Lou Reed's place in the firmament would be assured if he had made no other records than the four (not counting live albums and retrospectives) he did with the Velvet Underground. Their influence far outweighed their minimal to nonexistent commercial success. The combination of Reed's three-chord rock, the unblinking street reportage of his songs, and – in the first two albums – the avant-garde influences, such as drones and discords, of the classically-trained John Cale, casts a long shadow to this day.
However, by 1971 Reed was a solo artist, and his second album Transformer (produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson) was the biggest hit of his career to date. It even spawned an unlikely UK Top Ten single with “Walk on the Wild Side”, its lyrics a portrait of five of Andy Warhol's “Superstars”, set to Herbie Flowers's bass riff. Somehow it was played on BBC Radio: presumably someone there didn't know what “giving head” meant. Reed's solo career has been wayward ever since, alternating between outright provocation (dyeing his hair blonde and cutting a swastika in it, in a form of aggressive camp; releasing four discs worth of electronic noise in the notorious Metal Machine Music) with return-to-roots albums such as Street Hassle. In later years, often collaborating with his longtime partner (now wife) Laurie Anderson, he has taken on an elder-statesman artist persona, as a writer and poet as much as a musician.
Some of all of this appears in Berlin, his 1973 follow-up to Transformer. A song cycle about a couple in the city of the same name, its subject matter is dark indeed: domestic violence, drugs, prostitution, suicide. Yet musically it has a melancholy beauty of its own, as Reed incorporates strings and horns into the basic guitar/bass/drums setup. One track, “The Kids”, which describes how the central character, Caroline, has her children taken away from her, has a section where the sounds of children crying can be heard. Even if you doubt the story about how these screams and cries were produced, this is still one of the most harrowing album tracks in my entire collection. (It would be interesting to compare Berlin with Pink Floyd's The Wall, as both have the same producer, Bob Ezrin.)
Needless to say Berlin was not what people wanted after Transformer. It was a commercial failure, and a critical one too, with reviews calling it “the most depressing album ever made”. However, it has maintained a steady core of support ever since, and as the decades have passed has come to be reassessed as one of Reed's best. He never played it live until 2006, when he performed it over five nights at St Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn. Artist and film director Julian Schnabel was on hand to introduce the event and film the proceedings, and Berlin is the result. Of the album's original personnel, only lead guitarist Steve Hunter remains, along with string and horn sections and a choir. Among the backing vocalists is Antony Hegarty (Antony and the Johnsons), who duets with Reed on an encore of “Candy Says”.
Berlin, shot by Ellen Kuras on HD, is for the most part a straightforward record of the concert. Schnabel's major flourish is to include from time to time short illustrative film clips directed by his daughter Lola, featuring Emmanuelle Seigner as Caroline. The Berlin songs last just over an hour, with encores of the aforementioned “Candy Says”, “Rock Minuet”, and the Velvets' classic “Sweet Jane”, which plays under the film's closing credits.
There's no doubting the musicianship of those on stage, nor the cinematic ability of Schnabel in preserving it. For Reed fans especially, for those who were there as much as those who were not, this DVD will be essential. But somehow Berlin lacks the fire of the best rock concert films. It's not as if we can't get up and dance - Berlin was never that kind of record – but there seems to be an inhibiting pall over the event, as if we are to be overly respectful by being in the presence of Serious Art. Maybe you had to be there, and I wasn't.
Berlin is released by Artificial Eye on a dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only. It is also available on Blu-ray.
The DVD is transferred in a ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. The HD-originated image is frequently darkly lit, with Schnabel and Kuras seemingly trying to undermine the format's sharpness. Much of the time, we see someone's face, with the rest of the frame vanishing into darkness – but cut to a close-up and detail is as it should be. Lola Schnabel's film inserts, which look like they were shot in 16mm, are a little grainy, but that's no doubt intentional.
Two soundtracks are available: Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 (analogue Dolby Surround). Crowd noise and applause come from the surround speakers, but importantly the vocals and music sound fine. This DVD's running time is the same as that of the cinema film (81 minutes): without anything to hand to compare it to, the pitch sounds correct to me. There are no subtitles, which is not unusual for concert films, presumably due to copyright issues with reprinting song lyrics.
Special features are limited to the trailer (1:13), a biography of Reed (which is more like a description of his recent activities) and a biography of Julian Schnabel.
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