Lou Reed

Rud­der­less af­ter the Vel­vet Un­der­ground, Lou Reed ditched New York for Lon­don, hooked up with Bowie and cre­ated the aptly named Trans­former, the defin­ing record of his ca­reer.

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: Chris Roberts Pho­tos: Mick Rock

Mov­ing to Lon­don and hook­ing up with Bowie, they cre­ated the clas­sic Trans­former, the defin­ing record of Lou’s ca­reer.

“Fol­low the dot­ted line,” Lou Reed grum­bled at me in 2004. “Look, put all the songs to­gether and it’s cer­tainly an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy – just not nec­es­sar­ily mine. I write about other peo­ple, tell sto­ries, al­ways did. Any truly cre­ative per­son could make five al­bums a year, eas­ily. Each record is just what you did that week. Another week you might have done the same songs dif­fer­ently. But lis­ten – I love ev­ery last one of them. Ev­ery sin­gle sec­ond of ev­ery last one, okay?”

Okay. For­tu­nately for him, and for us, in late 1972 what he did that week beat most peo­ple’s year. Trans­former re­mains a re­mark­able ar­ranged mar­riage of gritty, witty words and pop suc­cour. It anointed him the god­fa­ther of anti-stars, open­ing up a ca­reer that may oth­er­wise have swiftly gone the way of all flesh.

“I don’t have a per­son­al­ity of my own,” Reed said in 1972. “I just pick up on other peo­ple’s.”

He’d come to Lon­don for a change of pace, to “get out of the New York thing”, but his first, epony­mous, post-Vel­vets solo al­bum, recorded on the dirty boule­vards of Willes­den Green in West Lon­don, had stut­tered rather than strut­ted. No­body, least of all him, was sure where a former Vel­vet Un­der­ground front­man should go next.

This is where the per­son­al­ity came in, and plenty came out. Just five months af­ter that de­but, the Novem­ber re­lease of Trans­former made Reed a house­hold name in all the most dis­rep­utable homes. The world’s fastest-ris­ing rock star, David Bowie, and his gifted lieu­tenant Mick Ron­son, bang in the throes of Ziggy Star­dust, coloured in Reed’s per­sona. They coaxed forth the nervy, needy spirit of Andy Warhol that Reed had in­gested and brought him al­abaster-faced into the glam rock era. They gave his un­ortho­dox song­writ­ing and unique vo­cal stylings the chance to step out of the gut­ter and into the spot­light. The cult of Lou be­came a small re­li­gion as a freak hit sin­gle boosted his ego and con­fi­dence. A mixed bless­ing. Trans­former re­mains a caus­tic, camp clas­sic of palat­able pop trans­gres­sion.

Things moved quickly. As a fan,

Bowie had been name-check­ing the


Vel­vets at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity, play­ing their songs in his set for two years and even singing Andy Warhol on Hunky Dory. Per­haps cal­cu­lat­ing that he’d gain as much re­flected cool as he’d give out, he whisked his Amer­i­can heroes and new pals – Reed and Iggy Pop – around Lon­don, show­ing them off to the press. Bowie saw in Iggy the wild, feral crea­ture he him­self was too cere­bral to be. Reed ar­guably com­bined the essences of both, yet he was mal­leable. He wanted a ca­reer.

He knew the ‘busi­ness peo­ple’ were urg­ing him to record with Bowie as the re­sults would prove both vi­brant and com­mer­cially vi­able. “And it turned out to be true, didn’t it?” he smirked.

Hav­ing al­ways worn head-to-toe black, and ac­cus­tomed to hav­ing films pro­jected onto him, he al­lowed Angie Bowie to dress him more ex­ot­i­cally. Go­ing heavy on the black eye­liner, he be­came the Phan­tom Of Rock. “I re­alised I could be any­thing I wanted,” he drawled.

On July 8 he made his Lon­don de­but, as Bowie/ Ziggy’s guest at a Save The Whales ben­e­fit at the Royal Fes­ti­val Hall. A week later his solo gig sold out the King’s Cross Cin­ema, and he smiled as it sank in that the au­di­ence knew the words to his Vel­vets num­bers.

That’s where Mick Rock shot the live photo that be­came the iconic al­bum cover. Years on, Reed sniffed: “I did three or four shows like that, then went back to leather. I was just kid­ding around. I’m not into make-up.”

His new glam guru was, though. Bowie ush­ered him into Tri­dent Stu­dios in Au­gust. Ses­sions were rushed, as Bowie’s other com­mit­ments, with Zig­gy­ma­nia break­ing big, were es­ca­lat­ing. Reed was, of course, grumpy on oc­ca­sion. The hon­ey­moon of mu­tual ado­ra­tion was fad­ing. Yet chief ar­ranger Ron­son and un­flap­pable en­gi­neer Ken Scott (who’d pro­duced the Ziggy al­bum) caught light­ning in a bot­tle. Bowie had en­cour­aged

Reed to re­veal tales and mys­ter­ies from his Fac­tory years, to talk about the char­ac­ters, the bathos and drama. He was ea­ger to hear about un­der­ground New York – an im­pos­si­bly glam­orous no­tion to early-70s Brits.

The al­bum be­came a seedy but re­demp­tive, self-con­tained world, where the drive for love led in­di­vid­u­als down wrong turns into im­per­sonal sex and im­per­fect drugs. There was no bet­ter mi­cro­cosm of this than in one of the most un­ex­pected hit sin­gles of its era. “Any song,” Nick Kent wrote in the NME, “that men­tions oral sex, male pros­ti­tu­tion, methedrine and val­ium, and still gets Ra­dio One air­play, must be truly cool.”

Walk On The Wild Side is, along with Per­fect Day, one of the songs for which the world at large will re­mem­ber Reed, even if he fluc­tu­ated in later years be­tween be­ing grate­ful and deem­ing it a pain in the al­ba­tross. At the time of record­ing, it was just another song to his ears. His own pref­er­ence for a sin­gle was the wiry rocker Hangin’ ’Round. “Which is why no one lis­tens to me.”

As he’d re­count dur­ing the 1978 shows at New York’s Bot­tom Line (doc­u­mented on the Take No Pris­on­ers live al­bum), he’d been ap­proached by the­atri­cal en­trepreneurs in ’71. They’d pro­posed the idea of adapt­ing the 1956 Nel­son Al­gren novel about vice and ad­dic­tion, A Walk On The Wild Side.

“Are you kid­ding?” Reed protested, true to his con­trary na­ture. “It’s about crip­ples in the ghetto. I’m the best-qual­i­fied per­son to set mu­sic to a book about crip­ples in the ghetto?”

He de­murred, of­fi­cially, yet bor­rowed the ti­tle and sketched out ideas. Nudged first by Warhol and then by Bowie, he re­drafted, peo­pling this back­drop with the New York per­son­al­i­ties he’d been trans­fixed by and “picked up on”: Candy Dar­ling, Joe Dalle­san­dro (Lit­tle Joe) and Joseph Camp­bell (the Sugar Plum Fairy) were mem­bers of Warhol’s pan­sex­ual ‘su­per­star’ pa­rade. This co­terie of ac­tors, artists, trans­ves­tites, junkies and wannabes was both eu­lo­gised and mildly mocked by the song’s taunt­ing, partly ironic ti­tle.

“If I re­tire now,” Reed said soon af­ter its suc­cess, hav­ing ev­i­dently warmed to it, “Walk On The

Wild Side is the one I’d want to be known by, my master­piece. I found the se­cret with that song. That’s the one that’ll make them for­get Heroin.”

In fact, his new teenage au­di­ence in Bri­tain, buy­ing it be­cause Bowie en­dorsed it, had never heard of Heroin, and at that time barely reg­is­tered the Vel­vets. Trans­former served as a gate­way drug. With ra­dio DJs too naïve or dense to no­tice the sex and drugs ref­er­ences, the sin­gle climbed to No.10 in the UK – al­beit six months later – and broke in Amer­ica. Her­bie Flow­ers’s up­right bass slide, bari­tone sax from Ron­nie Ross (Bowie’s sax teacher) and the ‘coloured girls’ go­ing ‘doo, da-doo’ al­lowed Reed’s nar­ra­tion to drip with pres­ence. He would pick the bones of New York for lyri­cal ideas ever more through­out a ca­reer of glo­ri­ous highs

and in­trigu­ing not-so-highs – not least on 1989’s New York – but this inked his iden­tity.

Still in thrall to the bo­hemian preach­ings of men­tor-guru-poet Del­more Schwartz, he would fret about “sell­ing out”. Yet as his tones oozed and seeped from ra­dios around the world, the rare blend of sar­casm and soul had the knock-on ef­fect of boost­ing the pro­file of Warhol’s loosely re­lated film tril­ogy Flesh, Heat and Trash. A debt re­paid.

Warhol had also helped the gen­e­sis of Vi­cious, the al­bum’s firm yet feath­ery opener. He’d sug­gested the ti­tle, adding, “You know, vi­cious, like: I hit you with a flower.” Ron­son eases the riff along but goes for a flail­ing Moon­age Day­dream-style wig-out over the fade. To Lester Bangs, Reed de­clared it “a hate song”, adding: “I drink con­stantly.”

On an oth­er­wise deftly pro­duced al­bum, Vi­cious is oddly tame and muddy, but we do get the first dose of the pop-op­er­atic back­ing vo­cals from Bowie and fe­male duo Thun­derthighs, which be­came such a key fea­ture of Trans­former. The nurs­ery rhymes from pur­ga­tory con­tinue with Andy’s Chest – which Reed said was about Warhol’s shoot­ing by Valerie Solanas, “even though the lyrics don’t sound like it”. He’d recorded it with the Vel­vets in 1969, but the Brits pulled back the tempo and high­lighted the macabre im­agery – bats, rat­tlesnakes, blood­suck­ers.

The new verse about Daisy May’s belly­but­ton be­com­ing her mouth was one step above mu­sic hall, and Reed con­fessed that he didn’t know what it meant. ‘Swoop, swoop! Rock, rock!’ went those mul­ti­tracked back­ing vo­cals, as Bowie and Scott en­acted their cur­rent ob­ses­sion with a kind of post­mod­ern doo-wop.

It’s easy to for­get now that Per­fect Day was

‘just’ the hit’s B-side (tech­ni­cally the sin­gle was a dou­ble A-side). Its sur­real 90s cross­over suc­cess as a fam­ily-favourite BBC com­mer­cial fea­tur­ing Boy­zone and Pavarotti meant that “twenty-five years on, it be­came even big­ger than Wild Side ever was”, chuck­led Reed. “Go fig­ure.”

Back in 1972, it was al­ready con­fus­ing and con­found­ing peo­ple. Was this a beau­ti­ful, sin­cere love bal­lad or a sub­ver­sive hymn to smack? If the former, its ten­der­ness – ‘drink san­gria in the park, feed an­i­mals in the zoo’ – felt au­then­tic, topped by the Supremes-ref­er­enc­ing ‘you keep me hang­ing on’. Oth­ers in­sisted it was a ded­i­ca­tion to Bet­tye Kron­stadt, whom Reed – for all this al­bum’s overt sex­ual am­bi­gu­ity – mar­ried in ’73. Ei­ther way, Ron­son’s strings and pi­ano cap­ture the gran­deur and frailty of fall­ing in love. Even Reed was full of won­der for them. Cast against type here, he was some­one else, some­one good. “I’m re­ally very in­con­sis­tent,” he mut­tered.

He’s on more fa­mil­iar ground in Hangin’ ’Round, its prickly put-downs laid down not long af­ter Bowie and Ron­son had bashed out Chuck Berry’s Round And Round. Make Up is fairly dif­fi­cult to mis­in­ter­pret: ‘We’re com­ing out, out of our clos­ets’ was a slo­gan the Gay Lib­er­a­tion move­ment had adopted as a global ral­ly­ing call. This tough guy’s paean to lip gloss and per­fume is en­hanced by Her­bie Flow­ers’s tuba ob­bli­gato.

Wagon Wheel and I’m So Free are con­ven­tional guitar chug­gers that coast hap­pily on the good­will generated by the al­bum around them: you can sense Ron­son and Bowie try­ing a few mi­nor twists to jazz them up.

Satel­lite Of Love, how­ever, is another mes­sage from the gods. The pi­ano-driven ar­range­ment, with fin­gerclicks and those back­ing vo­cals, echoes Drive-In Satur­day. Bowie soars strato­spher­i­cally over the coda. Ken Scott has re­vealed that they could have made this cli­max even more huge with what

Bowie sang on mic, but the star in­sisted that this al­bum had bet­ter be about Lou, not him. Reed ac­knowl­edged the majesty of this sec­tion.

“It’s not the kind of part I could ever have come up with, even if you’d left me alone with a com­puter pro­gramme for a year. But David hears those parts, plus he’s got a freaky voice and can go that high. It’s very, very beau­ti­ful.”

The song in it­self is no slouch, its sweet­ness turn­ing sour through jeal­ousy and para­noia. It had been de­moed by the Vel­vets dur­ing the Loaded ses­sions, but noth­ing like this. The nar­ra­tor’s co­matose won­der­ment at tech­nol­ogy – ‘I like to watch things on TV’ – seemed to hint at Warhol’s I-am-a-ma­chine pas­siv­ity then, but seems spook­ily pre­scient now. Ad­dic­tion in another form.

New York Tele­phone Con­ver­sa­tion is a gos­sipy sendup of Warhol’s diaries, while the old-time jazz of Good­night Ladies is the an­tithe­sis, ex­cept for the cyn­i­cism, of the Vel­vets. Reed was imag­in­ing his in­te­rior life as a noc­tur­nal, night­mar­ish cabaret. In­deed, on his next master­piece, Ber­lin, he for­sake these pro­duc­ers’ pop ar­range­ments that dressed his vi­gnettes of sickly city life and gam­bled on what Bob Ezrin called “a film for the ears”. Per­haps he re­sented the ku­dos af­forded his col­lab­o­ra­tors here. “He’s very clever,” he snarled of Bowie. “He learned how to be hip. As­so­ci­at­ing his name with me brought his name to a lot more peo­ple.”

Mer­cu­rial as ever, he later as­serted, “I love him. He’s very good in the stu­dio. The kid’s got ev­ery­thing. Ev­ery­thing.”

Lou Reed changed his mind about Trans­former, the al­bum that made him a big noise and re­booted that au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, more times than he changed shirts. On its 25th-an­niver­sary reis­sue in 1997, he com­mis­sioned me to write sleeve-notes, only to nix them be­cause, in a fit of re­vi­sion­ism, he didn’t want any men­tion, how­ever pass­ing, of “sex­ual ex­per­i­men­ta­tion”. Seven years later he told me he was think­ing of remix­ing it. “That oughta be fun. We could put Bowie’s sax­o­phone right at the back. We could mess around a whole lot.”

Such mis­chief. To­day, on its 45th an­niver­sary (with a lav­ish Mick Rock pho­tog­ra­phy book re­leased to cel­e­brate) it’s safe to say most of us haven’t changed our minds: it’s a louche, land­mark al­bum that changed – trans­formed, as in in­creased the volt­age of – his life, and count­less oth­ers.

“Walk On The Wild

Side Is the one I’d want to be known by, my master­pIece.”

Trans­former by Lou Reed And Mick Rock, the lim­ited edi­tion book, is avail­able from Gen­e­sis Pub­li­ca­tions at www. trans­former­book.com. Tel: +44 (0)1483 540 970.

Hangin’ ’round: Reed in his trade­mark black. Wild side: Reed, Mick Jag­ger and David Bowie.

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