He may have walked on the wild side for many years (he once ‘tried to give up drugs by drinking’), but Lou Reed also enjoyed a long and significant career. His death, from a ‘liver related ailment’ at the age of 71, is a substantial loss for the world of music. It comes as particularly sad news when a liver transplant back in May initially appeared to have been successful (“I am a triumph of modern medicine,” he had declared on his website).
In some ways, Reed’s career eventually came full circle, concluding as a hugely respected and much-covered songwriter and beginning, not in fact with the Velvet Underground, but with a brief stint as a jobbing songwriter for Pickwick Records in New York City. The song for which he is best known, at least in the UK, is Perfect Day. This seemed to endure and survive a great range of different contexts, from Danny Boyle bringing out its sinister undertow in Trainspotting, to Heather Small completely smothering its darker corners on a melodramatic charity single.
Yet Reed will probably be remembered as much for his subversions and his contrarian character, from the formation of the Velvet Underground in 1966 to the conceptual performance art and theatre pieces and the ultimate provocation of Metal Machine Music. It is perhaps fitting that his last two commercially released albums were among his most far out – the ambient Hudson River Wind Meditations and the bizarre and macabre collaboration with Metallica on Lulu.
The undying cliche about The Velvet Underground & Nico (the first Velvet Underground album), often credited to Brian Eno, is that it was an album that initially sold few copies, but that everyone that bought it went on to form a band. This is only a very slight exaggeration of its pervasive influence. In John Cale, Reed found a remarkable sparring partner, whose background in avant garde contemporary music helped amplify the band’s confrontational streak – the drones of Heroin or the screeches and scrapes of Black Angel Death Song making much of the album an enjoyably challenging listen.
Yet the album is also remarkable for other reasons – its sheer rawness and energy (Waiting For The Man opened the door for the punk movement) and the clarity of its highly melodic pop songs (Sunday Morning and I’ll Be Your Mirror were just two moments of disarming beauty and deceptive simplicity). The band may have lost some of its glorious tensions following Cale’s departure, but Reed’s pop sensibility became sharper as a result, with songs such as Sweet Jane, Rock & Roll and Pale Blue Eyes bringing the group to a wider audience and going on to achieve classic status.
Reed’s first solo album, recorded in London with first rate session musicians including Steve Howe, was largely unrecognised by critics, and quickly overshadowed by what immediately followed. Transformer, released in December 1972, would become Reed’s most acclaimed and successful album, co-produced by Mick Ronson and David Bowie. The experience would guide what Bowie would later achieve (without it, there would probably be no Station To Station), and the album remains the prime showcase of Reed’s gifts as a songwriter. For the time, Walk On The Wild Side was a brilliantly subversive chart hit, its lyrics telling the story of a number of the key players at Warhol’s Factory.
The album that followed Transformer may be Reed’s most ambitious and artistically coherent statement, the intense concept album Berlin. Reed did not shy away from darkness here, detailing addiction and domestic abuse in songs both grandiose and ragged.
One of Reed’s more famous irreverent interview comments on the nature of music was “One chord is fine, two chords are pushing it, three and you’re into jazz”. Though carrying some accuracy and undeniably funny, it belied his more open-minded approach. His 1979 The Bells featured jazz trumpeter Don Cherry and both Reed’s guitar playing and the early work of the Velvet Underground were informed by the free jazz explorations of Ornette Coleman. Walk On The Wild Side’s famous sliding bassline was provided by none other than Herbie Flowers.
Quite where this places 1975’s Metal Machine Music, a gargantuan, tinnitus-inducing hour of feedback and white noise, is difficult to say. At the time, it was largely viewed as a joke at the expense of his record company, or a defiant burst of contempt directed at his audience who wanted another Transformer (“Guaranteed to clear any room of humans in record time” – Rolling Stone Record Guide, 1979). It has since been the subject of the most extraordinary critical revisionism, undergoing remastering and reissuing and performed live to great acclaim. Reed has always insisted that it was a serious artistic statement. Lester Bangs was a lone contemporary critical voice who spoke in its favour.
Reed’s subsequent career, though prolific, has often focused on the simpler (and sometimes simplistic) aspects of his songwriting. The sound is usually minimal and stripped down, attempting to capture the raw spirit of a band playing rock and roll. Over a long period of time, he kept producing high quality work however, with the run of albums from 1989-1992 that encompassed New York, Magic and Loss and Songs For Drella (which reunited him with John Cale after 22 years) being particularly underrated. Yet every so often came albums of stark, confrontational weirdness, often in collaboration with his second wife Laurie Anderson (the Poe-inspired The Raven for example) that reminded audiences of the inherent tensions in Reed’s work.
Such tensions appeared to exist within Reed’s personality too, whether in the bisexuality that he was once forced to undergo electro-shock treatment to ‘cure’ or in his legendarily prickly approach to PR duties with journalists. Whilst he could be aggressive and adversarial, many of the bands he influenced and his friends spoke of him as a supportive, encouraging figure. His distinctive laconic vocal delivery, sometimes half-spoken, never quite in tune, will continue to be imitated but never surpassed, and his twin achievements in counter-culture and songwriting will live on.