Christmas Starts Here – Lou Reed: The RCA & Arista Album Collection

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Lou Reed

The RCA & Arista Album Collection (15 albums, 17 CDs)

(Sony)

“Oh man!!!! What the f***!!!!!”

Thus, apparently, spake Lou Reed as he listened to the first playback of the newly remastered “Coney Island Baby” – title track to his seventh solo album in 1976, and thus the seventh disc of the seventeen that weigh down this astonishing box set.

Elsewhere, as he got into Street Hassle, he let slip a “holy f***ing shit.”  And doubtless there were plenty more imprecations of a similar ilk as the listening party continued.  Sadly, despite the promotional material assuring us that the eighty-page hardback that accompanies this set would include “evocative in-depth liner notes… chronicling Lou’s involvement with the making of [the box],” those two remarks are effectively all we get in terms of first-hand responses.  “What the f****!!!!!” and “holy f***king shit.”

It’s really not much to go on.

Seventeen discs – two for Metal Machine Music and the live Take No Prisoners; one apiece for the remainder of the albums that stretched from Lou Reed (1971) to Mistrial (1986).  That’s a lot of music, and there could have been more.  Completists will point out that a further two are AWOL – Lou Reed Live, the parson’s nose of live recordings that (near)-completed the show documented by Rock N Roll Animal, and Live in Italy, from 1983.

No explanation is given, but as both were effectively the record label’s idea, and Lou had no real involvement in their release (at least in the US), we assume that that is why they were omitted.  This was Lou’s story as he told it himself.  If other people wanted to add other chapters, that was nothing to do with him.

5Absent, too, are the bonus tracks appended to several of these albums over the years, but the same theory holds true there as well.  There’s a great rarities box to be compiled from the life of Lou Reed, but not yet.  Not here.  And why should there be?  The music is as peerless as Lou was capable of creating in each particular time and place, and the albums as rounded as he wanted them to be. An out-take here, a demo there, would only disturb the purity that he intended.

Lou Reed, it was said (and the point is repeated in the liners) was New York, writing about the city with “a mix of journalistic observation and deeply felt emotion… that resonates decades [later].”

That is true.  But he was also, alongside Frank Zappa, the most lyrically and musically literate mainstream performer to emerge from the American left field throughout the rock age.  And, like Zappa, he could be infuriatingly selfish, following his own straight-line vision no matter what his audience expected of him.  Indeed, he admitted as much back in 1973.  The kids, he told a UK journalist, wanted a new Transformer.  He didn’t have one in him, so he gave them Berlin instead – an album that Rolling Stone’s reviewer condemned as “so patently offensive” that “one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artist.”

Two years on from that, he delivered Metal Machine Music, four sides of instrumental noise that still raises hackles today… more than one Internet forum buzzes with the bitching that the box set devotes two discs to that, while depriving us of the opportunity to hear a couple more in-concert renditions of “I’m Waiting for my Man.”

3But Metal Machine is performed in opera houses today, which itself vindicates its release (on RCA’s classical specialist Red Seal label, to prove both parties knew exactly what they were doing), and in turn proves that Lou’s biggest mistake was believing that his audience cared about what he wanted to say, as opposed to what they wanted him to say.  In other words, they still wanted a new Transformer.  He gave them four sides of gggrrrnnnnzzzbbzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz instead.

Transformer was, and remains, Reed’s biggest album, a consequence of spiraling off his first major hit, “Walk on the Wild Side,” and a host of other songs that are likewise radio staples today – “Satellite of Love,” “Perfect Day, “Vicious.”  And if that’s where your listening begins with this box, then it’s also the ideal showcase for what has been done here.

Reed’s catalog is no stranger to CD release, or to remastering, but this was Reed’s first chance to actually supervise what was done to it.  So when one says that Transformer sounds brighter, happier, and more alive than it ever has before; that the bass is more resonant, the harmonies more harmonic, and the guitars more scintillating, then clearly that is what he intended.  For it’s true – Mick Ronson’s guitar at the end of “I’m So Free” ranks among the greatest solos of his studio career; and when “Andy’s Chest” moves into its refrain, you can hear the sparkle in Lou Reed’s eyes.

2The guitars that welcome “Sweet Jane” to the party at the outset of the live Rock N Roll Animal are scything, soaring, a symphony of anticipation. “Street Hassle” sounds dirtier and sleazier than ever; “Coney Island Baby” more tender; and, if the remastered Berlin pales in places alongside the live re-enactment that Reed toured in 2006, then so does the vinyl original.

Metal Machine is an especial revelation, best heard on headphones with minimal distractions, so you can hear the little melodies that buzz behind the buzzing.  Rolling Stone, again, called it “the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator,” but the fifteen year-old fan who bought it and loved it was thrilled when Reed told him, twenty years later, that “the guy who made it loved it as well.  I made up phony liner notes, and I was whacked out of my head, but I believed in it.  I still believe in it.”

And this is important stuff, because acquired wisdom went on to insist that Metal Machine was a put-on, a monumental goof designed to piss off his fans and say “fuck you” to the record company….

Reed sounded genuinely dismayed.  “Oh no!  No!  I would never do that and have someone buy my fuck you, that’s ridiculous.  I don’t know why people think that.”

Maybe because you’ve suggested as much in the past?

Maybe.  But he continued, “I love feedback and distorted guitars.  And that’s what Metal Machine is.  The record company was supposed to put a big disclaimer on it that said ‘this is all instrumental, it doesn’t have any songs, it doesn’t have any vocals,’ but instead they – they’re money-hungry grubbers, so the little fucks put this tiny, tiny print that I probably can’t read now, which said ‘this is an electronic composition,’ and no-one saw that.  People thought it was a rock album with songs on it, and they went crazy when they found it wasn’t.  That album was almost a career end for me… yet another career end.

“But when you listen to it now, zip ahead fifteen or twenty years, and think Industrial Rock.”

4If Metal Machine is the most contentious album here (with Take No Prisoners, the best rock’n’roll record Lenny Bruce never made, coming in a close second), at least it is still being talked about.  Arguably through the late Seventies, and certainly throughout the 1980s, Lou Reed appeared increasingly redundant.  A sequence of new albums, beginning with The Bells and concluding with Mistrial, drifted by, good, bad, or indifferent, and the sad thing was, Reed himself seemed to feel the same way.

He was never “too old to rock.”  As he said back in 1995, “jazz and blues guys play till they drop, and I’d like to think I could do the kind of music I do with the same attitude.”  But it was 1989, and the New York album, before Reed truly bounced back with an LP to love, which could make the second half of the box set feel irrelevant.  And that, perhaps inadvertently, is a sensation amplified by the CD set’s vinyl counterpart, which rounds up just six of the albums, and you can probably guess which ones.

To follow that line of thought, however, and to return to the earlier literary reference, is a little like saying the first half of Dickens’s Great Expectations is brilliant, but you don’t need to bother with the rest.  True, 1976’s Rock and Roll Heart remains an abject offering, but the other early album that history tends to write off, 1974’s Sally Can’t Dance, will never stop growing on you once you give it a chance; and moving into Reed’s eighties output, Growing Up in Public (1980) and Legendary Hearts (1983) feel stronger now than they ever did at the time.

The Blue Mask (1982) continues to deserve your attention, and if the final brace of LPs in the box, New Sensations and Mistrial, feel limp by comparison with all that came before, that twinkle in the eye is still audible, every time you hear “I Love You Suzanne” and “My Little Red Joystick,” “The Original Wrapper” and “Video Violence.”  And you realize, once again, that what Lou was thinking and what his audience thought were two extremes that oft-times scarcely knew one another.  It’s hard to tell a joke when people are expecting you to be deathly serious.

Less a box set, more an autobiography; less seventeen albums than one seamless composition, the RCA & Arista Album Collection is neither the best-looking box set of the season, nor the most extravagant.  Pink Floyd and Steve Hillage have that department sewn up.

But a wealth of bonus goodies include a massive poster; five 8×10 art prints, of which at least couple demand instant wall space (one just wishes they were bigger); and the aforementioned eighty-page hardback is packed with photos and ephemera, although it could have tried harder in the textual department – producer Hal Willner’s touching memorial notwithstanding, where the reader might hope for biography or context, we instead receive a few pages of interview highlights.

But maybe biography and context are irrelevant here, because it’s the CDs that tell the story and really, beyond a flirtation with glam in ’72, did Lou ever offer more than a sideways glance towards anything that happened thereafter?  The Velvets, after all, did their greatest work when psychedelia was on everyone else’s mind, and Take No Prisoners gave us stand-up when his audience wanted punk.  He was described as one of the new movement’s godfathers, after all, even if he couldn’t see it himself.

As he said the last time we spoke, “I’m not being falsely modest or consciously reticent; I just don’t think that much about what I’m doing when I’m trying to do what I do, so I’ll hear some other group or something and it’ll have that sound to it, but it really is just that sound.   I’ve heard people say this band sounds like you, or that band, and I usually don’t get it.

“I’m not in competition with anyone, least of all myself.  All I want to do is communicate a certain explosive, fun, rock’n’roll quality that I’ve liked since I was nine years old, and I want the listener to hear what I heard, the thing that makes me think it’s so great.

So Lou Reed was Lou Reed and this box is what he wanted us to hear.  And it is all of those things he wanted it to be, explosive and fun and rock’n’roll quality.  It was also the last project he completed before his death, and – hopefully – the first to show us how carefully his legacy will be curated in the future.  And maybe now we’ll start listening to what he is saying.

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