Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Lou Reed - The Bells
For some strange reason, I went through a heavy Lou Reed phase my first year of high school. It started after rummaging through a few of my uncle’s albums that were left behind at my Grandparent’s house and there, in between a copy of Frank Zappa’s Weasels Ripped My Flesh and The Who’s Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy was a copy of The Best of Lou Reed.
Later on, that same Uncle left a cassette copy of Lou Reed’s Sally Can’t Dance in his car, a Renault Le Car if you remember those, and he lent me the keys so I could sit inside and listen to it on the car stereo. Don’t ask, I was young, and it was cooler to listen to it in his car rather than bring the tape in and listen to it on my own stereo.
I liked both albums, but I absolutely loved Reed’s Transformer album after a friend put it on the back of a Maxell cassette, which housed Never Mind The Bullocks on the other side. I don’t need to tell you that I wore that cassette out as the pair of albums proved to be hugely influential and were played incessantly.
And while the Pistols’ catalog pretty much dropped off after Bullocks, there was plenty to discover with Reed and with his former band, The Velvet Underground. I got The Blue Mask from a friend who bought it on a whim, hated it, and sold it to me for a buck. I bought the 8-Track….yes you heard right…of Sally Can’t Dance for a quarter at a pawn shop. It was brand new and I made a cassette copy of the 8-Track (minus the program changes) which made the fidelity pretty awful. I also found a cassette copy of Lou Reed’s The Bells at a different pawn shop for a buck and immediately bought it with no idea as to what I was buying.
Because, and you need to know this about Lou Reed, one can never be too careful when examining his solo work. I’ll post a review, actually, it’s a comment that I posted on Prindle’s website several years ago, that alludes to this fact but I originally discovered this with The Bells.
For reasons unknown to me know, I remember liking this album at the time. I seriously think it’s because I forced myself to spend some time with it. I didn’t have a lot of disposable income back then, so when I bought an album, even if it was only a buck, I spent a great amount of time listening to it, repeatedly, before shelving it. If you didn’t like an album, there’d better be a goddamn good reason why you didn’t like it because you can’t just piss money away.
And I do remember playing it to the point where the felt thing that pushed the tape against the tape head, eventually fell off, creating weird aural effects in the process.
Listening to The Bells now, I wonder if I was just completely drugged up in my original assessment.
Because I had such fond memories of this 1979 release from Lou, I put it on my Amazon wish list and contemplated spending money on getting a new copy of it. Don’t ever do that, particularly with any Lou Reed album.
Trust me, because a reprised review of The Bells proved to be an example of “What was I thinking” to the point where I really considered that I may have been going through a period of manic depression to actually enjoy an album of such torture.
You will hear Reedphiles claim that The Bells is actually a high point in Lou’s catalogue and one of his best albums of the 70’s. These people are insane. Do not listen to them.
The Bells is nothing more than a completely out-of-tune-and-completely-not-giving-a-shit-about-it Lou over a curious jazz-fusion arrangement lovingly captured by horrifically dated production values. And if that written explanation isn’t enough to scare you away, your first encounters with listening to The Bells will most certainly be enough to frighten you.
Grab a friend or loved one and go to Amazon.com and play a brief sample of the opening track “Stupid Man.” Watch their face as they cringe while Lou sings off-key, matching the word “man” phonetically with “Saskatchewan.” After the 30 second sample is over, ask them what they thought; it’s like your own little version of an auditorium test. If you’re loved one’s reaction is anything like my wife’s, you’ll get a scowl followed by the television volume increasing. I’m willing to bet you’ll have similar results and, here’s the thing, “Stupid Man” is one of the better songs on the album.
“City Lights” is Lou’s homage to Charlie Chaplin, and in the hands of a better singer, it might be a pretty good song. Reed, however, sings it in a key too low for him (think the “Elvira” dude from the Oak Ridge Boys) to the point where even the saxophone that tweeters around the song sounds like even its out of tune.
Then there’s “All Through The Night,” a track that finds Reed inexplicitly incorporating banter between the band members throughout the song, thereby distracting any chance of the listener following either the lyrics or the musicians.
Who happen to be notable, by the way: legendary jazz man Don Cherry plays a key role and even Nils Lofgren helps with several other meticulous session players that can’t do a damn thing to help make The Bells somewhat accessible to people with hearing.
Because of this, I’m still strangely drawn to it. For example, I went around the house singing “Stupid Man” to the wife (who immediately asked “What are you saying?” after I did it) in my best, off-key Lou Reed voice. I did the same thing for “City Lights,” but that was usually in the car with no one around.
I also think the throwaway, “Disco Mystic,” is actually pretty good and would consider throwing it on a mix tape.
But the pinnacle is the title track, a nine-minute tour de force exploration of free jazz and Reed’s whiney upper register, barking out “Here comes the bells!” It’s one of Reed’s strangest tracks ever, and it hints that Lou can be capable of surprises, even when he’s coked out of his mind and completely incapable of holding down a linear thought.
This is, at the end of it, the only lasting appeal of The Bells. The fact that it is so blatantly tuneless and uncommercial is amazing, as it was originally released on Clive Davis’ Arista Records. Clive is notorious for associating commercial success with greatness, so I find it amusing that Clive and his minions must have had to sit around and listen to this thing when Reed delivered it to them, desperately looking for some sentiment of a “hit” within the album.
In reality, The Bells is a one star album for anyone besides Lou Reed fans. Trust me, you’ll hate it. And I’m a Lou Reed fan, so I’m rating it a little higher. The only reason why is because there are some moments on The Bells in which I do find curious and will probably return to on occasion. If anything, I’ll listen to see if I can find that illusive reason why I found it so endearing when I was younger. Or I’ll finally discover that I was just stupid, man.