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His musical choices often rank between the bewildering and the outright irritating. Even when touched with genius – Metal Machine Music must be one of the most intriguing major label albums ever released – he’s done little to endear himself to critics and consumers alike. This, and a notoriously aggressive interview technique, caused a sense of frustration amongst fans that can be summed up handily by Sam Moore’s exasperated cry of “Sing it Lou!” on their joint single Soul Man – which caused the curmudgeon to do little other than carry on croaking.
But before most of this unpleasantness took place there was his 1972 breakthrough album Transformer – to this day, probably the most universally loved collection of songs he has recorded as a solo artist. As with many classic albums, the stars were aligned for this one. Unlike the tracks that made up his patchy self-titled debut, he didn’t have any material left over from the VU days. This forced him to get to work writing.
And what songs these are. The supposed ode to his drug habit, Perfect Day, only works because, no matter who the song is dedicated to, it is a beautiful ballad. Then there is the epic, neon-drenched goodbye to his association with Andy Warhol and his factory acolytes, Walk on the Wild Side. (This much parodied and sampled song had its signature double bass line composed by Herbie Flowers, who scored a much bigger UK hit by penning Grandad for Clive Dunn.) The proto punk swagger of Vicious, the snarky brass parp of New York Telephone Conversation: every track is a classic of the era.
Of course, having his number one fan David Bowie (along with future Spider, Mick Ronson) trying out production techniques for the still putative Ziggy Stardust phase of his career didn’t hurt. Some saw the lack of NYC/VU sleaze as a sell-out, but they lacked the clarity of foresight to see that Reed’s opus of cross-dressing, open homosexuality and discussion of drug use was set to pervert generations of pop fans to come, and was not just preaching to an already converted hipster rock underground. --John Doran
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Transformer is a type of decadent cabaret comparable to Bowie's Alladin Sane, but it is less bleak and much more colourful and engaging. Reed proved himself to be a master of many styles, from the compelling rock of Walk On The Wild Side through the tender and tuneful pop of Satellite Of Love to the oneiric Perfect Day, a haunting poetic excursion.
Other highlights include the edgy rocker Vicious with its hypnotic melody and sarcastic/ironic lyrics (an attitude that would soon infuse punk and new wave), the quirky New York Telephone Conversation, the energetic Hanging Round and the stately Goodnight Ladies. The songs are highly descriptive of a time, a place and a mindset, and the music is powerful in places and very elegant.
The stylistic variety renders Transformer compelling throughout while not detracting from the cohesion, making it a great piece of musical theatre. Devoted followers would agree that it does not reveal the complete Reed, as he has been so prolific and his oeuvre encompasses a much larger spectrum. But as a document of the middle seventies, it remains superb, an essential album for all serious rock fans.
A big, big recommendation to get this album coming from this reviewer!
Needing a boost after the failure of his patchy 'Lou Reed' debut for RCA Reed agreed to allow Bowie to co-produce with guitarist extraordinaire and current Spider, Mick Ronson (this edition of the CD allows you to see how the team turned Reeds rough masters into polished classics with the addition of the acoustic demo versions of 'Hangin' Round' and 'Perfect Day')and what a meeting of minds it was.
Each of the eleven original tracks is a stunner the stand outs being the Herbie Flowers bass dominated 'Walk On The Wild Side' (the title was stolen from the Nelson Algren's novel but the lyrics were about the Factory Set), Reed is quoted as saying that this song was so edited in the States that only the 'Doo, Doo Doo's were left)), the simply orchestrated and beautiful 'Perfect Day', the chugging mettle that is the angst ridden 'Vicious', the joyful menace that is Hangin' Round' and the fabulously camp 'Satellite Of Love'.
If you already have a copy of this album buy it for the extra tracks, if you don't have it, start your Lou Reed collection here.