I’ve read a lot of excellent pieces about Lou Reed since he passed away this weekend just gone. Always a sad moment when an artist you admire leaves this world, and a moment for reflection.
Of course, Lou Reed will always be associated above all with the Velvet Underground. The band that, more than any other, can lay claim to being the source of punk, new wave, glam and half of the best indie music since then. Revolutionary in their time, although not many people noticed at the time.
My first recollection of Lou Reed isn’t with the Velvets, but when he released “Transformer” in 1972. I was 13 then – the Velvet Underground had come a bit too soon for me, especially as I was living in Cyprus between 1967-70. I didn’t buy “Transformer”, but a couple of tracks had a big impact. Of course the biggest was “Walk On The Wild Side”. As a 13 year old, living in Suffolk, I’m not sure I got all the references to tranvestism and drugs, but that didn’t matter. It was an amazingly exotic, louche song, unlike anything else that made the charts, although with T.Rex and David Bowie, amongst others, there was a growing amount of music that challenged genres and annoyed your parents. And then there was that bit at the end where the “coloured girls” sang doo, doo, doo. What was that all about?
The other great song for me at the time was “Vicious”… you hit me with a flower. Sharp, tacky rock’n’roll. Could have been on Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust”, and of course Bowie produced “Transformer”. “Perfect Day” was on the album too. Always a great ballad, with a twist. Became massive in later years here in the UK, when it was used as a soundtrack to a charity campaign.
In the mid seventies I had some friends who were hugely into Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, so I got to hear most of his stuff, including the grimly depressing “Berlin” and the sheer contract-fulfilling noise of “Metal Machine Music”. Listening to the Velvet Underground, “Venus In Furs” was perhaps the most extraordinary sound. Rasping violin, the shiny, shiny boots of leather, sleazy, completely other-worldly for a teenager in the English provinces. “Waiting For My Man” and “Sweet Jane” were pretty good rock’n’roll songs too. But it was all quite disorientating and distant – especially “Heroin” and other wild stuff like “European Son” – and I didn’t at that time buy any of the albums myself. I was into glam and then metal. Until the advent of punk…
Punk and new wave changed everything musically for me, and of course that deepened my appreciation of the Velvet Underground. I bought a Best Of called “Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground featuring Nico” at university. It was a double album and had most of the best songs on it, as well as some of Warhol’s iconic Coca Cola bottle graphics.
That was enough for me at the time, but in the 1980s, when I was earning money, I went back and bought “Transformer” and “Lou Reed Live” from 1975. Best of all was an album re-released in 1988, having first come out in, I think, 1974. It was called “1969: Velvet Underground Live”. Paul Morley reviewed it in the NME ecstatically. I recall him saying it was the best album ever made, or something like that, and he made a convincing case. I bought it – on vinyl – and concluded he was pretty close to being right. It’s recorded in Dallas and San Francisco, in small clubs, and it’s like one of the MTV unplugged concerts, where just a bit of electrics sneak in. The songs are stripped to their essence, not having been that complex in the first place. The guitar and bass are elastic, repetitive, awesome. Lou Reed is humorous, warm, delicate. The heavy tracks are heavy, but there is also some wonderful semi-acoustic rock’n’roll. “Sweet Jane”, “I’m Waiting For My Man”, “Lisa Says”, ‘We’re Gonna have A Real Good Time Together”, “I’m Beginning To See The Light”…
A little wine in the morning and some breakfast at night….
It really is a great album, and I’d say if you want to buy one Velvet Underground album, get this. These days it seems to come in two parts so watch out for that.
Lou faded from view a bit in the eighties, notwithstanding the brilliance of “1969”. But in 1989 he released what is arguably his greatest solo album, “New York”. It was an album of great power amid the simplicity of the songs, full of love and disgust for his home city and his country. Looking back, I think it’s an update of Bob Dylan’s talkin’ blues of the early sixties. Magnificent, and another must-buy album. He followed it up with a collaboration with John Cale, his Velvets partner, in honour of Andy Warhol, called “Songs For Drella”. Then in the early 90s, there was “Magic and Loss”. They were a trilogy which marked the renaissance of Lou Reed. “New York” was the best, but all are worth a listen.
Before my last memory, I should mention a fantastic Velvet Underground track which appeared on a compilation compiled by David Toop, called “Ocean of Sound” in 1996. The CD has the most amazing combination of music from around the world, from the sound of howler monkeys to free form jazz. In there is “I Heard Her Call My Name” by the Velvet Underground. Urgent, discordant, wild. Extraordinary music. Taken from the Velvet’s second album, “White Light/White Heat” from 1968. Perfect for “Ocean Of Sound” and in keeping with “White Light/ White Heat”, one of the greatest Velvet Underground tracks, with an complete guitar wig out at the end. You gotta listen!
And so, finally, a couple of years ago, I saw Lou Reed live, at the Hammersmith Apollo. It was the height of summer, and I and my friends made the mistake of having a curry before the concert. But even so, it was dire. He started with a whole string of dirges, mostly unfamiliar. He murdered John Lennon’s “Mother”, a pretty grim tune in the first place. By the time he reached “Venus In Furs” I had lost the will to live. “Venus In Furs” ! One of my favourite songs. Lost in a fog of indifference and heat exhaustion…
Things picked up with excellent renditions of “Femme Fatale” and finally, “Sweet Jane”. But the encore was perversely, another dirge, “The Bells”. Lou just wasn’t going to give us what we wanted.
I guess that’s always been the way. Lou Reed never gave people what they wanted. He gave them what he wanted, and they could like it or lump it. They – we – decided we liked it. Mostly.
So R.I.P Lou Reed. You were brilliant. You were hugely influential. Sometimes you were awful. But all the time you did it on your own terms. The history of rock’n’roll will have you as one of its heroes. But you’d probably stick two fingers up at that. Because you could…