Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Top 102 Albums⁺ No 34 Berlin

Top 102 Albums⁺ No 34 
Berlin - Lou Reed
R.I.P. Lou Reed - 27th Oct 2013
There was a time when this was always on my turntable. The line which went from Bowie to Reed was one of my earliest explorations into the weird web of connections that gradually becomes a record collection. Bowie was a pre/early teen obsession and I got a Lou Reed greatest hits cassette because of the link. I just searched for an image of the cassette (see below) and felt the pull of nostalgia - this was one of only five or six cassettes I owned at one point. Must dig around in the attic and see if I still have it, or maybe not.

Anyway it included the two Lou Reed songs that I knew before buying it, Walk on the Wild Side and Satellite of Love. However, my favourite moment was How Do You Think it Feels? and so it was that Berlin was the Reed album that I bought first. And though I've since bought many other Reed albums, none have matched this one. It manages to be the most ambitious and the most depressing album Reed was to produce, but, both musically and thematically it is powerful and even beguiling, its fin de siècle cabaret stylings a perfect frame for Reed's world weary baritone.

The album was largely castigated on it's release  before gradually gaining recognition as one of Reed's finest hours. I just can't understand how this wasn't immediately recognised as a masterpiece. Songs which had been discarded or already recorded are integrated seamlessly into a loose concept album about a disintegrating relationship.

"Caroline says
as she gets up from the floor
You can hit me all you want to
but I don't love you anymore
Caroline says
while biting her lip
Life is meant to be more than this
and this is a bum trip"

The musicians playing on this are the very top of the session players pyramid, Jack Bruce, Aynsley Dunbar, Steve Winwood.... in fact they're far beyond session players. The music is sophisticated and almost AOR but is full of drama and tension and a dark cabaret swagger.

I'm listening to this for the fifth or sixth time today for the purpose of writing this and it keeps surprising me despite being intimately familiar. Random thoughts: Morrissey and Marr got the idea for the opening of The Queen is Dead here. Lou Reed's disdain for the world, fed by the fragility of his own narcissism hadn't yet calcified and he manages to sound knowing without sounding annknowying. Indeed he often sounds truly bruised. Producer Bob Ezrin was/is rumoured to have told his own kids that their mother was dead to capture the cries of the children being parted from their mother during an emotionally devastating bridge in The Kids. When I think of this I cry and want to give the kids a hug but you can't hug ghosts. The next song is The Bed which is even more devastating. Tragic and ghostly, it makes me want to hug myself.

"This is the place where we used to live
I paid for it with love and blood
And these are the boxes that she kept on the shelf
Filled with her poetry and stuff

And this is the room where she took the razor
and cut her wrists that strange and fateful night
And I said, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, what a feeling
And I said, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, what a feeling"

This is an elegy to all the kids who grew up wrong, to all those whose romance was poisoned by drugs, violence or betrayal, all those who watched their lives emptying of hope like an egg timer, and learnt that the ground beneath your feet is as fragile as an eggshell.

That time when this was always on my turntable may well be returning. The more I listen the better it gets.


  1. 'Berlin' makes 'Transformer' sound like 'SongalongaMax'. A real masterpiece and you are cock on Seamus with the observation that it's Reed's sudden vulnerability that makes it such a beguiling mix. He let's down his guard to reveal unimagined complexities, impossible self analysis, you can understand the turmoil. His cocky belligerence must have been exhausting to maintain; christ, can you imagine being his maid? He sounds world weary and a little broken.
    'Caroline Said' is wonderful...

    1. I don't think he's ever sounded as vulnerable again. Even his hair became a sort of shell!

  2. Though I have of course heard several of the songs I am not familiar with this album in its entirety. I love most of the Lou Reed and Velvet Underground albums that I am familiar with so I really need to give this one a listen.

  3. Personally I think "Metal Machine Music" is very underrated. I bought my copy in that record shop in Portlaoise Shopping center whose name I can never remember. It was in the bargain bin for a tenner, a "deluxe" pack with a video of the performance. I went home, put it on then put on the video and watched it straight through. A most enjoyable two hours though I must point out I also enjoy painting my walls and watching them dry. The quote I enjoy most from that time is when Lou Reed went to make "Transformer" he was told he could do whatever he wanted just so long and it wasn't a "son of Metal Machine Music". I must give it another spin. Now where did I put my paintbrush.

    1. I somehow think it wasn't Transformer (made three years earlier) they were talking about. Unless Lou is really Dr Who.

    2. :-) You're right Seamus, I think I meant "Coney Island Baby"