And so with The Bells we come to the end of a phase of Lou Reed’s career; the end of his sustained acerbic drug-addled persona for much of the 70’s (at least from Transformer to Street Hassle), the last album to feature his Everyman Band led by keyboardist Michael Fonfara since Coney Island Baby (1976), the last to be recorded in West Germany, and the last album he would make before his much heralded sobriety years beginning with 1980’s defeated Growing Up in Public. By the time he put together The Blue Mask in 1982 he’d moved on to an entirely different sound and band. This album was the last gasp of an old regime.
So where does this leave the oft-overlooked The Bells? It’s lacking the sweaty, harrowing punk triumph of Street Hassle (1978), the smooth classic status of Coney Island Baby, or the epochal grandeur of Berlin (1973). It’s slight to the point of invisibility – nine tracks in 40 minutes without a familiar tune in sight. Lou and VU compilations (and there are millions) rarely include The Bells’ tracks in their inventories and upon its release in April 1979 everyone was underwhelmed: critics, contemporaries, even Lou himself.
We’ve had decades for the album to ingratiate itself to our ears (for those willing and able) and upon closer examination it could be said that it is as brave and interesting as any album in Reed’s repertoire. It is a (partially) successful, personal and empathetic album, compassionate, displaying an emotional depth rarely seen from the solo artist and his characters. Reed’s old sparring partner Lester Bangs wrote in Creem, “With The Bells, more than in Street Hassle, perhaps even more than in his work with the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed achieves his oft-stated ambition—to become a great writer, in the literary sense.” This is perhaps the great lost Lou Reed album.
The album’s first side opens strangely with one of three co-compositions with the multi-instrumentalist Nils Lofgren. Stupid Man is a short funk-rock ditty and a highly insubstantial one upon first listen, if it wasn’t such a fantastic showcase for Lou’s funny voice buzzing around the room. A moving piece; the protagonist leaving his little baby daughter and coming home soon to see her soon. It’s almost enough to put a lump in your throat so early on, but before we can worry too much Lou sweeps us into the strange four and half minute funk-workout Disco Mystic. Complete with sleazy sax and spacious vocals (the title being the only chanted lyrics), it’s all very street proto-jazz (it was 1979 after all) which works better on record than it does on paper. Worthier is the mid-tempo, doo-wop flavourings of I Wanna Boogie With You, something of a ‘good’ twin of Street Hassle’s ‘evil’ Dirt, lyrically sweeping and calm, collapsing into a mean Reed guitar solo finale. Closing out the side: With You and Looking for Love, finds Lou’s energetic vocals drawing raw emotion from the compassionate perspective of his characters. Unmistakably pop – if pop of a particularly twisted Lou Reed strain.
The second half of The Bells could not be more different from the first without weakening the album, although City Lights, a tribute to of all people, Charlie Chaplin, and the film of the same name, tries hard. Things then really pick up around the remarkable All Through the Night. It’s a superb piece of unreality, bolstered by a taped chatter churning backing noise reminiscent of Kicks from three years earlier. The sax driven track is an album standout: “Some people wait for things that never come / and some people dream of things that have never been done / they do it all through the night.” The song flip-flops back and forth between world-weary humour and emotive remorse. Next is the essentially improvised Families, a rather candid personal appeal to the narrators real family living out in the suburbs, addressing his parents and sister, his life and theirs, finishing with the closing line “I don’t think I’ll come home anymore”.
To end The Bells on this note would be cruelly depressing, so there is still one song left, and that is the monstrous title cut. Experimental is the key word here. The guitar synthesizer is all over this wildly improvised 9-minute soundscape, and finds free-jazz trumpeter Don Cherry contributing an incredible cameo in the spirit of Lou’s hero Ornette Coleman. On a purely musical level it is easily the finest track on The Bells, the vocals finally entering well over half way through. “The Bells is about suicide, but not a bad suicide”, Lou claimed at the time and it’s a challenging listen without a doubt.
If The Bells is the forgotten Lou Reed album, the powerful and disturbing title track is his most unjustly forgotten song, even more so than All Through the Night or I Wanna Boogie With You. Any true Lou Reed best-of should include these tracks, but sadly few of them do.
Neither the label at the time (Arista) nor Reed was particularly interested in pushing The Bells, and while Reed occasionally included some of these songs into his live set over the years, the album has mostly languished into obscurity. Commercially, Lou would bounce back 10 years later with the masterpiece New York, but he never again produced an album as warped as The Bells and while it doesn’t reach the heights of Street Hassle, The Bells is one of his finest releases of the 70’s, and well worth checking out.