Sunday, November 11, 2012

Transformed: Lou Reed's Transformer at 40

 Lou Reed - Transformer
Lou Reed
Rating: **** 1/2

By 1972, it appeared as if Lou Reed’s music career was over. His self-titled solo album failed to sell and he would soon be forgotten. Luckily, this all changed with the release of Reed’s second studio album Transformer. Produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, Transformer catapulted Lou Reed into superstardom.

            From 1965 to 1970, Lou Reed was a member of the Velvet Underground. The band released four albums in that time frame, all of which would be commercial flops but went on to influence the many bands that followed. After a playing a gig at Max’s Kansas City, Reed disappeared. He later announced that he was leaving the Velvet Underground and would retire from music. This changed when Reed decided to pursue a solo career.

In April 1972, Reed released his self-titled debut album. It was a flop but RCA gave Reed another chance with a second album. This was when David Bowie came to the rescue. By 1972, Bowie had achieved worldwide popularity with the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie was an avid fan of the Velvet Underground and wanted to help Reed make an album. Bowie had already saved the career of Mott the Hoople a few months earlier that year and with Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson, they produced Reed’s second album Transformer.

            The album opens with “Vicious”, a nice little rocker that could’ve easily been on a Velvet Underground album. The lyrics were said to be inspired by the Velvet Underground’s first manager Andy Warhol. According to Reed, Warhol asked Reed to write a song that was vicious. When Reed asked what Warhol meant, Warhol replied “Like you hit me with a flower”. Warhol’s quote worked its way into the song and Reed did write a song that was indeed vicious. “Andy’s Chest” is yet another song Reed wrote with Warhol in mind.  Of the album’s eleven tracks, “Andy’s Chest” actually started out as a Velvet Underground song. The song was written and inspired by the attempted assassination of Warhol by Valerie Solanas. Although Warhol survived the shooting, the song is still moving. “Perfect Day” is one of Reed’s best known songs, as it has been covered several times. The song might be about Reed’s own heroin addiction but still, the song has nice piano playing and nice lyrics. The song later became a #1 hit in the UK when it was re-recorded by the BBC as a charity single with an array of famous recording artists.  

            “Hangin’ Round” is a simple little tune that has Reed using his story-telling technique of his, introducing listeners to all sorts of characters. The first side ends with Reed’s most popular song, “Walk On the Wild Side”. The song was inspired by the Nelson Algren novel of the same name, published in 1956. Algren approached Reed to write song for a musical version of the novel that he was putting together. The musical never happened so Reed used the song for Transformer. The two bass lines in this song are played by session musician Herbie Flowers. He’s playing an upright bass and an electric bass, which overlap each other. Lyrically, the song is almost a tribute to the people that were at Warhol’s Factory in New York City. Reed name drops almost everybody in this song and the end result is just fantastic.

            Side two opens with the gender-bending “Make Up”. The sound of the song is a bit on the soft side but the chorus is a knock-out: “We’re coming out” sings Reed. “Out of our closets.” “Satellite of Love” is another highlight off the album and is seen as one of Reed’s best songs. The song began life as a Velvet Underground song but it ended up here on Transformer. The song seems to be about a man who watches the launch of a satellite and the jealousy of the man seeing the girl he likes going out with other men. So, there’s also sort of stalker side to this song too. Also if you listen closely to the end, you will hear Bowie singing those high notes. “Wagon Wheel” is a simple rocker while “New York Telephone Conversation” is a bizarre little ditty. “I’m So Free” is a bit of a deep cut. It’s got some great lyrics and Reed’s vocals are pretty good. The album closes out fittingly with the jazzy “Goodnight Ladies”.

            Transformer was released on November 8, 1972. The album saved Lou Reed a career. The album charted at #29 in the Billboard 200 while it charted at #13 in the UK Albums Chart. With the success of Transformer, Reed was able to continue and make more albums. The follow-up to Transformer was the conceptual 1973 album, Berlin. The albums Reed released after Berlin are really hit or miss. He’s released some good albums such as The Blue Mask, New York, and Magic and Loss. Reed has also released some weak albums such as Metal Machine Music. Reed’s most recent project was a collaboration with Metallica in 2011 with the conceptual Lulu, which received mixed to negative reviews. Still at 70 years old, Reed is still performing no matter what people think of him.

            As for Transformer, it remains a classic album. For me, I currently have Transformer at #59 on my list of favorite albums of all time. It’s just an album that you can listen to over and over again. It’s also, without a doubt, Reed’s best album.

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