When Lou Reed first released Berlin in 1973, the critical reaction very quickly moved from shock to sheer vitriol. This was the follow-up to Transformer, the all-conquering glam-rock classic that produced Walk On The Wild Side, Satellite Of Love and Perfect Day – people expected nothing less than Transformer Part II.
What they weren’t expecting was a concept album detailing a deteriorating relationship, sleazy sex, drugs, domestic violence, suicide and the sounds of children screaming in distress. This was not a party album. This was not what was expected.
Yet over the years, Berlin has been reappraised. Yes, it’s depressing, yes it’s daunting and no, it’s certainly not easy listening. There are times when it could accurately be called one of the upsetting albums ever made. Yet it is also a compelling and absolutely magnificent listen – one of the greatest albums ever made in fact.
Remastered and re-released to coincide with Reed’s current European tour (where Berlin will be played in its entirety), it’s interesting to note how well the album has dated. Where Transformer seems stuck in the ’70s, Berlin seems utterly timeless. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine any of today’s bands recording anything like it, but that’s testament to the record’s unique qualities.
Masterfully produced by Bob Ezrin, the album is a swarm of orchestral arrangements and desolate piano, sometimes sounding frail (the title track) and often sounding bloody scary (The Kids). It’s also not as inaccessible as legend would have it, with the deceptively pretty melodies of Caroline Says and the horn section of How Do You Think It Feels sounding almost commercial.
Admittedly, there are also 7 minute long songs about a mother’s children being taken away from her, a song about a deathbed and a general feeling of sleaze, moral decay and doom. There are times when it all becomes very difficult to listen to, such as the notorious section in The Kids where the sound of screaming children is heard over Reed intoning “they’ve taken her kids away for being a bad mother”.
There are also parts of the album that are quite uncomfortable – the blatant misogyny for example, where Reed appears to justify domestic violence in Sad Song (“I’m going to stop wasting my time, somebody else would have broke both her arms”) and lyrics that are just plain nasty at times: “But since she lost her daughter, it’s her eyes that fill with water, and I am much happier this way”.
Yet this is to ignore the fact that Reed is playing a character here – that of Jim, who as a drug addict with a penchant for beating his girlfriend, is a pretty screwed-up individual anyway. Besides, compared to most gangster rap, the views towards women here are quaint at worst.
34 years after its release, Berlin stands as a towering achievement – one that makes the sneers of many critics at the time look utterly ludicrous these days. Yet the sheer scale and ambition of the album means that it always seemed like a classic anyway. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid having this album in your collection, there’s no excuse now.