Lou Reed - vocals, guitar; Steve Hunter - guitar; Dick Wagner -guitar; Ray Colcord - organ; Peter Walsh - bass; Pentti Glan - drums
After the remarkable commercial success of Lou Reed's 1972 Transformer album, which contained his biggest hit, "Walk on the Wild Side," he then recorded the dark and depressing Berlin album, which although now acknowledged as a classic, was initially met with extremely unfavorable reactions. Nonetheless, Reed fully embraced the moment, deteriorating into alcohol and drug addiction and with David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust as a rough template, recreated himself as the "Rock 'n' Roll Animal," a caricature of what many perceived him to be. His self-deprecation and resentment fueled his performances during this time, and the band he assembled helped to revamp his music, taking it to the level of arena rock, which was met with dismay from many of his Velvet Underground-era fan base. To this day, Lou Reed fans remain divided over this era and Reed's artistic validity on this tour. Still, it remains amongst Reed's most celebrated and controversial tours. The soaring guitars of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, swirling organ of Ray Colcord, and thundering rhythm section of Peter Walsh and Pentti Glan, created high-voltage rock, leading many longtime fans to perceive the band as overpowering Reed. However, in retrospect, Reed and this band were a decade ahead of their time, blazing a path that many rock artists were soon to follow. The live album from this tour, Rock & Roll Animal" remains one of the most influential guitar albums in rock history. On this tour, Reed established a sardonic, indifferent, and haunted druggy ambience that greatly contrasts with the grandiose and elaborate interplay of the two guitarists, capturing the ripe decadence of the time perfectly.
This set, recorded on the second to last stop of the European tour at The Odeon in Birmingham, captures the group in peak form as Reed creates emotionally honest musical turbulence on stage. Most of the master soundboard recordings from this tour suffer from an incomplete song or two (due to the necessity of flipping cassette masters at the 45 minute point), but this one features every song uninterrupted and in stereo. In terms of the stereo recording, front of house engineer, Dinky Dawson is unusually active, particularly when the band takes flight on "Oh Jim," "Heroin," "White Light," and a soaring "Rock and Roll" encore. The rest of the time Dawson pans Hunter and Wagner's dual lead guitars into opposite channels, allowing listeners to clearly here each guitarist's contribution, making for a fascinating headphone listen. Although the revamped Velvet Underground material veers toward well-crafted stadium rock, this serves to accentuate the crisis Reed was dealing with at that time. He was now an artist too popular for the small venues and intimate audiences of the Velvet Underground-era, yet disdainful and occasionally hostile of performing before larger arena-rock audiences.
Reed's set begins with the band developing one of their soon-to-be classic opening jams, applying it on this night to "Vicious," rather than the more familiar "Sweet Jane." The instrumental sparks fly through this opening sequence, clearly defining the sound of this band. Thanks to the dual guitar creativity of Hunter and Wagner, when Reed enters, the energy level is cranked way up. The ambiguousness of "How Do You Think It Feels" and "Caroline Says I," both from the Berlin album, follow in sneering style, both studies of physical and mental suffering. A tough, undulating "I'm Waiting for the Man" is up next, taking this classic VU song to another level. In contrast, the "Satellite of Love" that follows is a dreamy, downright romantic ballad. Two of Reed's most fully realized character studies follow with "Walk on the Wild Side" and "Oh Jim," with the latter packing a serious punch.
Upon "Oh Jim"'s conclusion, the group segue directly into a haunting version of "Heroin." The cascading flow of music from this band engulfs the lyrics as Reed battles his way through the highs and lows of addiction. Next, Hunter and Wagner launch into a blistering version of "White Light/White Heat" to conclude the set. This is a powerful closer to the show, featuring a demonstrative vocal from Reed and multiple blazing guitar breaks, leaving the audience clamoring for an encore. Reed and his band oblige with a rousing take on yet another Velvet Underground classic, "Rock & Roll." Here, for the first time in this performance is a song with a glimmer of hope. In contrast to what preceded it, this is downright elative, becoming an anthem for the only thing that can save Reed's life - rock and roll.
Regardless of how the shows on this tour were perceived at the time, something important was clearly going on here. The strange contrast between Reed's detached, often blasé vocals and the hard rocking professionalism of his backup band is the essence of its appeal. The melding of Reed's unique brand of decadent, literate music with a big arena rock sound would eventually reach the masses in a way the Velvet Underground never could.
Written by Alan Bershaw