Dave’s Underrated Albums … “Berlin” (1973) by Lou Reed

After years of artistic success and commercial failure, Lou Reed finally hit the commercial zeitgeist with his 1972 album “Transformer” and his controversial, but very popular song “Walk on the Wild Side.”  Given this berth, an artist can do many things.  The two most common are: going even more commercial to maximize the success they just achieved … or … using this commercial breathing room to make the artistic statement they always wanted to make, but couldn’t because it’s too “negative” or “disturbing.”  I think you can guess what Reed did.

“Berlin” is, undoubtedly, the most horrendously depressing album ever recorded.  It’s a nearly 50-minute song cycle chronicling the failed relationship between a man and a woman who suffers from severe mental illness and drug addiction.   Produced by Bob Ezrin (who hit commercial pay dirt in the early 1970s with most of Alice Cooper’s biggest commercial successes, KISS’s 1976 “Destroyer” album, and Pink Floyd’s monumental commercial blockbuster “The Wall” in 1979) “Berlin” is the ultimate musical statement about self-loathing, substance abuse, and mental illness.  It makes Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” seem like the Spice Girls.  “Berlin” is a monumentally negative statement about humanity, summed up in the lyrics of the last song “Sad Song”:

“Staring at my picture book
She looks like Mary, Queen of Scots
She seemed very regal to me
Just goes to show how WRONG you can be
I’m gonna stop wastin’ my time
Somebody else would have broken both of her arms”

Holy s–t! is the only statement I can muster at the summation of this album.  And weirdly enough, the two songs preceding this horrendously negative finale are seriously way more despairing.  “The Kids” chronicles about how the female protagonist’s kids were taken away due to her drug use and promiscuity, climaxing in the sounds of actual young children screaming “MOMMY!” in anguished voices during the last two minutes.  The next song, “The Bed” is about the female protagonist’s suicide.  The lyrics are not sensationalistic, but the simplistic acoustic guitar and plain singing make the lyrics more horrific:

“This is the place where she lay her head
When she went to bed at night
And this is the place our children were conceived
Candles lit the room at night
And this is the place where she cut her wrists
That odd and fateful night”

As I said earlier, this is the most horrendously depressing album ever recorded.  However, it’s a damn good one.  And it’s a lot better than many people gave it credit for at the time.  In subsequent years, Rolling Stone magazine included it in its list of “Best 500 Albums of All-Time” … despite the fact that rock writer Stephen Davis, when reviewing the album for Rolling Stone in 1973, called “Berlin”:

“Lou Reed’s Berlin is a disaster, taking the listener into a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide. There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them. Reed’s only excuse for this kind of performance (which isn’t really performed as much as spoken and shouted over Bob Ezrin’s limp production) can only be that this was his last shot at a once-promising career. Goodbye, Lou.”

Whatever.

The ultimate vindication for Reed, in my opinion, was when Oscar-nominated director Julian Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Before Night Falls,” and my personal favorite “Baquiat”) directed a beautiful feature-length concert film of Reed performing this album in its entirety in 2008, simply called “Lou Reed’s Berlin.”  It’s one of the best concert films of all-time and I can’t think of a better series of songs to deserve this treatment.

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“Clones (We’re All)” – Alice Cooper

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Since the rise of punk / New Wave in the late 1970s made little commercial impact in the United States, most rock stars of the era just shrugged their shoulders and kept pumping out the same formulaic rock that got radio airplay and sold records. However, there were a few that attempted to understand the music and put their own spin on the new genre. Peter Gabriel is arguably the most commercially successful of these classic rock artists who dipped their toe into the New Wave pool. Alice Cooper? Not so much, but this is not due to the fact that the music was lacking.

Alice Cooper’s New Wave attempt from 1980, “Clones (We’re All),” from his “Flush the Fashion” album, is actually very good … not that far removed from Gary Numan or Peter Gabriel’s self-titled third album released that same year. “Clones” actually scraped into the Top 40 back then, but is pretty much forgotten these days. Some truly progressive 80s or New Wave radio programmer should seriously consider dropping this into their station mix.

“The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years” (1988) dir. Penelope Spheeris

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“The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years” is Penelope Spheeris’s follow-up to her groundbreaking documentary on hardcore punk from 1980 (“The Decline of Western Civilization”). “Decline II” chronicles heavy metal, circa 1988 in Los Angeles, predominately glam metal, which was the rage at the time.

“Decline II” is often cited for being extremely funny because many of the participants seem absolutely delusional about their prospects at future success in music … and in life. There are interviews with stars (Ozzy Osbourne, Steve Tyler, Joe Perry, Poison, Dave Mustaine, Lemmy, Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Chris Holmes) and interviews with up and comers, most of which you’ve never seen nor heard from since this film came out.

However, the most compelling part of the film is arguably the interview with Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. Lying in a pool chair, literally pouring vodka down his throat, explaining he’s a piece of s–t, while is mother is sitting next to him, trying to put on a good face, but looking like she wants to cry. One of the saddest and most disturbing scenes from a documentary ever.

Despite this, the humor outweighs the pathos.  One of the best scenes in the film comes near the end where legendary club owner Bill Gazzarri hosts his annual “Miss Gazzarri Dancer” contest and Gazzarri tries to get everyone excited about a band called Odin, which he claims are going to be the next big thing.  Needless to say, they fell far short of this goal.  I’ll let you be the judge as to whether the public was ignorant in their mass rejection of Odin through this clip:

Spheeris later hit the box-office jackpot as the director of “Wayne’s World” in 1992, a job she got in no small part due to her success with “Decline II.”

“Go to Hell” – Alice Cooper

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If anyone wants to know what song corrupted me forever and led me down a dire musical path that has included KISS, the Sex Pistols, the Mentors, the Angry Samoans, and G.G. Allin, it was hearing (and owning!) this song at the age of 6.

Let’s take the wayback machine to Christmas 1976. I saw a K-Tel album advertised on TV that had a lot of hits of the day on it. Since some of the music sounded cool to me, I asked my parents to buy the album for me for Christmas. I didn’t get the album, but what I got was way cooler. In addition to receiving a portable record player, I got forty or so 45 RPM records. The songs were things my Mom thought was good back then, mostly MOR adult contemporary stuff (Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond). The MOR stuff also included an Alice Cooper’s ballad called “I Never Cry.” My mom thoughtfully put a check mark on the A side of each single to indicate the song to listen to … Except … She made a huge mistake on the Alice Cooper record. She accidentally checked the B side of the single instead of the A side. The B side of “I Never Cry” was “Go to Hell,” which is about “being a living obscenity” and roasting in hell forever. Not only did the song have the “7734 upside down” word in the title, but it described all kinds of things that scared (and admittedly, thrilled) me at such a young age. This record was a secret I shared with my friends at the time and we all marveled at getting away with something so dark and forbidden. Ah, those were much more innocent times. Anyway, thank you Mom for inadvertently leading me down the path of dark pop culture. I mean that with all sincerity, trust me.

“Dragula” – Rob Zombie

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Always liked Rob Zombie. When he was still doing music, he reminded me a lot of Alice Cooper. Like Cooper, Zombie knew how to wrap his metal and psychotronic film obsessions around a catchy beat and pop sensibility. Zombie also has a sense of humor and humility which seems to have eluded other Cooper-wannabes . For a while, Zombie’s film directing career was pretty interesting (“The Devils Rejects”) until he started making “Halloween” remakes.