Berlin, Lou Reed’s concept album about an abusive relationship between a pair of junkies, was not received warmly when it came out in 1973. The rock critic Lester Bangs, a veteran Reed-baiter, declared it “a gargantuan slab of maggoty rancour”. Rolling Stone magazine labelled it “patently offensive” and predicted it would end Reed’s career.
But rock’s prickliest star has had the last laugh. Berlin has undergone a drastic reappraisal and is now recognised as a highlight of his solo career. Having shelved plans to tour it when it flopped on release, Reed is now belatedly giving it the full works, staging it with the help of a mini-orchestra, a children’s choir and an accompanying film directed by the artist Julian Schnabel, who also designed the set. It is vindication on an epic scale.
The show opened with the album’s title track, a disconcertingly smooth cocktail-jazz number in which Reed recounted the meeting of Berlin’s protagonists Jim and Caroline over “candlelight and Dubonnet on ice” in a café by the Berlin wall. “Aw honey, it was paradise,” intoned the singer at his most superbly downbeat. A fall from paradise was clearly imminent.
Berlin’s storyline is unrelentingly bleak. Jim and Caroline are amphetamine addicts; she sleeps around, he beats her up. One song, complete with the alarmingly lifelike sound of a toddler crying, is about Caroline’s children being taken into care. The album ends with her committing suicide, and Jim justifying his violence against her with the cheery thought that “Somebody else would have broken both her arms”.
You can see why it met with shock and distaste. Reed’s singing on the album is customarily dispassionate. When he states on one song, “And me, I just don’t care at all”, it is unclear whether he is in character or speaking for himself. A deliberate withholding of sympathy is evident in lines such as “Her eyes fill with water” and the album’s majestic conclusion, the ironically titled “Sad Song”.
At 65, Reed has softened (though an impressively muscular physique suggested otherwise). His singing, less laconic than on record, introduced a new note of feeling to the album’s forlorn worldview: his rendition of “The Bed”, Caroline’s suicide song, was almost hammy in its modulations between spooked whispers and vigorous vocalising. The Berlin of 2007 is not as emotionally degraded as the Berlin of 1973.
Meanwhile the music was brought to life with fidelity and force. Thirty- four years ago, Berlin marked a dramatic departure for Reed. Its orchestral arrangements and grandiose production went against the grain of his usual restrained style. At the time he was flying high on the commercial success of Transformer, his first post-Velvet Underground album to do well in the charts. Berlin found him exploiting his new-found box office respectability to make the most expensively gloomy album ever.
It sounds like a characteristically perverse career move. But performed on stage, the album’s coherence was striking. The combination of cabaret horns and meandering prog rock in “Lady Day” came off with a conjuror’s flourish. “Caroline Says (I)”, rooted by a powerful rhythm section, was lifted by swirling, busy orchestral motifs. Steve Hunter, who played lead guitar on the album, capped the songs with an electrifying succession of solos. The only disappointment was Schnabel’s mystifying set (chinoiserie wallpaper, a sofa suspended from the ceiling) and his overly glamorous film, which depicted drug-addled, beaten-up Caroline as a beautiful, Warholian blonde.
Berlin places Reed’s natural austerity in a setting that blazes with musical excess and invention. The city barely features in the album as a setting (it is mentioned only once, in the title track) but its divided nature evidently appealed to the singer in the early 1970s. It made concrete his contradictory desires for mainstream success and underground notoriety.
Tour continues in Lyons tonight and Rome on Friday