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.

Advertisements

Dave’s Underrated Albums … “News of the World” (1977) by Queen

During the winter of 1977-1978, I was 8-years-old and my American peers and I considered Queen’s double A-side single of “We Will Rock You / We Are The Champions” the most awesome one-two punch on the pop charts of all-time.  Yes, with nearly 40 additional years on the planet and a more thorough understanding of pop music history, I’ll admit this assertion may have been more than a little premature.  But hearing these songs back to back on the radio during that winter was quite the event for yours truly.

What’s interesting is that when I bought the single, I was only interested in “We Are The Champions” because on most Top 40 stations, that’s all you typically heard.  But … on the “super-heavy” FM stations … “We Will Rock You” always preceded “We Are the Champions” and one night when the car radio happened to be on one of these stations, I heard “We Will Rock You” for the first time, completely unaware it was performed by Queen.  Thanks to my brother, I was already a KISS fan, but “We Will Rock You,” I concluded, was the “heaviest” thing I’d ever heard at that point.  I had no idea what this song was called (or even that Queen performed it … FM DJ’s tended to be very casual about mentioning what they were playing back then), but it was something that completely knocked me off my feet.

Back to “We Are The Champions.”  Getting the single wasn’t an easy task.  I typically spent my $1 per week allowance on a 45-RPM single and every time I went to a record store during that winter, “We Are The Champions” was always sold out.  After multiple weeks of heartbreak, I started calling every record store within a radius of where my Mom would drive me, and asked … daily … if they had any copies in stock.  I finally hit pay dirt in February of 1978, begged my Mom to drive me to a record store that was a little bit farther than she typically drove, and finally acquired the record.  I enjoyed “We Are The Champions” but noticed that the B-side (which I rarely ever played back then) was something called “We Will Rock You.”  Somehow, the synapses in my brain connected and flipped the record over.  And yes, finally, I found the song I loved so much … and even better … I didn’t have to pay extra for it.  My 8-year-old brain had a mental orgasm.

Next task … getting the album where these songs resided.  At some point that spring, my grandparents gave me $5 for either good grades or some other reason and with some additional allowance money I hadn’t miraculously spent, I was able to purchase Queen’s “News of the World.”  This was literally the first rock album I ever acquired.  Yes, I had other albums, but mostly they were recorded by someone named Barry Manilow, who never amounted to much and a singer I’d rather not talk about … ever … especially songs like “Weekend in New England,” “Mandy” “Could This Be Magic?” … Seriously … Those records never existed … especially in my collection … MMMKAY?

So … back to “News of the World” … I wasn’t sure what I was expecting back then, but none of the other songs sounded like “We Are The Champions” or “We Will Rock You.”  There was one hard rock song called “Fight From the Inside” that I liked a lot.  There was also another “heavy” song called “Sheer Heart Attack” which was too loud and fast for me then.  And there was also a really weird, disturbing (to me at the time) song called “Get Down, Make Love.”  But other than that, I thought it was a mixed bag of tunes and I was so disappointed, I didn’t make it past the first song on Side 2.  I was disappointed because it wasn’t like a KISS record, concluded that I should have spent that money on a KISS record my brother didn’t already have or a Barry Manilow record … NO, dammit … I didn’t just say THAT!

Cut to 1991 … I’m in college and working at a campus radio station.  We receive a new CD-single by Nine Inch Nails which has a cover of Queen’s “Get Down, Make Love” as its B-side.  By this point, I’d nearly forgotten about Queen’s song, but I play the Nine Inch Nails single and again, the world’s slowest human being (meaning me) put two and two together.  Except that the Nine Inch Nails cover was even more pulverizing and disturbing than Queen’s version.  This discovery made me pull out the old Queen album from my LP collection and I listened to  “News of the World” with new ears.  And I concluded the album is a complete gem.

“News of the World” isn’t a great album, but it’s a very charming one.  Aside from the double A-side every knows, this is one the band’s “heaviest” albums.  “Sheer Heart Attack,” the song I thought was too loud and fast back in the day, was Queen’s attempt at one-upping punk rock by creating something more intense than the Sex Pistols and while it doesn’t completely succeed, is a damn good try.  While I prefer the Nine Inch Nails cover, Queen’s “Get Down, Make Love” sounds like a disturbing anthem for the NYC Plato’s Retreat / Anvil / Mineshaft crowd of 1970s sexual hedonism.  “Sleeping on the Sidewalk” is a decent attempt of doing an Aerosmith-style blues homage.   And … finally … the last song on the album …Queen’s all-time greatest song … the anthemic hard rock masterpiece “It’s Late.”

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, “It’s Late” should be THE Queen song that’s played ad nauseum on classic rock radio. This is pure, balls-to-the-wall, non-campy hard rock that will peel the paint off the walls. That relentless multi-layered lead guitar sound by Brian May feels like a wool sweater in hell. And let’s not forget that cataclysmic drum sound by Roger Taylor that will shake your molars. Totally epic in every sense of the word. Allegedly this was a favorite of Kurt Cobain’s (given its presence in the Kurt Cobain documentary “About a Son”). It was also put to great use in Jody Hill’s brilliantly demented comedy “Observe and Report.” From the 1977 album “News of the World.”

KISS Live in Japan 1977

You wanted the best, you got the best!  It’s KISS!  At the height of their powers in 1977!  With all four original members! Performing live in Japan!  .. (exclamation points officially ending here) … This was recorded for HBO and I remember seeing this very concert during the summer of 1979 when me and my brother went to visit my Dad in Northern Virginia.   Two of my Dad’s female neighbors in their early 20s invited us all over to watch the concert on their TV since they had HBO.   I can’t imagine my Dad’s neighbors were particularly interested in KISS … or my brother and me, for that matter … but I’m not going to complain that they used my interest in KISS to get to know my Dad better.  It was doubly cool because I was now able to see my favorite band at the time life, I also got to check out this thing called HBO that I had seen advertised on TV, but wouldn’t be available in my neighborhood for two more years.  As always, Paul Stanley doesn’t disappoint with his stage raps here.

“Strutter” – KISS

Video

I don’t have much to say about this, other than the fact this is my all-time favorite KISS song. Some people love “Rock & Roll All Nite.” Some people groove on “Detroit Rock City.” Some people love “Beth,” one of the first power ballads. All of these are respectable choices. But in my mind, “Strutter,” the first song off their eponymous debut album in 1973 is one of the best Side 1 Track 1’s in rock history. It’s the one KISS song that never ceases to put a smile on my face and involuntarily puts my fist in the air and head bobbing in admiration.

When Terry Met Gene … Terry Gross interviews Gene Simmons on “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” February 4, 2002

Here it is folks … the infamous interview Terry Gross did with KISS’s Gene Simmons for her NPR talk show “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” in 2002.  The interview has been split into 3 parts for your edification.  I can’t tell if Terry had any idea of what Gene was like prior to this interview … but Gene is playing himself to the hilt.   It’s hard to tell who wins this battle of the bands, but I think Terry and Gene put up a good fight.   I can’t tell if Gene is acting more like Ted Nugent or Andy Kaufman here.  I think he’s way smarter than Nugent and there’s elements of this that seem tongue-in-cheek, but I also don’t think his performance in the interview is a complete put-on.   Regardless, it’s one jaw-droppingly entertaining (almost) 30 minutes.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

“Tales from the Trial” – Jello Biafra

Video

From Jello Biafra’s 1989 spoken word album “High Priest of Harmful Matter” comes this monologue about the “Frankenchrist” trial from 1987. “Frankenchrist” was a 1985 album released by the legendary punk rock group The Dead Kennedys (Biafra’s band at the time) and the album infamously included a poster that featured the H.R. Giger painting “Penis Landscape.”

Never mind that a sticker on the album cover contained a warning label about the poster, Biafra (and others) were brought up on criminal charges for “distributing harmful matter to minors.” What the prosecution hoped to do was for Biafra (an artist on an independent record label) to plead guilty so a legal precedent would be set.  The prosecution actually admitted that going after Biafra was a “cost-effective” way to send a message.   Had that precedent been set, then prosecutors could have gone after bigger game, such as Prince or Madonna. But Biafra … seeing the big picture and the REAL reason he was targeted … chose to fight the charges instead. Sadly, his fight was without the help of any major record label (who seriously should have seen the bigger picture as well and helped Biafra … but did not). Fighting the charges was expensive and nearly bankrupted Biafra and his record label, but he won … sort of. The trial resulted in a hung jury and the judge chose to dismiss the case after the jury couldn’t come to a unanimous decision.

The entire arrest and subsequent trial are brilliantly (and very entertainingly) explained in this 43-minute monologue. Some bad language here and there, but to quote the label on the “Frankenchrist” album, “life can sometimes be that way.”

Some bizarre footnotes of this trial:

1) Gene Simmons of KISS wanted to the buy Biafra’s life rights to make a dramatic film about the trial with Billy Crystal playing Biafra (?!?)

2) The prosecutor, Michael Guarino, later admitted it was a mistake to have gone after Biafra and later came together with him on Ira Glass’s “This American Life” to discuss the trial and for Guarino to apologize.  Guarino also admitted that his son became a huge Dead Kennedys fan in later years and would blast their music to the annoyance of everyone on their street.

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/285/transcript

Henry Rollins on seeing KISS

Video

This is a shorter version of the 70+ minute monologue Henry Rollins delivered on seeing KISS for the first time towards the end of the 1990s. This is very funny stuff, but if you like what you hear, be sure to check out the full 70+ minute version on Rollins’ “Talk is Cheap Vol. 2” 2-CD set. I think the delivery of this tale is better on the longer version, but this is still a lot of fun.