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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan

Hammersmith Apollo, London, July 1st 2007

I recollect that Lou Reed’s 1972 album Transformer, produced by Mick Ronson and David Bowie, was a mandatory fashion accessory when I went to college the following year, along with tight bottomed flared trousers, clogs, and rolled up copies of Socialist Worker (“Socialist Worker!”).

I remember equally clearly that almost no-one bought the follow up, the commercially calamitous Berlin, or if they did it soon found its way to the back of the line of vinyl (remember vinyl?) long players stacked against the wall.Transformer, with songs like ‘Walk on the wild side’ poised Reed for stardom. Berlin was his characteristically uncompromising riposte, a dark and inaccessible ‘concept’ piece that lost sales faster than the Titanic lost passengers. Time, of course, is not only a healer, it’s also a lens through which critics are able to reappraise their judgements; Rolling Stone, for example, commented thus on the albums release: “Reed’s only excuse for this performance…can only be that this was his last shot at a once-promising career.” Now it calls Berlin the “Sergeant Pepper of the 70s”. So in the course of time Berlin has gone from misjudged disaster to critical masterpiece – not I suspect that many more folks have bought it as a result. But it has encouraged Reed to bring it to the stage, with the assistance of the increasingly ubiquitous musical producer Hal Willner (“Where’s Willner?” says Reed at the end, taking a much deserved ovation, “we couldn’t have done this without Willner”).
Lou Reed albums
Transformer, Berlin, New York
Now let me be clear that I have never greatly admired Reed. I’ve always felt he was hugely over-rated (not least by himself), and that his pseudo intellectual projects and ramblings (or was he, as they say here, “taking the piss”?) were inexcusably over indulged by a music press who chose to be cowed by his famously grumpy demeanour. Which reminds me of an interview on BBC TV just before this show, when some obsequious and sycophantic presenter asked Reed, “So Lou, do you think it would be right to describe Berlin as the world’s first concept album?” To give him credit I think he did suppress a grin before answering “No”. Anyway – my caveat would have to be my admiration for his 1983 album New York, which I would probably nominate as the best musical biography of a city you could buy, wonderfully written, played and produced.
Strangely the theatre’s only half full (maybe everyone’s at Wembley rocking with the two young princes, Sir Elton, Sir Tom and the no doubt soon to be Dame Lily). A screen behind the band’s kit is showing a hypnotic film loop of crashing breakers and undulating waves – enough to get the beer drinkers’ bladders working overtime. Did I mention it’s our first non-smoking gig? Reed takes the stage promptly at 8.00. His band are a mixture of old-timers including Steve Hunter who played guitar on the original Berlin album. There are long time collaborators Tony ‘Thunder’ Smith on drums (who, I notice, played for Serge Gainsbourg back in the seventies), Fernando Saunders on bass and Rob Wasserman on string bass (he played on New York). Katie Krykant, swathed in red, is backing vocalist. On keyboards, and leading the band is producer and arranger Rupert Christie. He’s got some job, and it’s not only keeping Reed and Co. in order. The screen is raised to reveal on the left a seven piece string and brass section (borrowed from the London Metropolitan Orchestra) and on the right a dozen choristers, from the New London Children’s Choir. Behind them is a wonderfully eclectic backdrop (including a hanging sofa) designed by New York artist Julian Schnabel – onto it is projected a film narrative of the story made by his daughter Lola.
The story? Well if you didn’t know it’s a ferociously depressing tale of boy meets girl going badly wrong, set in Berlin, a city which at the time Reed had never visited but which (like the Dubonnet on ice in the opening song, which he had never drunk) had captured his imagination.
Caroline, the main protagonist, is abused, falls into drug addiction and prostitution, has her children taken away, and eventually, if I’m reading things right, tops herself. Gloomy indeed. But it’s a full-on performance that I find difficult to criticise. Maybe Hunter was given rather too much space for his slightly indulgent solos, but apart from that the band were superb, the orchestra rocked and the incongruously virginal choir superb. Reed cut a curious figure – slouching onto the stage he straightened up to reveal a somewhat over-developed upper body and a paunch that wouldn’t have been out of place in the public bar of the Distillers Arms (yes, we’re near the site of H & J Haig’s Hammersmith Distillery, acquired by the DCL in 1910 and used by them for distilling grain spirit and for research into industrial alcohols) round the corner, which was nicely hidden by his guitar. Dubonnet
Like Bulldog Drummond he smiled grimly. His singing took off slowly, but after a couple of songs his performance was outstanding, delivering his splenetic lyrics with a mono-tonal expressiveness and verve that was truly captivating. ‘Men of good fortune’ and ‘The kids’ (“They’re taking her children away, because they said she was not a good mother”) stood out particularly for me, the latter with a perfectly matched piece of film was timeless and heart-wrenching. And I never thought I’d say that about Lou Reed. I even enjoyed his single string droning solos.
It was pleasing to see the genuine sense of pleasure and achievement that the band shared at the end of the performance because they had put on quite a show. So had the swaying and gently rocking choir (how jealous must their school friends be?) many of whose Mums seemed to be sitting (actually standing and waving their arms hysterically) around us. And when Reed slouched his band back for an encore of ‘Sweet Jane’, ‘Satellite of Love’ and particularly ‘Walk on the wild side’ they almost stole the show, and gave Reed occasion to change one of the most famous lyrics in the history of rock and roll to “all the nice girls sing”. In summary – I would find it hard to find room for Berlin either on my shelf or i-Pod, but I would find it equally difficult to resist an opportunity to see this exceptional performance again. By the time you read this the European tour will be almost over, but if he tours the show again either here or in the USA I would commend you to go and see it without hesitation. Just don’t expect too many laughs. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)

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