on 27 June 2004
From the cacophony of muted, distorted sound effects and twinkling piano of the opening title-track, right through to the coral backing-harmonies of Sad Song; Lou Reed's Berlin remains a shattering and deeply emotional trawl through the depths of misery, excess and theatrical despair. It's status as a cult-record is legendary; coming as it does on a wave of expectations (the most depressing album ever, the most intense listening experience ever, etc), most of which it lives up to... managing to fuse a sound that combines the heroin-chic of the Velvets and Nico with a further instrumental quality more akin to the thin white Duke (whilst also delivering what must be the most brutal album concept of all time).
Forget the public-school boy navel-gazing of The Wall... this is the real deal. A song-cycle about a couple of doped-up, washed up, drop outs going mad in a Berlin hotel room; cast adrift amidst an ocean of drug-use, mind-games, abuse, assault and sexual jealousy. It's how we would imagine the musical version of Donald Cammel and Nic Roeg's Performance would sound, if the LSD of the sixties had been replaced by the speed and junk of the era-of-Berlin. Reed opens himself up emotionally in a way few artists would dare to do; relating lyrics that point to a damaged and bitter psyche left hurt and destroyed by excess and paranoia, whilst leaving his lyrics to some extent, open to interpretation... though at the same time, they're as clear as crystal (if you get what I mean??).
It is this kind of emotional back-and-forth and juxtaposition of light and dark aspects that makes Berlin what it is... with the first half of the record featuring Lou's painfully bitter lyrics backed by an almost up-tempo musical bed - showing Reed's willingness for Berlin to find a commercial audience (after all this did follow Lou's all-time commercial peak, Transformer) - whilst the second half of the record features a more stripped-down approach to instrumentation. This is obviously going to be a problem for those unprepared for Reed's magisterial misery, with standout moments like children screaming 'mummy' and lines like 'this is the place where she cut her wrists, that odd and fateful night' having already been covered by previous reviewers... though for me that standout moment is Reed's closing refrain of Sad Song in which he opines "I'm gonn'a stop wasting my time... somebody else would have broken both of her arms".
As evident, this is darker than anything by the likes of the Red House Painters, Lenny Cohen, Jeff Buckley, the Cure, Roger Waters, or Ryan Adam's Heartbreaker LP... with Lou creating a movie of emotions for our ears (less blockbuster, more video nasty!), whilst subsequently taking us on a decent into suicide and hell. However, if we step away from all the pain, we find that this is, regardless of the downbeat atmosphere, still one of the all-time great records. Deft instrumentation from a largely British collective featuring Jack Bruce, Tony Levin and Steve Winwood add a depth and panache to Lou's compositions, whilst the production is overseen by prog-rock supreme-o Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, et al)... because of this, the record has a grand, cascading style all of it's own, reflecting both the sordid background of the artist and his creative flare as a musician. So in a word: excellent.
Looking back, it really is mystifying to me as to why the critics panned this 1973 album. I suspect that, following the relatively conventional rock/pop approach Reed adopted for Transformer, they just couldn't appreciate (or understand) such a grandiose orchestral concept as Berlin, even though its principal subject matter remained the hitherto Reed obsessions of drugs, doomed relationships, depression and death. It is, though, interesting to note that Berlin was much more successful in the UK than the US, just reinforcing my no doubt bigoted view that we Brits have more discerning musical tastes! Having said this, this view appears to be contradicted by the fact that Bob Ezrin (who Reed employed in a masterstroke to produce Berlin) had achieved equivalent success (using a similar production approach) with his star performer Alice Cooper across the pond.
One cannot, of course, detract from Reed's overall concept and songs that made up Berlin (even though a number were actually reworked versions of earlier Velvet Underground songs), but, in my mind, Ezrin's touch also pervades the album, from its sense of dynamics to its (at times) lush orchestral sound. Nowhere is this felt more obviously than on songs such as the vibrant Caroline Says I, the ironically lush sounding Oh, Jim (with its superb acoustic conclusion - a version of the Velvet's Oh Gin) and the sombre melodic brilliance and subtle instrumentation featured on The Bed. Production aside, Reed had also assembled a veritable British supergroup for the album, including the powerhouse rhythm section of Jack Bruce on bass and Aynsley Dunbar on drums (who are notably outstanding on - my favourite album track - Men Of Good Fortune, Caroline Says I and How Do You Think It Feels), together with Steve Winwood on keyboards. Reed also employed guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner for the album, who went on to excel on his later (more conventional, but still brilliant) live album Rock 'n' Roll Animal.
Berlin is, though, perhaps best known for the (much covered) superb acoustic ballad Caroline Says II, a devastatingly powerful song in which the heroine (no pun intended) of his 'opera' laments on her tragic lot of drug addiction and physical abuse. This is a song which, for me, stylistically follows his Transformer masterpieces Walk On The Wild Side, Satellite Of Love and Perfect Day, as well as the Velvet's Femme Fatale and Sunday Morning. Surprisingly, perhaps, the album actually ends on a relatively positive note (musically, at least) with the superbly lyrical Sad Song, which is another mega-production number from Mr Ezrin. The only point where Berlin overdoes the theatrics for me is the infamous children crying interlude on the otherwise suitably sombre and poignant The Kids.
As an overall concept, Berlin is a bravely uncompromising depiction of a key social problem and contains much brilliantly vibrant music to boot.
Originally intended to be a double LP, like No Other by Gene Clark, record company intervention ensured that this remained a single LP. This was the record that Lou Reed, with producer Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper/Pink Floyd), laboured over, and an LP that Reed appears to have invested most in. Reed has returned to a few songs in live performances, the odd track turning up on live albums, and now in 2007, he has toured Berlin across Europe with a set directed by Julian Schnabel. Berlin was the follow-up to the Bowie/Ronson-assisted Transformer (1972), which is the perfect LP to listen to as a teen, and was essentially a glam take on the climes of Reed's earlier, funny work with the Velvet Underground. Berlin is more adult and got a vicious critical response, sending Reed off into odd climes, from the sarcastic Transformer-pop of Sally Can't Dance, to the live LP Rock N Roll Animal, to the unforgiving Metal Machine Music. Berlin's failure would throw Reed completely, he wouldn't get a pleasant critical response until 1989's New York - despite the fact Coney Island Baby, The Bells, and The Blue Mask were fine records. The background to Berlin is possibly best highlighted by the hilarious encounters between Reed and the late Lester Bangs in the collection Psychotic Reactions & Carburettor Dung, as well as a Reed chapter shortly after Berlin in the recently reissued The Dark Stuff by Nick Kent.
I was loaned this LP by a decadent friend, who was also into stuff like Marc Almond, Scott Walker and Billy Mackenzie, in 1990, coming to it after Transformer threw me a little, but it's a record that grows, and to tell you the truth, I'd rather listen to this than Transformer. Berlin has been alluded to a few times, from Marc & the Mambas cover of Caroline Says II to Reed performing Berlin in the Wings of Desire-sequel Faraway (So Close!), or to the song Oh Jim by Gay Dad, which was not a cover but a reference. Berlin might sound to some people as a bloated, OTT, slighly ridiculous record - it certainly doesn't pull any punches, and predicts similarly extreme records like Dog Man Star and Torment and Toreros - though it is quite tuneful compared to records by Reed's former partners in crime - Cale's Music for a New Society and Nico's The Marble Index.
Reed was going for an overall concept, all 10 songs are a cycle of 49 minutes, intended to be like a novel or movie, something he returned to with New York, Songs for Drella, and Magic and Loss. Caroline might be Nico, and Jim might be Lou; or maybe this was something to do with Reed's recent divorce? Maybe it was a fictional take on some real lives...or vice versa? Whatever...a stellar cast of musicians accompany Reed and Ezrin, including Jack Bruce, Steve Hunter, Tony Levin, Dick Wagner, Blue Weaver, BJ Wilson and Steve Winwood. Reed hadn't been to Berlin at the time, but the allusion to that city of decadence (then known as West Berlin), or its earlier Weimar incarnation had a resonance. Bowie and Iggy would tap into Berlin later on, and this record seems to have been of influence.
Berlin is a great album, I don't really want to single out one track, since they are intended to work together, and are more effective if listened to in that way. In these times when people only download the few tracks they immediatly like from an LP, this is something that matters. Some of the music is almost a bit proggy, not that far from early Genesis or Peter Gabriel - especially 'Men of Good Fortune.' The first 'Caroline Says' is a string driven joy, which seems quite upbeat with the refrain, "...but of course I thought I could take it all!" The mood is tempered by the dirgey 'How Do You Think It Feels', with almost sitar guitar and an allusion to the lyrics of 'Beginning to See the Light' by the Velvets.
The centre of the LP has to be 'Oh Jim', which opens with rythms that sound like something from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, before shifting through styles, a sleazy jazz sound that predicts 'Street Hassle', and a wonderful acoustic section towards the end. The best known song here is 'Caroline Says II', which is a reworking of 'Stephanie Says' by The Velvets (& also a relative of 'Candy Says'), and has a similar autobiographical quality to Reed's life as the later 'Kill Your Sons.' The Dark Stuff has Cale suggesting that Reed but his fist through a window at a young age, leading to the ECT alluded to in 'Kill Your Sons.' This song sounds utterly sublime, the feel is gorgeous as the chorus drifts in "...but 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?" This song extends on the territory of Reed's popular 'Perfect Day' too, I feel - is there anything as wonderful as the song's climax, "It's so cold in Alaska..."?
Reed had told stories in song before, examples including the sleazy Querelle-territory of 'Sister Ray', the sinister 'Murder Mystery', and the Cale-vocal 'The Gift', a hilarious gothic take on unrequited love and 50s kids. Berlin was a complete LP of this stuff, the latter section the point where the narrative completely takes over, the epic 'The Kids' is just under 8 minutes and takes in Caroline losing her kids, including the infamous sequence of Ezrin's kids crying for their mummy, after allegedly being locked in a cupboard and told their mother wasn't coming back! Chilling stuff when heard on here, it's freaked out a few people I've known, and is even a bit Blair Witch Project! Though a friend laughed at the line "the Welshman in India", which must be a Cale reference - I guess he thought it was odd coming from an NY soul like Reed?
'The Bed' is the ground zero here, an acoustic driven piece that sounds like an acoustic troubadour singing from the scene of a suicide, the acoustic guitar held above the pale corpse of late Caroline. This is as dark as 'Dress Rehearsal Rag' by Leonard Cohen and not that far from the slightly deranged world of Oar by Alexander 'Skip' Spence. But there is redemption, of sorts, with the closing 'Sad Song', another track I'm sure Reed attempted to nail before? A classical feel, and a flute sound not far from several Mercury Rev records, it is a beautiful conclusion to this dark record - parts of the melody recalls 'Satellite of Love', though with spaced odd prog-guitar soloing, chiming piano, and a choir section. You wonder where Reed would have gone had Berlin been acclaimed? Though the prettiness of the music is undercut with the most quoted line, "Somebody else would have broken both her arms"!
It's great to have a remastered version of Berlin, since my old mid price cd dates back to 1989/1990 - though I hope a CD/DVD is issued of the current Berlin tour, since not everyone can make it to these acclaimed shows! Berlin is probably Reed's masterpiece, his solo career has sometimes be unsatisfying, though at least prolific. I think it's his best record, though there are some other greats alluded to above. Berlin is one of those albums you'll either get or not, it sounds pretty great here today...even if it never makes those samey old Top 100 albums of all time!