Zap those Brexit mutineers, Boris

THE answer to the prejudice blighting the world has been staring us all in the visage, according to an Italian psychologist. Zapping the brain with electricity would wipe out bias in a flash, says Maddalena Marini. 

A post-doctoral researcher at the Italian Institute of Technology, Ms Marini claims that decades of trying to overcome bigotry via persuasion have had little effect.

So the next step is to introduce electric or magnetic currents into the transgressor’s napper. This, she says, would ‘modulate the mechanisms through which the brain regulates our behaviour’.

She adds: ‘Studies have allowed us to define a network of brain regions causally involved in these processes, showing that by increasing or decreasing the activity of some of these areas it is possible to reduce the strength of unconscious stereotypes, like the prejudice that leads to associating acts of terrorism with being of Arab origin.’

Ms Marini, who gave a lecture this year on getting rid of gender bias, produces no evidence of how frazzling the grey matter will make us better people, but we’ll forgive her for that because she is definitely a bit of a babe. 

So come on, Boris, what are you waiting for? Sign her up! Perhaps 240 volts between the ears might shake Dominic Grieve out of his treacherous antics. Followed by the rest of the turncoat Tories who refuse to do their electors’ bidding.

Maybe lighting up Jeremy Corbyn’s frontal lobes (if he’s got any) will make him less tolerant of anti-Semitism.

And then, if it doesn’t overload the National Grid, we can make a start on the biased BBC.

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Off the Beaten Tracks: Lou walks on the wild side

LAST week we saw Lou Reed quitting the Velvet Underground in 1970, dismayed at their lack of commercial success – just as their talents were about to be acknowledged. So what does a 28-year-old rock and roll wild man do next? Why, go home to mum and dad, of course. This was surprising as Lou had resented his parents since his troubled late teens, which culminated in a nervous breakdown and incarceration in a mental hospital where he was given electro-convulsive therapy. He never forgave his father Sidney and mother Toby for agreeing to the debilitating ECT.

While back living in Long Island with Mr and Mrs Reed (the family name was changed from the original Rabinowitz), and recovering from a second breakdown, Lou worked as a $40-a-week typist for his father’s tax accounting firm. However he tired of the non-stop glamour and, on the strength of his history with the Velvets, plus a recommendation from David Bowie, who idolised him, signed a recording contract with Bowie’s record company RCA. He flew to London (‘to get out of that New York thing’) and made his debut album with a bunch of session musicians at Morgan Studios in beautiful downtown Willesden.

When I first heard Lou Reed, released in April 1972, I thought it was a comic masterpiece. His bored, camp, low-key vocals are punctuated by heavy-handed, crashing drums from Clem Cattini, a former member of the Tornados, and prog twiddles from Yes men Steve Howe on guitar and Rick Wakeman on keyboards. Sadly, as I later discovered, the amateurishness was not deliberate, just the result of naïve production by Reed and fellow New Yorker Richard Robinson, who had little contact with the musicians. However there are some great songs in there, mostly written when Lou was still with the Velvets. The opener, I Can’t Stand It, and the next track, Going Down, survive being almost clubbed to death by Cattini while the third, Walk and Talk It, is driven by a weedy version of the riff from the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar.

Lisa Says is a quintessential Reed effort, while he liked Berlin so much that he later based an album on it.

Best track for me is Wild Child – ‘I was talking to Chuck in his Genghis Khan suit and his wizard’s hat’. This is one of the waspish snapshots of the New York demi-monde that would become his trademark and for once the playing is up to scratch. Sadly for Lewis Allan Reed, the album would bring him no more success than his efforts with the Velvets.

Then came the breakthrough. In August that same year Reed went into Trident Studios in Soho with Bowie as producer and his sidekick Mick Ronson as arranger. Bowie was a huge name by now thanks to the success of Ziggy Stardust. Lou decided to follow his example, go glam and exploit his bisexuality. The result was the aptly named Transformer, whose front cover is an over-exposed photo of Reed on stage in black eye make-up. I was reliably informed by several people at the time that the male and female photographed on the back were both Reed; alternatively that they were the same person but not Reed. In fact they were a male roadie (with a plastic banana crammed down the front of his jeans Derek Smalls-style) and a female model.

By the end of 1972 Lou had moved from cult status to stardom thanks to a single from the album, Walk on the Wild Side.

Its mentions of oral sex, transvestism, drugs and prostitution failed to be recognised by the BBC, usually so keen to ban records, and it became a top ten hit. In it, Reed tells the stories of five characters from Andy Warhol’s movie entourage: Holly and Candy are the transsexual actresses Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling; Little Joe, Sugar Plum Fairy and Jackie are the actors Joe Dallesandro, Joe Campbell and Jackie Curtis.

The musical idea that turns the song into a masterpiece cost a grand total of £34. Session man Herbie Flowers suggested he played interlocking lines on double bass with electric bass overlaid to provide the unmistakable motif behind Reed’s deadpan vocals. Because Flowers used two instruments, he received double the normal £17 daily session fee agreed with the Musicians’ Union. He never got any royalties, however, and neither did Ronnie Ross, whose lovely baritone sax solo concludes the song after the Thunder Thighs’ doo-doo-doo-doo-doo chorus.

Transformer opens with Vicious – ‘you hit me with a flower’ – which sets the queeny, bitchy, acerbic tone of the album. It is followed by Andy’s Chest, a bizarre tribute to Warhol written after a 1968 attempt on his life left a huge scar on said torso. Perfect Day is one of my least favourite cuts but went on to become a number one hit when released with a cast of thousands as a charity single in 1997.

Then comes Hangin’ ’Round, with its contemptuous druggie reference ‘You’re still doin’ things that I gave up years ago.’ Side one concludes brilliantly with Walk on the Wild Side, whose subject matter probably qualifies it nowadays as a subject to be taught to six-year-olds in state schools.

Side two kicks off with the lovely Make Up, Herbie Flowers coining in another £17 on tuba, followed by Satellite of Love, featuring barnstorming backing vocals from Bowie.

Wagon Wheel and I’m So Free are both rockers while the two remaining tracks are quintessential Reed: New York Telephone Conversation – ‘did you hear who did what to whom, happens all the time’ and Goodnight Ladies – ‘Ah, all night long you’ve been drinking your tequila, but now you’ve sucked your lemon peel dry’.

Critical reaction was initially patchy – Rolling Stone said the album was mainly ‘artsyfartsy kind of homo stuff’ – but Transformer came to be accepted as a classic, thanks greatly to the work of Bowie and Ronson. Expectations could not have been higher for its successor.

Reed and Bowie, however, stopped working as a team after the latter warned the drug-addled New Yorker that he needed to clean himself up. Reed responded by hitting him, and not with a flower, although the couple would publicly kiss and make up.

So how could Louie Boy top the success of Transformer? Answer, he couldn’t. After years of mainlining heroin and amphetamine his brain was frazzled, to use a specialised psychiatric term. He was also drinking a bottle of scotch a day and had to be helped on and off stage by his wife Bettye when touring to promote the album in late 1972.

Enter Bob Ezrin, a young Canadian producer who had enjoyed success with Alice Cooper, notably the chart-topper School’s Out. He persuaded Reedbook on Reed to expand Berlin from his first solo album into a song cycle redolent of the film musical Cabaret, which had come out that year. It involves a couple named Caroline and Jim carrying out a doomed romance in the German city. ‘We came up with a concept and he went and wrote it,’ Ezrin is quoted as saying in Howard Sounes’s book on Reed.

Not exactly, Bob. Reed dug out four old songs he had written for the Velvet Underground, Oh, Jim, Men of Good Fortune, Sad Song and Stephanie Says, the latter of which became Caroline Says parts I and II. Berlin made five. Not enough to fill an album. Then, one emotional night after Bettye had learned that her mother had cancer, she poured her heart out to Lou, telling him of her troubled childhood during which her father accused her mother of sleeping around. This he shamelessly used as the basis for The Kids, including the line ‘That miserable rotten slut couldn’t turn anyone away.’ He also based the character of Caroline largely on Bettye in the song The Bed – ‘These are the boxes that she kept on the shelf, filled with her poetry and stuff’. Bettye was not the first and certainly not the last person to have felt betrayed by Reed. In fact the word to describe him that comes up over and over again, from many different sources, is ‘pr*ck’, usually preceded by ‘self*sh’.

Berlin is an overblown, overproduced, ponderous, pretentious piece of work which was duly panned by the critics. Worst of all, it totally lacks the wit and humour of his earlier output. Only the song How Do You Think It Feels? stands comparison in my view.

The worst part of all is at the end of The Kids, which features Ezrin’s two young sons wailing miserably for their mummy. It was claimed at the time that the producer had lied to them that his missus had been killed in a car crash but I hope this is untrue.

To promote Berlin live, a band was formed featuring the ace guitarists Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter, who had both played on the album. Wagner produced bombastic new, stadium-friendly, heavy-metal arrangements of Reed classics. They went down a storm, with critics praising the axe duo to the heavens while waxing much less lyrical about the singer, much to his chagrin. Wagner told Howard Sounes: ‘All the newspaper reviews talked about the band and kind of belittled him as being out of it, and he was. He was doing a lot of speed at that time. He was pretty drugged up.’

Two New York concerts in December 1973 were recorded and released two months later as the live album Rock ’n’ Roll Animal, which was a great solace to fans such as myself who had been sorely disappointed by Berlin. It begins with lengthy interplay between Wagner and Hunter before moving irresistibly into the Sweet Jane riff. Ah, bliss.

I was expecting fireworks when, on May 31 1974, Reed played at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. Sadly, they didn’t happen on stage. Wagner and Hunter had departed the band in a dispute over royalties for the Rock ’n’ Roll Animal sequel, Lou Reed Live. Reed shuffled out in jeans and a black sleeveless T-shirt known in America as a wife beater (true in his case), his hair dyed blond. When the crowd roared he looked surprised and raised his sunglasses to blink owlishly at us. He was clearly off his face. Ten songs raced by in perfunctory fashion and after a mere 35 minutes he was gone. Shouts for an encore proved fruitless; presumably he had passed out in his dressing room. The crowd turned ugly and started trying to storm the stage and seize the band’s equipment. Roadies responded by swinging mike stands at the invaders’ heads, making contact on many occasions. At this point I deemed it wise to leave with my girlfriend, rather than have to explain to her parents why I was bringing her home covered in blood. I later learned that the front five rows of seats had been torn out and hurled on to the stage.

That night marked the end of my (platonic) love for Lou Reed. The next studio album, Sally Can’t Dance, was generally dismal. Its most notable track, Kill Your Sons, was Reed’s revenge on his parents and psychiatrists for the ECT, which he would claim in a later interview was designed to ‘cure’ his homosexual tendencies. His sister Bunny and her husband Harold, living on Long Island, likewise fell victim to his spite. He sang:

‘And sister, she got married on the island
And her husband takes the train
He’s big and he’s fat and he doesn’t even have a brain.’

Bunny was incredulous when he told her what he had written. ‘Are you serious?’ she asked him. ‘You wipe out my lifestyle and my husband in four phrases?’ He replied: ‘Ah, I needed something to rhyme with train.’

It was a surprise to me that Reed even survived the decade, eventually dying of liver disease at the age of 71 in 2013. There would of course be many more albums displaying flashes of brilliance, including New York (1989), Songs for Drella (1990) and Magic and Loss, (1992) but all in all his life and lost inspiration served as a terrible warning to anyone who might consider dabbling with drugs.

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Off the Beaten Tracks: Tipping the Velvets

THE Velvet Underground received a cursory mention in my profile of Nico published almost a year ago. Obviously, such a historically significant band deserve a column of their own, so here goes . . .

It was in late 1964 that New York singer and guitarist Lou Reed met viola player John Cale, a Welshman in the city to further his classical music education. Both were 22. Lou was already honing his songwriting skills working on the staff of Pickwick Records, churning out low-budget copies of current hits.

With a college friend of Reed, Sterling Morrison, on guitar, and a drummer named Angus MacLise, they formed a band first named the Warlocks, then the Falling Spikes and finally the Velvet Underground. MacLise left the band accusing them of a ‘sellout’ after they agreed to play a gig for money – a princely 75 dollars – and was replaced by 21-year-old Moe Tucker, a sister of one of Morrison’s friends. She preferred to stand while playing and often used mallets instead of drumsticks.

In 1965 the group were introduced to the artist and filmmaker Andy Warhol, who offered to be their manager. They became part of his multimedia travelling show, Exploding Plastic Inevitable, accompanying his movies with their music. At his suggestion the German ice queen Nico joined the Velvets and he secured a recording contract for them with the Verve label.

The Velvet Underground and Nico was recorded mainly in New York in the spring of 1966 but did not see the light of day until the following year. Although sales were minimal, it was a sensational record. The suggestive Warhol-designed sleeve featured a yellow banana sticker which could be removed to reveal a pink one beneath. And the music was a direct counterpoint to the ‘summer of love’ stuff emerging from San Francisco and points west. While hippies were putting flowers in their hair, Lou Reed’s gang were singing about the seamy side of life.

The album begins gently enough with Sunday Morning but then kicks into the brooding I’m Waiting For The Man, about the misery of drugs and trying to find a dealer – ‘Up to Lexington, 125, five; feel sick and dirty more dead than alive’. This would be one of Reed’s preoccupations for much of his life, as it would for Nico. Her first vocal outing is the brilliant Femme Fatale – ‘Little boy, she’s from the street; before you start you’re already beat’. Like most of the tracks, this oft-covered classic was written by Reed. I’ll Be Your Mirror is another example of his songwriting genius.

The droning, plangent Venus in Furs is a musical version of the 19th century novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the man who gave his name to masochism. Then comes Heroin.

Hardly surprising, really, that stores banned the album, radio stations refused to play it and Verve was reluctant to give it any promotional effort. It remains a remarkable achievement more than 50 years on, with its combination of sweet pop songs and avant-garde, feedback-infested dirges featuring Cale’s manic viola playing. The Czech Vaclav Havel, who bought the LP during a visit to America, claimed it inspired him to become president of his country, although it is hard to imagine how. And in south London, a 19-year-old David Bowie was given an advance copy of the album and became obsessed with it. ‘This music was so savagely indifferent to my feelings,’ he is quoted as saying in the book Notes from the Velvet Underground by Howard Sounes. ‘It didn’t care if I liked it or not. It was completely preoccupied with a world unseen by my suburban eyes. One after another, tracks squirmed and slid their tentacles around my mind.’ Bowie, who soon began to play I’m Waiting for the Man live, went on that by the time the LP had ended ‘I was so excited I couldn’t move. It was late in the evening and I couldn’t think of anyone to call, so I played it again and again and again.’

Nico left the band after they parted company with Warhol in a dispute over their future direction. They stepped up their schedule of live performances and their sound became much harsher and more improvisational, with some songs stretching past the half-hour mark. In September 1967, the Velvets’ second Verve LP White Light/White Heat was recorded over just two days. Cale would later describe it as ‘a very rabid record’. He added: ‘The first one had some gentility, some beauty. The second one was consciously anti-beauty.’

It certainly isn’t easy listening. The 17-minute final track Sister Ray is a jam session built around three chords while The Gift is a story narrated by Cale about a man who decides to mail himself to his girlfriend in a box, which she opens with a sharp knife to fatal effect. I must admit that this is an album I never play.

Following an increasing clash of egos with Reed, Cale became Welsh rarebit. Reed had a secret meeting with Morrison and Tucker at which he said that he would dissolve the band unless they agreed to fire the viola player whose ideas, including recording under water, he felt were ‘too out there’. They reluctantly agreed and poor old Sterl was dispatched to deliver the bad news.

Cale’s replacement was Doug Yule, in whose apartment the band had stayed at one point. Morrison heard him practising the guitar and suggested to Reed that they hire him. He was taken on as a bassist and organist.

In late 1968 they recorded their third LP, The Velvet Underground, for MGM Records, of which Verve was a subsidiary. This is much more of a pop effort and mainly but not completely reflects Reed’s keenness to shake off Cale’s wacky influence. It opens with Yule on vocals for Candy Says, a song about Warhol actress Candy Darling, who would gain a further mention in Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side some years later.

My favourite tracks are Some Kinda Love, Pale Blue Eyes  and the final song, After Hours, sung in childlike fashion by Tucker. Least favourite is The Murder Mystery, featuring Reed and Morrison reciting different poems simultaneously and Tucker and Yule singing different lyrics at the same time for the choruses. As off the wall as anything Cale would have come up with, surely?

The album was initially as successful as its predecessors, i.e. not.

Undeterred, the band toured extensively and in November 1969 played shows in San Francisco which were recorded by a fan, Robert Quine, and released in 2001 as a triple album, Bootleg Series Volume One: The Quine Tapes. Again this is something which rarely troubles my stereogram but listening to it in preparation for this article made me think I should give it another chance. Here, if you’re feeling brave, is a 37-minute version of Sister Ray. Quine, by the way, went on to become a seriously good guitarist, playing with Richard Hell and the Voidoids in the 1970s, touring with Reed in the 1980s and recording with, among others, Brian Eno and Tom Waits.

By the time of their fourth LP Loaded, the Velvets had been dropped by MGM, officially because of the drug references in their music but probably because commercially they stank. They were signed by the Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion Records, who demanded an album loaded with hits, hence the title. They were to be disappointed, although it does contain two of the band’s most famous songs, Sweet Jane and Rock and Roll.

Sweet Jane is in my all-time top ten tracks – that opening riff never fails to bring out the goosebumps. Of the four songs with vocals by Yule, however, particularly New Age, I feel they would all be better sung by Reed. Sterling Morrison agreed. ‘The album came out okay, as far as production it’s the best,’ he said. ‘But it would have been better if it had real good Lou vocals on all the tracks.’

Disillusioned by the band’s lack of success, Reed quit in late 1970. Soon afterwards the Velvets began to be acknowledged as among the most influential of all rock groups and their records started to sell in significant numbers. Their debut album was named 13th best of all time by Rolling Stone magazine in 2003, while the other three all came in the top 500. There would be reunions aplenty.

Next week, Lou’s walk on the wild side.

To read the collected TCW columns by Margaret and Alan Ashworth, plus new features including Tracks of the Day, please bookmark

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Off the Beaten Tracks: Sausage seller makes good

OUR subject this week was rejected in 1980s Nashville as being ‘too rock for country’ and in Los Angeles as being ‘too country for rock’. I don’t give a hoot what category she comes under; I just think Lucinda Williams has made some great records.

Her 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is never far from the steam-powered radiogram-cum-cocktail cabinet in Ashworth Towers, and is rightly regarded as a classic.

But first things first.

Lucinda Gayle Williams was born in 1953 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her father Miller Williams was a poet and literature professor while her mother Lucille Fern Day was a keen amateur pianist. Miller had the birth defect spina bifida which was passed on to his daughter, thankfully not in a severe form. She told the New York Times: ‘In some cases it means you can’t walk. For me it is a weakness in the back. I get tired standing a long time.’

Miller’s appointments as a visiting professor meant the family never stayed long in one place until they settled in Arkansas, where Lucinda attended the state university in Fayetteville and learned to sing the blues. In her early twenties she moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where in 1978 she made her first album, Ramblin’ on My Mind, a collection of old cover versions. It failed to find favour with the public, as did her second, the self-penned Happy Woman Blues, in 1980. At one point, Lucinda was forced to make ends meet by becoming a sausage saleswoman in department stores. ‘I was hired to stand there with a little grill thing and grill the samples and stick a toothpick in each one,’ she says. ‘I did not want to be doing that.’

She moved to LA, where she played the clubs and built up a fan base without managing to interest major record labels (owing to the aforementioned ‘country or rock?’ conflict). It was the London-based Rough Trade company which finally realised her potential and in 1988 released her critically lauded LP, Lucinda Williams, produced by her guitarist and then partner, the piquantly named Gurf Morlix. Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis said: ‘We were big fans of the Southern literary tradition. We recognised that Lucinda was writing serious songs, but with the wit and humour of real rock’n’roll.’ I would add that she had a great voice, bright and girlish yet earthy and full of emotion.

The album kicks off with I Just Wanted To See You So Bad, followed by a real beauty, The Night’s Too Long. I’ve always loved the verse that goes: ‘And with her back against the bar, she can listen to the band. And she’s holding a Corona. And it’s cold against her hand.’ Corona being a Mexican brand of beer, in case you were worried.

Further highlights include Changed The Locks, Am I Too Blue? and Passionate Kisses, which would become a big hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter and win its author a Grammy award.

After a four-year hiatus Lucinda and Murf were back in the studio to record Sweet Old World, an album about sadness and loss. Again it was hailed by the critics and again it failed to set the charts alight. Emmylou Harris, who recorded the title track for her album Wrecking Ball, said of Lucinda that she was ‘an example of the best of what country at least says it is, but, for some reason, she’s completely out of the loop and I feel strongly that that’s country music’s loss’.

First track is Six Blocks Away, followed by Something About What Happens When We Talk, both great stuff. Sweet Old World is sad and beautiful, addressed to a loved one who committed suicide.

See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world
The breath from your own lips, the touch of fingertips
A sweet and tender kiss
The sound of a midnight train, wearing someone’s ring
Someone calling your name
Somebody so warm cradled in your arm
Didn’t you think you were worth anything?

Lucinda has said that Emmylou’s version is her favourite cover of any of her songs, but I prefer the original.

A lovely surprise is the final track, a cover of Nick Drake’s song Which Will, from his 1972 album Pink Moon. Nick’s story is of course another tragedy, which I will get round to soon.

After another six years, and an acrimonious break-up between Lucinda and Gurf (Morlix, Horlicks, there’s got to be a limerick there somewhere), came the big breakthrough.

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, on the Mercury label, won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album and more importantly for the singer went gold, eventually selling almost a million copies. The Village Voice critics’ poll named it best album of 1998. It was produced by Bruce Springsteen’s keyboard player Roy Bittan.

Right from the off, with the twangy Right In Time, it’s clear that Lucinda has found her sound, the perfect blend of rock and country. The voice conveys a mixture of wistfulness, regret . . . and lust. A New Musical Express reviewer wrote that she ‘transfigures American roots rock into a heady, soul-baring and, would you believe, unabashedly sexy art form’.

Next comes the title track followed by 2 Kool 2 Be 4gotten, which is better than the juvenile text-language title would suggest. Drunken Angel, Concrete and Barbed Wire, Lake Charles, so it goes on with not a dud track to be had. Still I Long For Your Kiss was released as a single and featured in the Robert Redford movie The Horse Whisperer.

Car Wheels is a great record which Lucinda has never surpassed. Her next album, Essence, was more heavy-handed with the sexiness factor and suffered as a consequence, in my view. However she is still on the scene at the age of 66, touring the UK right now, and is the proud possessor of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association.

Her secret? A generous on-stage dose of . . . tea. She told the New York Times in 2009: ‘Lately, I’ve switched from Grand Marnier to herbal tea. I was drinking the Grand Marnier because it coats your throat, but it’s also real strong. After a while it gets in the way of your performance. And it’s fattening as hell.’

To read the collected TCW columns by Margaret and Alan Ashworth, plus new features including Tracks of the Day, please bookmark

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