For his 1978 Street Hassle album, Lou Reed became the first major artist to produce an album using the “Binaural” sound recording system, a two-channel 3-D stereo technology that utilized microphones embedded into a wig dummy’s ears. The placement of the mics roughly approximates the position and distance between the average person’s ears.
Binaural albums can be played on standard record players, but need to be heard over headphones and not speakers as the effect (like you are “live” in the room with the musicians) is less impressive (not heard at all) when played on speakers. A typical effect achieved by a binaural recording might be the sound of a box of matches being shaken, first in one ear, then the other. With headphones the effect can be quite startling—you’ll hear the shaking matches as they travel around your head, it’s pretty vivid—but it needn’t be that gimmicky.
Probably the best song to really hear what they were going for is Street Hassle‘s epic 11-minute-long title suite, a shocking three-part monolog/tone poem during which a woman hires a hustler, a drug dealer gives a guy some particularly blunt advice about what to do with his dead “old lady” and then the final part, which has an uncredited Bruce Springsteen (who, sadly for Reed, was in a legal dispute at the time and needed to remain at least somewhat incognito) doing a very effective low-key mumbled rap that more than hints at whose voice you are listening to, despite the lack of acknowledgement in the liner notes:
Well hey, man, that’s just a lie
It’s a lie she tells her friends
‘Cause the real song, the real song
Where she won’t even admit to herself
The beatin’ in her heart
It’s a song lots of people know
It’s a painful song
A little sad truth
But life’s full of sad songs
A penny for a wish
But wishin’ won’t make you a soldier
With a pretty kiss for a pretty face
Can’t have its way
Y’know tramps like us, we were born to pay
On Reed’s live Animal Serenade album, he tells the audience: “I wanted to write a song that had a great monolog set to rock. Something that could have been written by William Burroughs, Hubert Selby, John Rechy, Tennessee Williams, Nelson Algren, maybe a little Raymond Chandler. You mix it all up and you have Street Hassle.”
Reed knew Steven Van Zandt and heard that Springsteen was recording at the Record Planet. Springsteen read the part twice and both he and Reed were pleased with the result. Reed later explained how the collaboration came to be:
“Bruce Springsteen was mixing in the studio below us and I thought, ‘How fortuitous’, People expect me to badmouth him because he’s from New Jersey but I think he’s really fabulous. He did the part so well that I had to bury him in the mix. I knew Bruce would that recitation seriously because he really is of the street, you know.”
If you listen to the song on a CD, or the YouTube clip below (or whatever) on headphones, you will definitely hear the binaural quality, no problem, but the best way to hear “Street Hassle” is via the UK or German 12” EP which spins at 45rpm and gives a wide berth to the cellos. If you’re an audiophile, this one is up there with Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box for a truly astonishing deep bass reproduction. On headphones it sounds like Reed and the Boss’s voices are inside of your skull.