Do they still ring 40 years later?
Lisa Robinson: “So what do you think Arista will do for you that RCA didn’t?”
Lou Reed: “Sell records.”
Interview in Hit Parader
A few months after Lou Reed died, David Letterman asked Clive Davis, the founder of Arista Records, about his relationship with the legendary artist. Davis was quick to respond with a sincere encomium: “He was truly one of the real originals of contemporary music.” But things were not so simple in 1976, when Reed signed with Arista. While there was mutual respect in their relationship, there was also, as hinted at in Reed’s interview with Lisa Robinson, the ugly specter of financial necessity. There was even a rumor that Davis had bailed Reed out of bankruptcy to seal the deal. Getting one of rock’s poet laureates on the roster would also help lend downtown cred to the still-fledgling label, which had already signed Patti Smith and would soon scoop up Iggy Pop.
In the end, what transpired at Arista was not too different than what happened during the first years with RCA: a mixed bag of records that occasionally hit the heights we expected from the man who founded the Velvet Underground – with the noted omission of a Top 20 hit like “Walk On The Wild Side.” The peak of the four studio albums Reed released on Arista was undoubtedly 1978’s Street Hassle, also one of a handful of his solo albums that more than holds its own with the best of the Velvets. While that album gained a lot of respect from critics (far more than Rock And Roll Heart, the rather humdrum Arista debut from 1976), there weren’t even any singles selected for release from its tough, hilarious and brilliantly bleak songs.
Street Hassle was followed up that same year by Take No Prisoners, a live album I love but that people are still arguing about due to the monologues, jokes and insults (“Fuck Radio Ethiopia, I am Radio Brooklyn,” he says to wild applause – Patti Smith was just one of his victims) that intersperse and interrupt the songs. Whatever your opinion, the album unquestionably served to highlight how monstrously good his Arista band could be. The core began with Michael Fonfara, a journeyman keyboard player mainly known for the group Rhinoceros and his session work, including Stories We Could Tell, a 1972 Everly Brothers album Reed apparently admired. Fonfara had done some stellar work on Sally Can’t Dance, Reed’s 1975 excursion into funk, soul and folk. Michael Suchorsky, the drummer on Coney Island Baby, perhaps Reed’s most gossamer-light effort, made the transition from the RCA years as well. Before joining Reed, Suchorsky had formed a jazz fusion group called the Everyman Band with bassist Bruce Yaw and Marty Fogel, a versatile horn player who provided another musical foil for Reed’s guitars on most of the Arista albums.
VIDEO: Everly Brothers – Stories We Could Tell
Fonfara, Fogel and Suchorsky, along with bass player Ellard “Moose” Boles, who had joined up after Yaw quit during Street Hassle session, spent much time on the road in 1978-79, forging them into a formidable unit by the time they entered Delta Studios, a high tech facility located in Wilster, the cattle country of northern Germany. They were joined by a surprise addition: Don Cherry, a brilliant trumpeter and musical explorer who had helped establish free jazz during his time with Ornette Coleman in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Cherry’s pioneering spirit had made him a hero to Reed, but it was a mutual friendship with Fogel that helped the two become acquainted in 1976. Cherry and Reed had bonded during some concerts around that time, but this would be their first chance to record together.
VIDEO: Lou Reed and Don Cherry Live 6.6.1979
There were two other main factors in the run up to recording The Bells. The first was a strange writing partnership that had developed between Reed and Nils Lofgren, who was struggling to make his mark as a solo artist after rising to prominence as one of Neil Young’s key sidemen. Bob Ezrin, who had produced Reed’s Berlin and was working on Lofgren’s latest, introduced them, leading to a late-night phone call that resulted in 13 songs. This probably thrilled Clive Davis, who often encouraged collaborations with his artists (Aretha and Keith Richards, anyone?), and in the end all but one of the nine songs on The Bells were co-writes, either with Lofgren, Cherry, or members of the band. The second factor was Davis’s attraction to dance music, making it almost an inevitability being on Arista would cause Reed to at least nod to disco and funk. Lou’s pimped-out attire at the release party for Rock And Roll Heart and his onstage praise for Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover” were also hints!
It’s unclear how long the men were in the studio, chosen because of Reed’s fascination with something called “Stereo Binaural Sound,” a method invented by engineer Manfred Schunke, which involved human-like heads with recording microphones embedded in meticulously crafted “ear canals.” SBS relied on precision placement of the heads in the studio and some of the reason for the unique sound of Street Hassle was the result of matching recordings made live and in two different studios, using careful notation to place the heads just so. They wouldn’t have that issue with The Bells, which also found Reed becoming more confident with the Roland guitar synthesizer he had started using on the road. While Stuart Heinrich had played guitar on the previous two albums and on the road, he was MIA for The Bells, making Reed the only guitarist on the album.
When the album came out, with Reed staring from the cover through eyes unmediated by blur or sunglasses, it was mostly well-received, initially gaining even more acclaim than Street Hassle from two of rock’s leading critics. Lester Bangs, writing in Rolling Stone, first calls Reed a “prick and a jerkoff” and then gets very excited about The Bells, calling it “great art” and congratulating Reed on achieving his “his oft-stated ambition — to become a great writer, in the literary sense.” In the Village Voice, Robert Christgau gave it a B+, stating “I haven’t found him so likable since The Velvet Underground.” There were signs of trouble in Christgau’s review, however, when he pointed out that “at least three or four” of the cuts “don’t work.” And Greil Marcus, also writing in the Voice, wasn’t feeling it at all, remarking that The Bells “doesn’t touch” Street Hassle or Take No Prisoners, praising only the title track and calling the rest “unfocused” and “aimless.”
From Clive Davis’s perspective, the album was a complete failure, selling worse than its predecessor and not even hitting Billboard’s Hot 100. Two singles were released from The Bells, “Disco Mystic” and “City Lights,” both failing to chart. Then again, to give it some context, The Blue Mask, a fantastic album from 1982, did even worse in Billboard. But with Davis being a relentlessly commercial record man and Lou being unable or unwilling to deliver a hit song, it’s no surprise that their relationship ended in acrimony a year later, with Reed yelling at Davis from the stage of the Bottom Line: “I need money to live!”
VIDEO: Lou Reed – Men of Good Fortune – Live at the Bottom Line 1979
So what’s the answer? Is The Bells a disaster or a masterpiece? Like many of Reed’s solo albums, the truth is somewhere in between. To commemorate its 40th anniversary, I recently confronted The Bells after several years of not listening to it at all, and will now guide you through what I heard. First, I should offer the caveat that I am a HUGE Lou Reed fan – I saw him in concert four or five times and even put Lulu, his benighted collaboration with Metallica, in my top 20 for 2011. I still think it’s one of his finest works (David Bowie agreed!). But I will not hesitate in pointing out how weak most of Transformer‘s second side is and once made a mixtape called The Best of the Worst in an attempt to find the diamonds in the rough on that and his other 70’s albums. So buckle up for a trip through The Bells.
“Stupid Man,” one of the Lofgren co-writes, has a melody almost uniquely unsuited to Reed’s voice or lyrics, which he solves by singing in an irritating quaver. Even if there’s some new emotional territory attempted in the tale of a “stupid daddy” trying to get home to his daughter, the bouncy rhythm and Fogel’s inane burbling on soprano sax bury the sentiment. Thank god it’s a short song! Conversely, “Disco Mystic,” which I used to think was a complete joke, proves to be a work of near-genius, with a lethally churning groove and no lyrics to speak of, just Lou chanting, “Disco, disco mystic” over and over. There’s some neat vocal effects, with his voice moving in and out of the mix, and when an enormous gong starts firing off near the end, it somehow makes perfect sense. It’s not really a disco song, but has its own kind of funk. “Disco Mystic” is credited to the whole band, making me think it arose out of a late-night jam that they somehow molded into greatness.
VIDEO: Lou Reed – I Want to Boogie with You (Live)
“I Want To Boogie With You,” co-written with Fonfara, is another surprise, nearly reaching the grandeur of Street Hassle as Reed pleads his case to the woman of his dreams (“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”) in a street corner serenade that’s as charming as it is sleazy. The backup vocals work a treat, and Reed’s enhanced guitar cuts through the mix like a diamond through glass. This should have been the single – it might have turned the album’s fortunes around. Next up is “With You,” another Lofgren number that Reed sings as if he’s hating every second of it – and he should, just for rhyming “denying,” “trying,” “lying” and “crying,” among other literary crimes. The band seems to have given barely a thought to what they’re doing – aimless and unfocused, just as Marcus noted.
“Looking For Love,” the only song written by Lou alone, tries mightily to work up a head of steam, but its I-IV-V chord changes and repetitive lyrics make me think he was listening to late-period T.Rex and learning all the wrong lessons. At best, it’s a throwaway tune, which is more than you can say for “City Lights,” the final Lofgren collaboration and a shockingly bad song about Charlie Chaplin and…the death of humor in America (?). Fonfara contributes some incredibly annoying keyboards and the only thing of value is the way they used the SBS to project Lou’s voice so far ahead of the band that it almost sounds like an aural hologram. When the whistling comes in at the end, you may find yourself crying, “Why, Lou, why?” Bring on Side Two – stat!
VIDEO: Lou Reed and Don Cherry – All Through the Night (live)
Don Cherry gets a writing credit on “All Through The Night,” although it’s hard to understand how he contributed to its relaxed groove, which is driven by Boles’s bass and interspersed with party chatter, maybe referencing “Kicks” off of Coney Island Baby. The lyrics aim for classic status and miss by this much – the best couplet might be “And some people wait for things that never come, And some people dream of things that’ve never been done, They do it, oh baby, all through the night.” It has the feel of a Street Hassle outtake and more than holds its own in that regard, taking on real stature in the concerts I’ve heard from that era.
At the time, Bangs and others made major claims for “Families,” which started out as a Boles song, but its nagging hook and overall lack of structure make me wonder what they were thinking – or drinking. The lyrics are somehow both too generic and too specific to hit home. Bizarre sentence construction also makes me wonder if Reed had fallen under the influence of Billy Joel: “And by the way, daddy tell me how’s the business, I understand that your stock she’s growing very high.” Is daddy’s business an Italian restaurant? However you look at it, this song, she’s not very good.
The title track ends the album on an intriguingly sepulchral note, with Cherry and Fogel blowing some free jazz over a menacing three-note bass riff and droning synthesized guitar. The keyboards add sparkle and there are mysterious muttered vocals just below the level of intelligibility. After five minutes of that, an epic ascending chord progression begins and Reed starts reciting the words, which are at least interesting even if they don’t add up to much. This song also improved greatly in concert, thanks to supercharged drumming from Suchorsky and wailing, intertwined guitars from Reed and Heinrich lending it true prog-rock majesty.
VIDEO: Lou Reed – Bells (live)
Listening to it now, I can imagine a reality where The Bells was never released and years later “Disco Mystic,” “I Want To Boogie With You,” “All Through The Night,” and “The Bells” ended up as bonus tracks on a deluxe reissue of Street Hassle. In that future, we would have thought there was a great lost Lou Reed album out there, but we would have been wrong. In reality, The Bells, is a typical mid-period album, with the highs just barely edging out the lows. And if you’re thinking there might be some lost Reed classics among the other songs he wrote with Lofgren, think again. His 1979 album, Nils, now blessedly out of print, was weak tea indeed, including the three songs to which Reed contributed. Lofgren’s decision to join the E Street Band as Steve Van Zandt’s replacement a few years later was the right one, again proving his greatness as a sideman. He’s got a new album coming out called Blue With Lou, with five previously unheard Reed collaborations, but I can’t say my hopes are high based on what they each released in the past.
And what lay ahead for Lou Reed? He made one more try with Fonfara & Co. on 1980’s Growing Up In Public, minus Marty Fogel and plus budding “Guitarchitect” Chuck Hammer. It resulted in no more appreciable success commercially speaking, although there were a few decent songs and a new clarity to the sound thanks to the absence of SBS. In a famous and ugly incident, Reed asked Bowie to produce the album only to be told, “Clean up your act.” Reed responded by smacking one of his greatest friends and champions – but maybe he was listening. Within less than two years, he had moved back to RCA and was on the precipice of a new beginning with an all-new band.
VIDEO: Lou Reed – Stupid Man
Note: The Lisa Robinson quote at the beginning and some of the anecdotes were found in Lou Reed & The Velvet Underground by Diana Clapton (1982, Proteus (Publishing) Limited)