His 1972 classic wasn’t just preaching to the hipster rock underground.
John Doran 2010
A useful indicator of Lou Reed’s raw talent is a quick look at his inability to derail his own solo career. From the not untimely death of The Velvet Underground, featuring him as singer, in 1970 onwards, this native New Yorker has seemed intent on poking a stick through the spokes of his push bike at every given opportunity.
His musical choices often rank between the bewildering and the outright irritating. Even when touched with genius – Metal Machine Music must be one of the most intriguing major label albums ever released – he’s done little to endear himself to critics and consumers alike. This, and a notoriously aggressive interview technique, caused a sense of frustration amongst fans that can be summed up handily by Sam Moore’s exasperated cry of “Sing it Lou!” on their joint single Soul Man – which caused the curmudgeon to do little other than carry on croaking.
But before most of this unpleasantness took place there was his 1972 breakthrough album Transformer – to this day, probably the most universally loved collection of songs he has recorded as a solo artist. As with many classic albums, the stars were aligned for this one. Unlike the tracks that made up his patchy self-titled debut, he didn’t have any material left over from the VU days. This forced him to get to work writing.
And what songs these are. The supposed ode to his drug habit, Perfect Day, only works because, no matter who the song is dedicated to, it is a beautiful ballad. Then there is the epic, neon-drenched goodbye to his association with Andy Warhol and his factory acolytes, Walk on the Wild Side. (This much parodied and sampled song had its signature double bass line composed by Herbie Flowers, who scored a much bigger UK hit by penning Grandad for Clive Dunn.) The proto punk swagger of Vicious, the snarky brass parp of New York Telephone Conversation: every track is a classic of the era.
Of course, having his number one fan David Bowie (along with future Spider, Mick Ronson) trying out production techniques for the still putative Ziggy Stardust phase of his career didn’t hurt. Some saw the lack of NYC/VU sleaze as a sell-out, but they lacked the clarity of foresight to see that Reed’s opus of cross-dressing, open homosexuality and discussion of drug use was set to pervert generations of pop fans to come, and was not just preaching to an already converted hipster rock underground.