Berlin is Lou Reed’s third solo album, released in 1973. It didn’t do that well, critically or commercially, which is a pity, because it is easily his best record. People argue this. “No, Transformer is his best record. No, Magic and Loss is. No, New York is… yada yada…”
No. It’s Berlin. He made a lot of albums across his career. On some, he phoned it in, on others, he did a bit of work. But on two, he really hit it. He really hit the delicate balance of lyric and melody, of rock and beauty. He managed, or a producer managed, to get something gorgeous out of his stilted, lumpy voice. Yeah, Bowie got some great vocals out of him on Transformer, but there’s a lot of filler on that album. There’s only two records where Mr Reed hits it in terms of EVERYTHING, lyrics, music, performance, on every song, and that’s 1973’s Berlin and 1982’s The Blue Mask. But let’s deal with The Blue Mask later, and enough about the other records that aren’t Berlin.
Berlin. Berlin is a concept album about a shitty marriage between two drug addicts, and how it falls apart in a cesspool of infidelity and abuse. It’s harrowing. It’s probably the most depressing record ever made. Seen the movie Biutiful? Berlin is like the audiobook version. Or the opera. It’s that depressing.
Berlin is also… staggeringly beautiful. Producer Bob Ezrin took Reed’s tunes and on many of them applied lush orchestrations with strings, woodwinds, horns, harps, choral voices. It’s so gorgeous and cinematic that it would almost be cloying if not for the backing band assembled for the project.
The fucking band… it’s an amazing group of musicians: Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, Aynsley Dunbar, BJ Wilson, the Brecker Brothers, Tony Levin, and two great guitarists, Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter. Not everybody is on every song — there’s not room for two drummers if BJ Wilson is behind the kit, but it’s a phenomenal rock band. And somehow, Reed, Ezrin, Band and Orchestra manage to totally rock out.
The album begins with what sounds like a decadent birthday party in Weimar, Germany in 1930 (not that I know what that would sound like) and then elides into a solo piano, and a frail vocal:
By the wall
You were five foot ten inches tall
It was very nice
Candlelight and Dubonnet on ice
In the next scene, the female protagonist is working as a stripper. We then find out a bit about why the male protagonist is such a fuck-up, then the girl come home to emasculate him. Reed, ironically, belts out the lyrics in his most self-assured voice:
That I’m just a boy
She wants a real man
Not just a toy
The best vocals Lou Reed recorded in his career are on Berlin. He’s strong, he’s weak, he’s hard bitten, he’s sardonic and funny, he’s usually in tune. He doesn’t sing this album, he acts it.
Side one is the couple duking it out, and the music is muscular and electrifying. Side 2 is a rainy Saturday morning hangover after a Friday you can’t remember. Somehow, everyone is naked and there’s blood everywhere.
As she gets up off the floor
Why is it that you beat me?
It isn’t any fun
Caroline shows up twice on the album. Caroline Says 1 initially sounds like something off a Turtles album, with oboes and pizzicato strings, until Jack Bruce’s bass stomps all over everything and the band and orchestra kick in together to ram the fury of the song home. Caroline Says 2 is a slow acoustic guitar and an apologetic Reed telling the story, perhaps to the police? Later, on The Bed, her narrates her suicide, and he seems fine with it.
It’s a fucked up album. It ends with a choir of ghosts that fades into a simple beautiful two note trill. The last song, Sad Song, is almost a valedictory march, and the male protagonist makes no excuses for his behavior:
I’m gonna stop
Wasting my time
Would have broken both of her arms
Implying, I suppose, that he’s not a bad guy because he only broke one? I’ve no idea.
I’m not even going to try describe song eight on the album, The Kids. You just have to hear it. It is one of a kind. Go get the album.
Berlin didn’t sell well. Critically it was panned, although now it’s recognized as a masterpiece. I found it at college, skimming through my dog eared copy of The Rock Encyclopedia. I had to special order it. It blew me away on first listening.
I listened to it everyday for a year — I am not exaggerating. I had it on my turntable. I made a cassette of it. I fell asleep to it. I’d lay on the rug in my apartment with headphones on and listen to the interplay of the band and the orchestra, thinking to myself, “Will I ever make a record as brilliant as this?” I didn’t.
One day I was playing it, for the twentieth time that month, and I heard a soft crying. It was my roommate, Carl. He was on the couch sobbing.
“Could you turn this off? If you don’t turn this… off I’ll kill myself.”
Carl was a great guy, and who wants a dead roommate, so I turned it off. We had just gotten about halfway through The Kids. Makes you wonder about that particular song, doesn’t it?
Is it the lyrics? No. Reed has a reputation for being one of rock’s great poets, but he’s fairly prosaic on Berlin. He’s more of a storyteller. Is it the story? Hell no. The story scenes from a marriage we don’t want to be in. There’s no twists, there’s no redemptive moment. Maybe it’s the glorious band and orchestra combination — seriously, you’ve never heard better orchestral rock then Caroline Says 1. The recording is amazing. The playing is amazing. You put it all together and it’s amazing.
It has that elusive thing about it. It’s a moth that sneaks into the house when you open the front door. Berlin gets in and works on you. It tells a story that has no surprises, and somehow your rivited. It’s all things you’ve heard before (except for The Kids) and yet you’ve never heard before. It’s a murder scene presented as a Hallmark card. It’s brilliant.