LOU REED’S BERLIN directed by Julian Schnabel (USA, 2008)

What’s the saddest record you own?

Some contenders from my collection would be Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room, Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night, Richard Buckner’s Devotion And Doubt, Joy Division’s Closer, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s I See A Darkness and Gorecki’s Symphony No 3.

Top of the list, though, would have to be Lou Reed’s Berlin.

I bought this on vinyl when I was 17, and to this day there’s not an album that can touch it for unremitting bleakness.

The songs are fearlessly uncompromising, covering topics like domestic violence, suicide, drug abuse and distraught kids in broken homes.

Reed writes of personal grief without filter and drags you into a world of pain with no attempt to make this suffering seem glamorous or cool.

The penultimate track – The Bed – is ,quite simply, one the most chilling songs ever written; the bed being the place where children were conceived and the mother later cut her wrists (“that odd and fateful night”).

The album was panned by the critics. Rolling Stone’s Stephen Davis described it as one of “certain records so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them…a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide.”

But Reed had the last laugh.Berlin was later reappraised by the same magazine to rank as number 344 in the 500 greatest albums of all time.

It all closes with the regal splendour of Sad Song. In 1981, when I saw New Order play one of their first live performances at The Forum Ballroom , London after the death of Ian Curtis, they played this track in its entirety immediately before coming on stage and it set the low-key mood perfectly.

Many who bought the album on the strength of Reed’s hits Walk On The Wild Side and Transformer,  perceived it as an insult but I’ve always felt it to be a far superior record.

It established beyond doubt that Reed wasn’t about to play the part of a glam-rock star.

Julian Schnabel’s film is a fairly straight concert movie, made extraordinary by virtue of the fact that the songs are so unique and are played so flawlessly.

It was filmed at St Ann’s Warehouse in New York and features backing from a seven piece orchestra , a children’s choir (The Brooklyn Youth Chorus) and a kick ass rock band led by guitarist Steve Hunter. Surrounded by such top-notch musicians, Lou is clearing having a blast even though he remains stony faced throughout.

The movie closes with three encores : Candy Says, a marvellous duet with Antony Hegarty; Rock Minuet, a song from the album Ecstasy, which opens with a line that could have come from Berlin: “Paralysed by hatred and a piss ugly soul”). The band play out with a fine, yet fairly restrained, version of Sweet Jane.

Inevitably, in this setting ,and with such big arrangements, the Berlin song cycle sounds less tortured than on record, although it still retains its power and integrity after all these years.

The movie is currently available to watch online on You Tube:

Advertisements