Record Rewind: Lou Reed – Transformer
After the stifled acclaim garnered for his work with the Velvet Underground, and before the full-blown critical repulsion that would greet his Metal Machine Music a bit further down the track, lay the pinnacle of Lou Reed’s commercial success – Transformer, a glam-inflected bent on his characteristically deadpan and promiscuous poetics.
David Bowie had taken a strong liking to The Velvet Underground’s music; perhaps he was one of those to whom Brian Eno’s famous quote applied: that only 30,000 copies of VU’s debut album were sold in its early days, but ‘everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band’. Anyway, he and Mick Ronson, the guitarist for Bowie’s band at the time, jumped at the opportunity to produce this album by a man who had exerted such a strong influence, albeit rather covertly, on the music world.
Satellite Of Love is the track that, for me, has Bowie’s name stamped most clearly upon it, with it’s particular brand of piano tinkering and production and its concern for the celestial: ‘Satellite’s gone way up to Mars / Soon it will be filled with parking cars’. Lou’s organic, almost spoken vocals keep everything on the ground though – never does it feel carried away by the whole glam thing. Perfect Day, another favourite, has the same effect. The lyrical simplicity, and the lack of vocal embellishment, reminds me that love and emotion are universal things, not confined to those who can sing about them with a 5 octave range. This contrasts somewhat, though, with the evocative string arrangements penned by Mick Ronson for the tune.
The opening Vicious, a coarse slab of rock’n’roll, is perhaps the track that most recalls Lou’s work with The Velvet Underground. The line ‘Vicious, you hit me with a flower’ and the song itself were allegedly the result of a conversation Reed had with Andy Warhol, who also had an influence on Lou’s most famous track, Walk On The Wild Side – the subjects in the tune (Holly, Candy, Little Joe, etc.) were all part of a group of personalities that hung around with the artist. With that rising and falling bass-line and what are probably the most famous ‘doo-do-doo’s in music, the track is an instantly recognisable masterpiece capped off with a jazzy little sax solo.
Other favourite tracks of mine are the upbeat articulated punkiness of Hangin’ Round with its intoxicatingly catchy chorus: ‘You keep hangin’ round me / And I’m not so glad you found me / You’re still doing things that I gave up years ago’. A writer for Rolling Stone once called Make Up ‘corny and innocuous’, but to my ears it provides a curious kind of bedroom carnivalesque. Wagon Wheel is also a bit of fun, sprinkled with disconcerting humour: ‘But if you think / That you get kicks from flirting with danger / Danger Ooohh / Just kick her in the head and rearrange her’.
On the day Lou Reed passed away, Goodnight Ladies was the song I thought to play to myself. Smooth horn lines sit atop the plodding bass line, making it feel like the closing number for the night in a burlesque club. As such it is a perfectly sultry finish for Transformer, and there is perhaps no better way to close this article than with the words of Lou himself:
‘Ah we’ve been together for the longest time / But now it’s time to get high / Come on, let’s get high, high, high / And goodnight ladies, ladies goodnight.’