Danielnothing's Blog

Lou Reed, Royal Albert Hall, London, 30th June 2008

Posted in Uncategorized by danielnothing on October 27, 2013

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1972’s ‘Berlin’ occupies an odd, dramatic place in Lou Reed’s discography. Coming directly after the seedy, feelgood, Bowie/Ronson swagger of ‘Transformer’ (his first hit solo album after the misfire of 1970’s ‘Lou Reed’), it was badly received by a glam-addled audience expecting ‘Transformer 2’. In stark contrast to the previous album’s sweetly funky production, ‘Berlin’ opens with an ugly, analogue screech, which slowly and painfully resolves into a faded, fluttery vintage tape recording of a birthday party, before the heartbreaking title song claws its way to the front of the mix: I remember the first time I heard this opening as a 10-year-old picking illicitly through my sister’s tape collection, and it frankly scared the piss out of me. The rest of the album, with its alternately sweet, sincere, sarcastic and bleak ballads of love and drugs and sex and death didn’t exactly cheer me up either: in fact I’m pretty sure I hated every minute of it, all this depressing stuff about women having sex with soldiers, then slashing their wrists. But I immediately turned the tape and listened to it from scratch once it had finished. I  wasn’t  too smart as a kid, but I recognised quality when I heard it.

Cut to ahem, AHEEEHHHMM… years later and I’m standing outside the Royal Albert Hall listening to a small group of acoustic-guitarists pick and strum their way through the Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Set Free’ (and get almost all the lyrics wrong). We are gathered here on a balmy summer’s evening in upmarket Kensington Gore for  a once-in-a-lifetime experience.: Reed with full band, chamber jazz orchestra and children’s choir offering up ‘Berlin’ in its entirety, in one of the most impressive concert venues in the world. Anticpation seems to colour the very air we are breathing. For once I feel relatively young as aging hipsters of every stripe and hue file into the building. I’m on the lookout for some major celebrities here tonight, but all I manage is the woman who used to play Peri in Doctor Who, and later (somewhat  more impressively) Annie Lennox. I think  I spot Christopher Hitchens, but it turns out to be just another rumpled, middle aged bloke in a badly pressed suit. Or maybe it’s him: who cares?

It’s an odd experience coming into the circle of the Royal Albert Hall and hearing formless (recorded) electric guitar echoing through that most hallowed of classical venues. This will be my first rock concert here. But then, is ‘Berlin’ strictly ‘rock’? Reed himself has compared it to the song cycles of Kurt Weill, and it has to be said, it’s maybe a good thing that Reed was forced to wait this long to perform it on the stage. It deserves a majesty and grandeur that Camden Dingwall’s would be hard-pressed to provide.

Only slightly late, and after a gushing but heartfelt intro from concert producer Hal Willner, Reed and his  band troop on with an 8 piece orchestra and a 12 strong children’s choir. The orchestra and choir are decked out in matching powder blue outfits (tuxedos for the adults, shiny robes for the kids, which put me in mind of Peter Pan, for some reason). Reed and his cohort, by contrast, look like each one of  them has just lost an audition to play the title role in The Bruce Springsteen Story, all bandanas and faded denim. Of Reed himself, I can’t help but be suspicious of someone who is fast approaching 70 years old, but still rocks the cap-sleeved T-shirt.. I’m wearing a black suit and shirt, for God’s sake, and I’m only in the audience. Reed looks like he was maybe interrupted while washing his car.

All of these sartorial concerns are immediately forgotten when the choir burst into a short snatch (unexpectedly)  of ‘Sad Song’, the album’s closing track. Is Reed screwing with us? Are we to get ‘Berlin’ backwards? The strategy pays off, since it wakes the audience up just enough for that familiar tape-hissing ‘Happy Birthday’ to slap us right in the chops, and that eerie, tragic solo piano to assert that, yes indeed, this will be exactly the debauchery you remember.

But not quite. For one thing, Reed’s voice has dropped several thousand registers since the early 70s, the bittersweet post-Velvets tenor  now a weighty , rumbling, bass-y thing. Coupled with his increasing tendency to leave entire verses blank, and cram all of the unsung lyrics into the following verse (Keith Cameron has said of his VU comeback tour that Reed regularly crossed the line between ‘Artistic Re-Interpretation’ and ‘Taking The Piss’) and the atmosphere becomes tenser still. However, he nails the key couplet  in the opener (‘It was very nice/ Aaaaawww babe, it was paradise’) so well, that I am surprised to find my eyes beginning to well up. This is going to be one gruelling night if I tear up every time he gets something right.

‘Berlin’ (the song) ends to awed silence: is it going to be like a classical concert where you’re not allowed to applaud until the very end? The band immediately launch into ‘Lady Day’ and its muscular deployment of band, horns, strings, choir and soulful female backing singers wakes everyone up a second time. It’s remarkable just how closely it hues to the album arrangement and sound, and the outro  (‘No no no/ Oooh Laaaaady Day…’) goes on seemingly forever, but that’s a good thing. At its finish the audience erupts. So, no, not very much like a classical concert then.
The rest of Side One (ask your parents) drifts by without a hitch, the fine brass section coming into its own on the Stax-meets-Benny Hill horn stabs of ‘How Do You Think It Feels’ and ‘Oh Jim’ : the latter  is startlingly good, from the spooky re-creation of the echoey opening drums, to Reed’s frenzied/forlorn acoustic outro.

As we head deeper and deeper into Side Two territory tension is stretched to snapping point: Side Two of ‘Berlin’ is generally considered to be the most callous and depressing sequence of songs ever to get a major label release ( yes, I am including the collected works of Leonard Cohen). As 16mm film of our two protagonists (‘Caroline’ and ‘Jim’) cavorting on a wintry beach and fondling/hitting  each other in stairwells  is projected over Julian Schnabel’s distressed living room set, a silvery-sounding acoustic guitar strikes up the intro to ‘The Kids’, Reed’s faux-country ballad of family breakdown as viewed through the eyes of a sneering ex-boyfriend. I begin to gaze worriedly at the children’s choir on stage: are they going to be asked, no, made to re-create the controversial taped screams  of children heard in the song’s upsetting  middle section? Thankfully no: the screams and anguished cries of ‘Mummy!’ are recordings, here looped into a weirdly hypnotic groove.

‘The Kids’ would easily be the most distressing song on any other album, but Reed had the balls to follow it up with ‘The Bed’, in which ‘Caroline’, having had her children ripped from her arms by social services does herself in with a razor ‘that odd and fateful night’. Hushed and dream-like, almost a lullaby, it’s an incredibly moving song in its vinyl incarnation: in this setting it knocks you flat on your ass. For one thing, the chorus (‘Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh/ What a feeling’) half-whispered on the record, is suddenly and forcefully barked out by a visibly emotional Reed: the audience physically jumps. For another, the children’s choir take up this chorus later in the song, lending it even more of a nursery quality, and causing tears once again to sting my eyes.

The audience sits once again in stunned silence as the Disney-soundtrack woodwind intro to ‘Sad Song’ emerges from the ether. This is a Big Finish number in the truest tradition of Hollywood musical (although it would be a rare musical indeed that ended with a lyric about breaking both a woman’s arms). Again, there’s something horribly moving (or movingly horrible) about this song’s lyrical combination of nostalgia, optimism and brutality. This is the moment everyone on stage has been waiting for, and they don’t disappoint. The kids’ choir alone  lift the song into a thing of transcendent beauty, but everyone is firing on all cylinders, and Reed’s bear-like growl actually seems better-suited to this one than his  youthful croon. Like ‘Lady Day’ this last song lasts an age, but you never actually WANT it to end.

 When it does finally finish the audience is on its feet  and when the applause dies down Reed takes an age introducing and thanking each individual member of band and crew: necessary , nice to see, but a little long-winded, especially as his speaking voice echoes mostly unintelligably arounfd the cavernous hall.

Much whooping and foot-stomping secure us a 3-song  encore (the exact same 3-song encore they’ve been doing all tour, so don’t feel special). ‘Satellite Of Love’ begins as a vocal workout for bassist Fernando Saunders, who, when he begins doing his best Whitney/Mariah wandering warble over it, earns a comically  stern look from Reed, who then proceeds to direct Saunders’ vocal meanderings with his finger. A comedy sketch? From Lou Reed? In the middle of ‘Satellite Of Love’? The same Lou Reed who’s been known to walk off stage when a punter coughs at the wrong moment? How times change….the finest bit of the song hasn’t even come yet, and guess what? It’s the children’s choir (or to give them their proper name, The New London Children’s Choir): it’s cute hearing them intone ‘Satellite’s gone up to the sky/ Things like that drive me out of my mind’, and they also do the ‘Bong, bong, bong’s (previously done on record of course by Dame David Bowie). When Lou finally steps up to the mic, he gets the evening’s biggest cheer, but even his vocal can’t compete with those little powder-blue cuties.

It really should have ended there, but a too-long, blues-bar jam workout of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Rock N’ Roll’ (never honestly a favorite of mine) and a forgettable (sorry, Lou) new song called ‘The Power Of The Heart’ wrap things up. Yet more foot-stomping, yet more thanks and congratulations. But it doesn’t matter. The hard edge has already been driven home, and I’ll remember this night for a long time…..

….and now it’s my eyes that fill with water.
 And I am much happier this way.