Sometimes it’s the first album you hear by an artist – it has you hooked. It might not be that artist’s best album, you might not even know that at the time (and, brilliantly, you won’t care) but it will become the one you know best, refer back to, remember fondly. It’s your starting point…
My starting point with Lou Reed is Mistrial – possibly a strange one. A lot of people will have hunted down Transformer or even Berlin. Many probably started with New York – or hooked into the Velvet Underground material first. Not me, I started with Mistrial.
Of course I was about nine years old – and the album was brand new. My mum bought the vinyl when it was released.
I had no idea what I was listening to – but I loved it. The riff to the opening, title song was grunty, raw, and I loved the way he sang. Straight away I loved that.
And three tracks in, Outside, I found a song that was…well, it was a revelation…there was no other word. I was hooked. Here was a song that had lines like “outside, the politics of hate and greed” and “mindless repression dominates the street/while I kneel down and kiss your feet, baby when we come inside”. And I didn’t really know what this guy was saying, but I knew that it was something interesting and the way he married it to a bit of funky bass, normal rock/pop drums and a guitar was intriguing for me.
This album became one of my early favourites. A bizarre album to be hooked on at age 10? Sure. But I was hooked, that much was certain. I bestowed that proud honour on the album: I made a dub of it; had my own private, taped copy to listen to in my first Walkman. I twinked over my dad’s Hall & Oates and wrote Lou Reed and then ‘Mistrial’ in big, almost-angry, black vivid.
The guitar solo in Don’t Hurt a Woman was hardly one of Lou’s finest; it’s a watered-down version of a solo he has performed dozens of times. But it was my first time hearing that sound, so I loved it. And Video Violence had a commentary to it that, as with the song Mistrial, I knew I didn’t understand, but I knew I liked. “Down at a bar/some woman is topless/she’s acned and scared/her hair is a mess/While he shoves five dollars down her, ah, exotic panties/the video jukebox is playing Madonna”. This guy was singing a social diary and I was spellbound. The song would go on to describe an “age of Video Violence” with “currents raging so deep inside us”. It was heady stuff.
I never tried to share the music with anyone. I just absorbed it. Listened to it alone, loved it.
In my first year of high school an English assignment to analyse the lyrics to a favourite song provided me with the first chance to share a love of this album. I copied out the lyrics to Outside and wrote an accompanying commentary filled with 13-year-old insight. The teacher rang my mother to ask if she knew the sort of music her son was listening to. “I should do,” mum replied, “I bought the album.” Awesome
The Original Wrapper, arriving around a similar time as Run DMC’s reworking of Aerosmith’s Walk This Way entered my musical vocabulary, was another revelation on the album. I liked the popcorn-funk of the guitar (light and bouncy) and the way Lou pumped out the words was impressive. A singer mentioning the news on cable-TV in a song and there was mention of President Reagan, herpes, Aids, the Middle East being “at full throttle”, MTV, the politics-of-hate and abortion – again, all in a song; a tune that wouldn’t be a hit on the radio, but was not a million miles from the sound of songs on the radio. And then again, it was precisely that distance from it.
Every song on this 35-minute album is etched in my brain. Most Lou Reed compilations will not feature a single track from this collection (Mama’s Got a Lover is surely one of his best songs, I love the bit, “mama’s got a lover/we met him yesterday/she says she’s starting a new chapter/I wish she was on the last page” and my first instance noticing Lou’s brilliant deadpan humour mixed with ennui and nonchalance: “she says she hopes I like him/I guess I’ll send him a card on father’s day”) and most Lou Reed biographies/feature articles are either not kind to the album or neglect to even mention it.
Mistrial will, for me, always be the starting point – you can see that he was following up the strong-but-mostly-ignored work of Legendary Hearts and New Sensations and listening to it now, in context, it hints at where he would get to with New York – and the mid-80s production may just hold it back from the rawness of New York but it might also be the album’s hidden strength, allowing it to sit, with Jordan-like air time, in the place and time when and where it was created but never quite co-existing comfortably with anything else around it.
So, that was the starting point.
From there I got hooked on a Lou Reed best-of, which was courtesy of another relative (click here for that tale). And then I ploughed into the world of the Velvet Underground after hearing the Retro compilation and two VU songs on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s film The Doors.
And then it was New York and everything before and after – and I talked a wee bit about Lou Reed in reaction to a Matt Couper artwork here. So it’s been love/hate every since. But Mistrial (I still have mum’s LP and I bought it on CD, importing it from Germany via a music store in the now archaic-seeming way) is – and will always be – the starting point.
So were you enticed in to the world of Lou Reed via something random (say, Metal Machine Music maybe?!) or were you sucked in to Bob Dylan’s realm due to Saved? Was Landing on Water your entry in to Neil Young’s recorded works? Maybe Presence was how Led Zeppelin became known to you? Did you discover The Rolling Stones because of Dirty Work? You get the idea…maybe you have a starting point with an artist that is not their best-known, most revered work. If so, do tell.
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