Berlin

Berlin
Lou Reed (1973)

Produced by  Bob Ezrin
(RCA RS1002 ) (1973)

Berlin: Lou Reed, RCA , UK LP 1973
side oneside two
BerlinCarline Says II
Lady DayThe Kids
Men of Good FortuneThe Bed
Caroline Says ISad Song
How Do You Think It Feels
Oh, Jim
All songs written by Lou Reed

Musicians:

Lou Reed – acoustic guitar, vocals
Michael Brecker- tenor sax
Randy Brecker- trumpet
Jack Bruce – bass (except Lady Day, The Kids)
Anysley Dunbar – drums  (except Lady Day, The Kids)
Bob Ezrin – piano, mellotron
Steve Hunter – electric guitar
Tony Levin – bass on The Kids
Allan Macmillan – piano on Berlin
Gene Martynec – acoustic guitar, synthesizer, vocal arrangements on The Bed, bass on Lady Day
Jon Pieron – bass trombone
Dick Wagner – background vocals, electric guitar
Blue Weaver- piano on Man of Good Fortune
B.J. Wilson drums on Lady Day, The Kids
Steve Winwood – organ, harmonium

chart

Lou Reed joins The Everly Brothers and Eddie Cochran in being comparatively more highly rated in the UK than the USA.

UK #7
US #98

What the critics said:

Lou Reed’s Berlin is a disaster, taking the listener into a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide. There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists  that perpetrate them. Reed’s only excuse for this kind of performance … can only be that this was his last shot at a once-promising career
(Stephen Davis, Rolling Stone, review, October, 1973)

… will be the Sergeant Pepper of the seventies …
(Rolling Stone interview with Lou Reed, 1973)

By steering a course through sado-masochism, attempted suicide and nihilism, the artist expunged his newfound commerciality and challenged his audience in a way that few contemporaries dared.
(Guinness Encylopaedia of Rock)

I read where this song cycle about two drug addicts who fall into sadie-mazie in thrillingly decadent Berlin is a … what was that? … artistic accomplishment, even if you don’t like it much. Well, the category is real enough … but in this case it happens to be horseshit. The story is lousy – if something similar was coughed up by some avant-garde asshole like, oh, Alfred Chester … everyone would be too bored to puke it. The music is only competent – even Bob Ezrin can’t manufacture a distance between the washed-up characters and their washed-up creator when the creator is actually singing,
(Robert Christgau, Christgau’s Guide: Rock Albums of the 70s)

Brilliance you’d hate to get trapped in … any vision of unrelieved squalor has gotta become self-parody after a while.
Lester Bangs, Creem, 1973

It’s grandiose, decadent Bob Ezrin production helps make it one of the most depressing records ever made, and oddly beautiful in its own awful way.
(Billy Altman, Rolling Stone Record Guide, 1979 edition)

Probably the most depressing record ever made. Reed was in a bad way in the early 70s: the Velvet Underground had failed to set the world alight and he found himself addicted to heroin and shaving Third Reich  crosses into his hair. As a result he recorded this bleak tale about an abusive drug dealer and his masochistic girlfriend.
(Will Hodgkinson, The 10 Best Concept Albums Ever written, The Guardian, 5 October 2001)

Berlin, Reed’s conceptual glory shot is a bomb. With its majestic backdrop provided by heavy-metal producer Bob Ezrin and a wizardley cast of rock pros, this rambling morose tale of drug-crossed lovers goes nowhere. Reed does what his critics have always accused him of – talking in a flat Noo Yawk monotone rather than make any attempt at singing. * * *
(Mark Coleman, Rolling Stone Album Guide, 1992 edition)

There are a string of songs on the B-side – Caroline Says II, The Kids and The Bed – which are uniquely powerful, the emotion in them is so strong, drawing you into this world he’s created. It’s also incredibly heavy. On ‘The Kids’ you can hear these children crying. I heard once that  the producer ,Bob Ezrin, got these kids in the studio and told them their mother was dead, so they’d cry convincingly. When I heard that I had to stop listening to the song. It was just too much to handle.’
(Bernard Butler, interviewed in ‘Mojo’ June 1998)

Berlin was a number 7 hit at the time of its release, but critically reviled, partly because it contained lush upbeat orchestration – which equalled sell-out- and partly because it was emotionally cold.
(Andrew Thorton, Q, June 1998 – * * * * review of re-release)

The hangover after the hit of 1972’s Transformer, Berlin is the flagellants hangover album: all masochism, beatings, kids crying and decadence … Berlin is allegedly a concept album about an affair gone bad, but also possibly an excuse to string together the most depressing songs ever. Melancholy and beautiful tunes prevail, however, and who could not be cheered by the over-orchestral wash of Sad Song, or the headache stomp of Lady Day? Like the day after a student party – only real.
(The Best Hangover albums of All Time, Q161, February 2000)

Reed followed up his breakthrough album, Transformer, with “my version of Hamlet.” A bleak song cycle about an abusive, drug-fuelled relationship, it’s hugely ambitious but also one of the darker records ever made – slow, druggy and heavily orchestrated by producer Bob Ezrin.
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest records of All Time, #344, 2003

(It’s) intended as a black comedy.
(Lou Reed, quoted by Michael Hill, sleeve notes to 1998 re-issue)

I think the best idea is we put it in a box, put the box in a closet, leave it there, and don’t listen to it again
(Bob Ezrin, producer, quoted by Michael Hill, sleeve notes to 1998 re-issue)

Overall

Berlin is strange as a reviled album, in that it was reviled for decades, but the last twenty years have seen it elevated to a masterpiece. Just look at the ratings listed on Wikipedia, which are virtually all four or five star. 99% on All Music registered a positive reaction. Rolling Stone placed it at 344 in its Best 500 Albums of All Time list in 2003.

Why was it so reviled back then? It wasn’t a surprise to we old Velvet Underground fans. It was a shock to the huge new audience Lou Reed had attracted with Transformer in 1972. To me, Lou Reed’s best ever albums are the third Velvet Underground (The Velvet Underground) and Loaded. He left and Loaded was reshaped, mainly by Doug Yule. Then the Loaded de-luxe remaster CD restored Lou Reed’s original longer uncut versions. They were truly abysmal. He needed an editor, clearly.

Berlin was a Bowie-Lou Reed kind of place. I never visited it until soon after the Wall fell. My main impression after three visits is that I’ve never seen a city with so much dog shit on the pavements in my life. And my wife, Karen, got her purse stolen. Is this an appropriate comment in light of those reviews?

My view …

It’s taken me years to realise the true purpose of this album. Those were the days when any evening at home consisted of putting LPs on. Karen would suddenly pick it up in the early hours and say to languid and slow-moving guests, ‘You’ve just got to hear this. It’s incredible. Just listen to the lyrics.’

She started on side two, track two, at The Kids. Conversation would stop. People would exchange nervous glances.
‘Er, we gotta be going …’
‘But you haven’t heard side one yet.’
‘Yeah. Well. Another time.’

And they’d disappear into the night just after the point where Lou Reed sings (says?) This is the place where she cut her wrists … in The Bed

At the time I just thought Karen really liked the album. It’s only now that I realise how useful the album was.

Lou Reed says it’s a black comedy. We always found it amusing. It was just that the humour was years ahead of its time. We assumed then that it was unintentional. I veer to intentional now.

Bob Ezrin, fresh from producing Alice Cooper, assembled a stellar group of musicians in London with a British bias – Jack Bruce, Anynsley Dunbar, Steve Winwood were the core, abetted by guitarists Hunter and Wagner who were the basis of the band for the Rock & Roll Animal tour and albums. Reed was flavour-of-the-month. Transformer was the huge success to emulate. Reed was cool, cool, cool.

I saw Reed around this time with the Hunter-Wagner line-up, so it would have been just after this album. The twin guitars were crackling. Reed was charismatic, shambolic and wonderful. I don’t remember anything from Berlin particularly, but the subsequent live album has How Do You Think It Feels. The intro was just the band building up to Sweet Jane. Reed stumbled on and aimed his guitar jackplug vaguely at the amplifier and half got it in. A loud buzz vibrated round the hall. They started playing, Reed’s guitar inaudible, the buzz extremely evident. I looked to the side. The roadie was nodding off, just 30 seconds into the show. We all waited. With Lou Reed you couldn’t be sure that the buzz was not part of the arrangement. After a minute, I got the roadie’s attention and pointed (I was in the front row). He stumbled over and pushed the jackplug firmly home. Reed’s inimitable rhythm guitar sound leapt into hearing. Reed blinked in shock and continued strumming. Most of the evening he just sang.

The beginning of the Berlin sessions at Morgan Studios in London is described at length by Lou’s roadie at the time, Dinky Dawson, in his memoirs Life On The Road (Dinky Dawson & Carter Alan, 1998). It shows Lou Reed dashing around London trying to score, because Bob Ezrin wouldn’t allow him in the studio while preparations were being made. He was only welcome when he was needed. Bob Ezrin wanted the cream of England’s musicians, which was achieved by Dawson contacting Aynsley Dunbar, who organized everyone else. That’s according to Dawson, but see below … Aynsley Dunbar came in after the sessions had already started. They lasted a month from late June to late July 1973.

(Ezrin) wanted to create a spooky, ethereal church organ timbre, then record the music with sound effects directly onto the tape.
(Dinky Dawson)

The concept

Bob Ezrin had asked Lou Reed to “finish the story” he had started on Berlin on his first solo album. It’s based on a couple, Jim and Caroline and encompasses drug use, mental illness, violence, prostitution and eventually is resolved by her suicide. That’s the entertaining bit. However, some of it is also quite depressing.

The Lou Reed- Ultimate Music Guide from Uncut magazine suggests it’s related to Reed’s first marriage to Bettye Kronstadt, and especially the death of Kronstadt’s own mother. Kronstadt says Reed was, like the male character, violent and abusive to her.

Reed says he chose Berlin because it was a divided city, just as Jim and Caroline were split in two. He recycled some existing material. Berlin had been recorded on the Lou Reed first solo album. Caroline Says -II was adapted from Stephanie Says, a Velvet Underground outtake that finally appeared on the VU album. Both Oh, Jim and Sad Songs re-use melodies from demos he did for the Cotillion label years earlier.

Reed finished the songs, and Ezrin worked with pianist Allan Macmillan to write arrangements for each track. Ezrin pointed out that Reed gave an acting performance throughout, creating Jim and Caroline, and acting as if sightly drunk on The Kids.

Lou Reed also recalled that Jack Bruce was “the only musician in the early part of his solo career who cared enough to read the lyrics and construct an accordingly empathatic part.” The recordings started with B.J. Wilson on drums (from Procul Harum) but he was replaced by Aynsley Dunbar because Ezrin wanted a more orchestrated drum part. Each day, Dunbar came to the studio an hour ahead of everyone else and spent the time working with Ezrin (on piano) establishing a drum part.

For the string section, Ezrin used violas and cellos, but no violins. This was followed up for the 2006 live concerts. Lee Hazlewood was fond of the same “violin-free string section.” Ezrin re-used some of the string parts on Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb.

It was intended to be a double album, but RCA refused to accept it and told him to take off two songs. Ezrin refused and instead eradicated a full fourteen minutes of solos, endings and digressions within the songs.

They also worked on an idea for a stage show to follow the album.

The album track-by-track

Berlin  (Lou Reed)

Chatter and Happy Birthday To You – I wonder if they paid the notoriously litigious copyright holders for that line. It’s Lou muttering the lyrics to piano.

Lady Day (Lou Reed)

The piano is so prominent, and it leaps along in Brechtian style, a feel that Leonard Cohen explored … the organ punches in accents. I’m surprised they didn’t use accordion instead.

Men of Good Fortune (Lou Reed)

The forcibly macho man described, with extraordinary bass guitar work from Jack Bruce. I can see why Lou Reed was so impressed with him. The drums too. It’s a remarkable rhythm section … and miles away from the Velvet Underground.

Men of good fortune, very often can’t do a thing
While men of poor beginnings, often can do anything
At heart they try to act like a man
Handle things the best way they can

Caroline Says I (Lou Reed)

OK, it’s another bass guitarist’s dream. Great swaggering Lou Reed vocal. Soaring strings. We get the chorus in the background. A definite “Best of Lou Reed” track. Again, Ezrin is conjuring music wildly different from Lou’s favoured two guitars, bass and drums.

How Do You Think It Feels? (Lou Reed)

The gift for strong simple snatches of melody set against a heavy riff is apparent again. Hunter and Wagner’s twin guitar sounds bring back memories of the Rock & Roll Animal tour.

Oh, Jim (Lou Reed)

Ansley Dunbar takes the first 20 or 30 seconds on his own. This has the brass section. And the bass. And the guitars. There’s one hell of a lot going on.

Lou starts off as Jim, vicious vocalizing:

And when you’re filled up to here with hate
Don’t you know you gotta get it straight
Filled up to here with hate
Beat her black and blue and get it straight

Then it cuts to just vocal and urgent rhythm guitar and he’s singing Caroline’s response part, totally differently.

Caroline Says II (Lou Reed)

Typical is Caroline Says II which contrasts a musical arrangement bordering on schmaltz with Reed’s monotone documenting Caroline’s beatings by her boyfriend and ridicule from her friends.(Andrew Thornton, Q, June 1998)

Well, I love it. It has connection to Candy Says in a way. Loud bass, and guitar take us to a different mood. The strings creep in. This is the Jim persona again:

Caroline says
As she gets up from the floor
You can hit me all you want to
But I don’t love you anymore

This is the song with the largest number of cover versions … including Mercury Rev and Siouxsie & The Banshees.

The Kids (Lou Reed)

I’d concluded listening to side one and the first part of the videoed concert that the “reviled” response focussed on the next two tracks. Until this point it’s hard to see what had upset anyone. It’s all been terrific stuff to any Lou Reed fan, with the surprise of elaborate orchestration added.

The rumours of Bob Ezrin telling the kids their mothers were dead to get the crying, persist. I heard those in 1973. The stories grew as in Chinese whispers to become Ezrin telling his own kids their mommy had died.

I tried this out with a bunch of real mothers, including one who runs a pre-school playgroup. Their opinion? Total hype. They thought the kids were wailing because they were bored sick and had been told to yell. They were 100% sure that it was not genuine misery. Which is a relief for the listener.

According to Ezrin the true story is that he went home and told his seven year old son David that he was doing a play in the studio and he needed some kids’ voices to sound scared because their mom was being taken away. The first few attempts didn’t sound terrifying enough but on the third, unprompted, his two year old joined in and just started screaming. The two children screamed so loud that they distorted the tape. He found that “the more compressed it got the more anguished it seemed. Most people can’t listen to it.”The crying heard underneath is simply bedtime at the Ezrin household with the kids letting mom and pop know they are none too happy about having to retire for the night. Ezrin continues: “It’s something you’ve seen a thousand times but because of the compression on it and the way that it’s in your face [in the mix] it’s relentless. And it’s totally dry. It’s completely dry, it’s distorted, and it’s compressed to death. It makes it so unbelievably emotional people accused me of beating my kids. 
Between Thought & Expression: Lou Reed box set, liner notes, 1992

What’s so disturbing about The Kids is that its melody is nursery rhyme catchy:

They’re taking her children away
Because they said she’s not a good mother
They’re taking her children away
Because she was making it with sisters and brothers …

It’s intoned in that drunken or stoned semi-croak. Before we get the kids crying a far distant electric guitar seems to represent the same feel … the lyrics list her infidelities … the black Air Force sergeant … the girl from Paris … (from Jim’s point of view):

That miserable slut couldn’t turn anyone away …

The repeated line ‘I am the waterboy …‘ gave its name to The Waterboys.

A note for the squeamish … the crying starts at around 5 minutes 15 seconds in …

As the kids disappear, it’s Lou Reed and acoustic guitar to take it home.

The Bed (Lou Reed)

The Bed lyric

The most miserable rock song of all time, they said. You knew it … they include a lyrics insert in the sleeve just in case you miss it. Acoustic guitar starts it off … then that voice comes in, right up to the microphone for every nuance. A heavenly choir is way away behind him and the loud strummed guitar … Mellotron comes in. You can put voices on a Mellotron, but I assume it’s the real choir, heavily processed.

Sad Song (Lou Reed)

Jim Wirth in the Uncut magazine special calls it a poisoned Aaron Copland souffle. The start sounds like Terry Riley (who after all collaborated with John Cale) until Bruce’s bass plunges in. Lou Reed sings it in a distanced, semi-spoken, factual tone. Then it gets BIG, almost Phil Spectorish.

MORE …

There is a missing track, a piano instrumental lasting one minute between Berlin and Lady Day. It only appeared on the 8 track car tape and cassette, but not on the vinyl, and people have hypothesized it was there to create better track transitions on the eight track tape.

Berlin: Lou Reed. 25th Anniversary remastered CD, 2000
Liner notes are barely legible with a large magnifying glass

On Lou Reed’s three CD box set Between Thought & Expression (1992) there are six tracks from Berlin, but only three each from, Lou Reed and Transformer.

IN THE END …

It sounds better every time you play it. The revisionist “It’s a masterpiece” lobby are closer than the original revilers. After all, they had all acclaimed a rock opera tale of a deaf, dumb and blind little kid called Tommy being abused by his uncle. That’s not very nice either.

Lou Reed never needed defenders, but Othello, Hamlet and King Lear all ended badly for the girls. Titus Andronicus was even worse. There is a line through to Simone Felice, who says on stage that his mom asks him why he always writes songs about dead girls. Check out Don’t Wake The Scarecrow. Then return to the Bed.

THE FILM

Lou Reed performed the whole album live in 2006, and placed the short piano piece in the sequence before Caroline Says II. The live show was filmed.

 Then a DVD was produced in 2007, directed by Julian Schnabel, and went its way onto blu-ray.

The concert was filmed over five nights at St. Anne’s Warehouse, New York. Steve Hunter was on the original album. I saw it on an Arts Channel years ago. It’s all on YouTube also and starts with a short piece from Sad Song. There are filmed sequences featuring Caroline.

with:

Lou Reed – lead vocal, guitar
Bob Ezrin – conductor
Steve Hunter- guitars
Fernando Saunders – bass guitar, guitar, synthesizer, vocal
Tony Thunder Smith- drums
Rupert Christie- keyboards, vocal
Robb Wasserman – double bass
Sharon Jones – vocals
Anohni – vocals (Anthony & The Johnsons)
Steven Bernstein – flugelhorn, trumpet
Curtis Fowlkes- trombone
Paul Shapiro- sacophone, flute
Doug Wiselmann – bass clarinet, clarinet
David Gold – viola
Eyvind Kang- viola
Jane Scarpantino- cello
The Brooklyn Youth Chorus

with

Emmanuelle Seigner as Caroline

The show adds an encore set with Candy Says , Rock Minuet and closes with Sweet Jane.

I’d say that if you want the album and songs now. the blu-ray would be the best choice of all.

METAL MACHINE MUSIC (1975)

Metal Machine Music: Lou Reed, 1975 … this is the 2010 reissue

Recommended cuts: none
Billboard review 1975

If you want a true reviled Lou Reed album, Metal Machine Music is in a different league to Berlin. It’s SO bad that it’s not even worth discussing whether it’s bad or not. It’s like John & Yoko’s Two Virgins. simply not a piece of music. It has four sides of exactly equal length … 16 minutes 01 seconds a side. It is designed so the final groove is closed, meaning that it repeats the circuit until the stylus is physically lifted.

Michael Fonfara: That was a coup. A genuine coup on his part with the record labe;. His contractual obligation called for an album. He wasn’t ready, he didn’t want to do an album … they invoked the letter of the contract. So he said, ‘Okay, fuck you.’ He went and hooked up all these amplifiers with his guitar in his loft and got it feeding back and made the record. They were so horrified when they heard it … He said, ‘This is it. you asked for product, you got it. I’ve lived up to my part, now you’ve got to release it.’
Between Thought & Expression, sleeve notes, 1992

RCA thought of a ruse … releasing it on RCA Red Seal and burying it as avant garde classical, but Reed refused saying that would be pretentious. He made up the list of equipment listed on the album sleeve and told earnest interviewers that it was six years work. It sold well in Japan.

Rare Record Guide lists it but with (import) attached.

UNCUT June 2010 

Allan Jones’s retrospective endpiece goes back to an interview with Lou Reed conducted in 1975 just after the release of Metal Machine Music. Canadians look away now!

LOU REED: Can you imagine the look on some guy’s face when he brings (Metal Machine Music) to some programme controller and says,’Hey gang, wanna listen to Lou Reed’s new album?’ And they play it and go “Arghh. Get it outta here.’ The whole thing was so fuck*ng hysterical. Excruciatingly funny. Like they take it to CHUM Radio in Canada, like the fuc*ing Canadians are gonna get it. It’s not a moose or an elk or ice hockey. But they take it to CHUM radio, and the guys at CHUM are like, ‘Is there something, uh, wrong with the record, Fred? It doesn’t sound right. Should we try the other side. And they turn it over and it’s the same thing. That record is the closest I’ve ever come to perfection.”

Well, there you go. But Metal Machine Music is, indeed, unarguably, and deliberately, utter shite. And re-released in 2010 too.

And it’s on CD, for the masochists.

Metal Machine Music: Lou Reed, 25th Anniversary CD, 2000

There’s also a DVD-Audio version reproducing the Quadrophonic LP version.

There’s even a live concert version by Zeitkratzer on CD. So they went through and transcribed random electronic sounds, transcribed them into musical notation and played them.

COLLECTABILITY

Berlin (RCA, UK copy) used to just get past Rare Record Price Guide‘s barrier to £15. Then in the 2020 Guide (published 2018), it went up to £20. In the 2022 Guide (published 2020), it’s rated at £30 mint, which is more appropriate. It means it’s rising fast.

Discogs highest for a UK copy is £19.99, with a median of £11.35. They won’t be mint. There are some versions, Japanese and CD on sale online at three figure prices. Speculative, I’d suggest.

Metal Machine Music (US import with UK sticker) is rated at £35.

There was a 1974 RCA single, Caroline Says (Parts I & II).

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