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Reflecting on Lou Reed, Metallica, and Lulu

  • By AndyVale
  • 28 October 2013

More qualified people will write better words about the life and career of Lou Reed than I could, so I'll leave the eulogies, career timelines and personal stories to them. Instead, I'd like to look at a moment in his career that will probably be overlooked due to the fact that he made much better music at other points.

Any pub quiz master should now have the following question in their bank, ready to whip out whenever the patrons begin to get cocky:

Q: What was the last full album that Lou Reed ever released?

A: Lulu, a concept album with Metallica predominantly based on Frank Wedekind's Lulu plays. It tells the story of an attractive young dancer who takes great strides in society by mating with well-to-do suitors but ultimately falls into poverty and prostitution.

You probably knew that, it is mentioned in the title.

An acoustic guitar strums the album into existance on 'Brandenburg Gate' before Lou pops up to say "I would cut my legs and tits off when I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski in the dark of the moon."

Oh, don't be shy then boys!

It's not a perfect album, I wouldn't even say it's a great one. The worst moments are when Lou sounds like an old man who is muttering to himself while a band practices across the road. The best ones are when Lou sounds like that same old man rasping out his final curses, while a band composed of his own hallucinations create an aural hell that licks up the walls and destroys family heirlooms.

'Frustration' often does the former, with the two artists never quite blending. A seemingly unnecessary few seconds of chugging by Metallica shoe-horned at the end of the track serves to remind you that these two artists weren't the perfect symbiotic match for each other. Bits of 'Pumping Blood' feel like Lou is swirling into insanity, creating genuinely uncomfortable listening even without the garish lyric of "I swallowed your sharpest cutter like a coloured man's dick."

The album, and effectively Lou's recording career as a leading artist (until the inevitable after-death studio scraps cash-in), finishes with 'Junior Dad'. Somewhat fittingly, a song that has unintentionally become Reed's The Tempest opens with the following windswept, stormy, maritime line: 

"Would you come to me
if I was half drowning?
An arm above the last wave.

By this point in the album you enjoy the mid-tempo pace and understated melodic feel. You're guiltily hoping that it doesn't awkwardly mash a heavy section in during the following third of an hour. It doesn't, Metallica chug up a gear but never really approach thrash. Lou bows out by making a dispirited and curt comment that could be linked to his distant past in numerous ways:

"The greatest disappointment,
age withered and changed him
into Junior Dad.

For the last ten minutes or so both Lou and the band take a step back while a string section slowly makes its way into the distance. It's a sweet drone rather than anything that could easily connect with you emotionally. What was probably planned to be a relaxed send-off to Lulu (as a character, an album, and a weird collaboration) now serves as the soundtrack to Lou's burial ship slowly drifting away from the shore of this world and towards whatever comes next.

If you would permit me to dramatically stretch out this metaphor we could say that he doesn't just leave Metallica standing on the land and watching him sail on, but every band who formed off the back of his work. Actually, don't. The album as a whole isn't good enough to deserve that honour, and the bands that formed as a result of Reed's work will probably be more focussed on the records that spawned themselves than on this difficult piece. So why write about it?

A few weeks back in my round-up to Reading Festival I noted how "there were hardly any typical 'guitar bands'... doing something that would have been out of place ten years ago." What was once shocking, innovative and exciting is now a total pastiche of itself, and it's the last person to get the joke. The anti-corporate rants by people wearing ripped Jack Daniels shirts, the arms full of near-identical tatoos, the tired riffs, the vague political statements, the suffocating worship of the genre's titans, the verbal stabs at non-present pop acts, the devil horns thrown as if they really mean anything. What's changed from when I first got into this stuff about 15 years ago? More camera phones, goody.

But this album, for all its faults, was at least something different. Its ambition was ludicrous. The result was only ever going to be something utterly genius or something that badly missed the mark. It was never going to be a passable four-star album that would keep either act ticking over artistically. We wouldn't be listening to the usual fare of 11 decent-but-forgettable songs with a couple of singles scattered around. It wasn't something that Metallica would've attempted on their own.

It often felt unfinished, was frequently jarring, and it used the word "spermless" way more times than I'm comfortable with hearing. When looking at Reed's library, Lulu probably comes just above Metal Machine Music in the "for fans/completists only" pile. It wasn't a hit but it's the music an artist like Reed should be having a go at. He avoids the temptation to comfortably make a laid-back cover album, with one eye on sneaking its way onto a John Lewis ad, or partaking in a stylistically easier collaboration. Instead he helped create something that most of his and Metallica's fans hated.

Realistically, both parties probably knew that this would be the reaction yet went ahead with it anyway. You could say it's the sign of a true artist... maybe. It's a stretch, but it's a trait that's something worth holding onto in this creative climate that desires the viral hit, lauds the chorus above all, and is a slave to club night playlists. Admittedly it's easier to do at the back end of your career, but what does it say when a 69 year-old is trying to make bolder statements with their art than most Rock musicians in their twenties and thirties are even willing to consider? 

The answer to that question can be answered another time, but kudos is to be given to Reed for giving us reason to ask it.

So long Lou, Supajam will miss you!

Andy is a Supajam writer who has had music-based roles at numerous Commerical, BBC and Student radio stations over the last 6 years. He is also a music promoter in the South-East of the UK. He has a website where he interviews musicians with only one question, and he is currently typing in third-person. You can tweet abuse at him if you fancy letting off some steam.