Released in November 1972, the second solo album from Lou Reed took him from cult act to stardom. While many now know of Lou Reed as the Andy Warhol affiliated, Velvet Underground frontman, prior to ‘Transformer’ Reed had seen his original band fall apart, his solo debut flounder, his career prospects look limited and had yet to see his original group hailed as pioneers and influencers of future generations and genres. Fifty years on from its release, we look back on ‘Transformer’ to assess how it brought about a resurgent career for Reed and came to be regarded as a classic album of early ‘70s Rock.
Having left the Velvet Underground (VU) in 1970, Cale had gone on to record a set of tracks he had left over from his time with the band only for this debut album to receive little acclaim or sales. Undeterred, Reed kept writing and was introduced to fellow RCA labelmate David Bowie, who was a fan of the VU and had gone as far as to perform their track ‘White Light/White Heat’ live. Turning out to be kindred spirits of sorts, it was agreed that Bowie would help produce Reed’s next solo album with the assistance of his bandmate Mick Ronson. In comparison to many other classic albums that often stem from fraught recording sessions, fractured relationships, impending disaster or are deeply ingrained in specific moments of cultural crises, ‘Transformer’ has a rather benign birth. Bowie was, along with his band The Spiders From Mars, at the height of the new Glam Rock scene and had only recently become a newly minted household name. The pairing of the young upstart with the washed up, never-quite-made-it singer was at the time, at best a second chance for Reed to make some money and, the most unlikely of ways to spawn a generationally lauded album.
Four of the tracks that made it to ‘Transformer’ were left over from Reed’s time with the VU but the album opened with a new track with an older history. Featuring scant, metronomic percussion and a simple Garage-Rock guitar riff, ‘Vicious’ draws verbatim on a conversation Reed had with Andy Warhol. Later recounting this exchange, Reed said Warhol suggested he write a song called ‘Vicious’ and when Reed queried “what kind of vicious?” Warhol replied “oh, you know, vicious like I hit you with a flower.” Contrasting this line with his own assurance that “when I see you coming down the street, I step on your hands and I mangle your feet”, Reed opens the album as he means to go on; questioning identities and roles, leaving space for interpretation, and deliberately obfuscating categorical meanings in his lyrics all while being very literal.
Following up is the first of the numbers penned with the VU, ‘Andy’s Chest’. Written for Andy Warhol after he was shot, Reed shows his love and appreciation for his former patron on a track that is both slowed down from the original version and features Bowie’s bright, melodic backing vocals. Surrealist and filled with humour, it captures Reed in a lighter, more whimsical manner than he enjoyed in his VU days.
Next is one of Reed’s most famous works, partly due to a late ‘90s collaborative cover version, and partly due to its extensive use on film and TV, most notably in the film ‘Trainspotting’. Opening with an initial low bass note before Mick Ronson’s piano starts off into a brighter, melancholy melody, ‘Perfect Day’ is a track that is emotionally resonant and, now, instantly recognisable. Slowly building to a crescendo of strings arranged by Ronson, it features a tender yet weary vocal from Reed far removed from the snarling rasp he was known for. While many have viewed the track as a paean to drug use, specifically Reed’s heroin addiction, he himself has denied this, stating that the lyrics are more literal than often assumed; “a perfect day [with] the girl, sangria in the park, and then you go home… real simple. I meant just what I said”. A true love song, Reed allows the lyrics to convey the emotion while his vocals never approach sentimentality. In some ways this lack of mawkishness has ensured its longevity, along with the way it spurned the popular genre-conventions of its time, instead relying on piano and strings while also playing them down rather than allowing for multi-tracked grandiosity.
Between ‘Perfect Day’ and its fellow, initial single, double A-side bedfellow is the most Glam Rock track on the album, ‘Hangin’ Round’ which features a ringing Ronson guitar riff and Reed in fine, storytelling form. An enjoyable rocker, it’s quickly overshadowed by the following track ‘Walk On the Wild Side’. Built on a rolling, slow swagger of a bassline by Herbie Flowers, the track finds Reed recounting the characters he knew from Warhol’s Factory and his old hang outs in New York. Famed for its depictions of transgender identities, drug use, and slipping US slang for oral sex past out of touch UK censors, its laid-back, louche, knowing manner titillated the public and gave Reed a crossover, commercial hit and reinvigorated interest in his former band that would continue to build through the rest of the decade.
The latter half of the album features three tracks penned by Reed while still in the VU, most notably ‘Satellite of Love’. An interesting track on many levels, its use of satellites tapped into the post-space race, futuristic themes prevalent in Glam Rock and best espoused by Bowie at the time. Yet, being penned pre-Ziggy Stardust, and with Reed always being more grounded than Bowie, the lyrics capture a different angle of attack; “Satellite’s gone way up to Mars. Soon it’ll be filled with parkin’ cars”. Elsewhere, during the lyrical breakdown where Reed recounts how the protagonist is aware of his lover's infidelity “with Harry, Mark and John”, Ronson’s guitar work is far more in keeping with Bowie-esque sounds. Lacking both the voyeuristic grit of tracks like ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ and the relatable passion and emotion of ‘Perfect Day’, ‘Satellite of Love’ is an oddly simplistic little vignette in an album of more complex and engaging narratives. In spite of this, and perhaps because it’s an oddity, ‘Satellite of Love’ has become an enduring track that has received critical and fan-based acclaim.
A uniquely compelling work, ‘Transformer’ found Lou Reed at a crossroads in his career that, under differing circumstances, may have become a dead end. Instead, by pairing with a couple of fresh superstar musicians, he was able to craft an album of surrealistic imagery, romantic balladry, and bawdy street realism while skimming the popular genre of the time. That the album resulted in two definitive, and arguably three, timeless classic tracks is relatively unprecedented. While anyone familiar with the work of the Velvet Underground will recognise, as Bowie and Ronson did at the time, that Reed’s ability as a songwriter was exceptional, other factors came into play to ensure ‘Transformer’ was shaped as it was. While Bowie’s name will always be attached to the release, the role of Mick Ronson is far too often underplayed and underrated. Through his guitar and piano playing, along with his string arrangements, Ronson is at the heart of a multitude of key moments and phrases throughout the album. While his work with Bowie has been lauded, his work with Lou Reed helps shine a light on how effective he was when working with an inspired frontman, challenging him to find the musical balance to meet the vocal performance. After fifty years, Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’ can rightly be held as a classic. That it is, in fact, a rags to riches story is oft forgotten, but the timeless nature of several of its tracks continues to be recognised.