Tuesday, 15 September 2015
Classic Albums No. 17: Street Hassle
In 1989, Lou Reed released a ‘comeback’ album called “New York”. Critics queued up to worship at it’s altar, whilst Reed himself provided some very brief sleeve notes about it being a return to the basic 3-man “guitar, bass, drums” rock band set up. Reed was newly signed to Warners offshoot Sire Records, and it was one of three glorious releases Warner Brothers put out the same year, alongside “Like A Prayer” and “Batman”.
By the end of the year, one of Reed’s former labels, RCA, decided to cash in on Reed’s new found fame, by issuing a compilation LP called “Retro”. Now, there may have been some record company ‘issues’ going on, but with the exception of mid-80s fluke hit 45 “I Love You Suzanne”, EVERYTHING on the record dated from a period between 1972 and 1976. Had Reed been so unproductive in the following 13 years that he only managed one album?
In the days before the internet, you had to work harder to find out what you had missed - and when. And slowly but surely, the gaps began to get filled in. I found myself in a record shop in Reading in December 1991, where I picked up a copy of the 1984 double-LP “Live In Italy”. It had the hits on it, Velvets tunes and a load of songs I had never heard of - these were songs that I later found out had been featured on what was, at the time, Lou’s latest studio venture, 1983’s “Legendary Hearts”. When I saw Lou on his 1996 tour, he wheeled out the title track of 1984’s “New Sensations”. I heard people, some time later, talking with great excitement about 1982’s “The Blue Mask”. The video for “No Money Down”, from 1986’s “Mistrial”, got the Beavis and Butthead treatment.
If we add to the mix 1980’s “Growing Up In Public”, then that was the eighties sorted out. But what about the late 70’s? Well, I did hear a story about the tour to support 1979’s “The Bells”, where during one show at the Hammersmith Odeon, Lou and his band apparently finished with a lengthy heavy metal jam, done seemingly to infuriate the crowd so much, that they would take it as their cue to leave. And I eventually heard about “Rock And Roll Heart”, the first Reed album to appear on Arista in 76, but only that it was a so-so, passable follow up to the sublime “Coney Island Baby”.
Before she moved out to Norfolk, my sister Sharon lived in Leytonstone, and then Harold Wood - both on the edges of London. Me and my mum would go to visit every so often, where I would rummage through her record collection. I remember seeing a copy of an album by Lou called “Take No Prisoners”, which despite being released whilst Reed was still signed to Arista in the UK, was some form of Dutch pressing on RCA. I think she said that it was a hard album to find, and this was the only way she had been able to get a copy. It explains also how several of the Genesis albums I inherited from her when she got married were pressed in Portugal.
I borrowed the record and taped it off her to have a listen (she would eventually buy me a CD copy some years later which, again, was a European RCA pressing that she had had to trawl the internet for - this was an album that, quite obviously, was not as common to find as “Transformer” in any form). It was a strange record. On several songs, Reed would launch into the opening chords of one of his most famous songs, then stop to tell jokes and rant about rock critics. There is a 17 minute long version of “Walk On The Wild Side”, during which Reed manages no more than about half the lyrics of the song, spending the rest of time doing his rock star / stand up comedian routine, as the band just plays the riff over and over.
Whilst this is, in it’s own way, kind of entertaining, it’s a shame - because when, elsewhere on the record, Reed simply decides to play something straight, the effect is devastating. The version of “Berlin” that is on here, is based on the original ’rock and roll’ version on the self titled debut LP, and it’s rocks hard. The LP was compiled from a series of shows Reed had played at the Bottom Line club in New York in May 1978 - again, another story I heard about these shows was that on one night, he turned up late, got heckled before he had even played a note, and that set the tone for the evening. Whether or not the “rambling” versions of the hits on “TNP” were from this show, or whether or not Reed was routinely treating his back catalogue with a sort of bored disdain, I am not sure. But the album did prove that when Reed and his band let rip, they were nothing short of unstoppable.
Included on here were three songs that had appeared in studio form on the album Reed was promoting at the time of the Bottom Line shows - 1978’s “Street Hassle”. They were three of the most impressive pieces of work on the whole LP. Side 1 offered the politically incorrect “I Wanna Be Black”, an anti-racism rant which has it’s origins, as you’d expect in typical Reed style, in black music - specifically Soul Music, just check out those E Street style horns - whilst featuring the sort of lyrics that nowadays, in this world of social media, would have had the less than intelligent types berating Reed for being stereotypical, or possibly even being an actual racist himself (“I wanna be black...and have a big prick too”) but which actually paints a darker picture of the USA (“wanna be like Martin Luther King, and get myself shot in spring”). Then there was the snarling, scowling, one chord wonder that was the closing “Leave Me Alone”, in which Reed seemingly demands the entire world, well, leave him alone. I get it Lou, I get it. But arguably the masterpiece was the 10-minute-plus multi-part rock opera that was “Street Hassle”, complete with more lyrics that even now sound shocking (“hey, that cunt’s not breathing”), but whose main selling point was it’s almost poetic, and epic, form of song writing - building and building to a big climax, and despite it’s lengthy running time, something that felt like it was all over all too quickly.
Round about the time that the Virgin Megastore chains were turning into Zavvi, I recall going into their shop in Birmingham on a weekly basis in the mid-noughties. They were having a clearout. “Less celebrated” CD’s were being knocked out at a fiver a pop. Those late 70’s Lou ones were all there. Looks can be deceiving, but there seemed to be something of a “who cares” attitude that surrounded these records. They, despite all originally coming out on the same label in the UK, were now on slightly different labels. “Rock And Roll Heart” had been repackaged quite nicely to make it look swish, with the legend “A 70’s Classic” printed on a sticker on the front, but I wasn’t so sure - I’d never heard anybody claim it to be better than, say, “Sally Can’t Dance”. Both it and “The Bells” had been reissued on a relatively obscure label called Buddha Records, which suggested the main division of Arista didn’t care a great deal for it (although the labels were all part of a bigger conglomerate).
“Street Hassle” was also in there. It had suffered the biggest indignity. Whilst the other pair had been given the fancy reissue treatment to at least try to revamp them for a new generation, this one was the very same CD edition that had been made back in the early 90s. The original album cover, for reasons unknown, had been shrunk in size, and placed inside a thick, sky blue coloured border. It had a copyright date for when it had been pressed (1992), which sort of showed how long it had been left in the wilderness when compared to the more recent reissues of it‘s cousins. It didn’t really have anything approaching what you might call sleeve notes - this was par for the course with 80s/90s bog standard CD pressings (check out all those almost lo-fi Cohen and Dylan reissues that CBS used to toss out without any real care in the same period), so you just got a fold over piece of card attempting to act like a booklet, with the track listing and nothing else. It was the old style silver CD, with no fancy label design. It was almost as if Buddha believed a bit in “RNRH” and “The Bells”, as if they were long lost classics seeking re-evaluation, but cared little for “Street Hassle” and so simply didn’t bother. It was almost as if Arista had, back in 92, just thought, “well, we’d better stick it out on CD - RCA have put “Metal Machine Music” out so we really can’t justify leaving this one out in that case“, and just knocked it up, design wise, during a lunch break. It felt unloved, and uncared for. I bought it to complete the set, and took it home expecting it to just be another one of those ’quite pleasant’ records that you, as a collector, have to buy, but which you are unlikely to go back to very often.
I had a listen to it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. After just one listen, “Street Hassle” had left me gobsmacked. It was - excuse my language - fucking astounding.
History, increasingly, seems to be showing “Street Hassle” as Reed’s REAL long lost classic - perhaps even more so than “The Blue Mask”. It was a record that was released slap bang in the middle of punk by somebody who had been in the industry for well over a decade, but who had succeeded, somehow, in making a record that was far more “punk” than some of the records being made by the so-called “punk” bands. It was far more raucous than, say, any of the records made so far by The Jam and at times, lyrically, far more daring, challenging, and downright brutal than anything on “Never Mind The Bollocks“ or “The Clash“. This was, at times, rock and roll at it’s most cutting edge.
The opening “Gimmie Some Good Times” begins with what is possibly the cleverest first 30 seconds on any album EVER. The riff from “Sweet Jane” kicks in. A heckler (voiced by Reed) shouts the opening line “Hey, if that ain’t the Rock N Roll Animal himself”, whilst Reed, as himself, sings the opening line “standing on the corner...suitcase in my hand”. The album has barely started, and Reed has managed to self-reference both his former band and the name of one of his live solo records without even breaking sweat. This is, without doubt, pop art of the highest order. Total and utter genius.
“Dirt” reminds me of Iggy Pop, a sort of growling, dirgy, snarl that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on “The Idiot”, with guitars that sound like a sort of warped version of the riff that would later be used on Bowie’s “Fashion”, as Reed once again plays with pop culture references so brilliantly, it sounds like he could do this sort of stuff in his sleep...”do you remember that song by a dude named Bobby Fuller...I fought the law and the law won” he slurs. Monumental.
The title track still, all the years after I had first head it, had the power to shock and amaze. The beautiful orchestral intro that extends throughout the first section, the plaintive female vocals that “ooh ooh ooh” away quietly in the middle, the spoken word (and uncredited) passage courtesy of Bruce Springsteen - the King of New York and the King Of New Jersey on the same record, Holy Cow. The middle section is quite violent in it’s imagery (“you know that bitch will never fuck again”) but it’s obviously Reed writing, and speaking, from the perspective of a third person, whose coarse language is simply the way they choose to express themselves, and is, in a way, no different to the vicious language you might get from a Scorsese gangster film. It is, in some respects, an astounding piece of daring art. By the time Springsteen reads out the “tramps like us, we were born to pay” line, in another piece of self-referential pop culture brilliance, and the song starts to slowly build to the climax of it’s 11 minute long journey, it’s difficult not to feel astonished by what you have just heard. Ditto “I Wanna Be Black”. Just as eye wateringly offensive as it was when I first it, it was still just as brilliantly clever lyrically, and musically, as funky as hell.
“Real Good Time Together” was the latest in a long line of re-recordings of, at the time, unissued Velvets tunes by Reed. It starts off with Lou and his guitar wobbling in and out of the speakers, as if it was recorded on a dodgy C90, and the microphone was dangling underwater. Then, as it approaches the finale, you start to hear a more “professional” version approaching slowly, fading in, getting louder and louder until it drowns out the “shaky” version. It’s glorious - full blown, hi-octane, high energy rock and roll, and it is absolutely awesome. Suddenly, the spirit of the rock and roll is in the room, powerhouse drumming, saxophone wailing, and the effect of the change of pace is devastatingly exhilarating.
A number of songs on the album were actually recorded live, or at least partly recorded live, and you can hear the crowd mumbling as “Shooting Star” kicks into life. Probably the one song on the LP that needs more listens to stick in the head than the rest, but still, pretty much flawless. More sax, more growling electric guitar, and more of Lou’s trademark drawling vocal, it sounds like a cross between T Rex, anything off Transformer and mid 70s Bowie. And then you have the masterful “Leave Me Alone”, with it’s sample line “leave me leave me leave me leave me leave me alone” and “John I’m Only Dancing”-esque sax breaks. Also recorded live, it - just like the others - uses this to it’s advantage, the sound booms, it’s simply feels bigger and bolder and brasher and warmer - I apologise if it was actually recorded fully in the studio, but it certainly FEELS live, and not watered down by any tinny production a studio concoction can sometimes produce.
“Wait”, on first listen, sounds like it’s the first take of a demo. But that’s the secret of it’s brilliance. Opening with a none-more-Bruce and the E Street band influenced sax-driven starting section, Lou sounds like he’s on the verge of a breakdown throughout, whilst sounding simultaneously quite sweetly charming and even lovelorn, delivering his lines with an air of almost worryingly edgy vulnerability, whilst a female singer sings a completely different set of lyrics at the same time. There’s so much going on - I love it. It’s both ramshackle, shambolic, and monumentally pop all at the same time. As the female backing vocalists pitch in at the dying end with what I think is a line which goes “I met him on a Sunday”, evoking the spirit of The Ronettes or The Crystals, well, it’s just the most perfect end to a most brilliant album.
I would be lying if I were to claim that “Street Hassle” is better than “Transformer” - after all, that’s the one with “Vicious”, “Andy’s Chest”, “Perfect Day”, “Satellite Of Love” and “Hangin’ Around” on, 36 minutes of glam rock brilliance. But the sheer unexpectedness of “Street Hassle”, an album which until I heard it, had never even come close to registering on those “100 Greatest Albums Ever” polls, and yet when I heard it throughout for the first time, left me open mouthed at the sheer brilliance of it all, is something that should be celebrated. Where had this record been all my life? And why, even now, is it still never mentioned in the same breath as “Rubber Soul”, or “Surf’s Up”, when it’s not far off the greatness of those records - or is, perhaps, actually even better than both? Who knows. But all I can say, is that whenever I go back to this album, which I do far more than “The Blue Mask”, it never ceases to amaze. It is, in it’s own way, one of the great punk records of our time. Albeit one seemingly unknown to most human beings. A crying shame really. Now is your time to discover it.
Oh, and I know it’s been a while now, but Lou, thanks for the music - especially the stuff on this one. Rest In Peace.
Now. For whatever reason, Lou hasn’t had much of a makeover of his back catalogue, with only a handful of releases being given expanded reissues. Others have been repressed to keep them on catalogue, but otherwise look and sound just like they did when they first appeared. But, to try and give you an idea of what is currently available, the list below are what I am 99% certain are the most recent editions of all of Lou’s studio and live albums. I haven’t listed some of his more recent collaborations (the Metallica one, the one recorded by his Metal Machine Music band, etc) but I have listed the John Cale releases (“Drella” and “Bataclan”) because of the obvious VU links. And also because “Drella” is absolutely essential.
You will see a wide variety of labels here - many of them are, nowadays, part of a single bigger outfit...this explains how there are releases on Buddha of both RCA and Arista albums, which in the 70‘s, were completely separate from one another. “American Poet” and “Batalcan” were both originally released by labels to which Lou never had any connection, which probably explains why the most recent releases are on totally different labels as well - it would seem the rights to these recordings are available to anybody who fancies having a go at releasing this material, so don’t be surprised if they reappear on yet another indie label in a few years time. I have not listed the ever growing list of similar “unofficial but not bootleg” live albums that, by being radio broadcasts, also seem to get round copyright issues, as the list of these is difficult to get 100% accurate, so I have left them alone for now.
It’s also worth pointing out that a number of these releases have been included in boxsets that, especially if you want more than one album, are often cheaper than trying to buy a regular single CD release. The latest versions of “Lou Reed” and “Transformer” were included in a 2-in-1 boxset release in late 2002, whilst the run of the five studio albums from the Warners years from “New York” to “Ecstasy” can be bought en masse courtesy of the “Original Album Series” release.
There are two RCA era “Original Album Classics” sets - one which runs from “Lou Reed” to “Coney Island”, although it ignores the live albums and “MMM”, but includes all the bonus tracks from the previous expanded reissues of what is here, and another which covers all the studio and live albums for the period from “Blue Mask” to “Mistrial”. The merging of labels means there is a third one, which includes the expanded “Rock N Roll Animal”, “Rock N Roll Heart”, “The Bells”, “Growing Up” and “Street Hassle” itself. Buying these last four will give you a massive chunk of the back catalogue for less than £60. Which is a lot less than what each of those individual Led Zepp super deluxe reissues have been knocking about for!
LOU LP DISCOGRAPHY
Lou Reed (1972, CD, Camden Deluxe 74321 727122)
Transformer (1972, CD, RCA Heritage 07863 65132 2, 2002 expanded reissue with bonus demos of “Hangin‘ Round“ and “Perfect Day“)
Berlin (1973, CD, RCA 88697 104162)
Rock N Roll Animal (1974, CD, RCA 07863 67948 2, 2000 expanded reissue with previously unissued versions of “How Do You Think It Feels” and “Caroline Says I”)
Sally Can’t Dance (1974, CD, RCA 07863 69383 2, 2001 expanded reissue with unreleased bonus track and single mix of title track)
Lou Reed Live (1975, CD, RCA ND 83752)
Metal Machine Music (1975, CD, Buddha 74465 99752 2)
Coney Island Baby (1976, CD, RCA Legacy 82876 78251 2, 2006 expanded reissue with bonus B-side material and previously unreleased alternate takes)
Rock And Roll Heart (1976, CD, Buddha 74465 99657 2)
Street Hassle (1978, CD, Arista 262 270)
Take No Prisoners (1978, 2xCD, Arista Heritage 07822 10609 2)
The Bells (1979, CD, Buddha 74465 99659 2)
Growing Up In Public (1980, CD, Buddha 74465 99658 2)
The Blue Mask (1982, CD, RCA 07863 542212)
Legendary Hearts (1983, CD, RCA ND 89843)
Live In Italy (1984, CD, Sony/Music On CD 86272 21051, available for some years as a budget price release called “Live In Concert” in a unique p/s, pressings from 2005 reverted to original title in new sleeve, this 2014 release replicates the original vinyl release)
New Sensations (1984, CD, RCA ND 90671, some websites currently advertise a 2013 repressing which may use a different cat number)
Mistrial (1986, CD, RCA ND 90253)
New York (1989, CD, Sire 7599 25829 2)
Songs For Drella (1990, CD, Sire 7599 26140 2)
Magic And Loss (1992, CD, Sire 7599 26662 2)
Set The Twilight Reeling (1996, CD, Sire 9362 46159 2)
Perfect Night: Live In London (1997, CD, Reprise 9362 46917 2)
Ecstasy (2000, CD, Reprise 9362 47425 2)
American Poet (2001, CD, Easy Action 23566 03802, 2005 reissue)
The Raven (2003, 2xCD, Reprise 9362 48373 2)
Animal Serenade (2004, CD, Reprise 9362 48678 2)
Le Bataclan 72 (2004, CD, AEPI 291012 900821, 2013 reissue)
Hudson River Wind Meditations (2007, CD, Sounds True M1117D)
Berlin: Live at St Ann’s Warehouse (2008, CD, Matador OLE 8492)
PS. A Lou UK singles blog will appear on this site at some time. It took me several years to finally get this one on here, so don’t hold your breath.