Saturday, October 16, 2010

Lou Reed - Transformer

This 1972 David Bowie produced album was by far the biggest record of Lou's career due to the improbable hit, "Walk on the Wild Side". Describing (and characterizing to the extreme) Warhol's "Superstars", drag queens and dopers, this was hardly standard fare for Top 40 radio, especially in the 70's. But, somehow Reed did it, with the help of Bowie, a great stand-up bass line and some cool vocals. Of course, this song also did not have the brash, harsh dissonance of the best of the Velvets, either - it almost has a smooth jazz feel!

This album did, however, also have the helping hand of the fantastic guitarist, Mick Ronson, borrowed from Bowie's band and already well-versed in Reed-isms. His unmistakable tone is evident right from the start with the otherwise somewhat innocuous "Vicious" (written per a request from Warhol), making it a r'n'r classic.

Lou has some of his silliest lyrics ever on this record, such as the downright goofy "Andy's Chest", making this a grown-ups' nursery rhyme. But this record also includes one of his prettiest tunes ever, "Perfect Day", which many people will know from the Trainspotting soundtrack. Simultaneously romantic and melancholy, it is nevertheless truly heartfelt and tender.

I believe that Lou's backing band on this record was the Tots, who also backed him on his debut solo record as well as a great radio show that has been released from around this time. "Hanging "Round" features the group and is a nice, upbeat complaint about groupies, scenesters and hangers-on who "keep doing things I gave up years ago".

Seeing as this was the height of the glitter movement and Lou was intimately involved in the drag queen/transgender circuit of NYC - in fact, a long time partner of his was transgendered - he glamourizes this scene with "Make Up". Another truly lovely piano ballad about watching TV (with terrific backing vocals by Bowie) is "Satelitte of Love" - why this, the second single from the album, didn't hit big is a true mystery, as it is beautiful and fantastic.

"Wagon Wheel" is another cool 70's rocker with some random and strange added production effects that benefits from Ronson's guitar playing, though it is more in the background on this tune than on some of the others. The lyrics about "kicking her in the head" are more than a little disturbing, though. Damn catchy, regardless.

Another absurd number is "New York Telephone Conversation", which I assume is based on Warhol's habit of recording everything, including phone conversations. Thankfully, it is short, so it doesn't get annoying. And, it is followed by one of the heaviest rockers, "I'm So Free", a super r'n'r tune with some of Ronson's hottest guitar work on this album, making it the best r'n'r' number of the bunch.

Transformer ends with another attempt at cabaret (the movie of the same name had come out about this time), "Goodnight Ladies", and while I appreciate the sentiment and the concept, it just is not all that entertaining to listen to.

So, an uneven effort, but this is THE Lou Reed record to own and for good reason. His work with the Velvets have never been surpassed and he has done other superb solo work, but this is essential.