Mean Streets: Lou Reed – The RCA & Arista Albums Collection

A version of this album review ran in Uncut magazine, October 2016


“All through this, I’ve always felt that if you thought of it all as a book, then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter…You take the whole thing stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel. It tells you all about me, of growing up in the Sixties, Seventies and now the Eighties. That’s what it was like for one person, trying to do the best he could, with all the problems that go along with everybody.”

That’s Lou Reed, talking with writer Bill Flanagan in 1984 in a quote reproduced among the memorabilia in the handsome book accompanying this big black box, compiling most (not quite all) of the albums Reed released in his first 16 years as a solo artist.

To stretch the analogy, the appearance of this set effectively breaks Lou’s lifelong novel into three volumes; an In Search Of Lost Time in Aviator shades. Volume I, of course, is the 1960s and the Velvet Underground. Vol. III is the stubbornly unwieldy elder statesman era that commenced as the 1980s ended with two very different works of genius – 1989’s New York and 1990’s brilliant John Cale reunion, Songs For Drella – and concluded with 2011’s Metallica collaboration, Lulu, a record that revived a noble tradition stretching back to Reed’s earliest recordings: nobody got it except David Bowie.

Here, however, is the daunting and thrilling prospect of the monumental Vol. II: the 1970s and 80s, when things got as wild, strange and impossible to pin down as they ever did with Lou Reed. Among the chapters included, after all, is Metal Machine Music, and elsewhere come paragraphs where he does nothing but chant the words “disco mystic” at you over and over again (the stupefying “Disco Mystic,” from 1979’s mad and mysterious The Bells), or brag about how good he is at playing Robotron 2084 (the video game doo wop “Down At The Arcade,” from 1984’s hugely underrated New Sensations, the Loaded of ’80s Lou).

It starts tentatively enough, with 1972’s self-titled solo debut on RCA, his return to music after – as Reed later relates in an epic monologue during “Walk On The Wild Side” on 1978’s phenomenal Live: Take No Prisoners – he had quit for two years, to work as a typist in his father’s firm for $40 per week.

For some Velvet Underground fans, the big stumbling block in getting to grips with Reed’s subsequent work is that it is never the Velvets again – even when, as he continued to do for a decade, he would sometimes rework discarded old VU songs. The majority of the Lou Reed LP’s tracks were originally recorded in superior versions by the Velvets, but those recordings remained unreleased and unheard until the 1980s, so it’s a little baffling that the album received such short shrift critically. True, there is something very uncertain in the way Reed tries on different singer-songwriter garbs. But the production is clean, the songs strong, and “I Can’t Stand It” still rocks pretty hard.

Still, the explosion in confidence of Transformer remains staggering. It’s a classic, of course, but the question of how much it is “a Lou Reed record,” and how much a Bowie/ Ronson production remains. Certainly, it seemed to nag Reed following the subsequent commercial failure of his painstaking magnum opus Berlin, when he made records he professed to hate, and they sold more than anything he’d ever done: the live Rock N Roll Animal, and the trashy Sally Can’t Dance, supposedly tossed together in the studio, yet containing one of his most piercingly personal songs, “Kill Your Sons” – and sounding surprisingly good in total when you revisit it today.

The crisis peaked with Metal Machine Music and was wiped away in those waves of white noise. Lou at his poppest and softest (unless you count the killer “Kicks,” about a psychopath who finds violent murder a bigger turn on than sex), the following Coney Island Baby was his strongest rock and roll since the late Velvets, and its gorgeous title track led toward the increasingly personal writing of the increasingly experimental, fusion-flirting albums he made when he left RCA for Arista: Rock And Roll Heart (on which “Ladies Pay” reveals how closely he had been listening to Patti Smith, and “Temporary Thing” is a buried classic), the truly great and awkward “Binuaral” trilogy, Street Hassle, Take No Prisoners and The Bells, and Growing Up In Public.

Recorded after doctors warned him he had to clean up, or was is in serious risk of dying, the latter is, like Metal Machine Music, another seeming full stop. Drawing the curtain on his wild side 1970s, it plays like a rounding up, potentially Reed’s last album. More than two years would pass before he reemerged and returned to RCA into another mini-era: sober, stripped down, and, hooking up with ex-Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine to return to “two guitars, bass and drums,” for the (just slightly overrated) Blue Mask and the (somewhat undervalued) Legendary Hearts.

New Sensations was his best since Street Hassle, but few noticed, except maybe Bob Dylan and Sam Shepherd, who, after hearing the album’s “Doin’ The Things That We Want To,” were moved to write the song that became Dylan’s epic “Brownsville Girl” as a response. But the 80s production helped ensure the follow-up, Mistrial, was a dip from which no one could have predicted that the triumph of New York was looming on the horizon.

There is a lot to process in this box. But in an era when deluxe box sets are growing evermore arcane and expansive, it’s worth stating clearly that – aside from the excellent book, some reproduction prints, and an excitingly large old RCA poster – what you get here is pretty much what it says on the lid: just the albums, as originally released.

There are no demos or outtakes, no unreleased songs or alternative mixes – something collectors might find frustrating, especially given that earlier anniversary re-issues of individual albums like Transformer, Sally Can’t Dance and Coney Island Baby came augmented with valuable bonus tracks from the relevant sessions.

Perhaps, as Reed’s widow Laurie Anderson and comrades get to grips with the rumoured “800 hours” of audio that Reed left in his archive, the rarities collections and live sets will come. (Please: put together a box of all the shows he recorded at the Bottom Line in 1978 for Take No Prisoners, in the style of Coltrane’s Complete Village Vanguard Recordings.)

For the moment, however, the big draw here is Reed’s own involvement. Unhappy with the treatment of his back catalogue in the digital age he devoted the last summer of his life to personally supervising the remastering of these albums, work carried out in New York City across June and July 2013, in sessions recalled with great warmth and humour by his collaborator Hal Wilner in the essay that opens the accompanying book: “Listening to each record and hearing Lou’s reactions, one could hallucinate back to the time they were made…The ghosts from the different eras were in the room…”

Two live albums are missing: Lou Reed Live (released in 1975, it’s basically Rock N Roll Animal II, featuring more songs recorded at the same 1973 performance); and 1982’s Live In Italy, a document of the Quine-era band, originally released only in Europe and Japan. We can only assume that Lou didn’t have time to get around to those two.

But this mighty thing is the writer sitting down and doing one intense final proofreading, preparing the definitive, corrected, authorised edition of the novel. And, possibly, having one last sly laugh as audiophiles gather to scrutinise the new version of Metal Machine Music. (I dunno, to my ears it sounds…warmer than before…) As far as the remastering goes, it is the Arista years that benefit most ­­– the binaural records in particular sound better than they ever have on CD. But the real achievement of this box might simply be how it shines a light on those semi-lost albums, and sends listeners back to listen again to this period of ever-changing periods. Take the whole thing, stack it, and listen to it in order. There are problems, sure. But there are worse ways to lose time.