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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“Schoolboy Blues” (aka “C–ksucker Blues”) (1970) by the Rolling Stones

“Schoolboy Blues” is the infamous song the Rolling Stones recorded to get out of their contract with Decca Records, when they were told they owed Decca one more single before their contract was up.   Again, be careful what you wish for or what you demand.  Decca, of course, were horrified by the results and never released this officially.

Objectively speaking, this isn’t quite so bad.  Musically speaking, it sounds like a rawer version of “Sister Morphine,” only with the subject matter being male prostitution instead of heroin.   This is the Ramones’ “53rd and 3rd” six years earlier … only a LOT more explicit.  So explicit in fact, that I will say this is … ahem … not safe for work.   OK, you’ve been told the tale.  Either listen or don’t listen.

“Gimme Jackie” from SCTV (1983)

From the 1983-1984 Cinemax-era in SCTV’s history comes their brilliant parody of the infamous Rolling Stones documentary “Gimme Shelter” … reimagined as a vehicle for Martin Short’s brilliantly obnoxious albino lounge singer Jackie Rogers Jr. called (what else?) “Gimme Jackie.” Only instead of the Hells Angels wreaking murderous havoc on the crowd, Jackie hires the Shriners … who prove to be an all-too-formidable and frightening security force. Watch closely and you’ll see many striking similarities between Short’s Rogers character and Mike Myers’ Austin Powers character that appeared over 10 years later.

This is a great example of why SCTV was … and still is … one of the most brilliant concepts in the history of world comedy. This was humor for very culturally savvy folks and you either got it immediately or you needed to do your homework. Brilliantly funny stuff.

As a bonus, the first minute and a half features Dave Thomas’s spot-on Mel Gibson impression … when Gibson was still more of a cult actor in Canada and the United States.

“Jump Into the Fire” – Harry Nilsson

Harry Nilsson’s hard rock showstopper from 1971’s “Nilsson Schmillson” album.  “Fire’s” most famous appearance was as the main musical piece during the extended paranoid climax of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster-film classic “Goodfellas.”  Apparently Scorsese’s first choice for this scene was the Rolling Stones’ 1983 rocker “She Was Hot,” but since Scorsese has a strict policy of only using music that was recorded during the period he’s depicting or earlier (the scene in question took place in 1980), he went with Nilsson’s song instead.  I have to say this is a much better choice as it is a lot more ominous sounding.  And seriously, could you imagine that final climactic scene with any other music than “Fire”?  A great song for being paranoid.  And as they say, paranoia is just reality on a finer scale.

“Loving Cup” – The Rolling Stones … early demo from 1969 with Mick Taylor (first session)

Oh my freaking God!!!!! An early version of the classic Rolling Stones song “Loving Cup” … from 1969.  This is allegedly from tapes from Mick Taylor’s first session from the band.  While I prefer the final version that appeared on “Exile on Main Street” in 1972, this much bluesier version is still pretty jaw-dropping.  Seriously, there was no better band in rock history than the Rolling Stones from 1966 through 1972. 

“Harlem Shuffle” – The 5.6.7.8’s

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F–k yeah! Japan’s garage punk femme fatales make absolute mincemeat out of Bob & Earl’s classic R&B song from 1963. The Rolling Stones may have scored the highest chart placement with their version from 1986, but the 5.6.7.8’s eat the Stones for breakfast on this one.

Trivia note: you may recognize the 5.6.7.8’s as the all-female Japanese rock band performing near the end of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 1” before Uma Thurman kills about 500 or so Yakuza members with her sword.

“Sympathy for the Devil” – Rolling Stones (live from the 1969 concert at Altamont from the documentary “Gimme Shelter”)

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Here’s the infamous live version of “Sympathy for the Devil” from the December 1969 concert at Altamont where a Stones fan was stabbed to death (caught on camera for the documentary “Gimme Shelter”). However, contrary to popular belief, the stabbing took place during “Under My Thumb,” not “Devil.” However, one of the scariest scenes in any documentary comes in at about 4:10 into this clip when a certain Hells Angel (who has been hired to provide “security”) starts eyeballing Jagger. I can’t tell if he wants to f–k Mick Jagger or kill him … or both. In any case, that look he gives Jagger is really f–king scary.

“Happy” – Rolling Stones (live from their 1972 American Tour)

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More Keith Richards for you folks tonight. This is a smokin’ live version of Keith’s signature song “Happy,” recorded on the Stones’ 1972 American tour. From the 1975 concert film “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones.” Originally from the 1972 album “Exile on Main Street.”

“You Got the Silver” – Rolling Stones

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From the 1969 album “Let it Bleed,” comes the first Stones track with a lead vocal by Keith Richards. This is also the last recording the Stones released with Brian Jones (who plays autoharp on the track). The song appeared prominently in the notorious Michelangelo Antonioni film “Zabriskie Point.” A very nice slice of blues in the finest Stones tradition from their golden era.

“Child of the Moon” – The Rolling Stones

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Another killer B-side from the Stones … this time from their 1968 hit “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” No disrespect intended to “Flash,” but this is another B-side that would’ve been an A-side in a better world. Now available on “The Singles Collection: The London Years” boxset … which would be my Desert Island album. Yes, I realize that a 3-CD box set of the Stones singles and B-sides from 1964-1971 is cheating a bit … but if you insist on putting me on a desert island in the first place, we’re going to have negotiate a little if you don’t want to be physically harmed in the process of moving me to said island.