16 April 2010

Lou Reed Week (Day Five)

(art by gary)
Transformer (1972 RCA)

There's a worn-out expression that goes "Rome wasn't built in a day", and from time to time it's an apt statement. Before Lou Reed could arrive at point where he could create something like The Blue Mask, he had start a little farther on down the line. 1972's Transformer, produced by David Bowie, was the first of many triumphs for Lou. Lou's solo debut was a self-titled joint that undersold and for the most part underwhelmed the listening public. However, after hooking up with Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson, Lou was finally cooking with city gas. If Transformer had failed, then it's not unreasonable to think that Lou's solo career would have been officially over. This is the album that gave him the leash space to make Berlin, and it's also the one that gave him the opportunity to release Metal Machine Music. It's uneven, but compared to what he had to his name at this point in time it's smashing.
"Vicious" is the leadoff track for Transformer, and once it starts it becomes clear that this isn't going to be anything like the previous album. Lou's Lou Reed was made up primarily of redone Velvet Underground songs, and if Transformer needed another selling point it would be the fact that it was/is eleven original songs written by Lou, which in 1972 was tremendously important since it represented the first Lou record to have new songs on it.
Then of course, there is "Walk on the Wild Side" which actually ended up charting as high as 16th on the U.S. Billboard charts and #10 in the UK. It was banned and censored in some countries, but for the most part was played unedited on the radio and was probably heard in places like Montana and Iowa which had to be pretty new for them at the time given all the stealthy references to pills and oral copulation. This is pure speculation, but this writer gets the impression that some people really hate "Walk on the Wild Side" and resent Lou for even making it. It's such a non-Lou song for Lou to do, that the rationale makes sense but it's still puzzling in the grand scheme of things. It's certainly not his best song, and definitely not the best one on the record but it's not terrible and it's kind of cool when they play it on the radio if only because you get to hear "head" said twice. Did the smash success of "Walk on the Wild Side" propel album sales? Maybe, but in the long run that's largely irrelevant since eventually people would have found this record one way or the other. The Velvet Underground didn't sell many records, but in the last forty years a whole fuck ton of people have heard them and the same thing could be said about this album. It could never go unnoticed, it would have been found.
Last night, the comparison was made that if Lou Reed albums were Bill Murray movies then Transformer would be Stripes, the thinking behind that statement being that Stripes while highly entertaining is also devastatingly uneven. The second half of that movie is pretty forgettable, and if you watch it all in one sitting you'd think you saw two different films. Transformer isn't that mired with problems, but there are a few missteps. Namely, "Make Up" which is pretty over the top even for these standards. "New York Telephone Conversation" is a fun song, but at the same time it's not exemplary. Also, "Goodnight Ladies" is a bit of a snoozer even for an album closer. That being said "Wagon Wheel", "Hangin' 'Round", "Satellite of Love", and "Andy's Chest" are four of my most favorite songs ever.

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