It was two years ago today Lou Reed sadly passed away at the age of 71.
Through his innovative ideas and emotive writing Reed significantly shaped the past four decades of music, influencing the approach of near-contemporaries such as David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, whilst also igniting a stream of successive bands and genres.
Through his half-spoken, deadpan delivery and descriptive writing, in the late sixties he captured the seedy noir underbelly of his native New York as the leader of the Velvet Underground. This is a band which, of course, need little introduction – a four-piece formed in 1964 by Brooklyn-born Reed and Welsh instrumentalist John Cale, and later joined by guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen ‘Moe’ Tucker.
Fearless and uncompromising, Reed didn’t just create music, he constructed a whole world. And through his lyrics he invited us in, introduced us to his friends and encouraged us to Walk on the Wild Side.
In commemoration, we’ve selected seven defining tracks that define Lou Reed’s career. Get stuck in, cool it down.
1. Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable with The Velvet Underground (1966)
Andy Warhol proved to be the catalyst who first propelled the New York four piece into the foreground, from first introducing the band to German singer Nico to helping them achieve their desired aesthetic.
During their stay at Andy Warhol’s Factory, the band became part of his multimedia roadshow, Exploding Plastic Inevitable, for which they provided the music. The show included 16mm film projections by Warhol, combined with a stroboscopic-light show – it’s said that because of these punishing lights, the band took to wearing sunglasses onstage. A look that forever defined the band’s image.
2. I’m Waiting For My Man (1967)
Recorded in 1966 during Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia event tour and released the following year, the band’s seminal debut record, The Velvet Underground & Nico, is regarded as one of the greatest debut record’s ever. While initially only selling 30,000 copies, Roxy Music’s Brian Eno once stated, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
Track two on the record, I’m Waiting for my Man trails Reed “Up to Lexington 125; feel sick and dirty, more dead and alive,” $26 in hand, out to score drugs. With John Cale pounding away on the piano, Reed laid out the blueprint for his career: tough, urban, taboo, poetic.
Flipping the record over you come face to face with Heroin. Seven minutes long, two chords deep – as Reed famously once said, “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz” – the track paints a dark and vivid portrait.
With Heroin Reed was pushing it alright. The track’s tempo builds gradually into a frantic crescendo, and then settling down again, emulating the narrator’s high. This was a man singing from experience, Reed’s deliver is harrowingly authentic.
Sister Ray (1968)
On the Velvet Underground’s second album, White Light / White Heat, Reed pushed the group further. Final track Sister Ray optimised everything brilliant about the band, this odyssey of noise and debauchery: 17:28 minutes long, with lyrics about a drug-fueled transvestite orgy.
Reed said of the lyrics: “Sister Ray was done as a joke—no, not as a joke—but it has eight characters in it and this guy gets killed and nobody does anything. It was built around this story that I wrote about this scene of total debauchery and decay. I like to think of Sister Ray as a transvestite smack dealer. The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear.”
Rock & Roll (1970)
Quite possibly the coolest song ever written. Rock & Roll tells that age old tale of first hearing the thud of rock ‘n’ roll music: “Despite all the imputations/You know, you could just go out/And dance to a rock’n’roll station/And it was all right.”
Although the track centres around the story of a girl named Jenny whose “life was saved by rock and roll”, in the liner notes to the Velvet Underground’s box set Peel Slowly and See, Lou Reed wrote,
“Rock and Roll is about me. If I hadn’t heard rock and roll on the radio, I would have had no idea there was life on this planet. Which would have been devastating – to think that everything, everywhere was like it was where I come from. That would have been profoundly discouraging. Movies didn’t do it for me. TV didn’t do it for me. It was the radio that did it.”
If listening to this track doesn’t get you dancing, go see a doctor immediately, there’s something wrong with you.
Walk on the Wild Side (1972)
Reed left the Velvet Underground just before Loaded was released in 1970 and went to work for his dad’s accounting firm as a typist. But luckily for us he couldn’t resist the music bug for too long, and went on to pursue a solo career.
Walk on the Wild Side, drawn from Transformer (co-produced by David Bowie), is a nostalgic ode to the transgressive NY streets Reed called home and the people who circulated the scene, like the transvestites coming to New York City and giving backroom blowjobs: “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.”
It all begins with Herbie Flower’s ‘do-doo doo-do’ twin bassline, – Flowers claimed that the reason he came up with the twin bass line was that as a session musician he would be paid double for playing two instruments on the same track, a £17 fee – and it carries through as the song builds into the anthem of 70s lower Manhattan. Reed immortalises the explicit group of drag queens and hustlers that defined the age with that cool jazz-like tone that he just nails.
In Reed’s estimation, Berlin (1973) was his masterpiece, “my version of Hamlet.” The album is a tragic rock opera about a doomed couple, Jim and Caroline, following them through drug addiction, domestic violence and suicide.
Title track Berlin embodies the poignancy that flows throughout the record, as Reed croons above soft jazz piano: “You’re right and I’m wrong oh babe/I’m gonna miss you now that you’re gone/One sweet day.” Here, Reed’s innate ability to poetically expose his vulnerabilities and inner demons through his music is clear for all to see. Each word comes drenched in emotion.