I recently downloaded (legally! For reals! So don’t sue me RIAA!) the live recording of Lou Reed’s Berlin recorded at St. Ann’s Warehouse a few years ago. (Also, note to self: do not listen to Berlin first thing in the morning – makes you just want to turn around, go home, and crawl back into bed in a big depressive sulk.) I don’t usually buy live albums (the excitement of live music is rarely realized on recordings, and too often, it sounds more like a half-assed version of the album played louder, quicker, and with lower sound quality…and recorded next to a jet-engine testing facility.
That last comes from the stupid, annoying habit of including loads of crowd noise in live albums (including That Guy With The Super-Loud Whistle, who attends every concert ever). And I have to ask: why? I understand that one wants to mix in a bit of hall ambience with the recording, because otherwise it would sound a bit sterile and freeze-dried – but the crowd noise I’m talking about is between tracks. What is the point of having thirty seconds of applause screaming into your eardrums after every track? Worse, if the album purports to reproduce the concert in order, there are sometimes even longer stretches, up to a minute or more in the worst cases I can think of, while we wait for the encore.
Is all that noise supposed to connote authenticity – to establish that the music we’re hearing was actually played live in front of audience? I mean, first, who really cares…but even if you do, it’s obvious that applause can be dubbed in after the fact of an anything-but-truly-live, doctored “performance” (and has been done so, on several sometimes notorious recordings). Is it supposed to be exciting? “Excitement,” though, works by a principal of contrast: if everything’s “exciting,” nothing is “exciting.” If you’re in a metal band and you’re screaming through your acid-corroded, Satan-promised sulphur-belching throat, it’s no longer scary or intense or evil – it’s just annoying. (Actually, that sort of vocal approach is annoying from the beginning…) If every chord is bizarre or unexpected, no chord is bizarre or unexpected…since each one of them appears to be equally likely or not. So blanketing the recording with non-stop enthusiastic crowd noise isn’t exciting – it’s annoying, especially with very loud crowds whose noise really does end up sounding like a big jet whoosh.
(And unless you’re a small avant-garde jazz ensemble, having crowd noise on your live recording that consists of eight people politely applauding and the busboy accidentally dropping a tray of drinks, uh, that’s embarrassing. Then again, it’d be amusing to be a big giant huge sunglass-wearing, bald-headed-guy-with-a-hat, loads-of-echoplex-and-Christianity band and have the crowd register merely as the occasional sprinkle of polite golf claps.)
Anyway, back to that live Berlin recording. It’s rather good, in fact: the arrangements are very similar to Bob Ezrin’s from the album, but Lou plays electric guitar much, much more, and some songs drop back the arrangement to let Reed, fellow guitarist Steve Hunter, and the bass-and-drum combo of Rob Wassermann and the wonderfully named “Thunder” Smith play off one another in real time. Reed’s phrasing is occasionally…perverse – but the songs still pack fairly intense emotional punch: this is Reed’s poetry of emotional poverty and its consequences, and the series of small verbal bombs Reed’s packed the lyrics with explode with clean intensity. Except when they’re squibbed out by the affective buzzkill of a screaming crowd. This is most noticeable at the join between the spooky, post-Penderecki vocal coda of “The Bed” and the bright, proto-Philip Glass woodwinds that begin “Sad Song”: the ending of “The Bed” is perhaps the most interior moment of the whole album, and it’s destroyed by the sudden reminder of all these people in a large, stagelit room clapping and yelling.
I find it amusingly ironic – and tellingly so, given the album’s look at dysfunctionality – that Berlin‘s closing “Sad Song” is, musically, nearly triumphal in mood (arguably, ever other song on the record sounds much sadder)…and that the nearest the song comes to a chorus is the backing vocalists repeating that title phrase, over and over…the narrator never says it. It’s a “sad song” entirely by virtue of being pointed to as a sad song – or rather, the main lyric seems, rather, bemused…when he’s not singing the chorus: the charming (and, though not from the narrator’s perspective, truly sad) lyric: “I’m going to stop wasting my time / Somebody else would have broken both of her arms.”