Album of the Week, September 28: Transformer by Lou Reed

TransformerLou Reed was responsible for one of the most important bodies of popular music in the 20th Century. Born in Brooklyn in 1942, he played guitar and sang while in school. He pursued a journalism degree at Syracuse, but right after graduating went right back to music. After a brief period as a staff writer, he fell in with a diverse crowd and formed the Velvet Underground, musical pioneers that helped launch a dozen musical styles. By the time he left the Velvets, Reed had a solid reputation for lyrical honesty — often discussing topics that had been taboo — and solid musical chops. Best known for exploring the darker side of life with laserlike precision, he also had a strong romantic side and a deep sense of fun. His first solo album sounded like a weak Velvets disc, not a big surprise since he was that band’s primary writer and lead vocalist. Retrenching after that release, he hooked up with David Bowie, who had been deeply influenced by the Velvet Underground. Bowie co-produced Reed’s second album with regular collaborator Mick Ronson. Their glam-rock approach meshed nicely with Reed’s tales of losers, outcasts, and mavericks, resulting in a powerful album that is one of the most fun and celebratory in his long career.

Title Transformer
Act Lou Reed
Label RCA Release Date November 8, 1972
Producer David Bowie and Mick Ronson
U.S. Chart  #29 U.K. Chart  #13
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Vicious
  2. Andy’s Chest
  3. Perfect Day
  4. Hangin’ ‘Round
  5. Walk On the Wild Side [#16]
  6. Make Up
  7. Satellite of Love
  8. Wagon Wheel
  9. New York Telephone Conversation
  10. I’m So Free
  11. Goodnight Ladies

Dismissed by critics at the time because it didn’t sound “like Lou Reed,” Transformer is both daring and perfectly logical. It shows off the breadth of his talent as a writer and singer while sticking close to the subjects he explored best and most consistently.

Vicious kicks things off flawlessly. Inspired by a lyrical request from long-time friend Andy Warhol, the track captures the spirit of the album nicely. The lyrics are a nasty kiss-off with hints of the S&M world explored by the Velvets; the music is solid rock, with a classic guitar riff. The vocals, however, are arch, almost camp, adding a sense of whimsy to the darkness. Is that wink a welcome or a warning? It’s Transformer.

Andy’s Chest, presumably dedicated to Warhol as well, is downright silly at times but also charming. Reed’s lyrics are free-associations and goofy images presented as tribute to someone clearly worthy of celebration. It’s a new side of Lou Reed, but it works. Perfect Day is a beautifully bittersweet song, one of the finest of Reed’s compositions. Delicate but powerful, it’s an achingly everyday ode and also features some of his most stirring vocal work.

Rock comes back to the fore with Hangin’ ‘Round, another nice juxtaposition. With a classic piano line straight out of the 50s and a street corner vocal and guitar mix, it’s comforting, well-crafted musical territory. The stories on this corner, however, would never have appeared in an early rock hit, exploring darker adventures with musical glee. That sets things up for the album’s most famous track (and Reed’s only Top 40 hit), the glorious Walk On the Wild Side. Inspired by the real characters that assembled at Warhol’s factory, it shows off Reed’s knack for biography. It’s also a series of road songs, telling each person’s journey over a surging, rambling guitar line. With subtle strings and a famous doo-doo-doo chorus, it’s a flawless pop gem that managed to subvert chart trends with its very direct lyrical content.

Make Up is an ode to transformation and disguise, a fairly direct theme song for the album. A suitably camp vocal about “a slick little girl” is buoyed by an oddly effective tuba line. When the oompahs accompany Reed declaring that “we’re coming out of our closets,” the celebration is complete.

Satellite of Love is a very pretty song about a very ugly emotion. A twisted look at jealousy, it’s an amazingly effective mix. Bowie’s vocal contributions aid the subversively joyous feel. As an antidote to the darkness underlying that brilliant track, Wagon Wheel is a fun guitar romp composed around three lyrical fragments. It’s truly joyous and fun, with a silly edge that shows that both Bowie and Reed could play as hard as they could ponder. New York Telephone Conversation is just that, a spoken-sung snippet that raises the camp quotient in a quick bit of fun.

I’m So Free is another gem, a bristling celebration of self-determination with — of course — some darkness around the edges. A celebration of camaraderie, it’s a powerful track. Things wrap up with the apt Goodnight Ladies, a lovely farewell to all the characters that populate the album. With a charming New Orleans style clarinet riff and an almost Tin Pan Alley feel, you can hear the curtain closing as emcee Reed bids farewell.  It’s nicely presented and a final example of the flawless sequencing that help make this disc a masterpiece.

Since its initial dismissal — this just wasn’t Lou enough for critics in 1972 — Transformer has justly risen to a place of honor in the rock canon. It’s a brilliant collaboration and a perfect reinvention for Reed. Any disc that includes Vicious, Perfect Day, Satellite of Love, and Walk on the Wild Side, is worthy enough, but the depth, cohesion, and inventiveness of Transformer make it an amazing release even from a major talent like Lou Reed.

FURTHER LISTENING: With dozens of albums over 40 years of solo work, picking through Reed’s strong, diverse catalog is daunting. While always insightful, unflinching, and dedicated, his work varies dramatically from album to album from the sublime to the frankly dismal. Most albums have a gem or two (if not more), however, and most are great samples of true rock talent. A few rise to the top.

While Berlin receives more plaudits than most, I find it a bit claustrophobic and lacking in the musical diversity that marks my favorite Reed albums. New Sensations is one of his finest, a wonderful mix of romance, reality, and the land in between. Few artists are as unremittingly New York as Reed, so his homage to the city, New York, is a powerful statement without a bad track. Magic and Loss, a meditation on mortality inspired by the loss of two close friends, is a mixed bag that is occasionally ponderous but overall rewarding. It also features some brilliant vocal work from the late, great Little Jimmy Scott.

With only a handful of singles, a tendency to craft tightly cohesive albums, and a few label changes, Reed is short on good compilations. There are a number of discs that capture one period or another of his career, notably Walk on the Wild Side. The best long-form overview is the three-disc Between Thought and Expression.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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