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Rock N Roll Animal
Lou Reed

RCA 0472
Released: March 1974
Chart Peak: #45
Weeks Charted: 27
Certified Gold: 5/1/78

Lou ReedThis is a record to be played loud. Like a Formula One car, it doesn't really begin to perform until it's pushed close to the limit. As background music it isn't much, but powered up on a strong system loud enough to make enemies a quarter-mile away, Rock n Roll Animal -- recorded live at Lou Reed's Academy of Music concert December 21st, 1973 -- is, well, very fine.

Rock n Roll Animal, an album of Reed standards, opens with "Sweet Jane" and a jam by the band before Reed takes the stage, which established that, unlike some of his past backup groups, this one is first-rate. The rest of the side is devoted to a towering, unsettling version of "Heroin." Each listener can personally decide the morality of this song ("Heroin, it's my wife and it's my life"); as a performance it is sinister and stunning, rooted in a treacherous organ and strung taughtly on a set of vaulting guitar riffs. The piece has the atmosphere of a cathedral at black mass, where heroin is God.

Lou Reed - Rock N Roll Animal
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
Side two begins with "White Light/White Heat," a tidy piece of elemental rock, and closes with "Rock 'n' Roll," a good, driving concert tune which, on the record, is entertaining but runs rather long. Between these two is "Lady Day" -- like "Heroin," a great performance. On Berlin, a bitter, uncompromising concept album that was released a few months ago, Reed sang "Lady Day" with a distinct, if faint, sympathy for the poor freak who is its subject. In the concert version this is gone, leaving the song weaker as narrative but stronger musically. Reed snarls the words over an organ continuo counterpointed by lead guitar riffs that come down like the clap of doom.

For some reason the musicians are not given credit on the album. They are Pentti Glen, drums; Prakash John, bass; Ray Colcord, keyboards; and most notably, Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter, guitars.

Rock n Roll Animal is much less claustrophobic and oppressive than Berlin, but many people will probably loathe it anyway. Faggots, junkies and sadists are not very pleasant, but theirs are the sensibilities Reed draws upon. His songs offer little hope. Nothing changes, nothing gets better. As Reed said in Berlin, "It's not like a TV program where all the bad things happen to people are tolerable. Life isn't that way, and neither is the album."

If there is a redemption in Reed's work beyond his honesty and musical brilliance it is, I think, courage. He never blinks. Nietzsche, who was at least as screwed up as Reed, wrote that "a test of man's well-being and consciousness of power is the extent to which he can acknowledge the terrible and questionable character of things, and whether he is in any need of a faith at the end."

Which is to say by implication that there is a beauty which arises not from happiness but from wretchedness, an efflorescence of decay, as they say. Here it is. Crank it up.

- Timothy Ferris, Rolling Stone, 3/28/74.

Bonus Reviews!

By the time of release of his intended tour de force, Berlin, Lou Reed had gotten a little fat, and an understandable vanity kept him hovering in the background, letting the elegantly twisted hero and heroine of his songs stand as the current extension of his psyche. But Berlin, in attempting to resolve the conflicts in the erogenous DMZ defined by the albums Lou Reed and Transformer, succeeded only in being so relentlessly grim that it either depressed sensitive people to the point of fantasizing violence against him or reduced the more resilient jaded (whom, of all audiences, Reed should have understood) to fits of helpless laughter. Berlin was an epic bummer that was understood so well that nobody, including its creator, could long stand to listen to it. It bombed on the market, and that is why we have, so hot on its heels, the new Rock 'n' Roll Animal.

Let it be remembered that Lou did have that long-dreamed-of chart hit about a year ago with "Walk on the Wild Side," and Transformer was something of a sales phenomenon, so RCA had to get something out quick to ensure that Lou wouldn't slip from the public mind and be stigmatized as a one-shot cult item. Which is not to say that this latest disc is any fast-buck plate of schlock. Granted, the general understanding when any rock act releases a live album is that they don't have enough fresh material for a studio shot, and since live rock performances have become a sort of totem, any live recording is bound to clean up. Which explains why most of them are so godawful.

But Rock 'n' Roll Animal is solid through and through. This is primarily because Lou has replaced the dreadful pubescent garage band he toted around the country last year with a superb quintet made up of some of the most outstanding journey men in rock today. Guitarists Dick Wagner and, especially, Steve Hunter are two of the finest musicians to come out of the Detroit scene of the late Sixties. It was their driving Clapton-derived lines that ultimately saved the last three Alice Cooper albums, as well as infusing the rare "up" moments of Berlin with a primal rock-and-roll power that much of Lou's recent music has lacked. Here they absolutely shine; in truth, they're the stars of the album. Hunter has devised a whole new extended intro for the master's classic "Sweet Jane" that must have delighted Lou with the way it substitutes a bright clarity for his customary sullen murk. SImilarly, "White Light/White Heat," while lacking the smoky-subway density of the original, has a big, churning drive that could serve as a definition of rock-as-macho-aggression, and it allows Lou to cut loose with some of the most growlingly alive singing he's displayed in ages. There is a precision, a cleanness, and a sense of, well, joy to the instrumental work here that all but exorcises the dolefulness out of even "Heroin." It kicks Lou's spirits up to the point that in "Lady Day" he literally shouts, out of some perverse sort of oddball triumph, the ever-enjoyable line "A bathroom in the hall!"

Rumor has it that Lou is planning to come up with a set of "optimistic songs" for his next studio effort. It should come as no surprise, since of all living rock stars he particularly exults in contradicting his previous postures as violently as possible. Those who remember the apparently anesthetized fat man lumbering around the country with a bottle of Johnny Walker Black in his hand last spring were also hardly surprised to see, on the cover of Rock 'n' Roll Animal (or on the nation's stages during his recent, unfortunately truncated, tour), a pipecleaner-thin harlequin with cropped hair and black lipstick writhing adrenalinized to the point of whiplash. Greater devotion to his art hath no other pop-star extant.

- Lester Bangs, Stereo Review, 7/74.

This live set is a prime example of why Reed is considered one of the most electrifying performers in rock today. The set is a simple one, featuring a standard rock combo and Reed's vocals, but there is an excitement provided by the guitars of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner and Reed's renditions of his classics, "Heroin" and "Sweet Jane." One of the few live sets not requiring overdubs.

- Billboard, 1974.

At its best, Reed's live music brings the Velvets into the arena in a clean redefinition of heavy, thrilling without threatening to stupefy. "Lady Day," the slow one here, would pass for uptempo at many concerts, the made-in-Detroit guitars of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner mesh naturally with the unnatural rhythms, and Reed shouts with no sacrifice of wit. I could do without Hunter's showboating "Introduction," and I've always had my reservations about "Heroin," but this is a live album with a reason for living. A-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Considered by many to be Reed's best live recording of classic Velvet Underground material, this five-song disc benefits form the strong backup efforts of a band that includes the guitars of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. "Sweet Jane," "Heroin," "White Light/White Heat," and "Rock 'n' Roll" are all here. Robert Christgau said it most succinctly: "This is a live album with a reason for living." The sound quality on the CD is really very good for a concert recording. The unforgivable absence of any real information in the almost nonexistent liner notes is an all-too-common omission from so-called budget releases. B+

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

Retaining guitarists Hunter and Wagner from the Berlin sessions, Reed hired a rhythm section consisting of Prakash John on bass, Pentti Glan on drums, and Ray Colcord on keyboards. Two shows were recorded at New York's Academy of Music in 1973. Behind Reed the band produced fierce near-heavy-metal twin-guitar apotheosis for ninety minutes. Just under half of the concert made it onto this album. An FM radio staple at the time, Rock 'n' Roll Animal includes searing versions of The Velvet Underground classics "Sweet Jane," "Heroin," "White Light/White Heat," and "Rock 'n' Roll," plus "Lady Day" from Berlin. * * *

- Rob Bowman, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

The live set where "Lou Reed" the character -- a gender-burning hypodermic-wielding rock & roll id monster -- took center stage. Reshaping Velvet Underground classics for a new generation, this also stands as a high point in Seventies guitar rock, epitomized by an epically jammed-out "Sweet Jane."

- Will Hermes, Rolling Stone, 11/3/16.

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