Graded on a Curve:
Lou Reed,
Rock n Roll Animal

On which Mr. Lou Reed, poète maudit of Long Island and member of the most influential avant-garde rock’n’roll band to ever sell about a thousand records, picks himself up a couple of guitar whiz Detroit boys best known for playing with Alice Cooper, pushes ‘em on stage at Howard Stein’s Academy of Music in New Yawk City, and proceeds to turn some of his most beloved Loutoons into heavy metal stompers.

1974’s Rock n Roll Animal Reed must have mortified the VU faithful, but it sure won him the big youth audience. When I fell in love with it I didn’t know the Velvet Underground from Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, and I’ll never forget the day my older brother and I happened upon a copy of 1969: The Velvet Underground Live in the cheap-o bin at the Woolworth’s in Hanover and popped it into the 8-track on the way home. Did we like it? Hell no! We were so plumb disgusted with it we stopped the car, tossed it out the window, and BACKED THE CAR OVER IT!

In so far as populist moves go Rock n Roll Animal reminds me a lot of Dylan and the Band’s Before the Flood, released the same year. Both live LPs performed the same civic function–shot a buncha sacred songs full of steroids in blatant disregard of the tender feelings of the folks who adored the originals so as to bring ‘em to the hoi polloi (like me!). Fuck subtlety and crank up the volume was the recipe, and Robert Christgau’s words about Before the Flood (“I agree a few of [these songs] will never walk again, but I treasure the sacrilege”) apply as well to Rock n Roll Animal.

Me, I always appreciate a big hard rock move, and Lou pulls this one off without even showing any armpit sweat. The album’s built on the boffo twin guitar attack of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, who alternately play it pretty (the legendary “Intro” to “Sweet Jane”) or go the heavyweight route (“Sweet Jane” itself). For the most part the band keeps things hammer-to-thumb simple, the exception being the epic version of “Heroin,” on which they aim for majesty (albeit a very twisted sort of majesty) and hit the nail on the noggin.

Uncle Lou largely avoids that greatest of all seventies’ live album pitfalls, song bloat; only “Rock n Roll,” which clocks in at 10-plus minutes, outstays its welcome. The guitar interplay is swell and the boys go full blazes at the end, but talk about your “despite all the amputations”–this baby could use one. Do I got any other kvetches? Yeah! “Sweet Jane” is a mite too “March of the Wooden Soldiers” wooden for my liking!

Reed probably could have trimmed a bit of the fat offa “Heroin”’s 13 minutes too, but it works just fine as cartoon melodrama. It’s like a three-act play or something, what with Lou performing Shakespeare to the cheap seats while the music surges and wanes only to swell around him again–at one point he snarls, “And you can all go take a fucking walk” just before Ray Colcord’s Vincent Price horror movie organ peeks out from under a cape and gives you the willies. Why, this baby is the best musical theater, comedy division, this side of Alice Cooper–it’s pure cheese, and Velveeta at that, but who says cheese can’t be majestic? Is Lou prostituting his gift? Sure. But I’ve always been in favor of legalized prostitution and besides, the guitar caterwaul at the end is to die for!

What else do we got? Well, there’s the Billie Holiday tribute “Lady Day” offa Lou’s 1973 bummerific mega-flop Berlin, which kinda drags along and is the album’s weakest link but ain’t too bad for all that. And then there’s amphetamine rocker “White Light/White Heat” which Lou, ever the creative genius, chose to retrofit with the melody from Foghat’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” I mean, they’re identical twins! Not that I’m complaining–if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best.

What else can I say? Lou may look deader than Bela Lugosi on the cover, but Rock n Roll Animal resurrected his flagging career, that is until he shot himself in the dick again with 1975’s Metal Machine Music. On which he got the feedback down pat but forget the guitars. And the songs!

On Rock n Roll Animal rock’n’roll’s most pretentious artiste chose to toss his much vaunted “artistic principles” out the window and go slumming. And I’ll always love him for it. Perhaps the best Lou Reed product I’ve never backed a car over!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • Robert Sharpe

    Great, great album, which opened a window for me to listen and watch Lou Reed for the next 30 years, and appreciate the entire body of Steve Hunter’s work. One of the few albums I return to regularly to reaffirm my life was saved by rock ‘n roll.

    • Michael Little

      Same here. I heard it at just the right time… and long before I ever heard the VU originals.

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