25th June 2008
Well who would have thought it? After all these years of insisting that Berlin was his masterpiece, and the world not listening, it appears that Lou Reed was right all along. Or so one would be lead to believe, given the positive reappraisal Reed’s 1973 album has enjoyed since he chose to tour the thing round the world.
To recap: released as the follow up to his Glam-rock breakthrough Transformer, Berlin picked up the story of the star-crossed lovers featured in the song of the same name which had appeared on Reed’s debut album two years earlier. On Berlin (the album) we learned the pair were called Jim and Caroline; both heavily into drugs, with Caroline also enjoying a penchant for casual sex.
The album chronicled Jim and Caroline’s downwardly spiralling relationship stopping off at jealousy, physical abuse, separation, children taken into care and finally Caroline’s suicide. All pretty grim stuff. At the time of release the thing received a stiff kicking by the music press, but commercially (in the UK anyway) it became one of Reed’s biggest sellers.
My own opinion, for what it is worth, is that it is an essential, if flawed recording. A couple of the songs on the first side (vinyl days, remember) are mediocre at best. Men of Good Fortune does not really appear to even belong there, whilst the jaunty Caroline Says I boasts perhaps Reed’s worst ever rhyme:
"Just like poison in a vial.
She was often very vile."
Side two, however, was something altogether different: a suite of four depressing and, at times distressing to listen to, songs which flowed into and complemented each other to create……what? Perhaps the most uncomfortable and painfully honest 20 minutes in rock ‘n’ roll history. All one’s defences are stripped away as the heart-rending despair of the two characters is laid bare for our inspection. I defy any parent not to be affected upon first listening to The Kids.
It is little wonder many journos and fans alike, expecting another Transformer, turned away from the dark corners Berlin visited. Reed would play bits of the album over the following decades, but only with this tour, undertaken some thirty-odd years after the album’s release, would fans have the opportunity to hear the collection in its entirety.
The puzzle of how Reed was going to fill a whole evening from just a single album’s worth of music was soon answered, as it became apparent pretty much every track from side one had been extended with a (usually superfluous) guitar blow-out grafted on to the outro. Only Oh Jim was elevated by this treatment.
Thankfully Reed appeared to realise there was no way he could improve upon the fragile vicious beauty of side two, so he succeeded in keeping any excesses in check until the Sad Song finale, where the climax drifted slightly towards histrionic, but I could forgive him that. As indeed, did everyone in the Playhouse, rewarding Reed and his band a standing ovation.
A few encores finished the evening off: a slightly ropey Satellite of Love (with the children’s choir just about making up for the singer’s croaking vocal), was followed by a sprightly Rock ‘n’ Roll. Proceedings ended on optimistic note with a new song; The Power of The Heart. Which sounded like Lou's marriage proposal to recent bride Laurie Anderson. Old Romantic that he is.
Men of Good Fortune
Caroline Says I
How Do You Think It Feels
Caroline Says II
Satellite of Love
Rock ‘n’ Roll
The Power of The Heart