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2023/4 Albums Thing 293 - Lou Reed “Transformer”

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Bowie “Producing”, Mick Ronson on guitar and arranging, Lou Reed dripping New York snarl and cool all at the same time, THAT sax solo…what’s not to love about “Transformer” ?

Lou Reed had departed the Velvet Underground in the summer of 1970. His first solo album, the imaginatively titled “Lou Reed” recorded in London in late 1971 with assistance from members of Yes (!), was released in the Spring of 1972. It was a mixture of leftover Velvets songs and new material and was almost completely ignored by everybody, although critic Stephen Holden in Rolling Stone described it as an "almost perfect album. ... which embodied the spirit of the Velvets”. Reed himself said of it “It's got some of the best songs I ever wrote, but the production sucks".

David Bowie liked a reclamation project. He had already handed over “All The Young Dudes” to Mott The Hoople and produced the single that revived their fortunes. Later in the year he would attempt to salvage “Raw Power” for Iggy & The Stooges (whether he did or not is arguable). Bowie had been a massive VU/Reed fan since his then manager handed him an acetate of”The Velvet Underground & Nico” in 1966, and was likely the very first to record a cover of “I’m Waiting For The Man” later that year.

So when presented with the opportunity to produce a Lou Reed album I’m sure he didn’t have to think for long. Now I don’t know for sure but as co-producer and main session musician, contributing guitar, piano, recorder and backing vocals alongside acting as arranger, scoring the string arrangement for “Perfect Day”, I’m positing that Mick Ronson’s influence on “Transformer” is every bit as important as his Boss’s. Lou Reed often praised Ronson’s contribution.

The songs themselves were again a mixture of old Velvet’s songs and newer Reed material. “Andy's Chest" and "Satellite of Love" were both demoed by the VU in 1969 and 1970 respectively, while "New York Telephone Conversation" and "Goodnight Ladies" were played live during the Velvets 1970 residency at Max's Kansas City.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 50 years there are two songs on this album that have entered the consciousness of anyone with a liking for music. “Perfect Day” is not only one of Lou Reed’s finest songs it gained a wider audience when in 1997 the BBC included it in a promo film to big up their music coverage. It was sung by Reed and a host of other artists, including but not limited to Bowie, Burning Spear, Emmylou Harris, Shane McGowan, Dr John, Joan Armatrading, Tom Jones and many others. After much public demand the recording was released later that year to raise money for the Children In Need charity, contributing £2m+ to the events highest total in six years.

The song from “Transformer” that became Reed’s calling card is “Walk On The Wild Side”. It was Lou’s biggest hit, released as a double A-side with “Perfect Day” it reached #16 in the US and #10 in the UK singles charts through late 1972 and early 1973. For those who have been living under a rock the song is a lazy, jazzy acoustic shuffle with a prominent bass line courtesy of Herbie Flowers (later heavily sampled by A Tribe Called Quest). Each verse relays the story of one of Andy Warhol’s Factory “superstars” (Verse 1 actress Holly Woodlawn; verse 2 actress Candy Darling; verse 3 actor Joe Dallesandro; verse 4’s “Sugar Plum Fairy” is thought to be actor Joe Campbell who played the character Sugar Plum Fairy in Warhol's film “My Hustler”; verse 5 actress Jackie Curtis). The song plays out on a superb baritone sax solo supplied by British Jazzman Ronnie Ross, who had been the saxophone teacher to a young David Bowie.

Elsewhere songs like “Vicious” (a song suggested to Reed by Warhol) and “Hangin’ Round” have something of the Glam Rock feel of the times, while others like “Andy’s Chest” (another song about Warhol), “Make Up” and “Satellite Of Love” project more of Reed’s New York. The mixture of Reed’s “dangerous, powerful music” as one reviewer described it, Bowie’s involvement, paying back a musical debt he’d incurred in 1966 and Mick Ronson’s superb playing and arranging make “Tranformer” a really special record and one that ensured Reed’s importance and influence were spread to a much larger audience. 

Vicious - https://youtu.be/4WzdYMv4MM0?si=0hvNrnuNLWt_UI_w

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