The Album List #40: Lou Reed “Transformer”


The Velvet Underground were nothing without Lou.

Jesus, what a statement.

Lou is nothing ever but Lou. Even as he shifts, he is always Lou. He wants to be other people, but he can’t. Lou always comes out.

I mentioned earlier a fondness for John Cale’s solo masterpiece Paris 1919. It is a magnificent album, and it is very John Cale. This is very much Lou. Neither sounded that much like the Velvets. But they are all brilliant records.

I just happen to think Transformer is a better effort than the Cale record.

This album is the perfect storm of Lou’s hard edge rock and poetic lyrics and producers David Bowie and Mick Ronson’s glam touches and melodic superiority. Bowie and Ronson softened the rough edges of the snarky and sarcastic Lou, while supplying great background vocals (Bowie) and astonishing guitar solos (Ronson). Ronson is particular brought out the best in Lou- he is rumoured to be the brains behind the arrangements behind the albums two best and best known tracks, the gorgeous “Perfect Day” and the rich and soulful “Walk On The Wild Side”.

“Perfect Day” is still the best song Lou has ever (EVER) written. Backed by a piano and orchestra, Lou sings about a simple day of zoos, sangria, movies, and forgetting the world. What seems like a sweet love song ends with a onimous repeat of the phrase ” You’re gonna reap just what you sow”, leaving one to wonder just what Lou is going on about. Is it about loving someone, or is it about loving something (specifically for a renowned addict, heroin)? If you think about the former, it’s an odd thing to say. If you think about the latter, well, the song takes on an air of sadness that reaches down deep.

“Walk on the Wild Side”, filled to the brim with Warhol Factory characters (Candy Darling, Joe Dallesandro, Holly Woodlawn all are named), is both a stark reminder of the brutality of being “different” and the relief one feels when you find a place to be oneself. With its famous bass line, wonderous “doo doo doo” vocal breaks, colourful lyrics, and sax solo outro, the song is Lou’s best known, and a lovely mini memory play of a very specific time and place. You get an idea of what kept the ragtag mess of characters linked together in the very fragile and tenuous way they were.

Other songs on the album that  shine are the memorable sad tale of jealousy “Satellite of Love”; the Bowie-esque “Wagon Wheel”; the Velvet Underground holdover “Andy’s Chest”, with the memorable droning that VU was famous for; the vaudevillian piano of “New York Telephone Conversation” and “Goodnight Ladies”.  Light music touches balance darker lyrical imagery, sadness is buoyed by bright horns and silly piano. The album is among the most accessible thing Lou ever did. Now known as the dark, cranky poet of New York’s music scene, an elder statesman with little regard for what people expect from him, Lou would never have a hit song bigger than “Walk on the Wild Side”, or a song as gorgeous as “Perfect Day”, and he would often sound less cheerful musically.  Within a couple of years, contrarian Lou would release his most infamous album, the dissonant and terrible Metal Machine Music, a record infamous for its ability to clear out a room. He remains now, as he ever was, a man of singular vision and style. Music would be poorer without him.

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