The man who hated everyone turns up the heat on stunning live show
Recorded at The Academy of Music, New York City, on 21st December, 1973, and released the following year, Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal was arguably Lou Reed’s grandest, most majestic statement yet. Berlin, in contrast, was dark, claustrophobic, and dysfunctional, just the way Lou often liked his narratives, yet whereas Animal retains much of the sinister subject matter oft found in Reed’s best work, here he has behind him an absolute cracker of a backing group: Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter (guitars), Prakash John (bass), Ray Colcord (keyboards), and Pentti Glen (drums).
And while none of the above were credited on the original album release (contractual disputes?), each definitely deserves some kind of musical achievement award in helping to transform Reed’s normally reserved, almost spoken-word delivery into something far more soaring and sonically impressive.
A muscular “Sweet Jane” opens side one, where the twin guitars of Hunter and Wagner make it clear that this would be a Lou Reed concert like no other. Gone was much of the maudlin, windowless, lo-fi insouciance of The Velvet Underground, replaced instead by a far broader junkie landscape. The morally topical “Heroin,” at 13 minutes, is arguably the album’s centrepiece, and a menacing one at that. Underpinned by a perfidious organ, the twin guitar attack of Hunter and Wagner meld and mesh into the stratosphere, as if to simulate the act of taking a hit, and the pure adrenalin rush that comes with it. In one word – superb.
On side two we have another ode to illicit substances in the form of “White Light/White Heat,” a primordial supernova of power chords reminiscent of Bowie when he fell from Mars. The heroin references continue with a fine performance of “Lady Day,” a version less intimate than that heard on Berlin, but much bolder musically. The LP finishes with a rousing “Rock ‘N’ Roll,” an energetic, driving rocker obviously designed at getting the audience’s juices flowing.
The remaster has given us two bonus tracks, a brawny “How Do You Think It Feels,” and “Caroline Says I,” which also originally appeared on Berlin, welcomely pad out what was already a perfect album to begin with.
That Lou Reed had something of an obsession with social entropy goes without saying, whose observations of the gutter and alley ways of humanity, not to mention “faggots, junkies and sadists,” as Rolling Stone critic Timothy Ferris once put it, in Reed’s world, meant there was little in the way of pleasantries, much less what one might describe as genuine happiness. Drawing inspiration from other people’s misery and dysfunction was Reed’s forte, and on Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal, he managed to transform life’s despair into one glorious, albeit brief hedonistic celebration.