New York, Underground: Ten Of Lou Reed's Finest Non-Hits
Posted on Tuesday, 29 October 2013 | No Comments
The outpouring of grief over Lou Reed's passing was swift and overwhelming. Here was a man who, in the late sixties and early seventies, set up so much of the blueprint for the rock music that followed that his work is up there with Kraftwerk and The Beatles in terms of legacy and impact. His past may have been notorious, but in latter years he had settled into a groove as the grumpy godfather of alternative culture, spending his time on revisitations of seminal earlier work (live tours of the Berlin and Metal Machine Music records) interspersed by charmingly unexpected new transmissions ranging from double-albums inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, new age instrumental relaxation pieces and a now infamous collaboration with Metallica that would turn oout to be his final recorded statement. If he wasn't at the forefront of the popular imagination, he was still a figure who past was venerated and whose present remained surprising and adventerous.
I'm not here to write an eulogy or add to the weight of obituaries already out there. Like many listeners out there, I had my own private epiphanies with his work, like the the first time I heard Sister Ray all the way through or fell under the spell of Coney Island Baby's gorgeous title track (possibly my favourite Lou Reed song of them all). But really, these experiences are just like so many of those who heard his music at a crucial age. What I'd like to do instead is show that there's more to the grand legacy that Lou has left us than Transformer or that one with the banana on the sleeve. Here then, are ten Lou Reed songs and performances that show off the remarkable range of the man - from profound, beautiful pop poetry to antagonistic, sneering noise - that maybe deserve more of the spotlight.
1. Ocean (from 1969: The Velvet Underground Live)
I'm aware of the futility of trying to claim any VU track as being overlooked in this day and age. By virtue of never appearing of any of their four original studio albums - let's just side-step Squeeze - Ocean has always sat slightly outside their main canon. There's a fine studio take on the VU compilation, and a less exciting one on Lou Reed's debut solo album, but it's this live take that really shows the importance of this particular song: it harnesses the molten force that the band brought to their hardest moments, but never presses the accelerator pedal, leaving it just floating there, a gnarled jewel left in mid-air. This is the remarkable Velvet chemistry at its finest.
2. Sad Song (from Berlin)
The most depressing album ever made. That's the sales pitch critics used to revitalise Berlin, an album once seen as the first of several mis-steps in Reed's career and now often ranked as his finest solo achivement. It's not that it's a totally inaccurate statement - that second-side duo of The Kids and The Bed is undeniably bleak listening - but it's far too one-sided a description for this great album. For as much as the record's lyrics may be fulled with misery and doom, on this record Reed embraced an almost Broadway aesthetic, one that lifted the urban plight of his protragonists into grand theatrics. It's this aspect that perhaps made Berlin so confusing for fans on its initial release, and one that keeps it such a remarkable listen today. Listen to Sad Song and see what I mean.
3. Kill Your Sons (from Sally Can't Dance)
Not every Lou Reed album was a classic, but pretty much every release of his held at least one or two genuine nuggets of gold. Sally Can't Dance was the first of his infrequent but still unwanted excursions into the world of mainstream pop-rock (1986's Mistrial would be the nadir of these lapses), but behind the cold sheen of this record lies a song as savage and untamed as Kill Your Sons. A graphic re-counting of his own experiences receiving electroshock therapy in the fifties as a result of his bisexuality, the gap between Reed's grave vocal and stark lyric and the arena-rock moves of the backing track actually makes for a far more unsettling piece than if it had received a more restrained treatment.
4. Walk On The Wild Side (from Live: Take No Prisoners)
"Hey, I thought this wasn't the hits?" you cry, you fictional strawman of a reader that's cunningly fallen into my well-laid trap just as I had intended. Live: Take No Prisoners has slowly developed a reputation as one of the most infamous live albums of all time, a double-set which spends at least as much time on Lou Reed's crazed, comic ranting as on the actual music. Of the bizzare performances on the record, it's this stagger through Walk On The Wild Side that really stands out. It's two minutes in until we actually get near the tune, which here gets an almost soft-rcck makeover, an unnaturally smooth sound just perfect to get run right off the rails by Reed's relentless, stream-of-conciousness babble. By the time it finally slumps over the finish line, the track length is just below seventeen minutes: don't ever say Uncle Lou doesn't give you value for money.
5. Disco Mystic (from The Bells)
Now here's one to seperate the casual fan from the truly dedicated. The Bells is a flawed but fascinating album in several regards, from its experimental binaural production to its mish-mash of differen genres and sounds. Of the numerous experiments on the record, none are quite as unexpected and perversely thrilling as Disco Mystic, a song whose aquatic groove, soaring horns and total repetition makes it one of the finest tracks on David Bowie's 1979 record Lodger. Only it's not Bowie, it's Reed, and through some grand administrative error it's on The Bells instead. A song miles away from the public perception of his work, and all the better for it.
6. Open House (from Songs For Drella)
Before the pointless reunion to end all pointless reunions, before Lou and John fell out all over again, there was Songs For Drella. The death of Andy Warhol in 1987 saw Lou Reed and John Cale bury the hatchet at least temporarily for a new collaborative record dedicated to their former mentor. A subdued work that falls between biography and friendly critique, the duo produced a series of atmospheric and powerful songs that provided vindication of the remarkable talent that Warhol saw in them. While it is admittedly a record best appreciated as a whole, Open House's tender first-person lyric looked back to Warhol before fame and saw Lou subtly revealing the beating heart beneath the ever-cynical and grouchy public persona.
7. Cremation (from Magic and Loss)
The mourning continued on Magic and Loss, an album dedicated to two lost friends Doc and Rita. The whole album is filled with some of Lou's most crystalline, gentle guitar work, but it's the lyrics that really steal the show throughout. Cremation boasts one of the most powerful lyrics on the album, and in his entire lyric is a meditation on departure and finality that focuses its sight on the end game of all things. "Will your ashes float like some foreign boat / Or will they sink absorbed forever / Will the Atlantic Coast have its final boast / Nothing else contained you ever" Lou whispers, fragile and stoic in a way quite divorced from his seventies belligerence.
8. Like a Possum (from Ecstasy)
Putting Reed's old-man come face on the cover aside for just a minute (and yes, let's please do just that), Ecstasy is one of his finest latter-day offerings, a record with some fine songwriting that also managed to find some new wrinkles for his iconic guitar playing. In that respect, Like a Possum is the clear stand-out, a weighty eighteen-minute workout that sees him wrap melody and feedback around each other in a goliath slow dance. Even when the song proper finally decides to unfurl itself some ten minutes in, it's still this huge guitar dual that drives the track onwards. Proof positive, if it were needed, that the fires were still burning in Reed's old age - something the last two entries are about to really demonstrate.
Metal Machine Music's reputation had long been that of a drugged-up prank, a definitive fuck you to corporation and listener alike. That it was instead the apotheosis of Reed's avant-garde side, the final definitive statement following his feedback experiments with The Velvet Underground and a much needed corrective after Sally Can't Dance took a while to surface, but in the decades following it has emerged as the Rosetta Stone of the noise scene. It was gratifying for many then to see Lou take the plunge back into the waters where he provided so much of the initial direction with his work with saxophonist Ulrich Krieger and live electronics/processor Sarth Calhoun as Metal Machine Trio, an improvisational group that reclaimed and moved further his earlier experimental work. This piece starts out as a quiet, inquistive drone but slowly builds a dense, monolithic structure worthy of the Metal Machine name.
10. Junior Dad (from Lulu)
Rare is the artist who departs on a work as divisive, as unexpected and as challenging as Lulu. It's a record that's become the ultimate butt of the joke, the final punch line in the history of ill-conceived collaborations. While it's certainly not an album without its flaws, Lulu is a genuinely fascinating and odd album that is far from the best work either artist put out, but one that I'm slowly starting to appreciate deserves better than just sniggering (even if James Hetfield yelling "I am the table!" will remain unavoidably hilarious to this listener). It's the lengthy closer Junior Dad that's leading me on the road to re-evaluation, as it's the track where Reed's ambitious and violent lyricism and the technical mastery of Metallica actually work together rather than tearing away in different directions. It's a surprising listen for Lou Reed and Metallica fans alike, and one that demonstrates an artist still out to push themselves in new directions. What more ideal epitath then for a man as pioneering as this?