Revinylization #12: Déjà Lou (Reed)

Lou Reed: New York
Rhino/Sire R2 628762/603497847556. 1988/2020. Lou Reed, Fred Maher, prods.; Jeffrey Lesser, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics **** (Because vinyl should have been sourced from analog tape.)

It's déjà vu all over again in New York City.

1988: The bankrupt Fear City NYC of the 1970s had given way to the go-go '80s, with many missing the fruits of the Wall Street boom. AIDS ravaged the city, unabated, and a rash of violence and crime fueled by the crack-cocaine epidemic made for a grim underbelly of urban blight and neglect.

2020: A global pandemic runs rampant, killing thousands of New Yorkers, accompanied by an economic collapse (except on Wall Street) and social unrest. The crime rate spikes. People are fleeing the city, and there's a strong sense of sliding backward into chaos.

In 1988, the late, great Lou Reed surveyed the scene, retreated to his New Jersey country house, and turned out a masterpiece of an album, New York. Reed's songs were minidramas of urban decay: biting, sardonic, empathetic, and sensitive to the problems of average people trying to live in a seething cauldron of disease and violence. The album resonated with the 1989 rock-radio audience. It went gold. "Dirty Blvd." was an MTV hit. Reed toured the album through Europe and North America. His career was set on a successful new trajectory that would last, on and off, for the rest of his life.

Many of the conditions described in New York are with us in 2020 NYC. Perhaps sensing the album's newfound relevance, Rhino Records has issued a deluxe remaster including two live renditions of the album (one of them a video recording) and a disc of out-takes, rough mixes, and singles. Also in the package is a 2LP vinyl reissue, expanding the original one-LP, nearly hour-long album onto 4 sides. If you buy the package from Rhino, you get a "special bonus" cassette version.

New York was produced by Reed and drummer Fred Maher, taking a sharp left turn from his Brit-pop band Scritti Politti (footnote 1). Made in the legendary New York studio Media Sound, it was recorded mostly live-to-tape in Studio B, a medium-sized space located in the basement of a former Baptist church.

I spoke to Jeffrey Lesser, the recording engineer, for this review. He remembers the room being about the same size and sounding similar to the room in Reed's western New Jersey hideaway, where he and co-guitarist Mike Rathke worked out the jams that became the music to New York. "Everything was set up for immediate inspiration, all the time. ... We blocked (the studio) out for chunks of time so we could leave everything set up," Lesser explained. "Lou's guitar on the left side, Mike's guitar on the right side, and that's the sound, like you are there in the room with them." Breaking with the '80s rock-and-pop sound, little reverb was used on the vocals. Whatever reverb is on the guitars was from Reed and Rathke's amplifiers.

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The music had emerged from hours of Reed and Rathke jamming. It reached full form with Maher on drums and the superb, jazz-leaning Rob Wasserman on a Clevinger upright electric bass. Reed ended the album credits with this declaration: "You can't beat 2 guitars, bass, drums." The album was recorded all-analog, according to Lesser and Media Sound head technician Bob Shuster. For gear-heads: The main hardware was a 44-input Neve 8068 console tracked to a Studer A800 2", 24-track tape machine. Lesser used an AKG 414 microphone for Reed's vocals. The album was mixed to a Studer A80RC ½" 2-track tape machine. No noise reduction was used because, Lesser said, "we didn't need it for a rock and roll record." Studio monitoring was through big UREI 813 soffit-mount speakers and Yamaha NS-10s on the console. Lesser said they often took rough mixtapes to Reed's apartment on the Upper West Side and listened through his stereo system. "It was eye-opening to all of us, what translated to different systems and what didn't."

"We didn't do a shitload of takes on any of the songs....Usually [the master] was a complete take with a couple of little fixes. We weren't looking for perfect takes. We were looking for something that would capture a mood." The sequencing was very intentional, as Reed stated in the original liner notes: "This album was recorded...in essentially the order you have here. It's meant to be listened to in one 58-minute (14 songs!) sitting as though it were a book or movie."

Lesser, who joined Reed and doo-wop legend Dion DiMucci on background vocals for "Dirty Blvd." and sang background vocals elsewhere on the album, pronounced the production method a success. "Lou's personality definitely shines through....He was really capturing the era."

The whole thing still sounds vital and current 32 years later. Some of the then-famous/notorious names mentioned are still with us. "Dirty Blvd." stands as a radio-hit classic. Most refreshing, New York is most definitely an album, not a collection of disconnected songs. As Reed noted in the live shows, the first six songs are "pretty grim," so he closed out Side 1 on the original LP with "Beginning of a Great Adventure," about a man optimistically speculating on the idea of being a parent. The album's masterpiece is its last track, "Dime Store Mystery," a brooding memorial to Reed's friend and mentor, Andy Warhol (footnote 2).

One detail Lesser remembers clearly is a Warner Music marketing exec listening to the album and asking Reed if he'd consider cutting a couple of tracks off as "singles and bonus tracks" for CD and cassette releases so as to keep the LP sides shorter than the nearly 30 minutes each New York side took up. Reed answered that this was like a publisher reading the manuscript of Moby Dick and asking Melville to cut a couple of chapters to keep the book's weight down. There was no further discussion of the matter, Lesser said.

Today, many things are similar to the way they were when New York was first released, but the media landscape is very different. The main consumer music format in the US then was prerecorded cassettes, which were 50.8% of all music sales that year, according to RIAA data. CDs, with 39.3% of sales, would pass cassettes as the top consumer format in the early 1990s. Already, LP sales were just 3.3%. So, most of us got our first listen to New York on a mass-duped cassette or early-era CD. If you love the album and think you know how it sounds, it might be time to rehear it.

There is much to hear in this reissue package. There's the original album, remastered, on a CD and in 24/96 resolution on the DVD disc. There's a CD of the album sequence comprised of live performances from Reed's 1989 tour, culled from board-tape cassettes in the Lou Reed Archives at the New York Public Library. The third CD, called Works In Progress/Singles/Encores, is a potpourri of work tapes, rough mixes, the singles mixes of "Romeo Had Juliette," "Busload of Faith," and the German 12" B-side instrumental "The Room," one of the first jams that Reed and Rathke committed to cassette in western New Jersey.

The DVD includes the first digital release of The New York Album, a live-for-video performance at Montreal's Theatre St-Denis taped August 13, 1989, previously available only on VHS and LaserDisc. The DVD also includes a high-rez remaster of the album and "A Conversation with Lou Reed," produced by Sire Records as part of a 2-CD anthology sent to radio stations after the album's unexpected chart success. For Lou Reed fans, this is a deep dive into his thought process and how he saw New York, America, and his life in 1988–89.

The only disappointment in this package is the pair of LPs. It's not that they sound bad. They're each 200 grams of quiet black vinyl, the sides short, cut at ample levels by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering. The problem is, they're cut from the same digital remaster used for the CD and the 24/96 audio on the DVD, a fact confirmed by both Rhino and Grundman Mastering personnel. So, why bother? The obvious thing to do would have been to cut the vinyl from the master tape and present collectors with an all-analog option.

It's not that simple, though. Apparently, the master tapes have Reed and Rathke in opposite channels on different tracks; stuff like that is time-consuming to sort out in the analog domain; very likely, the original LP was cut from an interim digital source. In those waning LP days, LPs were already an afterthought (footnote 3).

Reed, described by Lesser as "certainly an analog guy," would surely have preferred the LP cut from tape, but who knows how much he knew? He hit the road as soon as it was released and toured it until August 19, 1989, when he took a bad step offstage following a soundcheck in Cleveland, injuring his ankle and cutting short the New York touring odyssey.

As nice as it would be to have, finally, an all-analog LP remaster, it would be wrong to end this review on a down note. This is a fine reissue of a great album. The extra 5" shiny discs add some great music and provide further insight into the music and creative process of a true iconoclast.

I mentioned to Lesser that Lou Reed and his music were built for this crazy time of pandemic, economic collapse, the social fabric ripping. "I can only imagine what a 2021 album from Lou Reed would be," he exclaimed.


Footnote 1: Here's what Scritti Politti was doing in 1988.

Footnote 2: Check out the lyrics and comments accompanying this YouTube video, posted by a person who isn't really the musician Brian Eno.

Footnote 3: In the late 1980s, much cassette duplication was done from a digital master, which allowed for lower noise and less "generational loss" from dubbing analog tapes onto a 4-track cassette master bin-loop tape.

COMMENTS
Otto Jones's picture

Lou Reed played the album New York straight through...from beginning to end…as it was meant to be. I saw him at the Warner Theater in Washington DC on March 14,1989. Just outstanding…an unforgettable experience.

tonykaz's picture

You speak and relate powerfully. I think that I saw you at a NY Audio event where you spoke about your parents work in the recording industry. Certainly, you were an impressive authority.

On this Album, you write a compelling reveal about it's history and it's artists. I immediately found it and listened. It's a powerful statement about not very pleasant things, making it's listening to need a few 'phew' pauses. I remember this music from long ago, it was powerful then ( perhaps overpowering ). This isn't a lovely Strauss Waltz. If music is a Mood Altering Drug, this album is sobering.

Your writing is impressive, probably as impressive as your speaking ( that I recall ).

Thanks for this reporting on a Culturally significant period of unpleasantness.

Tony in Venice

dial's picture

Well, it's a good disc, better that Mistrial or New sensations but far far away from his VU work, or even Songs for Drella (same year) or Berlin, Sally, RNR Animal/Live. About the package I'll say the same for the Ramones (except for the DVD), issue the LP separately, it's pretty unpractical. Also the sticker says A FULL LIVE SHOW, it's a lie, 6 shows were used and should have been available in entirety. For the DVD I prefer it issued apart from a musical content.
For the political situation, I don't want to tell your readers what I"m thinking, I fear this cannot be welcomed here.

carlpultz's picture

Hey Tom, I have an original issue promo copy. Etched in the dead wax is Masterdisk DMM. You've really made me want to hear this record again. Thanks.

Glotz's picture

in recorded print. I wondered what made Lou include him then.

I don't now... lol!

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