Lou Reed, Royal Albert Hall, London
Beck, Guildhall, Southampton

Lou Reed's performance of his 1973 album in its entirety shows that some things are better left in the past

The last time I reviewed Lou Reed in this column, I made what I thought was a fairly transparent joke about taking heroin in the toilets beforehand. The credulous media diarist at The Guardian took this at face value, and alerted that newspaper's entire readership to my apparent junkiedom. This time, then, with a face as solemn as Reed's, I shall report that I watch Lou Reed recreate his entire Berlin album fortified by nothing other than a small bottle of overpriced cider.

But if ever there was a time to numb out and make the hours pass painlessly, it's when Lou Reed is in the mood to impress upon us that he is a Serious Artist, who wears wire-rimmed glasses and everything.

Berlin is a curious album to be giving the "recital of a masterpiece" treatment. Particularly in the UK, where it was his previous album, Transformer, that had the bigger impact: partly due to catching the post-Bowie gender-bending zeitgeist, and partly because it was available cheaply in department stores, making it accessible to generations of student bohemians who imagined themselves to be Burroughsian transgressives when they were actually Richard Beckinsale in Rising Damp.

Personally, then, I come to Berlin fresh, unencumbered by preconceptions. Released in 1973, Berlin turns out to be something of a concept album, nominally set in the German capital, centring on the tragic life of a certain Caroline as she struggles with drugs, poverty, domestic violence and child custody battles.

With typical overkill, the chimpish Reed – in his cap sleeves and skinny jeans, looking more than ever like one of the garage mechanics from the "Uptown Girl" video – chooses to present it with a seven-piece band (containing original guitarist Steve Hunter) who are themselves backed by an eight-piece orchestra (the London Metropolitan), who are in turn backed by a dozen choirgirls (the New Millennium Children's Choir, who are brilliant). In the simple mind of Lou Reed, this is how you signify Art with a capital A.

Which it isn't, really. Listen to Reed's former bandmate John Cale's work from the same era (specifically Paris 1919, released a year after Berlin) and weep at the gulf in class. It wasn't until 1989 that, in New York, Lou Reed made the album Berlin thinks it is.

Nevertheless, it's filled the Royal Albert Hall with fans who have long since swapped their Raybans for bifocals, and who have in many cases brought their children along (which surely counts as some sort of abuse).

The narrative is brought to life by a film show which depicts ordinary people having fun and having fights, or scenes acted out by a Debbie Harry lookalike, projected on to a chinoiserie screen whose relevance is obscure, unless it's a nod to the quantity of Chinese rocks consumed during the album's recording.

None of which can mask the sheer awfulness of Reed's lyrics, which recall both Baldrick's poetry in Blackadder Goes Forth and that of the Vogons in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Sure, I'll give him "You can hit me all you want to/But I don't love you any more", but rhyming "vile" with "vial" deserves a slap. The album ends with a sad song. It's called "Sad Song". It goes "sad song, sad song, sad song ..." for what seems like a quarter of an hour. How does he come up with this stuff?

He encores with an extended, semi-comical "Satellite of Love", "Rock and Roll" and "The Power of the Heart", the song he wrote for a Cartier watches campaign. Which is about as far from the message of Berlin as one can get.

I've had two near-misses with the Church of Scientology. The first was when I was a student, and was lured into its Tottenham Court Road branch for a personality test. I was told that I was a borderline psychopath and potential serial killer. Being a student and a goth, I thought this was pretty cool.

The second time, in Los Angeles, I wandered into their open-access cinema, which appeared to be unmanned and deserted, and sat down to watch a film about dianetics. Five minutes in, I sensed shadowy figures moving around my peripheral vision, and ran for my life.

Beck Hansen had no chance of escape. Old Father Hubbard's crew had him from childhood, and he, like John Travolta and Tom Cruise, is one of those celebs who, one is disappointed to learn, doesn't see anything crazy about Earth being colonised 75 million years ago by an alien dictator called Xenu.

Oh well. So the happy-go-lucky purveyor of slacker rap and backpacker beats ain't so groovy after all. But he's doing a fine job of hiding it. Beck's current tour is a textbook lesson in how to win over a crowd. For his opening salvo, he wheels out the hits, to remind us who he is and what he does . "The Devil's Haircut" is the opener, followed by "Nausea" and "The New Pollution". Not long after, Hansen, his lank locks and plaid shirt belonging to an age where Kurt hasn't died, straps on a guitar, plays some bottleneck blues and – surely not! – launches into "Loser". This, as far as I can make out, is only a little less likely than Radiohead playing "Creep", and it raises the roof.

One way to soften up an audience. Now he says he wants to play "a few new songs", and is actually applauded for it. The disastrous Sea Change, the turgid 2002 album recorded shortly after he'd been dumped by his girlfriend (one of the worst cases of an artist Going Serious in recent history) is just a bad memory now. The material from current album Modern Guilt is vibrant, drawing on freakbeat and R&B (Sixties sense). And it doesn't outstay its welcome: a cover of the Korgis' "Everybody's Got to Learn Sometimes" is a pleasant surprise, and "Where It's At" a crowd-pleasing finale. Only the addition of "Sexx Laws" would have made this the perfect Beck gig.

Need to know

Born in 1942 into a Jewish family in Brooklyn, the teenage Lou Reed was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy to "cure" his homosexuality. He worked as a house songwriter for Pickwick Records before finding cult fame with art-rock band The Velvet Underground. Post-VU, he released a succession of acclaimed albums, most significantly 1972's 'Transformer', whose themes of drug use and cross-dressing chimed with the mood of the glam-rock movement spearheaded by his friend David Bowie.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen