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Nov 08 2017

Lou Reed – Transformer

Introduction

Transformer is the second studio album by Lou Reed. The album was released on November 8th, 1972, 45 years ago and was produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson.

Lou Reed - Velvet Underground albums (wikipedia.org)

Velvet Underground albums with Lou Reed

Velvet Undergound

In 1964 John Cale and Lou Reed met. Together with Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker The Velvet Underground was founded, one of the most influential undergroundbands in rock-history. The band got the attention of Andy Warhol. Reed has always been grateful to Warhol for his mentorship and the chance to be part of a versatile, artistic in-crowd. But, Reed wasn’t too happy with Warhol coupling The Velvet Underground with Nico. Yet, he wrote some songs for her and they became lovers for a (short) time. The first album The Velvet Underground & Nico, which is 50 years old, is a classic, even though it sold very poorly at the time. Without Nico White Light/White Heat was recorded, after which Reed got rid of Cale. The Velvet Underground recorded two more albums with Reed : The Velvet Underground and Loaded. When the breakthrough didn’t come, even with Loaded, Reed left the band and moved in with his parents. He got a job as a typist at his father’s accountancy agency.

Lou Reed solo

One year later Reed signed a contract with RCA and recorded his first solo-album, simply called Lou Reed, in England with guest musicians from Yes, like Rick Wakeman, and members of Elton John’s band. it contained, newly recorded, The Velvet Underground outtakes. The album was polished and went unnoticed; little to no copies were sold.

David Bowie

Lou Reed, Mick Jagger & David Bowie 1973 (thatericalper.com)

Lou Reed, Mick Jagger & David Bowie 1973

Just as in the story about Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life, David Bowie once again plays a major part in the career of an important and great artist. Bowie admired Lou Reed, and his Velvet Underground music in particular. He frequently played the songs White Light/White Heat and I’m Waiting For The Man at his concerts. The decadence and sexual ambiguous music was highly influential to Bowie’s music. When the Ziggy Stardust phenomenon reached its peak, Bowie offered to help Lou Reed. Even though Reed’s music was far removed from the glam music and scene at the time, it offered him a home where his own eccentric subjects fit right in.

In complete accordance with the times, Bowie flirted with bisexuality. However, to Reed, it was no flirt. It was part of his identity. In his (auto)biography he told about the electroshocktherapy his parents sent him to, to “cure” him from his homosexual tendencies.

Bowie was going to produce the next Lou Reed solo-album with Mick Ronson (the guitar player who worked closely together with Bowie). Practically, Ronson and Reed did most of the work for the album, something for which Reed always remained thankful to Ronson. It resulted in a fascinating album, that put Reed on the map. He no longer was a cult-figure, but a (international) star. The album would (partially to Reed’s regret) largely dominate his career, at least in the 1970’s.

Transformer

Lou Reed - Transformer (amazon.com)

Lou Reed – Transformer

Four of the eleven songs of Transformer were already written by Reed when he was still a part of The Velvet Underground. The songs were slowed down for the new album. New York Telephone Conversation and Goodnight Ladies were played live in the summer of 1970.

The sound on Transformer was altered by Bowie and Ronson, complementing the lyrics and subjects by Reed much better than it did on his first solo-album. Reed’s subjects oftentimes comprised people who were outcasts. He treated these subjects with empathy and respect. It’s probably one of the reasons the songs, to this day, stay relevant, even though their specific subjects, like transgenders, drugs, male prostitution and oral sex, are more taboo now than they were in 1972.

Mick Ronson played an important part on the album. He was co-producer, the main musician and arranger. Reed praises Ronson extensively on the Transformer episode of the documentary series Classic Albums. It says enough that Transformer was part of these series, because a lot of the songs are among Reed’s best-known work. Many songs can even be called evergreens: Walk On The Wild Side, Perfect Day and Satellite of Love.

Lyrics

Andy Warhol proved to be a lasting connection for Reed. Warhol suggested writing a song about a vicious person. When Reed asked what he meant by that, Warhol said: “Oh, you know, like I hit you with a flower”. And thus Vicious was written:

Vicious
You hit me with a flower
You do it every hour
Oh, baby, you’re so vicious

© Vicious, Lou Reed, 1972

With Vicious, Satellite Of Love and Perfect Day, Walk On the Wild Side is part of the top 4 songs on the album. The song summarizes the album very well:

Lou Reed - Walk On The Wild Side (single) (45cat.com)

Lou Reed – Walk On The Wild Side (single)

Holly came from Miami F.L.A.
Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side,
Said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side

Candy came from out on the island,
In the backroom she was everybody’s darling,
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, hey baby, take a walk on the wild side
Said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side
And the colored girls go

Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo

© Walk On The Wild Side, Lou Reed, 1972

Accompanied by an iconic bassriff, subtle drumming, beautiful strings and Reed’s cold delivery, the song is a striking image of the time. Every verse references (one of) the “superstars” of Andy Warhol’s New York studio, The Factory:

  • “Holly” is based on Holly Woodlawn, a transgender actress. After trouble with bullying she left home at 15 years old. She actually learned to pluck her eyebrows while hitchhiking to New York;
  • “Candy” is based on Candy Darling, a transgender actress and subject of an earlier Lou Reed song: Candy Says;
  • “Little Joe” was a nickname for Joe Dallesandro, an actor from the 1968 movie Flesh. According to Dallesandro the remarks about him are based on the character in the movie, not on himself;
  • “Sugar Plum Fairy” is based on actor Joe Campbell, who played a man using that name in the Warhol-film My Hustler. The name is a euphemism for drug dealer;
  • “Jackie” is based on Jackie Curtis, actor. “Speeding” and “crashing” refer to drug(use).

The lyrics were innovative and controversial, because it contained subjects that rarely were part of rock songs. Reed: “I always thought it would be kinda fun to introduce people to characters they maybe hadn’t met before, or hadn’t wanted to meet”. The song was released as a single. In the US the reference to oral sex was cut from the song. Remarkably, this was not done for the release in England. Perhaps the phrase “giving head” was interpreted otherwise. The term “colored girls” was also an issued in the US. As it was part of the censored version, the recordcompany distributed a version to radiostations, which edited out that as well.

Cover art

Lou Reed - Transformer - Ad (pinterest.com)

Lou Reed – Transformer – Ad

The photo on the cover is by Mick Rock. While developing in his darkroom, the photo accidentally got overexposed. Rock liked the result and proposed the photo for the album.

Songs

All songs written by Lou Reed.

Side A   Vicious
    Andy’s Chest
    Perfect Day
    Hangin’ ‘Round
    Walk On The Wild Side
Side B   Make Up
    Satellite Of Love
    Wagon Wheel
    New York Telephone Conversation
    I’m So Free
    Goodnight Ladies

Personnel

Lou Reed – lead vocals, rhythm guitar
Mick Ronson – lead guitar, piano, recorder, string arrangements
Herbie Flowers – bass, double bass, tuba on Goodnight Ladies and Make Up
John Halsey – drums

Additional

David Bowie – keyboards, backgroundvocals, acoustic guitar on Wagon Wheel and Walk on the Wild Side
Trevor Bolder – trumpet
Ronnie Ross – tenor saxophone on Goodnight Ladies and baritone saxophone on Walk on the Wild Side
The Thunder Thighs – backgroundvocals
Barry DeSouza – drums
Ritchie Dharma – drums
Klaus Voormann – bass on Perfect Day, Goodnight Ladies, Satellite of Love and Make Up

Lou Reed - Live (theaterbyte.com)

Lou Reed – Live

Afterwards

Lou Reed would make records during the 1970’s, like the dark Berlin (1973), the exciting live-album Rock ‘n Roll Animal (1974) and the highly controversial double-album Metal Machine Music (1975), of which was said: “a two-disc set consisting of nothing more than ear-wrecking electronic sludge, guaranteed to clear any room of humans in record time”. He continued to release records regularly, but Reed played a less significant role with each release. Until 1989, when he released New York, which was followed by Magic And Loss (1992). In 2011 he released the universally condemned album Lulu with Metallica. After a livertransplant Lou Reed died on October 27th, 2013, 71 years old.

In closing

What do you think of Transformer? A good album as well? His best? Let me know!

 

Compliments/remarks? I´d love to hear them!