Certain records are easy to write about. A series of statements, compact or florid, sprayed about as if the silhouette at the keyboard knows exactly what he or she is banging on about. It’s music “journalism” as stock phrases, graffiti in all but name, but still very much in thrall to the parameters our pop-culture ethos dictates.
Other discs however, and the detail becomes evasive. Far from easy to transcribe, or portray via a succession of glib phrases. Berlin was released in 1973, recorded in London and New York, and is in many respects a big LP, by scope and by music; cue orchestral arrangements and names such as Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood and Michael Brecker amongst the cast list. Big, but also intimate – and having consulted my copy of The Big Book of What To Think About Popular Musak, it looks as if big and intimate segue about as convincingly as whatever other jarring comparison we can’t be bothered to make.
Also: a concept album, which always suggests its own particular set of challenges, the narrative cohesion lurking like a trap. There have been seven concept LPs in the history of recorded sound, and at least five of them struggle under the weight of plot, the honesty behind any track subservient to story (why is it I always think of The Wall at moments such as these? Bob Ezrin produced both, of course. A fact I’ll just leave, hanging…)
“When she walked on down the street, she was like a child staring at her feet. But when she passed the bar, and she heard the music play, she had to go in and sing.” – Lou Reed, ‘Lady Day’.
There are two ways of understanding application of theme, the focus behind Berlin either that of doomed and tragic girl meets boy, the world around them – whilst Weimar in aesthetic – operating as cold, unforgiving and brutal… or the concept is Lou Reed himself. Adventures in psyche, and back catalogue, the second song named ‘Caroline Says’ previously appearing as ‘Stephanie Stays’ on the VU album, the title track a revisit from the version on his eponymous, post-Velvets debut.
Either way, there’s no shaking the acknowledgement that Berlin the album borrows its metropolitan namesake as metaphor. It’s neither overt nor a particularly original method of approaching allegory, but it works by virtue of the city’s cultural, historical, artistic and emotional resonance. For sure, contemporary Berlin may be doing its best to become just another twenty-first construct, but sidestepping a complex provenance is no quick fix.
Ignore Checkpoint Charlie photo-ops or the stroll down Mühlenstraße amidst the traffic fumes, the extant stretch of Wall on its fourth generation of post-Reunification shitty art. Ignore Foster’s glass blister, sitting atop the Reichstag like something demanding ointment, or those sunny promenades beneath the Brandenburger Tor (one of the kitschest edifices in the whole of northern Europe). No; it’s Berlin’s fugue-like duality that stalks its streets, and as such it’s not surprising that an album carrying both name and Cold War timeframes cultivates the mood of such early ‘70’s sepia.
Okay; this is not a travelogue, and I’m guilty of attaching far too much weight to geography (this album will always be more Edie Sedgwick than Rosa Luxemburg). Having first heard Berlin in full in the very early ‘90’s (format: tape; a gift from a late-night Danish radio DJ, her deep, alluring voice riffing across the North Sea in the thief hours), I’ve always found this record haunting, harrowing, and (for good measure) life-affirming. It surfs against the periphery of conventional lifestyle, and wears its lyrics with neither overt sentimentalism nor cloying sensationalism.
Not, of course, that it’s an endeavour without problems. Because it’s so beholden to story, there’s an occasional whiff of amateur dramatics to proceedings, a track such as ‘The Kids’ – and its opening lines: “They’ve taken her children away, because they said she was not a good mother” – leaning in such a fashion as to prompt mental images of dusty village halls and hobbyist performers delivering words with hammy gusto.
I’ve also read comments – not all written by me – that take aim at the record’s musicality; arguments that suggest without the sharpness of lyrical exposure, the material fails to take flight or engage imagination on its own terms. This in itself is a complex argument; one that can be extrapolated out to include all of Reed’s early solo work should you subscribe to the view that, lacking either John Cale or Doug Yule to spark off, the need for a musical foil swung in the breeze. That Transformer is an album desperately searching for a showman’s touch – a strung out Mark Renton perhaps, moulding the context of ‘Perfect Day’ in Hibs shirt and skag cocoon.
And… oh, I don’t know; not for the first time in this piece we’re firing at tangents. Disingenuous when there’s such a fine record to be discussing. Populated by cast-offs and shadows it may be, but Berlin’s narrative framework acts as focus, as much for the artist himself as his audience. Vague Brechtian posture spliced across Reed’s languid Manhattan sleaze, in which tracks such as ‘Oh Jim’ or the first ‘Caroline Says’ ripple with a distended glam rock vibe.
It’s also an album of descent. Good time vibes turned ill. I won’t issue a spoiler alert – on the off chance that you’re new to all this, the full album lives beneath these words – but the finale’s triptych – ‘The Kids’, ‘The Bed’, ‘Sad Song’ – foster a dispassionate, brutal, quasi-religiosity (which is not something you’d write about most LPs of the era). It’s what I mean when I say I find this record somehow life-affirming, despite its outwardly tragic contours; ‘Sad Song’ is anything but by this reading (“Staring at my picture book, she looks like Mary, Queen of Scots. She seemed very regal to me; just goes to show how wrong you can be”); an epiphany of sorts to lay atop lipgloss and heroin.
Berlin is not a record you’re going to get much out if you listen to it in the car. Whilst jogging in the park. Singing along with the kids over breakfast. Which is probably the point – it’s an album about life, not some facsimile there-of. Experience, and edge, each step we take precipitous (even if we never spot each crack in the pavement). Personally, I don’t think that Reed ever recorded anything finer.
(Also: thanks, Christina of the Airwaves).