Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed: The Good, The Awful & the WTF?

Perhaps you've heard the news. Rock & Roll legend Lou Reed has died at age 71 due to liver failure. The amazing thing is that Reed lived as long as he did, considering the sheer bulk of illicit substances he put into this body. I don't intend to write a Lou Reed tribute today, but rather a very brief guide to his bewildering solo musical career. Reed will always primarily remembered for his time in The Velvet Underground in '60s. The VU were immensely influential and their musical catalog is very solid, comprising three great albums and one good one. Reed's post-VU solo work is much more extensive and wildly uneven. There's very little logical pattern in Reed's solo output. So many '70s artists released strong work at the beginning/middle of the decade and then experienced a slow decline (e.g. Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin, The Who, James Brown, Yes, Can and just about everyone else, really.) Reed's onetime collaborator David Bowie had a pretty typical career arc: releasing a series of consistently great records in the 70s, starting to produce weaker material around 1980 and then totally plunging off the cliff a few years later, with the '80s & '90s being virtual lost decades. Reed, on the other hand, was totally eccentric. A moment of utter and shining brilliance would be followed immediately by a turd. If nothing else, the man's musical output is full of surprises.

Here's a very subjective, yet completely correct, catalog of his solo works, organized by quality. Reed became a virtual museum piece sometime in the mid 90s, so his work after that point won't be given much consideration.

The Good Stuff:

Transformer (1972)

Reed's second album is still his best known. Produced by David Bowie, who dragged Reed, along with Iggy Pop, into the burgeoning glam scene, Transformer contains his most recognizable solo songs, "Walk on the Wild Side," and "Perfect Day." The latter was given sort of the second life in the '90s when it became suddenly popular in the UK after being used in the Trainspotting movie. Transformer's songs are of mostly high quality, but it's also a rather impersonal, mercenary album, lacking the freaky weirdness of Reed's best work.

Berlin (1973)

The exact opposite of Transformer, Berlin is a sprawling rock opera jam-packed full of human misery, drug abuse, insanity and suicide. When I first heard this as a young man in the 80s, it was the most intense music I had ever heard - sort of like The Wall minus the juvenile psychodrama. Both Berlin and The Wall were produced by Bob Ezrin, who gave this album a slick, overproduced sound that makes its gloomy subject matter seem even more disturbing. Appropriately, Reed and Ezrin experienced drug-related mental breakdowns while working on Berlin. Probably his best album from the 1970s.

Rock N' Roll Animal (1974)

Reed followed up Berlin by switching gears again, releasing this grandiose live album. Bringing in the twin guitars of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter, Animal is the closest Reed ever got to straight up arena rock. It's the also most fun album he's made, and its version of "Sweet Jane" became a classic rock radio staple. Lou Reed Live from 1975 is, I believe, taken from the same performance, so I suppose you should combine them together to make a complete show.

Coney Island Baby (1976)

Reed's first "comeback" album. He dropped his drug addled, Frankenstein-in-leather image, and suddenly became an older and wiser version of himself, full of warmth, humanity and humor. Instead of spinning tales of drug overdoses, Reed was now singing of playing high school football, and "the glory of love." Still, he found time to squeeze in "Kicks," a disturbing tale of drugs and killing for fun.

Street Hassle (1978)

Two years after Coney, Reed was back to wallowing in themes of human dissolution with Street Hassle, though the sincerity of Berlin has been replaced with bitterness, self-loathing and bit of gallows humor. Street Hassle is what they call a "difficult" album. The sound is stripped down and ugly, Reed was beginning to sing with sort of a robotic vibrato effect, and the whole record is dirty and depressing. The title track is an epic triptych masterpiece containing male hustlers, drug overdoses, a surprise uncredited appearance by Bruce Springsteen (!), and the immortal line, "When somebody turns that blue/it's a universal truth/you just know that bitch will never fuck again." It's Fanfare for the Common Man, reconfigured for the fucked-up 70s. It's Reed at his most sincere/cynical best.

The Blue Mask  (1982).

Lou's second comeback album, released a decade after Transformer, Blue Mask was his "wiser and mature FOR REAL this time" record. Off drugs, married, and playing guitar for the first time in years, Reed suddenly turned out the most finely crafted work of his career. He was helped out by a fantastic band, which included former Richard Hell & the Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine. No joke, the guitar work on The Blue Mask is fantastic; check out the second half of  "Waves of Fear" for proof. The song's subjects range from domestic bliss and true love to alcoholism, gun violence, paranoia & in the title track, horrifying S&M murder. Probably his overall best solo album.

New York (1989)

Reed's third comeback album. After sitting out the second half of the 80s, Lou reinvented himself as an elder statesman of rock/singer-songwriter type guy. Sort of an angrier, more cynical Springsteen or a musical Martin Scorsese. References to Rudy Giuliani, AIDS & Bernard Goetz gave New York a very specific, timely and topical focus. By 1989 the Velvet Underground had been fully integrated into mainstream rock history, and Reed's image had transitioned from washed up relic to musical legend. New York was met with huge amounts critical acclaim and Reed's career entered a resurgence in the early/mid 90s. Perhaps the high point of this was the brief Velvet Underground reunion and their subsequent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A good album, but it feels somewhat dated today.

Magic and Loss (1992)

Riding high off his success with New York, Reed released two memorial albums, Songs for Drella with John Cale, and Magic and Loss. A concept album about the death of Reed's friend, songwriter Doc Pomus, this is Reed showing his contemplative and mystical side. The music almost approaches jazz at times, and while its not as musically exciting as some of Reed's earlier work, this is probably his most personal album. I for one can't resist a song that brings in Little Jimmy Scott for the background vocals.

The Bad Stuff:

Sally Can't Dance (1974)

Released shortly after Rock N' Roll animal, Sally established a Reed tradition: he would follow a strong album with a truly awful one. Released at the height of his '70s commercial success, Sally was Reed's highest charting album, somehow reaching the top ten in the Billboard charts. Reportedly Lou was so fucked up on drugs at this point that he needed to be literally propped up in the studio, reading the lyrics off a piece of paper someone held in front of his face. Still, even his worst records manage to have one good song on them, and Sally contained one of his best, the harrowing "Kill Your Sons," about Reed's experience with shock therapy as a teenager.

Rock and Roll Heart (1977)

The pattern repeats. After Coney Island Baby, Reed switched record labels, moving from RCA to Clive Davis' Arista. Not sure why he thought working for one of the music industry's most notorious assholes was a good idea, but his first Arista album is one of his dullest.  Most of the songs float by without making the slightest impact, though it picks up at the end, with a silly previously unrecorded Velvet Underground song, "Sheltered Life," and, best of all, the venomous, snarling "Temporary Thing." It's sort of a hate-filled version of "Like a Rolling Stone." Again, Reed manages one great song on his worst albums.

Mistrial (1986)

The album that killed Lou Reed's Blue Mask fueled comeback. AKA the record where Lou Reed raps. Most of Mistrial is not so much terrible as it is just very dated and boring. However, if you were a person of a certain age, then probably the first time you encountered Lou Reed was the music video for "No Money Down." Please remember that music videos in the 80s were typically shot very quickly and on very low budgets. A high concept video like "No Money Down," with its super sophisticated animatronic Lou Reed head, attracted a lot of attention. It was directed by Godley and Creme, famous for the robot-filled video for "Rockit", among other things.

Set The Twilight Reeling (1996)

This is not exactly a bad album, but it was the tombstone set atop Reed's '90s resurgence. Mostly musically uninteresting , it was the signal that told us we could go back to ignoring Lou Reed again. I saw Reed while he was touring in support of Twilight, and it was a magnificent show. But after this, he would slow down, put out a few live albums, release a mostly ignored studio record every five years, and finally die. His creative years were now behind him. So anyway, here he is sigining about egg cream sodas.

The Indifferent:

Lou Reed (1971)

His almost forgotten first solo album recorded in England with Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, and various British session musicians. Ignored upon release, it's actually sort of interesting nowadays, since it turned out to be composed of unreleased Velvet Underground songs. Later, the original VU versions would turn up in the form of live recordings and studio outtakes. "Ocean" for example was eventually released in a superior live version on the 1969: Velvet Underground Live record.

Growing Up in Public (1980)

Another slick and somewhat dull record, and his last for Arista, Growing Up is sort of a dry run, a very dry run, for The Blue Mask. Reed is starting to enter his stable/grown up/autobiographical phase here, and there are a few decent songs, such as "My Old Man." He even looks like he just got out of rehab on the cover photo. An odd transitional record.

Legendary Hearts (1983)

An inferior clone of The Blue Mask, recorded with the same band. Some good songs. Some forgettable songs. And a couple that sound like they could have fit right in on The Blue Mask, "The Last Shot" and "Bottoming Out." At least it has a cool cover depicting black leather gloves holding a futuristic looking motorcycle helmet.

New Sensations (1984)

After Legendary Hearts, Robert Quine quit the band, and Reed released New Sensations: "the Lou Reed album with songs about videogames." He's even playing a videogame on the cover, though the game appears to just be a picture of himself. It's even poppier and chirpier than Legendary Hearts. Two great things about New Sensations are: a song in which a joystick is a phallic symbol, and one of my favorite Reed lyrics, "The president called me up with the news/I've been awarded the Nobel Prize in Rhythm and Blues/And Stevie Wonder wants to record one of my songs."

The Twilight Zone: A few albums walk the line between good and bad. I'm not sure how to categorize these.

Metal Machine Music (1975)

Okay, here's the biggie. It's impossible to discuss Reed's discography without bringing up MMM.  Opinions on this album vary, to say the least. Many sources call its his worst album or even the worst album ever made. Others say its the only wholly original thing Reed did in his post-Velvets career. It's not clear if MMM was intended to be taken as a serious composition, a drug inspired joke, or an act of contempt towards his record label. Whatever his motives, Reed's decided to follow up Sally Can't Dance, his best selling record at that point, with a 2-LP set of electronically distorted guitar noise, full of sequels of feedback laid on top of oscillating waves of sound. As despised as MMM is in most circles, it's probably Reed's most influential solo work, and can bee seen a predecessor to the noise music of the 80s and 90s. Whatever his intentions were, it's amazing that a successful mainstream musical artist somehow got a major label to release something this crazy.

Live: Take No Prisoners  (1978)

Another double LP.  AKA the Lou Reed live album with all the talking. Best known for its protracted monologues before, after, and during the songs, Take No Prisoners has a reputation as one of the most confrontational and acerbic live albums ever recorded. Many of the songs are almost unrecognizable, having been converted into lengthy R&B jams. Yet the audience seems to be eating it up, and it's actually a reasonably fun listen. The sleeve art stands out as well. An illustration by the Spanish underground comic artist Nazario Luque Vera, of a pale bald figure wearing a leather jacket and fishnet stockings, caused a bit of a row later. It turns out the label never attained the rights from the artist, resulting in a lawsuit.

The Bells (1979)

Reed's late 70s work with Arista is pretty uneven and messy. The Bells is perhaps the messiest and least Lou Reed-y of all his records. For reasons I can't explain, it's one of my favorites. His robotic vibrato returns here, and a sense of alienation permeates the whole thing. Repetitive disco-inspired songs, recorded samples of ambient speech, gongs, and a guest appearance by free jazz legend Don Cherry -- this record has it all. The title track is Reed at this weirdest. An ominous synth & trumpet jam burbles along for five minutes before the vocals come in: a stream of consciousness piece about... well, God knows what the song is about. It's like an evil, bizarro world version of "Layla."

The rest of the Lou Reed catalog is filled out with a few live albums, including the pretty darned good Live in Italy featuring the Blue Mask/Legendary Hearts band. There are also countless compilations, best-of's, greatest hits, etc. And of course, Reed continued to releases the occasional studio albums, though most of them are the sort of thing that his fans didn't want to hear. Ecstasy (2000),  his last "regular" record, was notable for the 18 minute guitar jam "Like a Possum." The Raven (2003) was a guest star packed musical theater type thing with lots of spoken word. Hudson River Wind Meditations (2007) is fucking Tai Chi exercise music. Finally, we have Lulu (2011) his almost universally reviled collaboration with Metallica. Like The Raven, this is a theater-inspired project, Lulu being an adaptation of the plays of Frank Wedekind.(which had already been musically adapted in a much more successful fashion by Alban Berg.)

However, like every awful Lou Reed record, Lulu has one shining moment, the final song, the medative 20 minute "Junior Dad." Too bad Loutallica couldn't have scrapped the rest of the record.

Lou almost released a few collaboration albums. Songs for Drella (1990) drew a great deal of attention since it reunited Reed with John Cale for the first time in many years, and was released shortly after the critically acclaimed New York. Le Bataclan '72, with Cale and Nico, is a live recording from a French TV concert. There were also a few more avant-garde releases: an improve disc with John Zorn and Laurie Anderson, and not one but two (!) live recordings of Metal Machine Music. 

So there we have it. I think we can now consider this to be the definitive guide to the recorded solo work of Lou Reed. Please adjust your opinions accordingly


jobhosle said...

Pretty much spot on, although I have a huge soft spot for the self-titled debut album. Great songs, Clem Cattini giving it some on the drums, and just the idea of Lou jamming with Yes gives me the giggles.

Anonymous said...

Still looking forward to the next Chrontendo episode. How is it coming along? Do you have an ETA? Your good work is always appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Happy Halloween Dr. Sparkle!

Anonymous said...

lulu isn´t that bad. a self proclaimed lou reed fan should definitely be more open-minded, ironically...

Anonymous said...

6Dr. Sparkle, please have a lust for Famicom – not a lust for life.

Skymaster T said...

I love the music blog posts. Interesting. I've been learning about some things I really had no idea about. Lou Reed really had an interesting career. It's like he was almost afraid of too much success or something, the way he would follow up a great album with a terrible one. Either that, or just thought the mainstream wasn;t cool, or something.

NES blogging aside, I miss the beer blogging. Can we get a new beer update? I'm just starting my annual winter seasonal kick. I'm enjoying some Full Sail LTD series #6 black bock right now. A different type of winter seasonal with delicious chocolate and coffee flavor. It's actually in the dark lager category as well. At 7%! You can't even notice the alcohol. I can imagine this stuff would be dangerous with a fridge full of it.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Yes, I'm behind on the beer blogging, behind on Chrontendo, behind on playing non-Chrontendo videogames, behind on the yardwork, behind on the laundry. I've got a pumpkin I need to roast and make pie out of. Records I bought and need to listen to...

It's hard to say what Reed's problem was. Drugs, certainly. He's also notoriously non-forthcoming in interviews. Probably, like Dylan, he didn't care for the expectations placed upon him.

Anonymous said...

"...comprising three great albums and one good one."

I like to pretend 1973's "Squeeze" doesn't exist either. If I were to compile a list of the least essential albums of all time by worthwhile bands, that record would be close to the top.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this overview. I'm not at all familiar with his music aside from a couple of very well known songs you mention here. I always saw his music as kind of impenetrable, and Reed himself as maybe name-dropped more than listened to. But Coney Island Baby does seem warmer for him, and I like it.

Honey Frosted !Butts said...

Do you have a Discogs account? or maybe you will make a post about your record collection? I'm curious to see what kind of stuff you have.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Nope, no Discogs account. As for the music collection: too damn many. Lots of punk/indie, experimental, Krautrock, Jap psyche, jazz, classical and world stuff on CD. As for vinyl, I have mostly common stuff. 60s and 70s rock. Nothing rare or weird. I'm not a collector of expensive vinyl.

Honey Frosted !Butts said...

So why did I picture you as a crazy vinyl collector? It seems so RIGHT

Doctor Sparkle said...

I do buy way too many vinyl records, but mostly cheap ones. I experience mild, stroke like symptoms whenever I see a used record priced over $6.00. Maybe if I were rich, I'd become a big shot collector.

x0x said...

Wow. Well presented but so many things are wrong.

New York is too earnest, too right-on, too literary to work as a rock album. It's where Lou started to explore the song as literature that he always talked about. The song are bad and he starts that spoken word delivery method. It's seriously dull. The first of a string of dour albums from which he never recovered.

Legendary Hearts is twice the album Blue Mask is. I just don't get why people think songs like Women are good. Does he believe a word he's singing? Blue Mask is po-faced, tight jawed, worthy seriousness whilst Hearts is relaxed and has stronger songs with a more genuine emotional connection. And the sound is better.

The Bells is as good as Street Hassle. And as funny.

'Lou Reed' is made by session musicians. But all the songs are very strong . If it came from any one else it would be considered a strong debut. Only haunted in people's minds by knowledge that many songs were written whilst he was in the VU and hence 'not as good'. An unfair assessment.

Sally Can't Dance. Not great but it has Ride Sally Ride, Kill Your Sons. A weird production. An interesting oddity.

Berlin. Side two is so over the top to be unbelievable. Ezrin destroys one song with a recording of his kids crying. Sad Song used to be charming and funny when it was a VU song or when he demoed it for Richard Robinson. A coiple of good songs but OTT production and the story is a bit naff.

Metal Machine Music. A masterpiece.

x0x said...

Despite what i say above, I totally agree with your opinions on Transformer, RnR Animal and Coney Island Baby


Anonymous said...

I wonder why Growing up in Public gets so many bashful reviews by almost everyone. As a Lou fan i consider it his masterpiece