Lou Reed was still trying to find his voice as a solo artist when he recorded Berlin in 1973. The LP was a rock opera in an era of rock operas and thematic experimentation with the album format. Although the disc was decidedly of its time — and featured the core of guitarists Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter who would record the classic Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal with Reed the next year — it was panned by Rolling Stone upon its release in July 1973.
Nonetheless, Berlin expanded Reed’s following and his reputation as a chronicler of the demimonde and has come to be recognized as a classic in the 40 years since it was recorded. Ironically, it scored at 344 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums in 2003.
Reed’s third solo album remains challenging listening to the casual rock fan. Less challenging than Reed’s 1975 Metal Machine Music, his experiment with electronic noise collage, of course, but Berlin’s narrative isn’t always clear and it’s a radical departure from the raw vitality of the Velvet Underground, which he’d left in 1970, with orchestral arrangements and the horns that would spill into the next year’s Sally Can’t Dance. Reed also capitulated his gnashing guitar, playing only acoustic six-string and leaving the heavy lifting to the über-capable team of Hunter and Wagner.
Berlin ’s story line was also incredibly dark, even for fans of Reed’s grittiest Velvet Underground songs like “Kill Your Sons” and “Heroin.” Once again his characters were drug addicts — Caroline and Jim, a couple in the throes of horrible dysfunction. Jim is a meth addict who beats Caroline. She is also a drug user and cheats on him with other men as she becomes increasingly withdrawn. After her children are taken away by the state, she commits suicide, and Jim reacts with numb nihilism in the set’s concluding “Sad Song,” writing off their relationship as a waste of his time and opining that another lover would have broken both of her arms. Not cheerful.
Berlin , as well as Reed’s other early work, had an obvious influence on punk rock’s thematic sway, as well as on proto-punks like the New York Dolls, and on a gritty, sex-and-drugs school of film and theater directors epitomized by Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant. Although the album pales lyrically and musically alongside such brilliant, better written and highly praised subsequent albums as The Blue Mask (1982), New York (1989) and Magic and Loss (1992), Berlin remains a revered part of Reed’s cannon.
The most tangible evidence of that was a 2006 staging of Berlin as a musical at New York City’s St. Ann’s Warehouse art space in 2006 arranged by the painter Julian Schnabel in collaboration with respected producer, anger and conceptualist Hal Willner as music director and the album’s original producer Bob Ezrin.
Reed and a cast of musicians, including Steve Hunter, breathed life into Berlin’s songbook by performing in front of a video projection screen and stretching out, this time Reed sparring with Hunter on electric guitar. The New York Times reviewed the performance favorably, but it has yet to be staged elsewhere.