As he did for so many other avant-rock fans (and let’s face, people into ‘good music’), Lou Reed altered my musical consciousness and set me on a new path of musical discovery. He may have continued the rock-poet tradition of Bob Dylan but Reed turned his cool gaze toward the characters who lived on the fringes of society. His detached narratives that relayed the tales of New York City’s night creatures widened the world of my small-town teenage self and helped motivate my move to the Big Apple when I was eighteen.
It was through my Bowie obsession that I became acquainted with Lou Reed. With their shared observations of and involvements with society’s marginalized, especially with the burgeoning gay culture, and with Bowie’s own fixation with The Velvet Underground evidenced by his ‘Queen Bitch’ tribute to VU on ‘Hunky Dory’ and his live covers of ‘White Light/White Heat’ and ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’, the two were natural collaborators. The Bowie-produced ‘Transformer’ was my first true introduction to Lou Reed’s music.
I was hooked and then started seeking out the albums by the band most of my favourite contemporary acts were referencing. We all know what Brian Eno had to say about Lou Reed’s first band The Velvet Underground and it was true. Even if VU’s abrasive noise did not endear them to a mainstream audience, their cult following of the right people ensured their popularity would only grow with band after band citing them as an inspiration. This legacy was further secured as behind the in-your-face experimental presentation, there were wonderful songs, most of them penned by Lou, a former Tin Pan Alley songwriter.
Joyous was the day that I found an original pressing of ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’ with Warhol’s banana sticker. Half of it had been ripped off but it was still a bargain at 12 bucks. And in another stroke of luck a few months later, I happened to wander by a Boston record shop and found Lou signing records. I quickly purchased ‘Lou Reed Live’ and now have a great (albeit perfunctory) dedication as a memento.
The Velvet Underground’s risqué rock music for the sophisticated ear became the soundtrack to my first few years in New York. I was living downtown and encountering (and possibly becoming?) the after-hour types I had previously only distantly observed through Reed’s songs. I even had the pleasure and paranoia of meeting the man himself when he was brought without warning into the radio booth from which I was broadcasting live in the middle of a music convention. I had no time to prepare questions or to steel my nineteen-year-old self against the potential attack of the curmudgeonly artist with the acerbic tongue. To this day I have no recollection of what we spoke about but he was kind to me and at the time, that is what mattered most.
Although there are many contenders, I chose ‘Transformer’ as the album with which to formally pay CAS tribute to Lou Reed as not only was it my personal introduction to his music, but also the album which I feel best signifies his full transformation (sorry) into a solo artist. His eponymous debut contained vestiges from his VU days and even if he did rework the band’s demos of ‘Andy’s Chest’ and ‘Satellite of Love” on his sophomore effort, it stands as his first fully-realised LP.
After the Velvets split, Lou returned to Long Island to work for his father and ‘lick his wounds’ but was soon ready to record. He took along some of VU’s unreleased songs for his first solo effort which he recorded in London with a host of session musicians who, in retrospect, were not exactly sympathetic to Lou’s music. The album flopped but that did not deter Lou from picking himself up and making another one. And it certainly did not stop him from returning to The Smoke as he felt that all of the records that were sounding good were coming out of London.
Lou’s record company, RCA, introduced him to another one of their recording artists, David Bowie, who was riding high with the success of ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. The label suggested Bowie produce Lou’s new album and Bowie was daunted as he told Classic Albums, “I was petrified that he said, ‘Yes’, that he would like to work with me in a producer capacity. I had so many ideas and I felt so intimidated by my knowledge of the work he had already done…Lou had this great legacy of work.”
Bowie enlisted Spider guitarist and arranger Mick Ronson for co-production duties and Ziggy Stardust engineer Ken Scott and together they were able to shape Lou’s songs into an album. Although it did reference the glam scene that was electrifying London, ‘Transformer’ differed from ‘Ziggy’ and its more glittery counterparts with its gritty, realist subject matter. Rather than depicting a fictional apocalyptic space-age world, ‘Transformer’s stories were mired in the downtown streets of New York City.
The entire album makes for wonderful listening and still surprises me with how many different styles and emotions are squeezed into the grooves of it’s 36 minutes: the T Rex raucous glam of ‘Wagon Wheel’ and ‘I’m So Free’, the cabaret feel of ‘Make-Up’, the giggle-inducing ‘New York Conversation’, the proto-punk of ‘Viscious’, the urban noir of ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and the indelible beauty of ‘Perfect Day’.
However, it is all held together by the imagery that was garnered from Lou’s time spent with Andy Warhol and the Factory denizens. In his candid, direct and non-judgmental manner, Lou sang about the darker sides of life and the city’s underbelly, or as he told Classic Albums, “I just wrote about people I knew and where I come from.”
He kept a notebook during his tenure at The Factory, jotting down funny things people had said, but more importantly he observed how this wide array of characters from varied backgrounds were able to reinvent themselves into their own version of beauty. His sympathetic observations woven into tales of these former misfits’ transformations were romantic and beautiful in themselves. And Lou’s urban poetry conjured a range of emotions from jealousy to humour to love. As he told Classic Albums, “Every song I have written in my life I have tried to write emotionally. All the songs are geared to try and cause an emotion and they are always about conflict.”
Lou taught us to sympathise with the characters he portrayed and also helped us to understand these conflicted emotions, such as the barely contained jealousy in ‘Satellite of Love’. Lou originally wrote this song after the 1969 moon landing and recorded it as a demo with The Velvet Underground for possible inclusion on their 1970 LP ‘Loaded’. The song didn’t make the final cut for their fourth album but was later released in ’95 on the ‘Peel Slowly and See’ five-disc box set. Comparing the VU alternate demo with the solo Reed ‘Transformer’ version is interesting as the VU demo proves how complete the song already was before Lou re-recorded it in London for his second album. Lyrically it is almost the same sans the names of the girlfriend’s lovers and melodically it is centred on the same three musical themes. The big difference is the stripped down, rockin’ instrumentation and delightfully naive intro.
The VU take was raw but the ‘Transformer’ version was Bowie-fied, and not just by Bowie himself, but also by co-producer and arranger Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson and producer/engineer Ken Scott. They had just finished recording ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ and together they were on fire. Add this influx of new ideas to an already amazing song and you have one of the most romantic songs about obsession printed in wax.
While Lou’s solo version is much more melodic, it is still somewhat stripped down as there is barely any guitar, the drums are minimal and for the most part the bass line follows the root of the chord. The song is dominated by Lou’s wonderful lyrics and vocal style, David Bowie’s stupendous backing vocals and the sublime piano arrangements played by Ronson.
We have to make special mention of Bowie’s vocals as they are indelibly printed in our minds and have become integral to the melody (his high pitched vocals at the end of the song truly impressed the usually straight-faced Reed). Ken Scott told CAS, “All of his backing vocals are great on this and yes they’re all him. The BV’s are something he loved getting into for all his recordings.”
What I love about this version is how such a weighty topic is counterbalanced by such tender instrumentation such as axe-grinder Ronson’s humble recorder solo in the middle eight and the lovely percussion at the end which Ken reminded me was “reminiscent of Bowie’s own recordings such as ‘Soul Love’.” Scott gave CAS another headphone listening tip: “You might want to listen for the very specific piano effect that is heard strongest for the ending section. It’s something I actually used a lot where the pianist double tracks his part with the tape slightly sped up giving the out of tune piano effect. Check ‘Elderberry Wine’ by Elton John.”
This sweet and somewhat modest arrangement offsetting heavy emotions is an example of what Lou Reed did best: romanticizing intense feelings and situations. He did this with ‘Satellite of Love’ even if he was unaware of it. With his characteristic deadpan humour, he told Classic Albums, “I find out what the songs are about when I do them out loud in front of an audience, actually performing them. And over the years I realized ‘Satellite of Love’ is about jealousy. But I could be wrong. Just because I wrote it doesn’t mean I know what its about.”
Within a year, Lou Reed transformed from a cult artist to an international superstar. The Bowie associations certainly did not hurt but it was the songs that made the lasting impressions and won over large audiences. The first single ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ became a Top Forty hit on both sides of the Atlantic, slipping past the censors with one of rock’s most memorable lines. ‘Satellite of Love’ became one of Reed’s signature tunes and ‘Vicious’ is regarded as a harbinger of the punk movement.
The album cover deserves special attention as it was taken by rock photographer Mick Rock who has immortalized many a moment of that era on film. Angela Bowie had given him clothes and the white face was from special Japanese kabuki make-up. Of his image, Lou later said, “I was glorious. I love the pictures.” Some people questioned whether it was Lou on the back cover, but it wasn’t – it was his friend Ernie. Many have also wondered if “it” was real which made Lou laugh, “If he was really like that I would have been too jealous to put him on the cover. I would have told him to go away.”
Mick Rock has said album cover ‘represents the decadent glam thing more than any other image.” But although the image was the quintessence of London’s stylistic zeitgeist, for the most part the songs did not sound like 1972 and still sound great today. The songs themselves were also able to transform and a case in point is the 1997 version of “Perfect Day” that was recorded as a BBC charity single and featured artists such as Bono, Elton John, Tammy Wynette, Brett Anderson and Reed’s partner Laurie Anderson.
Along with ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, ‘Perfect Day’ is one of Lou Reed’s best love songs and shows the sensitivity and tenderness that lay behind the rough and rugged exterior even if he questioned the benevolence of his bare emotion with the phrase, ‘I thought I was someone else, someone good.’ Well Lou, you were good to us in that you helped us look at the world a bit differently and listen to music a little deeper. And personally speaking, as for my own transformative years, ‘I’m glad I spent it with you.’
Stream the ‘Transformer’ Musical Lead-Up Playlist here.