A Lou Reed buying guide.
When Lou Reed passed away October 27, 2013 at the age of 71, he left behind a tremendous body of solo work. Best remembered for Transformer, many of Reed’s albums have are either forgotten, reviled or ignored. To celebrate the release of Lou Reed – The RCA & Arista Album Collection, we have listened to all of the 16 albums included in the set in an effort to discover some gems and to determine which were best to molder on the record store shelf.
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The Blue Mask is a personal and political placard jabbed into the start of Lou Reed’s middle-age. Released in 1982, the ten tracks concern sex, love, addiction, anti-intellectualism, death, terror and violence.
“My House,” the opening track, is sung with such joy that you think you’ve stumbled unwittingly into Lou Reed’s happiness. Not so. He is merely at the height of his acerbic craft. Joined by virtuoso collaborators Robert Quine, Doane Perry and Fernando Saunders, Reed churns through the psyche of the American male with savage humor and honesty.
Sadly, “Underneath the Bottle,” “The Blue Mask,” “Waves of Fear” and “The Day John Kennedy Died” have aged as well as the unchecked avarice and Me-isms that marked the ‘80s. This is music meant as anxiety medication for the ongoing existential, national crisis of the intelligent.
After establishing the best band of his solo career with longtime Velvets fan Robert Quine, Reed parted ways with the guitarist and went with a more commercial sound that lacked the expansive sonic quality of The Blue Mask and its successor. Lyrically, Reed was as simple as ever, starting the album with a conventional love song and including an ode to video games. But sometimes Light Lou is more endearing than Important Lou, and to fans that would take “Egg Cream” over “Berlin,” New Sensations is a refreshing soft drink of an album. The mid-‘80s production has not aged as well as his early decade masterpieces, but even the slick pseudo-funk of “My Red Joystick” conveys a joy in making music that seemed completely absent in the ‘70s, when he seemed to be straining to find a voice that by this time he’s rediscovered just by being himself—even if that means being simple all over again.
It seemed inevitable that Reed would collaborate with David Bowie, who covered “White Light/White Heat” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” in concert. With Mick Ronson (who arranged), Bowie co-produced Reed’s second solo album, which provided him with an element of glam rock and his breakthrough hit “Walk on the Wild Side,” one of his signature solo tracks. Even better is “Satellite of Love,” a lyric in vague sympathy with Bowie’s space obsession. It helps that the song goes back to the Velvet Underground—it’s the kind of smart-alecky but intimate love song that helped him redefine the love song (as well as rock ‘n’ roll). Even more than his solo debut, Transformer was a long slick way from the Velvets (even though he tapped four tracks from their unreleased catalog), and the album has perhaps too much filler. But newfound commercial success took Reed out of cult rock stardom into rock stardom proper, and his singing here is among his most relaxed of the decade.
On paper, Berlin should be a masterpiece. It remains one of Lou Reed’s most ambitious projects, and with contributions from the likes of Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood (not to mention Bob Ezrin at his most bombastic and Bob Ezrin-y), and you should have the recipe for Lou Reed’s finest work. Alas, Berlin isn’t great, merely very good. Reed put forth some of his best material here (“Lady Day,” “The Kids” and “How Do You Think It Feels” are notable highlights), and the sweeping, melodramatic arrangements that Ezrin puts together mesh surprisingly well with Reed’s detached persona. However, for a concept record, Berlin doesn’t really hold together, at points feeling too ambitious for its own good. It comes close to greatness, but it’s not all that surprising that Reed would come back to reinterpret Berlin a few more times throughout his career.
Like so many iconic live albums from the ‘70s, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal is a bit more spectacle than heart. But before we go comparing it to Frampton Comes Alive, keep in mind that it’s still a Lou Reed album, so that spectacle is still more experimental than crowd pleasing. Indeed, taking a few old Velvet Underground songs and turning them into absurdly overblown glam anthems wasn’t exactly a safe choice, especially how incongruous Reed’s characteristically cranky growl is with Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner’s guitar pyrotechnics. Granted, “Sweet Jane” and a warp speed “White Light/White Heat” somehow mesh seamlessly with the arena hero format; it’s more arguable whether or not “Heroin” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll” do. But regardless of how goofily bombastic the album is in places, Hunter and Wagner’s constant soloing is consistently jaw dropping.
After the noise experiment Metal Machine Music, Reed returned with a focused, sincere effort that found him revisiting Velvet Underground’s “She’s My Best Friend” and delivering some downright commercial sounding tracks, including the opening “Crazy Feeling.” Transformer II it wasn’t, but “Gift” and “Kicks” are pleasantly loose and unconventional. Guitarist Bob Kulick, whose credits included ghost work for KISS and a prominent role with Meat Loaf, adds some truly remarkable playing to these tracks. They alone are worth the price of admission. The artist himself loses none of his trademark grit and growl even if he does at times sound restrained, such as on “Nobody’s Business” and the titular piece.
Our man is shown holding a mirror up to his face on the cover of The Bells, which is appropriate for a record that captures the vast multitude of quirks contained within Lou Reed as completely as anything he ever put out. It’s probably the most utterly off the wall album in his catalog, replete with everything from suave nightclub music, featuring perhaps Reed’s most hilariously out of tune vocal (“City Lights”) to a Springsteen impersonation (the actually very good “I Want to Boogie With You”) to an inexplicably awesome groove-based near-instrumental (“Disco Mystic,” which is definitely NOT a disco song, oddly enough). But it’s not just stylistic diversity that makes The Bells so bizarre. Indeed, it showcases both the experimental pioneer Lou Reed—the one who dared to close the album with the nine-minute avant-garde drone-based title track—and the Lou Reed who doesn’t give a shit and just likes to fuck with people, the one who turns a silly Bowie impression into the basis of not one, but two songs (“Stupid Man” and “With You”). As a result, no one would mistake The Bells for a great album, but it’s an incredibly endearing portrait of rock’s ultimate weirdo misanthrope.
Growing Up in Public is one of Lou’s most visceral records, its diatribes drawn from a deep well of resentment. The rage with which he rebukes his father on “My Old Man” is gutting, and if you know anything about what his parents did to him, it hits all the harder. His lyrical preoccupation here seems to be how customs and manners and prejudices trip us up—the hyper-masculinity that defined his father’s worldview, for instance—but these aren’t polemics. Instead, he laughs at the ridiculousness of it all, smarter than the system he’s trapped in. It’s ironic that the anger that animates this album also kept it from being a better album; Bowie was originally on board as producer until Reed hit him over a minor disagreement. Bowie would have worked wonders with the maudlin punk songs Reed was writing at the time, but instead, Michael Fonfara’s macho bluster gives the album a “manliness” it’s uncertain whether or not Reed appreciated.
The early 1980s proved to be surprisingly rejuvenating for Reed as he finally managed to tap into his long-squandered potential. Adding to that the fantastic musical support of a backing band including bassist Fernando Saunders and guitarist Robert Quine, the day-glo decade started off surprisingly strong for Reed. And while Legendary Hearts may not be the triumph of The Blue Mask, it retained a high level of lyrical and instrumental quality that helped continue a surprisingly consistent run of great albums by the legendarily patchy Reed. With songs like “Make Up Mind” and “The Last Shot,” he once again sounded like the Lou Reed of old. Rather than squandering his legacy like many of his peers in the ‘80s, Reed instead worked to reestablish himself as a vital artistic voice and one once again worth getting excited over.
Sally Can’t Dance is occasionally moving, sometimes even fun, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Lou wasn’t really in charge. His vocals are buried deep in the mix and slathered in effects, perhaps out of producer Steve Katz’s fear that a guy who barely even sings might not sell. It feels like damage control after the flop of Berlin, and indeed, this is Reed’s highest-charting album ever. It’s a shame he’s relegated to the background on his own record, because there’s some good stuff here—especially “Kill Your Sons,” Reed’s definitive indictment of the electroshock treatment he endured as an anxiety-ridden, likely queer child. Let’s not fail to mention the elegiac “Billy” which evokes Reed’s memories of a Vietnam-veteran friend’s wrestle with destiny.
After his disappointingly slight Arista debut, Reed tried to hit one out of the park with this ambitious, uneven and mannered album that was one of the first to use an experimental binaural recording process. But while Rock and Roll Heart may sound better than in retrospect, Street Hassle doesn’t quite live up to its reputation as one of Reed’s better ‘70s albums. Part of the issue is the quirky production. While Reed’s vocals were more relaxed on Coney Island Baby, they’re more mannered here, and the strange mix makes the alienated revision of the Velvets’ “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together” such a drag emphasized this increasingly robotic Reed (Metal Machine Music indeed). Still, the album closes with one of Reed’s great solo songs, “Wait,” though it may have been even better as “Such a Pretty Face,” a less busy arrangement he performed live in 1977.
By the time he left the Velvet Underground in the wake of Loaded, Lou Reed was far from the household name he would later become. Because of this, RCA seemed at a loss as to how to market Reed’s first solo album. A self-titled effort, it contained material both new and old, some of which had been recorded with the Velvets and others, like “Berlin,” that he would explore in greater detail later on. Lou Reed is a truly transitional album in every sense of the word, bridging the gap between what had been and what was to come; it represents his first tentative steps towards what would become one of the more highly-regarded solo careers to rise from the underground.
Being a fan of Lou Reed was a taxing proposition in the ‘70s. For every stone classic like Transformer or Coney Island Baby, you were just as likely to get tossed-off bullshit like Sally Can’t Dance or Metal Machine Music. Then there’s Take No Prisoners, where Reed’s seeming contempt for his own fans manifests itself into a pretty entertaining curio. Despite it being a live album, Reed takes his sweet-ass time getting to playing music, preferring instead to banter with the crowd and crack sardonic jokes. It’s a sober(ish) precursor to Robert Pollard’s infamous Relaxation of the Asshole with occasional bits of music sprinkled in. When the band actually plays, they sound great, but those moments come few and far between, and any appreciation of Take No Prisoners depends on one’s appreciation of (or patience for) Lou Reed’s comedy.
WE WARNED YOU
Mistrial contains a song called “The Original Wrapper” on which Lou Reed takes a stab at hip-hop, painful pun and all. In a testament to how bad and misguided Mistrial is, “The Original Wrapper” is not the worst song on the album. That honor might go to the title track, a leaden stab at cock rock that feels longer than its three-minute runtime suggests. Mistrial is a mess, a dated slab of ‘80s cheese and excess that was fortunately an outlier when compared to the rest of Reed’s fairly excellent work throughout the decade. It’s not his worst work; he certainly shows more care and effort here than he did on, say, Sally Can’t Dance, but his songs aren’t up to snuff, and they aren’t helped by the canned guitars and the repetitive, lumbering drum machine that sucks the life out of every composition. Reed made worse albums than this, but he never tried and failed quite in the way that he does on Mistrial.
There are two ways to listen to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. The first is through a speaker, alone in a room. The second is through headphones. Apple ear buds are insufficient to contain the barrage of sound that is about to assault you. With headphones you can listen in the outside world and still feel a part of it. Confined in a room with a speaker will only cause despair.
In the parlance of the year of its release, 1975, it is the audio version of staring at static snow on a television screen. You may sit openly the first time, looking for hidden meaning in the shrill feedback loop and relentless droning guitar. You might even enter a meditative state where the sounds—the term music feels inappropriate—act as a mantra. That openness will shortly fade, giving way to knots in your neck, anxiety and anger.
This is an album for masochists, completists and contrarians. Like any avant-garde work, approach it carefully. The meaning you seek will have more to do with you than the artist. All that you’ll get out of it, however, is the certainty that it’s deeper meaning is Lou Reed telling us all to go fuck ourselves.
What to make of an album like Rock and Roll Heart? Does one take it at face value or within the larger context of the Lou Reed oeuvre? His first for Arista and a strange retreat from Coney Island Baby into a world of straight-ahead pop hooks and commercial accessibility, Rock and Roll Heart again sounds and feels like a transitional moment for Reed as he attempts to establish his next move. True to its title, Rock and Roll Heart is loaded with rock ‘n’ roll in a traditionally simplistic sense. There’s nothing here to merit greatest hits status or to mark the album as essential, but as with all things Lou Reed, it has its redemptive moments and, despite being something of an artistic letdown, isn’t entirely an abject failure. It’s more along the lines of lazy pandering to a decidedly ‘70s-sounding commercial market, something Reed has never really been all that great at.