Through The Ringer: Lou Reed’s The Bells

What bells are these? Are they the same bells the Velvet Underground saw “up in the sky” during “What Goes On” in 1969? Are they the Bells Albert Ayler chased through his fiery free-jazz milestone of 1965? “The Bells” that drove vocalist Clyde McPhatter weeping to his knees in The Dominoes’ unhinged 1952 lachrymose doo-wop classic? The Bells that rolled and tolled and throbbed and sobbed through Edgar Allan Poe’s troubling late poem of 1849?

All these bells ring behind the dense, fizzing grey wash of what might be Lou Reed’s weirdest album (at least with Metal Machine Music, once you settled in, you knew what you were going to get, whereas The Bells just keeps doing things you weren’t expecting), and which, for some, is among his most definitive.

There are cults within the larger cult of Lou, and the most stubborn gathers around this half-forgotten record from the summer of ’79. Some find it a travesty. Others contend that, if you can’t hear The Bells, you never really heard Lou Reed at all. Reed himself might have agreed. He cited the title track as his favourite among all the songs he’d written, while also admitting that he never really wrote it – he improvised the lyrics on the spot at the mic in one take, he claimed, never sure quite where the words came from.

The Bells is a record of lasts. It was the last time Reed would record with the Everyman Band, his core group since Coney Island Baby. It was the reluctant end of his love affair with the binaural process he’d first fallen for with Street Hassle, his last trip to record among the fake heads set up in Manfred Schunke’s farmhouse studio in Germany. Most pertinently, it was the last cameo appearance of that decadent, caustic, speeding scum-punk persona Reed had inhabited across the 1970s – what he described as his “faggot junkie trip.” The Bells is a long, strange, sad goodbye to all that.

It begins, though, like a joke. “Stupid Man” is the first of three songs written in long-distance collaboration with Nils Lofgren, at that point ex-Crazy Horse, not yet E-Street Band, who was introduced to Reed by his old Berlin producer, Bob Ezrin. “He’d send tapes,” Reed explained, “I’d write lyrics.” (Three more Reed-Lofgren compositions appeared on Lofgren’s own 1979 album, Nils.) A more significant collaboration as far as The Bells sounds, however, was that formed in the studio with jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, who had been guesting with Reed live intermittently since 1976, and whom the young Lou first saw playing with his beloved Ornette Coleman in New York in the early 1960s.

Pounding in on bright, rinky-dink electric piano, with Reed’s reedy vocal gibbering witless, rhyming-dictionary lyrics (“Stupid man/ Hitch-hiking out of a good life in Saskatchewan/ And he thinks that he’s got big, big plans…”) “Stupid Man,” with its chorus-line backing vocals and Dixieland parade horns, sounds like the overture for some dumb off-Broadway musical: a parable about an absentee father chasing a foolish adventure, who learns the hard way that there’s no place like home.

Corny as that sounds, though, this is the key to The Bells. A phantom narrative emerges across the album, one that is all about leaving a small town home, about getting away and being glad to be done with it, about throwing yourself deep and long into the rush, excess and harshness of the city and a life of nightlife – and then about finding yourself at a pause, looking back with regret, and realising you can never go home again.

Beamed from the heart of some senseless night out, the second track extends the theme, but also heightens the sense the album is simply going to be a joke, one big sneering put-on. “Disco Mystic,” is as ridiculous as its title. The lyrics, intoned by Reed at his most robo-lobotomised, consist of those two words, repeated over relentless stuttering, strutting horns, banks of synthesised strings and filthy licks from his lead guitar. It’s moronically terrific: the Bee Gees pulverised by Sister Ray. Or vice versa.

It leads into the first truly great moment. “I Want To Boogie With You,” is perhaps not a promising title, but the song is fantastic, a blissful lull in the nightclub night as romance flickers into view. Against a backdrop that finds silvery memories of doo-wop filtering through Phil Spector’s wall of sound, Reed delivers a lyric wonderful in its plain, stoopid, rock’n’roll sincerity: “And I know I ain’t nothing/ I ain’t worth but a thin dime/ But if you put your heart in my hands/ I’m sure that I could change your mind…”

The following two tracks see something speedy and frantic kicking in, a rush of arguments and a last desperate grab for good times before the bell rings for last orders and chucking out. “With You,” another Lofgren co-write, is horrendous. Over music that resembles the funky theme tune for a mid-70s Current Affairs programme, Reed, nasal, near-hysterical, castigates some smartass – possibly himself – for living too much on the edge. “Don’t you think you could be less capricious?/ Unlike you I don’t have no death wish…” It’s like being pinned against a wall and screamed at by an angry Jerry Lewis, although the song does contain one tremendous couplet: “With you, everyone’s a sucker/ With you, it’s fuck-ee or fucker…”

Taken at the same furious pace, led by glammy guitar, a hectic, guttural vocal and lyrics littered with references to Dion, “Looking For Love” is another dumb, Spectorish throwback – for all his binaural sonic obsession, Reed’s heart seemed to yearn to go back to mono – a frugging, groping conga line out the nightclub door and onto the street.

What we used to call Side One ends with the last and most affecting of the Lofgren tunes. Against a toytown musical backdrop, all bouncy bass, kazoos and whistles, “City Lights,” sees our nameless hero wandering home, just getting off on his city twinkling by night. The city lights get him thinking about the Charlie Chaplin movie of the same title, then that sets him to thinking about how the USA drove Chaplin into political exile: “We’re supposed to be a land of liberty…” It’s a barmy, beguiling little thing. But as the bile rises, it’s also one of the first stirrings of the Reed who would emerge on New York.

It’s on Side Two, though, that The Bells gets serious and cuts deep. After the odd, wild night out of the first side, the three closing songs represent the long comedown. “All Through The Night,” is an all-back-to-mine that replays the textural trick from Coney Island Baby’s sinister, uncharacteristic, “Kicks,” coming in on the buzz of chatter taped at some endless grey New York party, snatches of conversation that continue throughout the track.

The talk is smart, bitchy (“… the man aged! He didn’t age gracefully, he aged overnight…”) but when the music kicks in and Reed starts singing, it’s as though he’s suddenly appeared in the corner of the room as a Rod Serling narrator figure, commenting on the Twilight Zone of his own life, acknowledging the thrills and the kicks, but focussing more and more on the ennui screaming beneath: “Don’t you feel so lonely when it’s in the afternoon and you gotta face it all through the night…”

It brings on an aching, hungover moment of remorse and clarity, as the narrator looks up and looks back to the home and the life he left far behind in the suburbs. “Families” is built around a repeated backing chant, “How’s the family…” that at first sounds mocking, but grows melancholy and mournful as it unfolds. Possibly the most nakedly autobiographical song of his career – he even brings in his younger sister, Elizabeth, by name – it’s a one-way conversation between Reed and his parents during a visit home, about the hurts and disappointments they’ve all doled out to each other: “… no, there’s no grandson planned here for you… one more time, I don’t want the family business… we’ve nothing in common except our name… I don’t think that I’ll come home much anymore…” Anyone who ever left home will recognise it. Reed’s vocals come on arch as ever, but when he calls “Mama! Papa!” it’s his equivalent of John Lennon’s primal moment in “Mother.”

He can’t go back home. He can’t go on the way he is. There’s nowhere left to go but “The Bells” itself. The album’s mad, bleak finale, the backdrop is a slight return to the experimentalism of Metal Machine Music, a dash of “The Murder Mystery” (barely audible voices are telling us something beneath the wash of noise), as a nine-minute drone descends, built around synth static, a blunt three-note bass figure, a monstrous gong and Cherry’s scrabbling, scratching Spanish sketches on the horn. Then, finally, at the climax, enters Reed’s phantom of rock voice, with that strange, supposedly improvised tale, about a Broadway actor after his play has ended, plagued by visions, leaping from a window ledge.

“‘The Bells’ is about a suicide,” Reed once said. “But not a bad suicide. It’s an ecstatic moment…” Is The Bells the metaphorical suicide of the Lou Reed of the 1970s? On the cover, he holds a mirror, but looks away from what he sees. Certainly, on the records that followed, a changed man would soon appear – happily married, cleaning up – and he would write different kinds of songs. Ask not for whom The Bells tolls. It tolls for Lou.