I had this opening paragraph all planned out. I was going to talk about the power of the compilation album, especially in this time in my life where I had relatively little disposable income, and no real idea what kind of music I liked anymore. I was going to talk about one compilation album in particular, which I picked up on a whim one day so I’d have something new to listen to in the car, and then I was going to need a new paragraph to tell you all about what I found there.
The second paragraph would have talked about the fact that it was a double album – a double cassette, in fact. I would probably have had a lengthy diversion about the two different types of double cassette box which existed, and how this one was large and thin, whereas others were fatter, like two standard cassette boxes back-to-back.
You have, however, probably figured out that my memory has let me down again. The compilation album I was thinking of was called New Roots (sold as New Horizons, volumes 1 and 2 in some places), and it was a tremendous thing which introduced me to many new artists and bands, some of which we’ll be hearing from later in this list. I looked it up, ready to build myself a new playlist so I could experience it all over again, when I was brought up short by the realisation that there was, in fact, no Lou Reed track on it.
(It does have a track by Davy Spillane on it, which makes it three weeks running he’s featured in this list, albeit tangentially)
I know for a fact that I first heard a track from New York on a compilation album; I know which track it was, and I know that there was a Grateful Dead track on the same compilation. That’s not much to go on, but I think I know what was going on. Around the same time as I was thrilling to the eclectic sounds on New Roots, there was another compilation going around, and I must have heard that one – maybe I borrowed it from the library; maybe someone lent me a copy. I’m not sure, but I now think that I was introduced to one of my favourite albums by Greenpeace.
If you were the kind of student I had been, your slow inculcation into the world of commerce and all that implies did not soften your political outlook. When the French government sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in 1985, there wasn’t much nuance involved – it was an act of state-sponsored murder, and whatever you may have thought at the time, or think now, about Greenpeace, there was no doubt that supporting them was the right thing to do.
Whether borrowing a compilation from the library, taping it, and then going out and buying an album by one of the artists involved actually counts as support, I’ll leave for you to decide.
Had I remembered, I’d have researched the compilation harder; I now think it was called Rainbow Warriors, and did, indeed feature a Grateful Dead track (Throwing Stones, in case you were wondering). It also was the album which introduced me to World Party (Bang! and Goodbye Jumbo both only just missed the cut for this list), made me take R.E.M. seriously, and has just reminded me that we all loved Hothouse Flowers for a few months there, didn’t we?
Oh, and way down at the end of the track list is the song which presumably caused my memory to be somewhat confused. The delightful (go check it out) Wholly Humble Heart by Martin Stephenson and the Daintees features on both compilations, so perhaps I’m not quite as senile as I thought.
Anyway, Lou Reed.
I was, as I may have mentioned, a student in the early 1980s. There was, in some areas, a suspicion that the really revolutionary music had all happened just when we were too young to appreciate it. Prime evidence for this was the reverential way that everyone in the know talked about The Velvet Underground, and how we had essentially missed the boat. You could listen to the albums, and to the ones which followed by John Cale and – especially – Lou Reed, but you’d never quite get it; you “weren’t there, man”
And we obediently listened, and agreed that, no, we didn’t get it. Not properly. There was also the fact that – particularly the Lou Reed albums – it was all a bit intimidating; designed to keep out those who didn’t “get it”; those who hadn’t been there.
It was all nonsense, of course – you get out of music what you bring to it – but it took me years, and the experience of being staggered by the brilliance of this album to really figure that out. You really don’t have to have experienced the things which drove the artist to write the songs in order to understand or enjoy them; in fact, if the songwriting is as strong as it is on New York, the experience is entirely heightened by presenting a fully fleshed out world of which you, the listener, knows nothing.
Listening to New York was, and still is, like watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary ( a black and white documentary, of course) about life in the grimier parts of the city in the late 1980s. All human life is there, and Reed shines an unflinching spotlight on all of it. It’s an album for which the adjective ‘coruscating’ might have been coined; more than a decade after the righteous (or otherwise) bile and anger of punk, this is the album which actually hits all the marks everyone was aiming for. It’s uncomfortable and uncompromising, yet unexpectedly tender and sweet in places, and – even in its grimmer moments – laugh-out-loud funny.
It’s an hour of stripped-back rock music, intended to be listened to in one sitting (as Reed puts it in the liner notes “like a novel”), and while it’s a million miles from the Prog flights of fancy I grew up with, it’s one of the most effective and hard-hitting concept albums ever recorded. The vocals are typically Lou Reed – he mostly intones rather than sings – the music is unpretentious and direct, and the effect is like no other album on this list.
I’ve owned this album in several formats over the years, and I’m now going to actively seek out the vinyl version, because – unlike many albums recorded in the newly coined digital age, I can only imagine how much the crackle and hiss of vinyl will bring to the feel of this enterprise.
Enough talk – let’s crack open the novel, or put on the documentary, and sing along with Uncle Lou, shall we?
Romeo had Juliette is bursting with allusions; it references both the Shakespearean original and West Side Story, but here’s Christopher Columbus, lost on his way to the New World, and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. And that’s just the first track. It ends with the sense that these lives we’ve glimpsed are moving on without us, as the camera pans to…
… the world of Walk on the Wild Side, now lacking even the tacky 1970s glamour, as Halloween Parade describes how the AIDS pandemic tore through the communities which Reed used to celebrate. The final line, “See you next year…” sounds more like a desperate hope than genuine expectation, then the ragged chorus stutters to a halt and the camera moves on.
Round the corner from the parade is the Dirty Blvd. Pedro is deftly sketched out in a few lines, and we can see him clearly – desperate and downtrodden. If you’ve seen The Wire, you know exactly what Lou’s talking about. There’s a verse about the “Statue of Bigotry” which – like so many on this album – is as relevant today as when it was written, if not more so. What happened to the American dream? Well, here it is: not even the harmonising voices at the end can disguise the rotten core of the Big Apple.
It’s not a hopeful album, in case you were wondering. Endless Cycle rubs our noses in it – it’s not, as it might appear – judgmental; it simply lays out the facts, that these lives have an inevitability to them, which the devastating final line simply underscores. Again, the song ends with a chorus of voices, perhaps trying to smooth the edges, before just giving up.
There is no Time is a straight-up punk anthem; a call to action. We’ve seen what life is like, what are we prepared to do about it? There’s nothing quiet about it, except its desperation; the underlying knowledge that however stirring the words, there’s no-one following. It eventually collapses under the weight of its own despair, but it’s out there – in the right hands, it could still be a powerful driver. And in the wrong hands, something much worse. There are no easy answers.
Now the lens opens up, and Lou starts to look at the rest of the world. Last Great American Whale is the track which drew me in; this was the one I heard on that compilation, and which prompted me to find out what the rest of the album was like. It is also a call to arms – the allegory of the last whale serving to point up the racism of the American dream. I assume it was on the Greenpeace album because it is ostensibly about a whale, but it’s actually about so much more; as so often in this collection, the final verse distills the argument down to a vivid image; in this case man’s inhumanity to man is reflected in man’s indifference to the planet. And – again – the final line is just perfect.
We’re reaching the end of side 1, and it’s time to lighten the mood a little. Lou Reed was not an easy man, even in his public persona. He was prickly and uncomfortable, and downright unpleasant by all accounts, but he was capable of whimsy and a light touch, as evidenced on Beginning of a Great Adventure. It’s something of a love song, a paean to love and family, although – inevitably – laced through with cynicism and is performed with a permanently raised eyebrow. I love the list of potential baby names, which starts with references – I assume – to people Reed knew, but ends with “Dummy, Star and The Glob”
Which, come to think of it, may have also been people he knew.
As you smile along to the fun of it all, you do also have to see it in the context of the grimy cynicism of the rest of the album – he’s not entirely convinced of the viability of this vision of family life, but as a release valve at the midpoint of the album, it serves its purpose admirably.
Side two is right back on track, however. In fact, it’s back on the bus, as Busload of Faith starts with “You can’t depend on your family”, then dives right into the hypocrisy of the religious right. It’s a delicately balanced lyric, which manages to clearly and succinctly make its point without appearing mealy-mouthed about how ‘faith’ means something different to each of us. It doesn’t dismiss the idea of faith; in fact, it relies on it to make its point.
From social observation, the album now pivots into satire, as Lou takes a cold, hard look and what seemed at the time to be the absurd nature of American politics. Sick of You manages to name-check Trump and Rudy Giuliani; God only knows what Lou Reed would have made of the last few years, but I’d have loved to hear an update to this song, because the wild satire sounds like cold social commentary at this point.
Hold On moves the satirical lens to point at the New York of the first few songs, and pulls pretty much every theme of the album so far together; the satire falls away to reveal the fact that all the stories so far have been firmly based in reality. Environmental degradation and the grim street life come together in a cry not so much of despair but of realization; there’s nothing to be done; you’d better hold on.
Good Evening Mr. Waldheim feels at first as if the satire is back, but there are no punches pulled here, as Reed calls out the Austrian chancellor, the Pope and Jesse Jackson. It’s the most bitter and directly political song on here, and while it sweeps you along with its vitriol and catchy rhythm, it perhaps hasn’t aged as well as everything else here – some of these songs have been spookily accurate in their vision of the future, but this one is anchored in the past, and loses some of its edge to a modern listener.
Xmas in February is the bleakest song in a pretty dark collection of songs, but it’s also perhaps the most powerful. There were a number of Vietnam war reflections released during the 1980s, both in film and song, and this one is probably one of the least well known, but it’s one of the most powerful. As you might expect by now, it’s completely clear-eyed and brutally honest, and manages to deliver its message in powerful poetry, delivered in an understated, almost unassuming manner which catches you off guard, and stands in complete contrast to the next track.
Strawman is a vitriolic (there’s that word again) railing against the cult of celebrity. All the points it raises are more valid today than they were when it was recorded. In fact, Lou, you have no idea. It’s only been thirty years, but this over-the-top rant now sounds like the mildest of criticism in the current age of celebrity worship. I would have loved to hear this song updated for 2022…
New York was recorded in the immediate aftermath of the death of Lou Reed’s friend and mentor, Andy Warhol. He reunited with John Cale to record Songs for Drella as a more fulsome tribute and reaction, but Dime Store Mystery stands as this album’s acknowledgement of what had happened. It starts as a meditation on the last temptation of Christ (and no, I don’t believe he conflates Warhol with Christ; its quite clear to me that these are two separate reflections). It ends with a quiet reflection on the last moments of a man taken before his time (Reed was quite bitter about how his friend died, and maintained that the doctors could and should have done more). The city is woven through this song, like all the others, and it serves as a kind of memorial for a place as well as for a life, fading out in the acceptance of what fate has wrought.
New York is a truly epic album, albeit one achieved with minimal invention and ornamentation. It never strays beyond the basic recipe of guitar, bass and drums (save a little violin right at the end), and the music stands as a platform for the words, which are as important here as any set of lyrics have ever been on any album. I may not have been the right age to appreciate Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground when they were revolutionaries, but I was exactly the right age to appreciate this complex, mature, political album when it came along, and I think I got the better deal, as I’m convinced that this is Reed’s best, most personal, and most impactful album.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Well, sure. Start where everyone starts, with Transformer and Berlin, but there’s a lot to explore, particularly in the later albums, when he was perhaps less concerned with image and more concerned with just saying what he wanted to say. He’s not easy to like, but there’s a lot to admire.
And, no, there’s no reason to listen to Metal Machine Music, however much he liked to pretend there was.
Compilations to consider?
I’ve not explored too much, but I can’t help noticing that The Essential Lou Reed contains only one track from New York, and is therefore liable for prosecution under the Trade Descriptions Act (assuming that’s still a thing).
There are many, including Velvet Underground ones, but I’m going to recommend the Perfect Night collection, because it’s a great mix of eras. No Walk on the Wild Side, though.
Well, there’s The Velvet Underground. And numerous books, none of which I’m qualified to recommend. Let me know if there’s one I should read, though, because Lou Reed’s is a fascinating story.