Written By: Edward Ramjuse
Being Lou Reed in 1972 was a raw deal: two years after walking away from one of the greatest and most influential bands in rock history, he found himself a penniless, strung-out wreck, with a career suddenly and seriously on the wane. To make matters worse, his self-titled solo debut, released earlier that year, was a monumental flop, a hastily thrown together collection of second rate re-recordings of Velvet Underground outtakes that lacked the intensity and focus of his earlier music. Reed was at a crossroads, unsure of which direction to take his newfound independence.
Transformer kicked off with the aptly titled “Vicious“, a stiff, snot-nosed Godzilla of a rock song, decked out in leather and eye shadow, and drenched in the kind of punchy power chords intimately familiar to anyone owning VU’s odds-and-sods compilations. “Vicious” had gleefully tongue-in-cheek lyrics that were among the album’s highlights, with Reed’s impetuous condescension beating down his subject’s ego: “When I see you walking down the street/ I step on your hands and I mangle your feet/ You’re not the kind of person that I even want to meet.“
Thirty years on, Transformer still sounds startlingly fresh, free from many of the clichés that taint other similarly minded records of the period. It also works as an interesting diversion from most of VU’s work: where they clearly had a full-band aesthetic, and often leaned toward the avant-garde, Transformer took the strong pop undercurrent that ran throughout their records and indulged. It’s still fascinating to hear Reed outside the messy underproduction of the Velvets, yet even with Bowie and Ronson broadening the arrangements, Transformer felt remarkably natural. Their production work was so loaded that, were it not for the incredibly focused songs beneath, it might have been overbearing. But with a solid base, the ornate arrangements help bring these songs to life, lending Reed’s music a broader palette. Lou himself, by contrast, sounds as intimate as ever on the record’s more sedate tracks, crooning in a sensitive lilt that maintains his blissful, effortless cool.
If these pages are anything to go by, 16 is an age when people are particularly susceptible to powerful musical experiences. The beauty of having an older sibling, though, is that you only need to wait till he or she’s 16. Without having to do any of the hard work, the angst, the alienation, the weed smoking, you’ll find the selection has already been made: your taste-defining album is ready and waiting for you. What’s funny about discovering an album like that before you’re of an age at which you can, well, act on it, is that it becomes all the more powerful as fantasy. I thought I would like nothing more than to inhabit Lou Reed’s Manhattan, to sit high up in an apartment and watch “the tinsel light at star break” or to engage in a “New York Telephone Conversation”. I stared and stared at a satellite image of New York City in a book someone had given me, as though that could approach actually being there.
Much later I was to learn how the album was recorded not in the skuzzy East Village, but in London. And that wasn’t all: David Bowie not only produced it but can be heard singing backing vocals (his falsetto seems obvious on Satellite of Love, once you know). By the time Reed went into the studio with these gorgeous songs, the demi-monde he was describing had evaporated. He was already reminiscing, embellishing, telling a story, at the behest of an English dandy. All was not as it had seemed.
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