Lou Reed - vocals; Steve Hunter - guitar; Dick Wagner -guitar; Ray Colcord - organ, electric piano; Peter Walsh - bass; Pentti Glan - drums
After the remarkable commercial success of Lou Reed's 1972 Transformer album, which contained his biggest hit, "Walk On The Wild Side," he then recorded the dark and depressing Berlin; although now acknowledged as a classic, Berlin was initially met with extremely unfavorable reactions. Nonetheless, Reed fully embraced the moment, deteriorating into alcohol and drug addiction and, with David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" as a rough template, re-created himself as the "Rock 'n' Roll Animal," a caricature of what many perceived him to be. His self-deprecation and resentment fueled his performances during this time and the band he assembled helped to revamp his music, taking it to the level of arena rock, which was met with dismay from much of his Velvet Underground-era fan base. To this day, Lou Reed fans remain divided over Reed's artistic validity on this tour, yet it remains amongst his most celebrated. The soaring guitars of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, swirling organ of Ray Colcord and thundering rhythm section of Peter Walsh and Pentti Glan created high-voltage rock, leading many longtime fans to perceive the band as overpowering Reed. However, in retrospect, Reed and this band were a decade ahead of their time, blazing a path that many rock artists were soon to follow. The live album from this tour, Rock & Roll Animal, remains one of the most influential guitar albums in rock history. On this tour, Reed established a sardonic, indifferent and hauntingly druggy ambiance that greatly contrasted with the grandiose and elaborate interplay of the two guitarists, capturing the ripe decadence of the time perfectly.
This set captures the group in particularly strong form as Reed creates emotionally honest musical turbulence on stage. Performing on the first night of a two-night stand at London's Rainbow Theatre, these gigs were the most high profile and most highly anticipated nights of the European tour. Thankfully, front of house engineer Dinky Dawson's recording of this night also stands out as one the best of the tour. In terms of the stereo imaging, Dawson is quite active, particularly when the band takes flight on "Oh Jim," "Heroin," and on the soaring "Rock And Roll" encore. Taking full advantage of the stereo PA system, Dawson's use of panning effects contributes an added dimension that makes for fascinating headphone listening. The rest of the time, Hunter and Wagner's dual lead guitars are often panned into opposite channels, allowing listeners to clearly hear each guitarist's contribution. Although the revamped Velvet Underground material veers toward well-crafted stadium rock, this serves to accentuate the crisis Reed was dealing with at that time. He was now an artist too popular for the small venues and intimate audiences of The Velvet Underground-era, yet disdainful and occasionally hostile of performing before larger arena-rock audiences.
Reed's set begins with the band developing one of their soon-to-be classic opening jams, applying it on this night to "Vicious," rather than the more familiar "Sweet Jane." The instrumental sparks fly as this opening sequence develops, clearly defining the sound of this band. Thanks to the dual guitar creativity of Hunter and Wagner, when Reed enters, the energy level is already cranked way up. The ambiguity of "How Do You Think It Feels" and "Caroline Says I," both from the Berlin album, follow in sneering style, both studies of physical and mental suffering. A tough, undulating "I'm Waiting For The Man" is up next, featuring a standout contribution from organist Ray Colcord, taking this classic VU song to another level. In contrast, the "Satellite of Love" that follows, with Colcord switching to electric piano, is a dreamy, downright romantic ballad. Two of Reed's most fully realized character studies follow with "Walk On The Wild Side" and "Oh Jim," with the latter packing a serious punch.
Upon the conclusion of "Oh Jim," the group segue directly into a haunting version of "Heroin" that stands out as the most expansive version of the entire tour, clocking in at well over 10 minutes on its own. The cascading flow of music from this band engulfs the lyrics as Reed battles his way through the highs and lows of addiction. This is a potent performance, featuring several extended guitar breaks and an ominous organ interlude connecting the 2nd and 3rd vocal sequences. After which the band rapidly builds into a delirious jam with blazing lead guitar work, prior to side A of the master cassette running out just shy of the conclusion. It is unknown if Reed decided to end the set on this penetrating note, or if, like other nights of the tour, he concluded the set with "White Light White Heat." One thing is certain though, and that is the reception of the London audience, as when the recording resumes, they are in standing ovation mode and clamoring for an encore. Reed and his band oblige with a rousing take on yet another Velvet Underground classic, "Rock And Roll." Here, for the first time in this performance, is a song with a glimmer of hope. In contrast to what preceded it, this is downright elative, becoming an anthem for the only thing that can save Reed's life - rock and roll.
Regardless of how the shows on this tour were perceived at the time, something important was clearly going on here. The strange contrast between Reed's detached, often blasé vocals and the hard rocking professionalism of his backup band is the essence of its appeal. The melding of Reed's unique brand of decadent, literate music with a big arena rock sound would eventually reach the masses in a way the Velvet Underground never could.
-Written by Alan Bershaw