Big Box Set of Lou Reed's 1972-86 Albums a Must-Own



Lou Reed: The RCA & Arista Album Collection (Sony Legacy)

In a nutshell: If you are a Lou Reed fan, you should get this seventeen-CD box set regardless of how much of its contents you already own. Everything has been remastered; I compared the sound on six albums I have earlier CDs of (I did not compare the new CDs to my old vinyl, as that's apples and oranges), and on five the sound is greatly improved, more focused and with greater clarity; The Bells in particular has its murky sound fixed but retains its darkness. The exception is Take No Prisoners; it may be, given the circumstances under which this concert was recorded, that there wasn't much to work with there, but the sound is just as good as before. Throw in a very nice book -- not booklet; this thing's hardbound and roughly 11"x12" -- with co-producer Hal Willner's reminiscences, a wealth of historic Reed interview excerpts, and lots of photos and press clippings -- and it's even more attractive.

You want more detail? Here you go: Lou Reed, in case you hadn't noticed, was a complicated character, so of course there are complications surrounding this set. Any artist's participation in a retrospective project can turn out to be a mixed blessing. Let fans decide the contents of a "definitive" collection and the tendency will be maximum inclusiveness. Artists, though, may wish to bury (which is to say, have their audience lose access to) some things in their past. Now, it is clear that Lou Reed was heavily invested, emotionally speaking, in this project; he worked on it even while he was ill with cancer (he passed away three years ago this month). But he was more invested in some of the individual albums than others. I read somewhere that he originally intended to omit his eponymous debut LP and had to be talked into including it. Two other albums that would seem to fall within the bounds of this set based on its title were less lucky. I queried Legacy and received this reply from Rob Santos, Sony Legacy's VP of A&R, who co-produced the set and was the driving force behind it (and let's all give him a big thank-you for persevering): "Lou specifically didn’t want Lou Reed Live included because it was a record that he had nothing to do with and [was] put out without his permission.  He didn't really consider it part of his catalog. In regards to Live in Italy, he wasn't interested in including it because it wasn't originally released here, and the focus of this set was his U.S. catalog." I happen to be a big admirer of Live in Italy, which features Lou's leanest and meanest band since the Velvet Underground, but hey, Lou didn't want to include it. I have to respect Legacy for honoring his intentions even after he's gone. It's not like they came to my house and took away my copies of those albums. (Film idea: Lou's ghost goes house to house asking people to destroy their copies of Lou Reed Live.)

Also, don't rush to discard the Reed CDs you've already got. There are a number of previous editions you will want to hang on to, as no albums in the box contain the bonus tracks that were eventually added to the Transformer 20th anniversary edition (two acoustic demos), the Rock 'n' Roll Animal 2000 remaster (two outtakes not even included on Lou Reed Live), Sally Can't Dance (one outtake plus the 7" edit of the title track), and the Coney Island Baby 30th anniversary edition (a whopping six bonus tracks: four from January 1975 sessions featuring late-era VU member Doug Yule, plus two outtakes from the CIB sessions).

There are posters as well, but everybody who buys this set will keep them mint-in-box, so the whole "suitable for framing" thing is moot, isn't it?

Some readers may be thinking that the five or six Lou albums from this period (1972-86) that they already own are enough, but one of the joys of receiving this set is that it prompted me to relisten to albums some of which I'd dismissed decades ago and some that inevitably got overshadowed by the more famous LPs. Turns out a lot of them, in hindsight, are better than I thought they were at the time. So here's a relatively succinct (by my standards, at least) album-by-album rundown.

Lou Reed (1972)

I don't know whether it was because it sold so poorly or because Lou's dislike of it led him to ask RCA to take it off the market, but when I wanted this LP in the early '80s, I had to buy an import from RCA Germany. Yes, it's amusing that Yes members Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman were among the sidemen on this album recorded in England; yes, we eventually discovered that the majority of these songs sounded better on then-unreleased VU versions. It's still a fairly underrated album full of good songs.

Transformer (1972)

With David Bowie producing his hero (in England again, with Mick Ronson the secret hero), this was a big leap forward for Lou and contains a number of his most popular songs. You probably already own it.

Berlin (1973)

An unsettling masterpiece, but in '73 people weren't prepared for rock stars making them feel uncomfortable for an entire LP that climaxes with small children running through an empty apartment screaming for their mother. Me, I'm more uncomfortable listening to the meandering, pointless tootling of something that, since no recorder player is credited, I will questionably ascribe to producer Bob Ezrin noodling on a Mellotron setting.

Rock 'n' Roll Animal (live 12/21/73 at the Academy of Music in N.Y.C.)

The dual electric guitars of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter convert four VU songs and "Lady Day" from Berlin into fodder for the masses. Some consider the arena-rock arrangements of the VU material heretical, but for many it was a revelation and, even more than Transformer, made Reed a star and a frequent presence on the radio.

Sally Can't Dance (1974)

It's got a hit (the title track) and one of Lou's best songs, the harrowing "Kill Your Sons," his response to the electroshock therapy his parents made him get to keep him from being gay (didn't work, obviously). Fortunately, though the music is very much of its time, it's mostly not overproduced; more like the NY studio funk-rock of Bowie's Thin White Duke period (prime examples: "Baby Face," "N.Y. Stars"). The unfortunate exception is "Animal Language"; female backing singers making animal noises in harmony is hilariously bad -- and it's a pretty slight song to occupy the second slot in the program. Overall, though, another album that's gone up in my estimation.

Metal Machine Music (1975)

Avant-garde masterpiece? Practical joke? Both? An hour of processed guitar white-noise instrumentals that was universally hated at the time of its release, but which has gained a cult following in the decades since. Those with a taste for the extreme avant-garde enjoy it.

Coney Island Baby (1976)

This song album sold much better than MMM, reaching #41 on the pop LP chart, but not enough to get Lou back in RCA's good graces. The title track, a ballad in the true sense, is one of his greatest songs, a reminiscence of growing up on Long Island wanting "to play football for the coach," and "Kicks" kicks. If the rest is not top-notch Lou, it's still fascinating hearing his sensitive side.

Rock and Roll Heart (1976)

His first album for Arista is poorly regarded. Maybe he was trying to deliver an album with hits, or maybe he was showing contempt for the whole concept. The songwriting is rather thin at times; lead track "I Believe in Love" is for all intents and purposes a parody of a pop song, and the lyrics of the second track consist of "I'm banging on my drum/I'm having lots of fun." Closing track "Temporary Thing" is no masterpiece, but it's the only song here that's memorable for good reasons and manages to add some much-needed dark intensity to an otherwise lightweight album.

Street Hassle (1978)

The title track (actually a suite) is one of the most amazing accomplishments of Reed's discography, and in the book we are given the real-life episode that inspired part of it. Gritty, haunting, and brilliantly arranged, it manages to offer a sense of redemption at the end. Though the lyrics on many of the other songs seem on the surface to be just as simple as the previous album's low-effort work, they have a burning focus lacking before.

Take No Prisoners (live 5/17-21/78 at the Bottom Line in N.Y.C.)

This two-CD concert album is sometimes considered more notable for Lou's between-songs one-liners, explanations of songs' origins, and banter with the audience -- and that is all a plus -- but he had put together a good band, and this is musically enjoyable too.

The Bells (1979)

Uneven, but avant-garde jazz trumpeter Don Cherry plays on the darkly haunting title track.

Growing up in Public (1980)

Or, as wags had it at the time thanks to the frumpy cover photo of Lou, Waking up in Public. But Lou got deeply personal again (even if some of it was fictionalized), and the joke track, "The Power of Positive Drinking," is much better than most of his throw-away tracks -- and highly quotable. Also, not one track is overproduced.

The Blue Mask (1982)

Lou's return to RCA was a great comeback, and in the running for best solo Lou LP thanks to not only excellent songwriting but also ripping guitar solos from both Robert Quine (ex-Voidoids) and Reed, who stripped back down closer to the basics of VU than on any previous solo releases. Never mind that it peaked lower on the pop LP chart than anything by Lou other than Metal Machine Music had since his debut; it regained him the critical respect he had lost.

Legendary Hearts (1983)

Mostly the same band. Mostly less intense than its predecessor, but still a fine album if less stunning and memorable.

New Sensations (1984)

Some of this is shallow and panderingly poppy (especially "I Love You, Suzanne"), but "Fly into the Sun" is a great track, and certainly the best use of Fernando Saunders's fretless bass sound in the context of one of Reed's groups. I wish Fred Maher's beats were less robotic, though, and that Quine weren't gone.

Mistrial (1986)

This is the album that rose the most in my estimation on relistening. Though there are some electronic drums, on the real things J.T. Lewis has more "feel" than Maher did on New Sensations. In general (which is to say, obviously pandering tracks aside -- "The original Wrapper" is only amusing the first time and then become eminently skippable), this is more fiery and boasts better songwriting than its predecessor, and hotter guitars.

I could complain about the absence of "Hot Hips" from the soundtrack to the Jamie Lee Curtis movie Perfect, but that would just be showing off and it's no loss that it's not here, just more of the sort of stuff I don't like about much of New Sensations. But if you want to buy my 12" promo single (Arista, 1985), let me know.