shame but this version still gives it a real robust ebullience. Reed's vocal is a little slurred in places but stirring in others.

Despite its delicious, melodic bassy simplicity, I should imagine that the iconic Walk On The Wild Side is quite difficult to reproduce, atmospherically. Reed and his band make a reasonable fist of it here. The bass is good, as are the backing vocals and Reed's vocals suitably understated. It is not given the in your face rock makeover that the other tracks on both albums are awarded. In this case, it is obviously a good thing. The sublime beauty of the original is not lost. It is pity to lose the saxophone solo at the end, however.

  

The Velvet Underground's I'm Waiting For The Man has a lively, funky backing crammed full of vitality and still retaining a lot of that sleazy Velvet Underground vibe. Oh Jim retains the pathos of the original, but has added rock strength here when compared to the original version on the Berlin album. It features some captivating, extended guitar/drum interplay in the middle. It eventually segues into the heartbreaking Sad Song, whose chilling lyrics are somewhat washed over by the excellence of the guitar and organ backing. On Berlin it is a disturbing, distressing song, here, perhaps wrongly, it it just a great rock number, loaded with killer guitar. The five songs from Berlin that appear in the full setlist are, because of their rock makeover, nowhere near as mortifying as on the original studio album.

For those interested:-

ORIGINAL CONCERT SETLIST

1. Sweet Jane
2. How Do You Think It Feels
3. Caroline Says 1
4. I'm Waiting For The Man
5. Lady Day
6. Heroin
7. Vicious
8. Satellite Of Love
9. Walk On The Wild Side
10. Oh, Jim
11. Sad Song
12. White Light/White Heat
13. Rock 'n' Roll

Listening to the whole concert gives one the right experience of the blend of tempo and feel to the songs as you expect from a well-constructed set list. Heroin, for example, is not a "second song in" track. Its correct place is where it is, at six, followed by the upbeat relief of Vicious.

The sound on this has not been remastered to the level of Rock 'n' Roll Animal so you need to turn it up a bit more, which is a minor irritant if listening to a playlist arranged from the original setlist. It is still reasonable sound, though. Apparently, Hunter and Wagner's guitar have been reversed from right to left channels in the stereo reproduction from Rock 'n' Roll Animal. This would spoil the listening experience for many people. Personally it doesn't bother me. By the way, what was with Lou's "Henry V" hairdo on the rear cover?

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NEW YORK (1989)

1. Romeo Had Juliette
2. Halloween Parade
3. Dirty Blvd.
4. Endless Cycle
5. There Is No Time
6. Last Great American Whale
7. Beginning Of A Great Adventure
8. Busload Of Faith
9. Sick Of You
10. Hold On
11. Good Evening Mr. Waldheim
12. Xmas In February
13. Strawman
14. Dime Store Mystery       

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 los 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 deal, 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.

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 Reed is sick of. It 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 a 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.

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