There can be little disputing the Beatles were the most influential band of the 60s, but there’s a strong case that the Velvet Underground have become the second most influential by stealth.
“Everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies [of the Velvet Underground and Nico] started a band,” said Brian Eno in 1982, though Lou Reed must have felt anything but the éminence grise of alternative rock when he found himself back at his parents’ house in Long Island in 1970, broke, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, pushed out by manager Steve Sesnick with protege Doug Yule taking his place as leader of the group. Slowly, remnants of songs he’d scratched together and sometimes demoed with the Velvets were finished and then recorded for his unremarkable solo debut. But one song he didn’t polish off, Satellite of Love, survived to his second solo album, 1972’s Transformer , recorded with RCA labelmates David Bowie and Mick Ronson. The original demo is enjoyable, but the final studio recording benefits from a dazzling glam rock makeover, full of luminous piano arrangements, handclapping, and some incredible backing vocals from producer Bowie. “I loved the [backing vocals] when he did them on my record,” wrote Reed in 2003. “It’s not the kind of part I ever would have come up with, but David hears those parts, plus he’s got a freaky voice and he can go up that high and do that. It’s very, very beautiful.”
By 1973, Top of the Pops was awash with builders in blouses decked out in tinsel and glitter, but in 1972, the glam rock movement was genuinely subversive, with none more so than Reed. The singer had been asked to score the Broadway adaption of Nelson Algren’s 1956 novel A Walk on the Wild Side, and while that project failed to materialise, Reed did come away with this song, which scored him his only UK top 10 hit, a surprise chart showing that he put down to Bowie having produced it. Yet, left up to Reed, the song would never have been a single at all. Written about the genderqueers and ambisexuals he knew from Warhol’s Factory, with references to drugs and “giving head”, it was hardly appropriate for daytime Radio 1. But Bowie insisted it should be released as the first single, and it seemed his instincts were right. Herbie Flowers’ sliding bassline has become one of the most instantly recognisable riffs in all of rock music, while the baritone saxophone solo in the outro was performed by Ronnie Ross, sax tutor of the young David Jones. Bowie only came out from behind the mixing desk and revealed himself to Ross after the track had been laid down. “He had absolutely no idea that I had been that little kid who had been over to his house,” Bowie said. “That was so great that I was able to give him a gig.”
3. Perfect Day
Although it was not released as a single from Transformer, Perfect Day was a fan’s firm favourite, at least it was until its inclusion on the Trainspotting soundtrack, which saw it achieve ubiquity, along with another Bowie-produced cult classic, Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life. In truth, it’s Mick Ronson’s arrangement and exquisite piano work that takes a fine ballad and offers it a chair at the top table of classic rock; that, and the ambiguous lyric that could either be tenderly addressing a love interest, or perhaps a pile of brown powdery diamorphine. Many had suspected lyrics such as “weekenders on our own / it’s such fun” or “I thought I was someone else / someone good” might be about heroin, a suspicion backed up by the song now being used for a movie about heroin, and because, well, Reed had already written a song called Heroin. Its inclusion in an achingly cool Danny Boyle film was one thing, its appropriation by Heather Small, Tom Jones, Boyzone, Lesley Garrett et al for a BBC promotional film the following year felt like a betrayal, despite the good cause, especially when it crashed in at No 1 in the singles chart. Reed and Bowie also appeared on the single, and the latter said it was “a way of saying thank you for The Flower Pot Men”. Now, 18 years on from that debacle, the track is once again goosebump-inducingly gorgeous, just as long as you only play it occasionally.
4. Lady Day
Listening to great songs such as Caroline Says or How Do You Think It Feels now makes it almost impossible to understand how the Berlin album received such a muted reception on its release in 1973. Critics rounded on it and it sold barely anything, aside from in the UK, where it went silver. Now, though, the rock opera about two junkies sinking into the netherworld of the seedy German city is widely regarded as a maudlin masterpiece, and for good reason. Lady Day observes Caroline as she performs in a bar, then takes us back to her hotel “with greenish walls”. The tatterdemalion tragedy unfolding is conveyed beautifully with such economy of language; the mise en scène of the cabaret and rundown digs with “a bathroom in the hall” are wonderfully vivid. There’s more than a nod to the spectres of Brecht and Weill, too, while fans of Billie Holiday will be more than aware her nickname was Lady Day. A later track on the album, The Kids, features the sounds of children crying for their mother after Caroline’s kids are taken away by the authorities; the story goes that the lachrymose kids were producer Bob Ezrin’s, after he’d just told them, untruthfully, their mother had died in a car accident in order to make sure their anguish was genuine.
After the disappointment of Berlin, Reed’s career revival came in the form of a live album – Rock’n’Roll Animal, a runaway success – followed by Sally Can’t Dance, the highest-charting US album of his solo career. Reed’s fourth studio album held the distinction of being his first without any surplus Velvet Underground material on it, and the first recorded back in the US (the first three were all recorded in London). Reed famously despised talking to journalists, insisting they weren’t necessary, because the naked truth of his life had already been documented in all of his songs. Few artists were writing about waiting for their drug dealers in the 60s, and none this decade have yet put themselves in the shoes of lustful 19th-century wunderkinds from the works of Frank Wedekind. On Kill Your Sons, Lou addresses the electroshock therapy he endured as a 17-year-old. It’s a dark psychological thriller of a song with wild guitar meanderings that call to mind The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam’s Dice by Jimi Hendrix. Incidentally, Lou once told Lester Bangs that he could “take Hendrix”, claiming he was “one of the greatest guitar players, but I’m better”. Those fans who paid up for the squalling feedback guitar-loop madness of follow-up album Metal Machine Music might have begged to differ.
Largely perceived as a raised middle finger to his record company, Metal Machine Music – four sides of white noise – was taken off shelves almost as soon as it had been put there, though the recalcitrant gesture won Lou Reed new admirers. “[RCA then] said, you can do anything you want so long as it’s not Metal Machine Music,” grumbled Reed. Even though Coney Island Baby was hitherto the most stripped-back, trad album of his career, he was chosen as the cover star for the first edition of Punk magazine in 1976 because he was so badass, while his relationship with partner Rachel (born Tommy) put him at the forefront of the burgeoning LGBT movement. She’s “certainly not your average girl”, said Reed on She’s My Best Friend, and while the title track from the album had actually started life in the 60s, inspired by his first serious girlfriend, Shelley Albin, it was transformed into a love letter to his latest muse on the final recording. After some confused rhetoric about wanting to play football for the coach, the singer finally bursts through and reveals the real Reed, his heart bleeding in the process: “But remember the princess who lived on the hill / Who loved you even though she knew you was wrong / And right now she just might come shining through …” Beyond the usual cynicism, the miseryguts postulating and the knowing literary references, here was Lou laying his heart on the line. It suited him.
If Coney Island Baby had been a loving ode to Rachel, here was the breakup song. It was also, according to Reed, “a great monologue 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.” Reed, since meeting his mentor Delmore Schwartz as an impressionable student, had always harboured literary ambitions. “I want to be the greatest writer that’s ever lived on God’s earth,” he told NME’s Paul Morley in 1979. “I’m talking about Dostoevsky … I want to do a rock’n’roll thing that’s on the level of The Brothers Karamazov.” While he conceded he’d “barely scratched the surface” at the time, he clearly felt the 11-minute Street Hassle from the year before was of formidable pedigree. Any why not? The track includes a string quartet, three distinct parts, several monologues about drugs and prostitution, and a spoken word from Bruce Springsteen thrown in for good measure. (The Boss was recording in a studio in the same building when Reed requested his participation, despite having previously been openly ambivalent about Springsteen in interviews.) One reviewer called the album “unapologetically difficult”, a description that could have been uttered about the man himself at any time during a career spanning nearly 50 years.
By 1982, a lot had changed in Lou Reed’s life. He’d left Arista and gone back to RCA, he was married to his manager Sylvia Morales, and he’d started going to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Back on his old label, he released The Blue Mask album with a filtered image of Mick Rock’s Transformer photograph, a conscious decision, perhaps, that signalled Reed was making an album that would go back to basics. With just two guitars, a bass and drums, his secret weapon was the brilliantly accomplished guitarist Robert Quine, who became Lou’s friend for a while, at least until Reed’s control-freakery dissolved the relationship. What frustrations the man didn’t get out in the rooms of AA and NA clearly came through in the music; the title track is five minutes of chaotic noise and feedback, with a deluge of violent imagery. “They tied his arms behind his back to teach him how to swim,” was likely a riposte to his critics, while “I’ve made love to my mother, killed my father and brother … When a sin goes too far, it’s like a runaway car” is surely humorous hyperbole in reference to the ignominy of being tarnished with sins of the past. According to his biographer Victor Bockris, Reed began denying he’d ever been a drug taker, and even denied any involvement in homosexual relationships, insisting Rachel was – and had always been – a woman.
Reed had a difficult relationship with his old friend Andy Warhol in the latter years, exacerbated by the fact that he didn’t invite Warhol to his wedding to Sylvia Morales. In 1987, Warhol’s death was the catalyst needed for Reed to get back together with his old Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale. After meeting again at Warhol’s memorial, the pair set about writing an elegy to their early benefactor, using just piano, guitar, viola and voice. Reed and Cale performed the songs together on a few occasions, though they were unable to complete and release the album Songs for Drella (Warhol’s nickname Drella was an amalgamation of Dracula and Cinderella) until 1990. The songs were conceived and recorded in just three weeks: Nobody But You comes from the perspective of Warhol, I Believe is almost as vituperative and unhinged as The Scum Manifesto by Valerie Solanis – Warhol’s would-be assassin – while album opener Smalltown is a touching tribute to the pop artist’s Pittsburgh roots. Emphatically played piano chords make it sound like it could be performed by a musical repertory company, though Lou’s inimitable voice makes it all the more evocative. Warhol had become a myth of his own creation; the idea he could be a Pennsylvanian son of Slovak immigrants gives him back some of his humanity, though the payoff line – “You hate it and you’ll know you have to leave” – is typically grouchy from Reed. Following Reed and Cale’s reconciliation, a Velvet Underground revival took place, at first tentatively and then enthusiastically, at least until Reed attempted to wrest creative control from his old bandmates, destroying again all the goodwill they’d mustered as a four-piece. Any hope of further reunions were dashed when Sterling Morrison died in 1995.
10. What’s Good?
The View, from Lou Reed and Metallica’s much-maligned Lulu album, would have taken the concluding position on this 10 of the best were Metallica not such sticklers where their material is concerned. (Lulu is frustratingly absent from Spotify.) What’s Good? is the antithesis of Lulu, a driving meat-and-potatoes rocker which is the epitome of simplicity, with a pleasing hook and amusing existential lyrics. Whether assuming the mantle of searingly pretentious juvenescence or purveying unfussy bloke rock, Reed more often than not hit the sweet spot. The album Magic and Loss, from which the track comes, suffered from being somewhat convoluted, having started out as a concept album about “magic” to which was added “loss” when two of the singer’s friends died. In somewhat philosophical mood, then, Reed presents surrealist scenarios on What’s Good?: life’s like “a mayonnaise soda”, “bacon and ice-cream” and “Sanskrit read to a pony”. Finally he concludes what is actually good: “Life’s good, but not fair at all.” Given that he’d appeared to have found some spiritual fulfilment and was reportedly happily married to Laurie Anderson in latter years, those words are painfully on the money.
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