BERLIN: One of Lou Reed’s Greatest Recordings

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After departing the Velvet Underground in 1970, Lou Reed struggled to find footing in an evolving music industry that already hadn’t taken particularly well to his talent in the past. After the release and subsequent flop of an eponymous debut record, a floundering Reed was ushered back to shore by a young David Bowie, who had long been enamored with the Velvet Underground frontman’s work. The manifestation of that collaboration was the celebrated ‘Transformer.’ ‘

Transformer’ brought Lou Reed into the international spotlight. Tracks like ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ and ‘Perfect Day’ cemented themselves into rock and roll history. In 1973, however, Reed returned to the studio to record the much anticipated follow-up for the landmark album. The result, at least as Rolling Stone Magazine saw it at the time, was “patently offensive.” That album was ‘Berlin.’

Forty three years later, ‘Berlin’ is considered by some to be one of the finest exhibitions of Lou Reed’s talent that he ever displayed. The album, which is a horrific, heartbreaking rock opera telling a distressingly morbid love story, is an excursion through the human condition. It’s most certainly one of the saddest albums ever recorded, but because of that, it’s also one of the most poignant.

Lou Reed Berlin

Photo: By .dannynorton (http://flickr.com/photos/dannynorton/186795352/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The instrumentation Reed employed on ‘Berlin’ is dramatically different from that of its predecessor. It’s bombastic, atmospheric, and intense. From the apocalyptic minor key piano lead of ‘Lady Day’ to the orchestras of ‘Men of Good Fortune,’ to the brass section of ‘How Do You Think It Feels,’ the record employs an immense soundscape for its delivery. Purely logistically, it was a far more ambitious endeavor than any of Reed’s previous studio recordings. That cacophony of passion holds up to this day, and accents Reed better than nearly anything else in his catalog.

Lyrically, tracks like ‘Caroline Says II,’ ‘The Kids,’ and ‘Sad Song,’ deal with death, depression, suicide, domestic abuse, and every facet of pain one could imagine. Tunes like ‘Oh Jim’ even muse about Reed’s toxic friendships and often hateful spirit. For this very reason, ‘Berlin’ is one of the most relatable albums ever recorded. For those suffering poor relationships, depression, substance abuse, or the like, ‘Berlin’ is an embodiment of their struggle.

Since Lou Reed died two and a half years ago, the goodwill following his passing has faded. A recent Howard Sounes biography revealed a stunningly troubled Lou Reed – even more so than the public already knew. At times, Reed claimed tracks off ‘Berlin’ were theatrical, not autobiographical. As we’re slowly learning, though, that may not have been the case. ‘Berlin’ is the most honest record Reed ever made. The collection breaks down any barriers between him and his audience. He was human, too.

BERLIN: One of Lou Reed’s Greatest Recordings article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022

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