Lou Reed's Berlin has been called one of the most depressing, unrelentingly dark albums of all time. Even the high priest of Lou worship, rock journalist Lester Bangs, called it "a gargantuan slab of maggoty rancor." It's got drugs, suicide, and self-abuse galore. So what better fate for this 1973 album than being turned into a lively all-star stage show, right?
All right, it might not be an obvious fate for a dark song cycle about a violent drug addict and his prostitute girlfriend. Not exactly "Cats," is it? But it seems that the time has come for Berlin, an album largely dismissed on its original release. The stage show has gotten good reviews after its debut in New York and performances in Australia – "A work that bristles and aches on record took on a new vitality and even soulfulness in places," wrote The Australian newspaper of the sold-out Sydney show.
Reed had considered a staging of Berlin upon its release, but its savaging by critics and commercial failure ended that dream until now. Joined by the album's original producer, Bob Ezrin, and set creator Julian Schnabel, Reed has expanded the canvas of Berlin by adding a 30-piece band including a string and horn section, a children's choir, and he's even had guest appearances by singers Sharon Jones and Antony Hegarty. This isn't the kind of treatment an album that was a "flop" usually gets.
It's time for a reappraisal of Berlin, and Sony/BMG is offering that chance with a new exclusive "tour" edition of the album, to coincide with the European premier of the Berlin stage show. The limited edition release is in a digipak with the original album packaging reproduced, and the songs digitally remastered.
Listening to Berlin today, it may seem strange that it failed so badly. While dark, it's also vintage Lou Reed – an unflinching look into the abyss, set to an often jaunty beat. But coming on the heels of Reed's hit album Transformer, Berlin was just too much to take it seems. Where Transformer makes the seedy seem stylish, and it's full of a brash cruel cool that defines heroin chic, Berlin is more like the red-eyed, strung-out morning after, all glamor washed away in a haze of sour emotions and unhappy endings.