Saturday, November 21, 2020

The Bells (1979)

[Early cuts here and here.]

More than 40 years later (I happened to pick it up the day it came out), I still can't make up my mind about this curious Lou Reed album, poised before one of his best solo periods. Sometimes it feels like a brilliant experiment I can't quite fathom. Sometimes it feels like outtakes from the previous year's Street Hassle. It carries on with the "binaural" production strategy from that album, with Reed taking the sole formal producer credit this time. But the sound is lumbering and muddy, like someone spilled syrup on it. Too late I learned the supposed way to listen is on headphones, which I don't do anymore and never thought to try with this. Reed's vocals are often pitched at hysterical levels, distractingly weird, and out of step with the lyrics. Lester Bangs in Rolling Stone cobbled together a case for The Bells as a return to Velvet Underground form and Robert Christgau in the Village Voice gave it an amiable B+, but the folks throwing up reviews over at Amazon are closer to my own take for once (though I will say I like the album more than many of them). "Families" drew me in first and most enduringly with its tale of nuclear family heartache but sadly I have about used it up by now. The album kicks off pretty well with "Stupid Man"—neglectful father with regrets—though it is hampered by Reed's vocal, which sounds like a coke jag. "Disco Mystic" follows. It is neither hostile to disco nor actually disco, coming on with a walloping attack, pepper pot sax, and drowned "disco mystic" quasi-chant.

I start to lose attention with "I Want to Boogie With You," in which boogieing has never sounded so lackluster yet strangely desperate. The star of this album could well be saxophonist Marty Fogel, although on "Boogie" he sounds more like an SNL session guy. "City Lights" is a pleasant ditty that appears to be about the Chaplin movie, or maybe just Chaplin himself, or possibly something else altogether—it's cryptic. (Still, if it inspires anyone to see City Lights it has done its work. I recommend you look into it immediately.) "All Through the Night" reprises the same party background effects (with possibly the same exact recording) as "Kicks" on Coney Island Baby. It's convincing as a portrait of a New York party in the '70s but Jesus Christ Reed himself already did it. Maybe the most apt comparison I found for The Bells was to Iggy Pop's The Idiot, which is similarly out of character for its artist, yet recognizably him, and much adored among a certain slice of the dedicated fans. For me, I've always been a Lust for Life partisan for Iggy in that period, and I like Street Hassle a lot more than The Bells—for the title suite alone, even if the rest of the album veers toward the weak. The problem, as M. Salmestrelli argued it in 2013 on Amazon, and I think I agree, is that it just wasn't a good period for Reed. "Lou Reed was in a very bad state by the tail end of the 70's and his music reflected it," he writes. "Aside from Metal Machine Music, the live Take No Prisoners, Growing Up In Public and Rock N Roll Heart are the worst albums in Lou Reed's career." Of course I don't agree entirely—I'm one who likes MMM and I think 1974's Sally Can't Dance (not to mention Mistrial if we're looking beyond the '70s) belongs with his worst. I will probably be puzzling out The Bells for the rest of my life. To start, why that title?


  1. This was the first Lou Reed album I bought, on the strength of Bangs' review. I couldn't figure it out at the time, and eventually gave up. It's been years since I've given it a listen.

  2. Good to know I'm not alone in not figuring it out, thanks!