Lou Reed’s Berlin – Its Music from a Fresh Perspective

Lou Reed’s Berlin – Its Music from a Fresh Perspective

Written by John Seetoo

With the exception of Foley artists or people who collect sound effects, I think it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of audiophiles are also music aficionados. As such, tastes in music are highly subjective, and opinions of musical works can often be 180 degrees apart. Rarely however, has there been a consensus so widely divided at the time of its release and a vindication reassessment decades later so complete as in the case of Lou Reed’s1973 follow up to his Transformer hit record, the commercial flop known as Berlin.

By all accounts, Berlin’s downer tale of a crumbling marriage, prostitution, child abuse, drug addiction and suicide was both extremely depressing and alienating. Perhaps its only success that year was in keeping Lou Reed from becoming a mainstream pop music star. Among the influential reviewers, NME and the The New York Times praised the record, while Rolling Stone and rock music critic Robert Christgau panned it. In a 2009 interview with American Songwriter, Reed himself confessed that Berlin was “The one that almost sunk the ship.”

The vast majority of ink about Berlin has mostly focused on its poor commercial reception, its darkly cinema verite lyricism, and how critical reassessment now hails the record as “a classic.” As the lyrics were semi-autobiographical, with elements of the Caroline character based on Reed’s mother-in-law, it is not surprising that journalists and critics scoured the lyric sheet for article content and insights. Reed, priding himself first as a man of words before being a rock star, has himself rarely, if ever, cited the music of Berlin, per se.

Producer Bob Ezrin, who made his initial reputation with Alice Cooper and whose arrangements were in large part responsible for the “movie within a record” aural storytelling approach of Berlin, certainly deserves much of the credit for the timelessness of its music. Hiring a top notch band that included Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, Aynsley Dunbar, Michael Brecker, and the lead guitar tag team of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, Ezrin reportedly almost had a nervous breakdown completing Berlin. The released record apparently was the result of months of editing long instrumental passages scored for a rock opera, leaving a lean and mean rock oratorio at the end of the day for RCA, the record company that released the album.

When Frank Doris and I discussed some of the records we use as sonic references for speaker evaluation, the one that came up immediately for both of us was Berlin. Several different mixing credits have been listed in the CD and vinyl releases, but the late Grammy Award-winning engineer Dennis Ferrante is the one cited on my copy, and as my sound engineering mentor, he related some of the stories from his Record Plant days on cutting overdubs and mixing for Berlin.

The opening title track piano introduction, played by Allan Macmillan with a world weariness evocative of Marlene Dietrich in a Von Stroheim movie, sounds amazingly lifelike for a 1973 vinyl rock record, and even more authentic subsequently on CD. Unlike the tinniness of pianos on 1960s rock and roll records or the bombastic, over-processed-reverb concert hall ballad piano sound then-popular with bands like Procol Harum, Berlin’s piano has an intimacy that places the listener only a few feet away in the same room.

When prodded on how he got that sound onto analog tape to survive being cut onto a super-thin RCA Dynaflex record, Dennis told me it was a “trade secret” Based on my experience with the Ferrante methodology, I suspect that a pair of Neumann U87 mics, a pair of Urei 1176 compressors and some Pultec Tube EQ units were involved, whether in cutting the original tracks, re-amping them, or possibly both.  The mic placement, however, is where the art comes in, and that info may be lost to antiquity.

As the follow up to the platinum selling, David Bowie-produced Transformer, which featured Reed’s hit songs “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Perfect Day,” Berlin was intended to be a concept album that rocked. While Michael Brecker’s horns, Dunbar’s Keith Moon-esque drum fills and Jack Bruce’s jazzy bass on the songs augmented the orchestrations and sonic landscapes, Reed’s basic rock chords were strummed on acoustic guitar and the Hunter and Wagner team supplied the gritty edge against Steve Winwood’s Hammond organ wails. The pristine sound, which Reed would continue to explore in his experiments with Binaural recording throughout the rest of the 1970s, stood apart from the murkiness of Lou Reed and the clean, dry glam rock of Transformer.

Surprisingly, the bulk of the critics’ reviews essentially ignored the music, content to focus on the sordid aspects of the lyrics and the hints about Reed’s private life that they may have contained. While Ezrin would go on to use similar musical approaches with Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Reed’s numerous live performances of the songs from Berlin display a lot more rock muscularity than what Ezrin’s edited studio production might have alluded. Songs like “Caroline Says I,” “How Do You Think It Feels,” “Oh Jim” and “Sad Song” have plenty of rock and roll swagger, courtesy of the Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner one-two punch guitar approach originally cultivated with their work for Alice Cooper. However, rather than the in-your-face guitar mix that fans of the Stones or Led Zeppelin would gravitate to, Ezrin tones down the grinding guitars into another sonic pastel shade within the overall orchestral mix balance.

Reed’s monotone throughout the decades since has been a constant, but the freedom he has extended in concert to his supporting musicians and collaborators in various configurations, both electric and acoustic, show the range and power of Berlin’s music, which is easily on par with the best of his canon, both solo and with the Velvet Underground.

Rock and Roll Animal (1974) and Lou Reed Live (1975)

Reed was convinced by manager Dennis Katz and his brother, former Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears founder Steve Katz, to revive his Velvets’ catalog for new audiences that discovered him through Transformer. Steve Katz was hired to produce a live record for the support tour to promote Berlin, and a top notch ensemble led by Hunter and Wagner went on to record Rock and Roll Animal, one of Reed’s most popular records and a landmark live concert album. Recorded in NYC at the Academy of Music, Hunter and Wagner unleashed their guitar pyrotechnics while Lou parodied front men like Bowie and Jagger. Together with Lou Reed Live, released the following year and culled from the same concert, the live renditions of “Lady Day,” “Oh Jim” and “Sad Song” are bristling with energy and more aggressive and extended guitar lines than their studio renditions, trading off riffs like some of the famous guitar duels of Neil Young and Stephen Stills or collaborating in harmony like Eric Clapton and Duane Allman on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The influence of the harmonized guitar lines of bands like the Allman Brothers and Wishbone Ash are obvious, while the use of phase shifters and the off kilter rhythms of songs like “Lady Day” rein in the freewheeling improvisations that otherwise proliferate on “Sweet Jane,” “Heroin” and “Rock and Roll.”

Searching For a Good Time (1976)

This live concert broadcast from Boston’s WBCN was took place during Lou Reed’s Rock and Roll Heart era, which featured Reed on guitar and Michael Fonfara as music director and keyboardist. The other guitarist may have been Jeffrey Ross. “The Kids” and “How Do You Think It Feels” are given a punkier, Velvet Underground feel, and are sped up. Fonfara’s jazz fusion tendencies crop up in a Fender Rhodes electric piano solo that is half Chick Corea and half Stevie Wonder. Fonfara would continue as Reed’s music director for the next few years, including the Street Hassle tours, which also produced the live Take No Prisoners album. The subtlety and intimacy of the songs are squashed as the rock and roll attitude transforms them into amphetamine-fueled anthems. For those unfamiliar with Berlin, these versions sound like they could have been recorded at the same time as the Velvets’ Live at Max’s.

Take No Prisoners (1978)

Recorded in NYC at the Bottom Line utilizing the Binaural recording system (which places microphones in the ears of mannequin heads positioned strategically to simulate human listening perspectives), Take No Prisoners is peppered with Lou Reed’s standup comedy sarcasm and filled with his personal rants between and during songs, played with a jazz fusion backup band. The title track from Berlin is the only song from the studio album featured, but it is a jazzy take on the ballad arrangement from Reed’s self-titled first solo album. Interestingly, it contains the original version’s pre-chorus diatonic ascending riff, which was copied for “Lady Day” but left out in the acoustic Allan Macmillan solo piano recording.

Perfect Night in London (1998)

While Reed continued to perform individual songs from Berlin in concert over the next few years, there were no official live releases featuring any of those songs until two decades later. Perfect Night in London captures the Reed quartet of New York and Magic and Loss with Mike Rathke on guitar, Fernando Saunders on fretless bass, and drummer Tony Smith. A relatively sedate record by Reed standards, “The Kids” is performed here stripped down to an almost folky strummed singalong, but retains a vibe reminiscent of the original Berlin release, courtesy of Saunders’ probing, fretless basslines which evoke the Jack Bruce studio version. By this time, Laurie Anderson, whom Reed would marry and remain with until he passed away from cancer, was already exhibiting a demonstrable mellowing influence on the usually acerbic Reed.

Unfortunately, no Berlin songs were included on Live in Italy, which featured The Blue Mask band with Robert Quine, who pushed and encouraged Reed to return to playing lead guitar. This led to some Velvet Underground-style guitar workouts that rivaled Rock and Roll Animal but with much more of an underground New York punk rock aesthetic.

Animal Serenade (2004)

An unusually acoustic-based live recording for Lou Reed featuring Rathke, Saunders, and Jane Scarpatoni with Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons; she is now known as Anohni) on falsetto vocals, Animal Serenade foreshadows Reed’s St. Ann’s Warehouse Berlin revival production. Reed is able to alternately play with aggression and tenderness while Antony’s ethereal vocals, first heard with Reed on his Edgar Allan Poe tribute, The Raven, soar in harmony and the cello delivers an eeriness not unlike John Cale’s viola on the Velvets’ first few records. “Men of Good Fortune,” “How Do You Think It Feels” and “The Bed” are all instantly recognizable and capture Berlin’s poignancy and irony while the new arrangements harken back to Ezrin’s production yet take them a step further into the 21st century.

Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse (2008)

The culmination of Lou Reed’s long sought critical vindication for Berlin finally came some 30 plus years later. Susan Feldman of St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn was a fan of Berlin and had been lobbying Reed for years to perform a concert of the record in its entirety. Filmmaker Julian Schnabel, also a fan, joined the effort and proposed shooting a video of the concert as well with additional staged footage and video projections to augment the original photo inserts accompanying the record. Berlin would become an audio-visual experience impossible in 1973 but on the cutting edge of performance art and rock music shows of the modern age.

Reed played Berlin for five shows at St. Ann’s Warehouse in December, 2006. In addition to Saunders, Tony Smith and Antony Hegarty, Reed added the late Sharon Jones on vocals, Rob Wasserman on upright bass, and original Berlin guitarist Steve Hunter. Hal Willner served as music director, which included horns, strings and the Brooklyn Youth Choir. The live recording video and CD releases were a commercial success, and the shows were critically acclaimed.  Reed subsequently took the Berlin production on a European tour, including a performance at the London Royal Albert Hall.

Here’s a video of the entire concert:



In addition to the entirety of Berlin, Reed added “Candy Says” (performed by Antony Hegarty), “Sweet Jane,” and reportedly at Schnabel’s request, “Rock Minuet” to the concert set.

Hunter is on fire throughout the entirety of Berlin as he breathes fresh energy into the guitar lines of “Men of Good Fortune,” “How Do You Think It Feels,” “Sad Song” and “Lady Day,” with a simultaneous nod to both the improvised ferocity of Rock and Roll Animal and to the disciplined structure of the Ezrin and Willner arrangements. His guitar lines spit forth like a caged tiger who has found some holes from which his claws can snatch an unsuspecting prey within reach, especially on “Oh Jim,” Hunter’s diverse range of improvisational chops are especially impressive when the freewheeling psychedelic boogie rock solos of the 1975 live version of “Oh Jim” from Lou Reed Live are contrasted with the conversational, call and response gospel-meets-hard rock styled phrasing of the Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse arrangement.

The layers of orchestral textures from the vocals, strings and horns pay proper homage to the studio version without losing the live spontaneity generated by Smith, Saunders, Hunter and Reed himself, who actually looks like he is enjoying himself in the video. “The Kids” even recreates, live for the first time in the Reed discography, the prerecorded anguished cries of the children being separated from Caroline (the original contained recordings of Ezrin’s own children), which was considered especially disturbing in 1973. [Be warned; it remains one of the most disturbing and horrifying moments in recorded history – Ed.]

Fully realized under Willner’s music direction, Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse delivers all of the rock and roll edge at the core of the best selections from Reed’s songbook while maintaining the elegance of the original Ezrin studio release. It’s fitting that Reed’s final live recording before he passed away in 2013 was for, in retrospect, his arguably most ambitious artistic musical statement – and one that has since stood the test of time to earn its place at the top of his list of accomplishments, both for its high-fidelity audio standards as well as its musical strengths and daring literary gravitas.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/.dannynorton.

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