Written a year after the commercial triumph that was "Transformer" ,Berlin released in 1973 , was viewed at the time by "Rolling Stone "magazine as a suicide note for Lou Reeds, career. "Goodbye Lou" they harrumphed smugly . Now Berlin , one of the most misunderstood albums in rock, is placed at number 344 in the magazines top 500.Like many a great album Berlin has undergone a critical renaissance and nowadays the consensus is that Lou Reed was right when he originally stated that Berlin is his masterpiece
Berlin is a harrowing rock opera about Jim and Caroline , a dysfunctional couple spiralling towards oblivion through drugs, violence and seedy sex. After Caroline has her children taken away by the authorities this is the last straw and she commits suicide. Reed has stated that Berlin used the then divided city as a metaphor for human discord and that he wanted to toy with the concept as though it were a play or a novel.
The resulting album is truly startling and memorable and unlike anything Reed had done before using fulsome orchestration , horns and a huge array of session musicians. These included Bob Ezrin on piano and mellotron who also produced , Jack Bruce on bass, Steve Winwood on organ and harmonium and Steve Hunter on electric guitar .Reed only contributed the acoustic guitar and the vocals of course.
Some of the songs on Berlin were re-drafts of songs that had been written and in some cases recorded earlier in Reeds career. "Sad Song" had been a demo for The Velvet Underground while "Caroline Says" is a re-write of "Stephanie Says" from "VU". The album was recorded in both New York and London at a time when Reed's marriage with his first wife was breaking up. Culminating of course in the much related tale of Ezrin locking his kids in a cupboard and telling them their mother had left so he could record their anguished wails for the song "The Kids". Ezrin has refuted this oft repeated tale and it's now accepted that the cries heard on the song are those of Ezrin,s son Joshua pleading to be let back into the house after finding the screen door locked.
When RCA first heard Berlin they were horrified-expecting Transformer 2 this dystopian trawl through others peoples misery and squalor seemed a deliberate act of sabotage. Like most record company executives they had ears made of plasticine. They failed to hear the wretched beauty of it all. Side two of the original vinyl pressing is one the most consummately gorgeous , poignant and empathetic of rock history. "Caroline Says II" , "The Kids" ,"The Bed" and the jaw dropping "Sad Song" produce miserable words set to fulsome melodies , a sleight of hand too subtle for the suits. The record company threatened not to release it at all and then trimmed 14 minutes off it so it went from a double album to a single. ( To be fair , it still works as a complete narrative)
One of the greatest albums of the 1970,s Berlin is also one of those albums like Big Stars "Sister Lovers" or "Engine" by American Music Club that inhabits a darker universe but still retains it's humanity. It is also a cautionary tale ,the sort of thing being played out in the tabloids everyday for the likes of Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears. Much like on it's release it seems not too many are listening .Their loss.
Lou Reed is a controversial one, his work following glam rock crossover Transformer (1972) being celebrated by some and relegated by others. 1989's New York seemed to be enjoyed by the critics, but ol' Lou seems to divide critics and listeners alike, some declaring albums like The Blue Mask, The Bells, Magic and Loss, Set the Twilight Reeling, Ecstasy, Coney Island Baby and (even!) Sally Can't Dance to be great works, as others object wildly. I guess pretty much everyone is in agreeememnt on The Raven though? Berlin, and its later reaction, Metal Machine Music, are something else though - so, here we are, in Berlin again - odd that people have raved over Reed's tour of Berlin directed by Julian Schnabel, while completely ignoring his recent Enoesque ambient LP!
The story of Berlin can be found in Reed's relationship with Nico, critics like Lester Bangs (who had many an encounter with Reed - see Psychotic Reactions & Carburettor Dung - as well as one chapter in Nick Kent's recently reissued The Dark Stuff) seemed to think this was just cruel. Reed's recent divorce may have been a catalyst, or perhaps he had viewed Transformer as a more commercial refinement of aspects of the Velvets - and now back to something more artistic. Maybe Lou considered some works "entertainments" and others more serious, like Graham Greene? Berlin falls into the latter group, like Gene Clark's No Other, it appears to have been intended to be a double LP that the record company nixed. Reed with producer Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd) assembled a vast cast of supporting musicians including Steve Winwood, Blue Weaver & Jack Bruce and set about turning Reed's aural novel or musical film of the life of Caroline and Jim. I have the old CD reissue, and it sounds terrible compared to this - there are no extra tracks, just a remastered CD in a shiny paper sleeve with nice photos and lyrics in the booklet. So...well worth getting if you already have it...and I can't say I've listened to it since something like 1997/1998 when I cut out certain unhealthy albums like The Holy Bible and Dog Man Star...but boy, Berlin stands up. It probably is grumpy old Lou's masterpiece and one to file neatly alongside John Cale's Paris 1919 and Nico's Desertshore.
& these days, when people like to download the tracks they immediatly like to their MP3 player of choice, it's nice to be reminded that this is a very complete album. More complex and gruesome songs like Oh Jim, The Bed and The Kids probably didn't appeal on initial listening - though are probably my favourite now. I came to this LP with knowledge of a few tracks on the Retro compilation of the late 80s and Marc & the Mambas's cover of Caroline Says II (aka Caroline Says It- according to my ancient tape of it!). It should be noted that bits of Berlin did come out before - the title track was performed in Paris with Cale and Nico and featured on Lou's eponymous debut LP, while a trawl through bonus track/compilationville regarding the Velvets finds earlier versions of the songs that became Caroline Says II (Stephanie Says), Oh Jim (Oh Gin)and Sad Song. & How Do You Think It Feels takes its title from the closing refrain of Beginning To See the Light. So, the idea that all these songs came at the same time as one complete piece is a bit of a white lie - Reed and Ezrin did fashion all 10 songs into one cohesive whole though...
Since Berlin is a complete work, it seems churlish to offer a track-by-track analysis - this is one of those records, like Baader Meinhof or Jehovahkill or Los Angeles or Alice or The First Born is Dead or [insert suggestion here], that works as a definite whole and should be listened to in one 50-odd minute session. I do have favourites though, Caroline Says II will always be a joy with those lines, "she's not afraid to die/All of her friends call her Alaska/When she takes speed/They laugh and ask her, "What is in her mind?" - a complete joy. There is a Cale comment on Lou's difficult teenage years, ECT (alluded to in Kill Your Sons) and putting his fist through a window pane - a lyric that recurs in Caroline Says II, so Berlin is partly about Lou as it is Nico, or Caroline and Jim...
I always felt that Caroline Says I is a pretty good idea of this album, if you want one track that gets the slightly bombastic, highly literate and mildly proggy album - it's all here, though it's a bit joyful, which probably doesn't capture the feel of the title track or wrist slitters like The Bed and The Kids. Oh well...I think the latter half of the LP is probably its strongest part, Oh Jim starts off with an odd rhythm that predicts a record like My Life in the Bush of Ghosts before demented jazz comes in, and finally a gorgeous stripped lone guitar and vocal. Perhaps that's the song with everything in? The Kids is the one that will scare many, I once played it to a female I knew and she said it reminded her of the Blair Witch Project (which had just come out) - the rumour is that Ezrin or Reed locked Ezrin's kids in a cupboard, told them that their mother wasn't coming home and recorded the crying and screaming. This is funny and cruel and, if true, I hope they get a royalty payment for performance. The real low has to be The Bed, a cold take on a suicide - the Perfect Day-expansion of Sad Song is one that is very welcome thereafter...
Berlin stiffed, or at least threw Lou off kilter after the relative pop success of Transformer. The rest of the 70s would be quite confused, from sarcastic dumb pop in Transformer mode (Sally Can't Dance - though Kill Your Sons is brilliant), the FU that was Metal Machine Music, the neglected The Bells and albums that were decidely hit and miss - Coney Island Baby, Street Hassle, Rock and Roll Animal. It's nice that Mr Reed is revisiting it, I do hope that a DVD/CD set comes out with that show on, particularly as it didn't venture much into the UK and the closest I got was an episode of BBC2's The Culture Show. A fine reissue of an album that should now be declared a masterpiece, and with that lovely bit of trivia that Reed hadn't been to (West)Berlin at the time. Berlin, of course, a state of mind - Bowie and Iggy and everyone else would follow in the years after...
on 26 March 2015
This is one of the greatest albums ever made and every home should have one even if its subject matter of death, drugs and betrayal doesn't make for easy listening.
Berlin was recorded again largely in the UK with a cast of British music heavyweights of the time (Jack Bruce, Aynsley Dunbar, Steve Winwood) alongside the superb Amercian guitar partnership of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter. Bowie and Mick Ronson had moved on and Alice Coopers producer Bob Ezrin was now to be found at the controls. The result is a brooding intense often unsettling album which from the off,rewards careful listening with its claustrophobic production and Reeds superb understated vocal delivery and dark lyrics. Not one for playing in the back ground at dinner parties. Transformer 2 this is not! Other reviewers go into detail about the songs so I will not deal with those here except to say personal favourites include "Oh Jim", "Sad Song" and the upsetting "Kids".
Lou Reed never again reached the creative heights achieved on this and its predecessor, the more accessible "Transformer", eventually fading away to become yet another legend whose muse rapidly seemed to depart. So its a shame that this album hasn't been properly remastered (though on the cover it says it has...but probably back in the 1990s) I am amazed that it hasn't been when so many other inferior albums get the full 21st century sonic upgrade. The cover graphics are also very low res and poorly printed and in need of a makeover. Whoever has the rights to this album (RCA?)....get your act together and produce a CD that reflects the quality of the songs and performances on this album. But don't wait...buy this album until that remaster comes about and listen to a genuine masterpiece of songwriting. It might not be easy listening but boy, it's worth sticking with it. Especially as in its desolate themes "Berlin" feels more like the soundtrack of this decade than a product of the early 1970s.
on 19 November 2013
I have loved this album since it first came out and used to own it on vynyl. I'm absolutely over the moon to be able to listen to it again but having said that am the first one to admit that it does not have mass appeal - a friend described it as the"most depressing album ever made". The songs deal with drug addiction, infidelity, domestic violence, children being taken away "because they said she was not a good mother" and suicide. I read recently that Lou Reed intended it to tell a story about a couple who descend into intravenous drug addiction and end up destroying everything until the woman commits suicide after losing the kids; that take seems to make a lot of sense, however I think the songs stand alone as well. "Caroline Says" parts 1 and 2 show two very different sides of the same woman and depending on your take, that woman in the same relationship. "Men of Good Fortune" is a pretty classic Lou Reed track "The rich son waits for his father to die, the poor just drink and cry - and me? I just don't care at all".
Yes many would find this album dark and depressing but many others will find it artistic, poetic and beautiful. It was considered shocking at the time that "The Kids" ended with children crying and calling repeatedly for "Mummy". This album does not glamourize the lifestyle it depicts. As well as the poetic lyrics and fabulous vocals there is piano and guitar to die for. However you can't really dance to it!