• Old 'Stache

Lou Reed: Stepping back from The Velvet Underground

written by: on September 5, 2011

It was 1972. Helen Reddy was singing about women’s liberation (“I Am Woman”); Bill Withers released the relentlessly popular “Lean on Me;” The Doobie Brothers were declaring religious acclamations (“Jesus is Just Alright with Me”); and Lou Reed was, well, talking about prostitution, sex, satellite launches, sangria and drag queens.

Upon its release, Reed’s sophomore album didn’t necessarily receive the praise it deserved. During the first few years after his break up with The Velvet Underground, Reed was establishing a name for himself and defining a sound distinctive from The Velvet Underground. Many fans and critics were said to have been holding out for the band to get back together, brushing off Reed’s solo efforts.

Rolling Stone’s Nick Tosches (Rolling Stone) reviewed Transformer and wasn’t impressed with Reed’s efforts.

“He should forget this artsyfartsy kind of homo stuff and just go in there with a bad hangover and start blaring out his visions of lunar assfuck,” Tosches wrote shortly after Transformer’s release.

Despite  some early reviews, Rolling Stone ranks Transformer 194th on its list of 500 best albums. In 1972, it was 29th on Billboard’s top 200 albums list.

If Reed was holding anything back with his song lyrics in Transformer, the world might not have been able to stomach it. So he wrote about drag queens and oral sex—the 1970s was an era of experimentation and self-expression, after all. As Reed had already exemplified during his time with The Velvet Underground, songs about sex and drugs are par-for-the-course in rock ‘n’ roll.

The most notable songs from the album include “Vicious,” “Perfect Day,” “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Satellite of Love.”

“Walk on the Wild Side” was the first single released in December 1972. Despite some raised conservative eyebrows (perhaps it was the reference of “colored girls” or the unabashed mention of oral sex), a few countries edited down the lyrics and the song became an international hit. Reed sings, “Candy came from out on the island/In the back room she was everybody’s darling/But she never lost her head/Even when she was giving head.” Soulful and pithy, the song found its way into the hearts of people across the world—quite the springboard for Reed’s solo career. Nelson Algren’s novel, “A Walk on the Wild Side,” is said to be Reed’s initial inspiration for the song.

Lyrically, the whole album (especially “Walk on the Wild Side”) feels like a mishmash of stories and conversations about transgendered people and prostitutes and their adventures in and around New York. Sexual ambiguity and contorted arousal run amuck throughout the songs. Transformer certainly isn’t the first or last time Reed finds a way to bring a taboo into the limelight.

“Perfect Day,” with its melodic undertones, is one of the slower songs on the album. As with most of Reed’s writing, this song is a narrative—a story of two people experiencing a perfect day, including sangria in the park, a movie and a trip to the zoo.

Reed sings: “Just a perfect day/You made me forget myself/I thought I was/Someone else, someone good.” The words are so simple and stripped of ambiguity, yet perfectly composed and seemingly more honest, bare and genuine than some of his other songs.

“Satellite of Love” tells the story of a man who watches a satellite launch of television while suffering through the anguish of a cheating girlfriend: “I’ve been told that you’ve been bold/With Harry, Mark and John/Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday to Thursday/With Harry, Mark and John.”

Comedy series “Mystery Science Theater 3000” referenced this song in that the show’s characters—a human and two wise-cracking robots—were trapped aboard the Satellite of Love (S.O.L.) watching a perpetual loop of bad movies.

Musically, the album doesn’t deliver the hard-hitting rock ‘n’ roll Velvet Underground fans may have been accustomed to. That said, “Vicious,” “I’m So Free” and “Hangin’ Round” all carry a lively, steady beat. While “Vicious” seems like it would be a guitar-heavy song, the lyrics are more loaded than the music. Reed sings, “When I see you walking down the street/I step on your hands and I mangle your feet/You’re not the kind of person that I want to meet.” From the song title alone, the song is expected to be a bit thornier—like The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.”

Transformer was produced with the help of David Bowie and Mick Ronson (who, at the time was the lead guitarist for Bowie’s band, The Spiders from Mars). Bowie has frequently cited Reed as a substantial inspiration throughout his career. According to Rolling Stone, Bowie repaid his appreciation to Reed by producing the album.

True Reed followers can probably detect the Bowie influence in this album—whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to the beholder. Though Reed’s Velvet Underground roots are still discernable, the music itself isn’t as heavy and grungy. Transformer feels like an experiment: some catchy guitar riffs here and there, lyrics that will make listeners blush, a little bit of pop, etc.

Whether Transformer was an exploratory project for Reed and his solo career, the album has stamina and more than just a few catchy tunes.

Lou Reed – Transformer Tracklist:

  1. “Vicious”
  2. “Andy’s Chest”
  3. “Perfect Day”
  4. “Hangin’ Round”
  5. “Walk on the Wild Side”
  6. “Make Up”
  7. “Satellite of Love”
  8. “Wagon Wheel”
  9. “New York Telephone Conversation”
  10. “I’m So Free”
  11. “Goodnight Ladies”