Song of the Day, November 20: Walk on the Wild Side by Lou Reed

ReedWildToday’s song is Lou Reed’s only Top 40 entry, Walk On the Wild Side. It appears on his magnificent second solo album, Transformer. Working with producer David Bowie, Reed found a new voice for his tales of the out-of-luck, downtrodden, and marginalized, celebrating them with empathy and wit.

Wild Side is a series of biographical sketches, telling the backstories of some of the people Reed met during his time at Andy Warhol’s Factory. Adding a bit of wry joy to his usual deadpan delivery, he celebrates their courage and individuality while honestly relating their stories. Thunderthighs, a quartet of talented female vocalists, provide delightful harmonies and a distinctive doo-doo-doo musical break. The upbeat feel of the song caught radio programmers attention, allowing a song about drag queens with an explicit reference to oral sex to crack the Top 20, peaking at #16.

A highlight of Reed’s masterpiece album, it’s one of his finest moments. Enjoy this classic hit today.

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.

Song of the Day, August 25: There She Goes Again by the Velvet Underground

VelvetThereSheGoesToday’s song is There She Goes Again by the Velvet Underground, a short but powerful track from their seminal debut album.While not as radical as many of the disc’s songs, this one demonstrates what an amazingly cohesive unit the band were at their best. Loosely based on a riff from Marvin Gaye’s Hitch Hike (as interpreted by the Rolling Stones), it’s a classic rock track. Featuring crisp, precise playing and tight rhythms, the song tells of a frustrated lover who needs to find the strength to walk away. The solo break slows the rhythm step by step until things snap back to the original tempo as writer and lead vocalist Lou Reed begins to chant his goodbyes. The whole band provides flawless harmony vocals throughout.

Enjoy this wonderful example of a band at its best today.

Song of the Day, May 29: Fly Into the Sun by Lou Reed

ReedNewFlyToday’s song is Fly Into the Sun, the standout track on Lou Reed’s 13th solo album, New Sensations. When it came out, listeners were stunned by the upbeat feel of the album. Reed is known for his more dour songs but has always had a sense of fun and an ability to look for joy. The optimism on this disc is hard-won, with every song having a gritty realism that underpins the frequently hopeful messages. Nowhere is this more true than Fly Into the Sun.

A meditation on nuclear destruction, the song finds Reed pondering his fate if the bomb should drop. Refusing to allow even this horror to crush his will, he assures the listener that as his atoms disperse he’ll celebrate his explosive return to nature. With an easy groove under his charming vocals, he makes a convincing cases for finding the silver lining.

I’d shine by the light of the unknown moment
To end this worldly pain
Fly into the sun, fly into the sun

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, February 28: I’m So Free by Lou Reed

ReedFreeToday’s song is I’m So Free by Lou Reed. It appears on his brilliant second solo album, Transformer. It’s a much more light-hearted song tha Reed is known for, showing off his broad skills nicely. A celebration of hanging out with friends and enjoying nightlife in the city, it’s upbeat without being cloying.

Do you remember the silver walks
You used to shiver and I used to talk
Then we went down to Times Square
And ever since I’ve been hanging around there
I’m so free, I’m so free

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Album of the Week, December 29: The Velvet Underground and Nico

VUNicoMirrorThe originality and influence of The Velvet Underground & Nico cannot be overstated. Perhaps Brian Eno’s observation about this album fifteen years after its release has become a cliché, but it carries a fundamental truth.

The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band

Lou Reed was a singer, guitarist, English lit scholar, and house songwriter for Pickwick. He met John Cale, a classically trained musician who left Wales to study with some leading lights in the avant garde music world. When they decided to form a band, they invited Reed’s college roommate, Sterling Morrison, to join the crew. They experimented with sounds and material, eventually adding drummer Maureen “Mo” Tucker and settling on the name the Velvet Underground. They came to the attention of Andy Warhol, who became their manager and incorporated them into his roadshow, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. He sponsored the band’s early studio sessions and became the producer of record for their first album.

Title The Velvet Underground & Nico
Act The Velvet Underground
Label Verve Release Date March 12, 1967
Producer Andy Warhol
U.S. Chart  171 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Sunday Morning
  2. I’m Waiting For the Man
  3. Femme Fatale
  4. Venus In Furs
  5. Run Run Run
  6. All Tomorrow’s Parties
  7. Heroin
  8. There She Goes Again
  9. I’ll Be Your Mirror
  10. The Black Angel’s Death Song
  11. European Son

The actual credit for the production is hotly debated, although both Reed and Morrison have agreed that Warhol deserves his due. His influence allowed the group to record what they wanted how they wanted to, and his money helped ensure that the result was released. He also insisted on the addition of German singer Nico, another move debated by critics but significant in the unique sound of the debut album. Tom Wilson — superstar producer of artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Simon and Garfunkel to the Mothers of Invention — stepped in for the album’s last track recorded, Sunday Morning, and some reworking of original tracks. The words and music were fundamentally Lou Reed’s, and his influence is critical to the sound of the album. John Cale is widely recognized as the arranger of the sound and the one who really pushed the musical envelope. Regardless of who gets the official credit, the combined work of these creative forces resulted in something magical.

The VU were known for gritty, experimental, noisy music (something that Reed and Cale would both explore in their long solo careers as well). Those elements are significant and run through many of the tracks, but that reputation overlooks the complexity and outright beauty of much of the album. The two closing tracks hew closest to the legend. The Black Angel’s Death Song, co-written by Cale, is a dark tale set to stark music, with hissing sound effects and a claustrophobic atmosphere. European Son, credited to the whole band, is a bitter kiss-off of a song with a roots rock feel that devolves into a chaos of dissonant jamming and found sounds. While both songs were massively influential on future musical generations — and pointedly put last to be the sound that lingered — they only tell part of the story.

The rest of the album can be split into two categories: the Nico songs and the urban songs. Reed wrote all of them (with Cale sharing credit on Sunday Morning), but it’s telling to see which were shared with the woman who was never quite a member of the band. The opening Sunday Morning was intended for Nico, but she was relegated to backing vocals on the final version. A thing of fragile beauty, it shows off Reed’s flawless sense of pop music and the complexity of Cale’s musical themes. It also hardly prepares the listener for the complicated journey to come.

The other three Nico songs feature her distinctive stylings as lead vocalist. Femme Fatale is a wonderful song of longing nicely suited to her smoky delivery. I’ll Be Your Mirror is one of Reed’s finest straightforward love songs, and Nico manages to capture a joyous ache that resonates perfectly. Her high point is the austere All Tomorrow’s Parties a song of desperation and loneliness that her Teutonic majesty absolutely masters. Reed could easily have sung any of these songs (and did in live shows after Nico’s departure), but they were well selected for the dour chanteuse. Her vocals added a complexity to the album that helped it truly shine.

The rest of the album consists of Reed’s snapshots of life, sung in his equally distinctive, often deadpan voice. His goal, he observed, was not to shock — although the unusual for the time subject matter often did — but to reflect what he saw in the world around him. If there are books and poems about such things, he reasoned, why not songs? I’m Waiting for the Man is a perfect second track, taking the listener from the morning reflections of the opener to a gritty urban streetcorner. Musically and lyrically flawless, it tells its tale with bracing honesty. Venus In Furs is a retelling of a 19th Century novel of sexual experimentation. Reed’s narration is backed by haunting music, punctuated by a viola and tambourine feature that sounds like the repeated crack of a whip.

Run Run Run and There She Goes Again seem as though they could easily fit on other 60s rock albums. The former has a solid blues base and catchy hook that drive it forward. The latter has an almost doo-wop feel and great harmonies by the whole band. Lyrically, however, they are distinctly VU, telling dark tales of despair, addiction, dependency, hopelessness, and violence. Honest and stark, they form the root of much of Reed’s work — and influence over future musicians — for the rest of his career.

There’s no single masterpiece on an album this strong, but the centerpiece is clearly Heroin. Capturing the darkest themes of the album and making them powerfully personal, Reed constructs a compelling narrative. Musically, the band capture the cycle of addiction flawlessly, with ache, tension, release, and despair resonating in every note. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s one of the most important songs in rock. And so it goes with this amazing album. Nearly four decades after it was recorded, it remains fresh, compelling and unique.

FURTHER LISTENING: The VU released four amazingly important and fairly disparate albums. All of them are worth knowing. White Light/White Heat is the most like their reputation — experimental, jarring, dark, dissonant, challenging. Cale was shoved out of the band after that and the sound became much more distinctly Reed’s. The Velvet Underground is a wonderful set of edgy rock and potent pop; Loaded is more uneven but has some classic songs and sets the stage for the singer’s solo career. Reed, Cale, and Nico all have had impressive solo careers which we’ll look at more closely in future albums of the week.

Song of the Day, December 3: Sunday Morning by the Velvet Underground

VelvetSundayToday’s song is Sunday Morning by the Velvet Underground. It was the last track recorded for their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. Producer Tom Wilson requested an additional song with more potential as a single, so Lou Reed and John Cale penned this track. It was written specifically with guest singer Nico’s vocals in mind. Although she sang it live with the band, the recorded version features Reed on lead vocals with Nico supplying a haunting backdrop.

Although never a big seller, the album was extremely influential, providing templates for almost every counter-culture pop and rock movement of the next three decades. Sunday Morning shows off a different side of the band. It’s a reflective ballad — slow, gentle, and thoughtful. It demonstrates musical themes that Reed would explore further with the band after Cale’s departure and a tenderness that he wove into the best of his later solo work. Cale eschews his avant-garde tendencies for a hypnotic musical backdrop that would also figure in some of his best solo work.Sid&Susie

Watch out, the world’s behind you
There’s always someone around you who will call It’s nothing at all
Sunday morning and I’m falling
I’ve got a feeling I don’t want to know

As the poppiest moment on the album, Sunday Morning has been covered many times. Athens, GA band Oh-OK recorded a version after Matthew Sweet joined as guitarist. When Sweet and Bangles vocalist Susanna Hoffs created their Sid & Susie personas to record a great set of 60s and 70s pop covers, they included this track. With Hoffs’ bittersweet vocals and Sweet’s spot-on power pop production, they turn in a version that rivals the original.

Enjoy this amazing song in its original form and in a loving tribute today.

Song of the Day, September 11: What’s Good? by Lou Reed

Lou-Reed-Whats-GoodToday’s song is What’s Good? by Lou Reed. It appears on his 1992 albums Magic and Loss, a meditation on death. The album was inspired by the deaths of two people significant to Reed, songwriter Doc Pomus and a woman identified as simply “Rita.” Each song has an explicit purpose; What’s Good? is the second track, identified as “the Thesis.”

Reed’s lyrics merge the absurd with the painfully real as he ponders how these losses have disturbed and saddened him. Relying on irony to convey his anger — the rage will manifest itself more viscerally on later tracks — he sets up a powerful introduction to the heavy themes of the album. It’s a mature work by a seasoned artist and it works perfectly.

What good is seeing eye chocolate
What good’s a computerized nose
And what good was cancer in April
Why no good – no good at all

Enjoy this dark song today.

Song of the Day, July 29: Satellite of Love by Lou Reed

ReedSatLoveToday’s song is Satellite of Love by Lou Reed. It’s a standout track on his brilliant second solo album, Transformer. As with many of his early solo work, he wrote it while still with the Velvet Underground and originally performed it with the band around the time of their Loaded album. It was never recorded by the band, however, and he retooled it to fit the feel of Transformer, a kind of pre-punk glam rock.

The singer is watching a satellite launch on television (something still fairly novel in the late 60s when he wrote it) and pondering the unfaithful ways of his girlfriend. Reed describes the lyric as “the worst kind of jealousy” and the words bounce between  whimsical musings about the satellite and vicious thoughts about the betrayal. Producer David Bowie frames things with a buoyant, celebratory feel, emphasizing the tension. He also provides a magnificent backing vocal, showing off his higher register as a nice counterpoint to Reed’s speak-singing.

I’ve been told that you’ve been bold
With Harry, Mark and John
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday to Thursday
With Harry, Mark and John

Satellite’s gone
Up to the skies
Thing like that drive me
Out of my mind
I watched it for a little while
I love to watch things on TV
Satellite of love

Enjoy this dark classic today.

Song of the Day, June 7: I’ll Be Your Mirror by the Velvet Underground and Nico

Lou Reed and Nico in the StudioToday’s song is I’ll Be Your Mirror by the Velvet Underground and Nico. As the house band for Andy Warhol’s Factory and the mainstay of his avant garde Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the Velvet Underground were thought of a harsh and experimental. Similarly, principle songwriter Lou Reed was known for his aggressive explorations of humanity’s darker side. There was a real sense of music and melody in the band, however, and this track is one of the finest examples.

A straightforward love song, it’s a beautiful tribute to the ways that each half of a couple complements the other. One of Reed’s strongest lyrics, it remains one of his favorites today and has been a staple of his solo shows since he left the band forty years ago. It’s also a fine vocal showcase for Nico. The model turned singer was foisted on the band by Warhol, singing lead on three tracks on the album that shares their names. Despite the tension, they managed to work together in forming some wonderful and influential music. Nico initially approached this vocal as a darker lyric; after successive takes reduced her to tears, she caught her breath and turned in a fine performance, one of her most nuanced. The Velvets were so impressed that whenever it was sung live — long after Nico had departed for her solo career — the vocalist borrowed her heavy German intonation.

I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know
I’ll be the wind, the rain and the sunset
The light on your door to show that you’re home

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

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