It’s trendy among rock snobs to champion Berlin as a masterpiece, and while we’re not about to go that far, we will attempt to defend it somewhat. Granted, we probably wouldn’t have paid any attention to the album if it weren’t for a certain anthology of the work of Lester Bangs, but even he wasn’t infallible.
Berlin is a vague song cycle about a doomed relationship in the then-divided city, marred by violence and drug addiction, pieced together from a variety of disparate songs, some of which had been germinating since the Velvet Underground days. Featuring an all-star cast and a grandiose Bob Ezrin production, it’s the source of Lou’s stereotypical laconic image, the barbiturate downside to his established amphetamine rush.
Beginning with a wobbly recording of a birthday party, the title track takes only a few elements of the original, sticking to the basic theme played on a cocktail piano. Suddenly “Lady Day” crashes in, with Steve Winwood’s nightmarish organ underpinning the unspoken dread in the lyrics. Likewise, “Men Of Good Fortune” is pinned by Jack Bruce’s overpowering bass. “Caroline Says I” is almost upbeat, complete with a closing string arrangement right off of any number of chamber-pop records, shifting abruptly into the swaggering “How Do You Think It Feels”. “Oh Jim”, grafted from two VU outtakes, provides a little more plot before descending into a basic doo-wop tune without the harmonies.
Side two is where things get really interesting, and it’s worth pointing out that the man known for his “metal machine music” exclusively plays acoustic guitar on this album. “Caroline Says II” is another VU outtake, taken heartbreakingly slow in its depiction of the fall of the relationship. The most notorious track remains “The Kids”, which begins like an Irish reel, but is given over to a long vamp punctuated by the actual sounds of children crying for their mother. It’s not easy to say that “The Bed” provides any respite with its deceptive gentleness. A chorus of disembodied voices ushers in the grandiose “Sad Song”, transformed from a so-so Loaded outtake into a biting dismissal of the leading lady, thanks to one of Lou’s greatest couplets (“I’m gonna stop wasting my time/Somebody else would have broken both of her arms”) and summed up by the matter-of-fact repetition of the song’s title.
Berlin is a truly depressing album, and therefore not for everyone. Legend has it that the album, already bursting the grooves at 49 minutes, was originally over an hour long, and various sections had to be edited so it would fit on two sides of vinyl without losing sound quality. However, neither of the album’s two reissues in the CD era has restored any of this lost music. Even 33 years later, when the album was performed in its entirety onstage for the first time (as subsequently heard on CD and seen on film and DVD) the arrangements stuck to the album as memorized by the faithful. It remains a powerful work of art, and nobody said every work of art had to be pretty.
Lou Reed Berlin (1973)—4