Lou Reed

TrackAlbum
Satellite Of LoveTransformer
Andy's ChestTransformer
Men Of Good FortuneBerlin
She's My Best FriendConey Island Baby
Street HassleStreet Hassle
My Friend GeorgeNew Sensations
Romeo Had JulietteNew York
Halloween ParadeNew York
Cremation - Ashes To AshesMagic And Loss
Who Am I? (Tripitena's Song)The Raven

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

Contributor: Stuart McLachlan

Believing he’s not around anymore is still a bit of an ask, even if he did spend enough of his career making us more familiar with death and loss than we were always comfortable with. He always seemed too belligerent for Death itself, destined to stand eternally on some rock and roll Mount Rushmore, on which he would have assuredly been Teddy Roosevelt, another “magnificent bastard” as one of Lou’s better obituaries put it.

Lou Reed wasn’t my first musical love – that would have been the Beatles, who suddenly appeared all over the airwaves again on Lennon’s death when I was aged nine – but along with Dylan, he alerted me in adolescence to just quite how wide the possibilities of rock music were. He was also my first ever gig – at the London Palladium touring the New York album, more of which later. Choosing a mere ten songs to represent him is enough of a task anyway, not least as I personally find redeeming features in even the stuff most others hate. So my only hard rule was no songs from the four canonical Velvet Underground albums (a couple of songs demoed with the band do appear on this list in their later forms), if only to make the choice vaguely feasible. Oh, and no Songs For Drella, good as it is, for similar reasons.

The eponymous 1972 debut has a mediocre rep it doesn’t really deserve, unloved at the time for not being the Velvets and afterwards for not being Transformer. Excepting a version of the VU live classic Ocean which would have been chucked out by Ed Wood Jr. for being overly hammy – “Don’t swim toNIGHT, my love!!!” indeed – it’s a very fine collection. Wild Child, a deeply enjoyable romp, didn’t make this personal top ten, but would definitely be on the shortlist, and I Love You, demo-ish as it is, is simply touching.

Transformer, on the other manicured hand, is the popular motherlode; its songs occupy 9 of the top 10 spots on Lou’s Spotify stats, the sole interloper being, um, a live version of Perfect Day. And a glorious album it is, even a masterpiece maybe. Perfect Day deserves to be a standard, but after that awkward business with the charity single a few years ago I can’t listen to it more than twice a year at the outside. Walk On The Wild Side likewise merits its transcending status, and was the reason I found Lou in the first place – something siren-like about that “hustle here and I hustle there, New York City’s the place where” drawl – but it’s basically Lou’s novelty hit. What’s more, it lacks the bareknuckled sincerity I would come to adore as I delved deeper into Lou. So, great songs as they are, they ain’t getting in here.

Satellite Of Love I have no qualms about. On a sunny day in Grosvenor Square with one of those Walkman things, a teenaged me started to realise there was more to Reed than the one about hustling and (gosh!) speeding away. “He sounds like David Bowie!” I may even have said out loud (well, he was singing about spaceships in a quavery voice – I was chuffed to then discover Dave and Mick Ronson had produced it). On an album couched as an apotheosis of Glam, its simplicity is nearer to the doo-wop that Lou would often return to, and its delicacy is a delight, making even – to reference the Bowie song I was likely comparing it to – Life On Mars sound hefty by comparison.

Andy’s Chest might come over as a rather barmy stream of consciousness at first listen, but it reveals itself to be a far deeper beast. I think Lou was rather proud of it: “The next time you come up with a phrase as ‘curtains laced with diamonds dear for you’… let me know” he barked at Lester Bangs. He was right, too. It’s a swirling Lewis Carrollesque tribute to his mentor Warhol, and it rocks. As does its singer, who sounds more engaged and muscular on this track than at any time since Loaded.

“If you liked Transformer, you’ll absolutely hate Berlin!” Sadly the promo campaign for the latter album never went that far, but there was definitely something of Dudley Moore’s cracked-up, truth-telling ad executive in Crazy People about Lou, not to mention a perverse streak that bore comparison to Dylan’s. It’s splendid, if not overly lovable in parts – I never got why the sterile, clingfilmed decadence of How Do You Think It Feels ended up on so many compilations, for instance. Then again the real red meat of Berlin is majorly strong stuff. Caroline Says (II) is properly heartbreaking, and only misses out here due to being a slightly inferior rewrite of the Velvets’ Stephanie Says, while The Kids and The Bed … well, even I find those almost unlistenably painful. The one I always return to is Men Of Good Fortune, ridiculously down-in-the-dumps but cutting deeper as it worries away at its narrow theme (spoiler: we’re all screwed) than anything else on this majestic if flawed album.

After that, it all went a bit funny for a while. Sally Can’t Dance was a massive hit but succeeds a bit too well in being nasty and disposable, and while I’ve still not tried Metal Machine Music I imagine it works better as a giant symbolic finger to the Man than a genuinely bearable hour out of one’s life. By 1975-6 Lou was something of a mess, as the gruelling “Death Dwarves” interview with Bangs depicts, but managed to focus for long enough to give us his sweetest album, Coney Island Baby. Recently in love and (mostly) not feeling the need to shock, he opened up with Crazy Feeling, which I’m sorrier to leave out of my top ten than any other song. What an absolute joy it is – a bouncy 2:55 of melody, slide guitar, bass and unadulterated puppy-love.

My choice from this album is six minutes long, but isn’t the title track, great as that is. She’s My Best Friend, like Andy’s Chest, had been demoed by the Velvets. That version (both are available now on VU) was fun in an Archies sorta way, but, like Dylan’s demos of Like A Rolling Stone or Visions Of Johanna, doesn’t compare to the finished article. This is one of those perfect-storm cuts where everything – vocals, playing, production – comes together. The surge in Lou’s voice as he hits the first chorus – “if you wanna seeeee me” – is worth the price of the album alone.

By the time he “came back” with New York in 1989, Lou had never really been away, turning out 10 studio albums alone between 1976 and 1986, but creatively the vibe was that he’d fallen off the twig long ago. Sure, the Robert Quine-inspired return to loud guitars on The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts had been well-received, and they’re both superior albums (neither, though, has one single track that I’d call a true personal favourite) but other than that? Well, he’d been out in the wilderness veering from cabaret to synth-rock, and generally disgracing his pitch as an Elder Statesman.

Well, not quite. Lou had been enjoying himself, really. Some of his not-so-guilty pleasures were a bit hard to swallow – Rock And Roll Heart is one that a lot of people discard, though I think it’s fun, and Mistrial, which bookends this period, is probably as close as he ever came to a true, phoned-in stinker, redeemed only by a couple of cute lightweight pop numbers. 1980’s Growing Up In Public is an album I dearly love, though it’s too self-consciously a Minor Work to justify plucking a song for a top 10. There are two songs from 76-86 that belong in any hall of fame, though, and the first is the saddest, baddest, most beautiful thing Lou Reed ever did. It’s built on a single nagging string figure, it’s eleven minutes long – in three movements! – and it’s called Street Hassle.

Wow. When it comes to finding transcendence in the most squalid places, this song may have no equal in history. The beauty of that string riff and the shadowy guitar and organ flickering around it have a lot to do with that; so does Lou’s voice, speaking pretty clearly of a man at rock bottom but inhabiting the song’s characters as well as any method actor. Waltzing Matilda, seeking the greatest one-night stand of all damn time; the drug-den wise guy offering veiled threats but still retaining visible slivers of humanity; they live in the song, even if we suspect they won’t live much longer. Finally there’s Lou himself, laying bare his devastation at the loss of Rachel, the love of his life. He’s not in character anymore, as he later admitted: “That person really exists. He did take the rings right off my fingers, and I do miss him.”

Lou didn’t die. He gradually cleaned up and went on making albums, one of which is the superb New Sensations (1984). Some blenched at its synths and beats after the “authenticity” of The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts. It’s actually full of wonderful, big-hearted songs, including one stone classic in My Friend George, in which Lou the Poet nails his character sketch in the first verse and doesn’t miss a step thereafter. It’s a catchy, upbeat tune but the sadness of the story – an idolised childhood friend who descended into darkness – burns through.

All these songs were still in my future when I listened to that early compilation in Grosvenor Square, and indeed when something called New York appeared in January 1989. I’d read Allan Jones’ review in Melody Maker and was absurdly excited about this new state-of-the-nation masterpiece, which I bought on the day of release and devoured while riding the subway (OK, travelling on the Central Line to Shepherd’s Bush). If it comes to it, it’s the Lou Reed album I’d choose above all others; it’s as consistent as anything he produced with or without the Velvets, and Romeo Had Juliette stands up with any album-opener in history, boasting a filthy riff and spiralling lyrics that are both passionate and icily observant. The quality doesn’t let up. Halloween Parade (dabbling in doo-wop again, to great effect) is a desperately moving meditation on the human impact of AIDS on the New York gay community, while the righteous rage of Dirty Blvd only misses the cut for this list because something had to. Those are just the first three songs. The whole 14-track epic is worth listening to, and then pressing repeat – if Lou ever sustained his mojo over an entire LP, it was here.

He was in stunning form around then. Songs For Drella, a tribute to Warhol co-written and performed with John Cale, came closer to replicating the true musical spirit of the Velvets than anything else since their first breakup (and towers over the clunky full-band reunion of 1992), and Magic And Loss, a concept album inspired by the death of two close friends from cancer, makes as good a fist of its ambitious aims as one could wish. Neither is quite as consistent as New York, but both rank with Lou’s best efforts. From Magic And Loss I’ve chosen Cremation – Ashes To Ashes, though What’s Good runs it very close. In a very strong set of songs, it’s the one I come back to most – blunt, occasionally sardonic, but above all a heartfelt reflection on the last enemy. Rob Wasserman’s evocation of the swooping winds and squalls of the Atlantic coast is also one of the better uses for a fretless bass.

For me, that was really the end of the imperial period for Lou; I stopped checking in on his albums as a matter of course after a while, something I’ve not yet done with Dylan (despite Lou never foisting as vile a piece of guff as Down In The Groove on the world) or Leonard Cohen. Maybe it’s down to me not being patient enough these days; maybe Ecstasy and Lulu really are humourless Grand Guignol, and The Raven is just a bit silly. I do have one more slot left, though, and it goes to a rare moment of clarity from the aforementioned Poe-fest. Who Am I? (Tripitena’s Song) has been described as full of clichés, but for the same reason that I’ll still (verbally at least) fight anyone who cites Razorlight’s Somewhere Else as one of the worst lyrics ever, I’ll never tire of hearing Lou wonder “who made the trees/who made the sky” here. The original album version is very good indeed; the louder take on the rare 2-CD NYC Man compilation is skyscraping.

What a ride it was, Lou.

Lou Reed official website

Lou Reed remembered

Lou Reed biography (iTunes)

This is Stuart’s first full article for toppermost and it is being posted on 27th October 2014 on the first anniversary of Lou Reed’s death. You can read more of Stuart’s writings on music in back issues of “The Mag”. See Toppermost #44 for the Velvet Underground.

TopperPost #373

6 Comments

  1. Keith Shackleton
    Oct 27, 2014

    Welcome, Stuart. Great job. You’re so right about New York, I can’t listen to tracks or sections of it: it demands to be played in its entirety, and played again. I would definitely have to include Caroline Says II.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Oct 27, 2014

    Stuart – thanks for this fine list and can only imagine how difficult it was to reduce it down to ten. There are a few other songs I probably would have to had have in my top ten – probably ‘Think It Over’, ‘New Sensations’, ‘My House’, ‘The Gun’ (a brilliant depiction of evil) and ‘Nobody But You’… But with Lou, it could be a top 40/50…

  3. Glenn Smith
    Oct 28, 2014

    Nothing from Metal Machine Music?,how can that be? Seriously, this is a very impressive appraisal, and I agree with what you have to say about Rock and Roll Heart which is a good record from a strange period, but then I suppose all of Lou’s career was a strange period. I do think Rock and Roll Animal is a notable omission. I know it is a bit of Spinal Tap cliche to rate it highly, but it is a knock out live record with unique versions of his greatest work. I’d have put in the Animal versions of either Sweet Jane or Rock and Roll.

  4. Peter Viney
    Oct 28, 2014

    A fascinating and enjoyable article. I take on board the ubiquity of “Transformer” in popular culture and why you’re skipping Walk on The Wild Side, though in a Lou Reed list, Walk on The Wild Side is like The Weight in a Band list or Strawberry Fields in A Beatles list. The Bowie-Ronson production influence is massive on that album too. Lou often said that all you needed was two guitars, bass and drums, and he would have done it very differently on his own. I saw him with the Rock & Roll Animal band (three guitars, bass and drums), which would be a way of squeezing in Lou solo versions of VU material. But from the live album, perhaps Caroline Says? Lady Day? Ah, Berlin. We played that such a lot, though mainly because we were tired and we wanted guests to leave. The Bed and The Kids usually did it, and have a place close to my heart as a result. I was interested in the Dylan, Cohen comparison. I bought Lou Reed automatically for years, then realized I wasn’t playing them much … New York was an exception. I just picked up “Set The Twilight Reeling” and while I remembered the expensive dark blue CD jewel case, no tracks stick in my memory. I realized I’ve listened to much more John Cale than Lou Reed in recent years. I’ll use this list to refresh my Lou Reed listening.

  5. Andrew Shields
    Oct 28, 2014

    Should have added that one of the outstanding features of some of Lou’s later work was the great bass playing of Fernando Saunders. (he can be heard to good effect on this great live version of ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ here). Robert Quine and Mike Rathke should also get an honourable mention here as well. And, Peter, can’t agree with your assessment of ‘Set The Twilight Reeling’ – both the title track and “NYC Man’ are superb songs…

  6. Stuart McLachlan
    Dec 4, 2014

    Hey guys – thanks for the wonderful and informative comments. I meant to respond much sooner, but have had all my time taken up by a college course since this piece was posted. I’ll reply at greater length very soon; all I’ll say now is that Rock n Roll Animal is a fantastic album (though I do prefer the more melodic, less brassy versions of Sweet Jane) but I excluded it because it was Velvets songs. And then forgot to include that reason in my final edit somehow. My bad

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓