Lou Reed was a famously subversive character. Never one to play to the middle of the road or conform to expectations, Reed thrived on unpredictability and confrontation. Whenever he would find a foothold in mainstream success, he would quickly put out an unlistenable album of feedback. When it was necessary to make nice with the music industry, he either baulked or went for full ridiculousness. He might have even stopped the spread of communism in Czechoslovakia. The only predictable thing about Reed was that he was unpredictable.
The strange behaviour, aloof attitude to everything and everyone, and the droll readings of even his most emotional material belie the fact that, at his core, Reed was a songwriter who sought to bring a true sense of connection and relatability to the world of rock and roll.
Reed’s various characters that inhabited the underbelly of New York City might have been junkies and prostitutes, but that didn’t mean they weren’t sympathetic. Reed loved classic pop melodies and hard-driving rock just as much as he enjoyed experimentation and allusiveness. The greatest example of this notion is how well his songs have translated to cover versions.
Reed himself was known to pull out a pretty great cover every once in a while, but as one of the most influential songwriters of his generation, it was only for scores of other musicians to begin taking on Reed’s songs themselves. Sometimes they were contemporaries who fell in love with the storytelling and gritty style of his songs, but more often than not it was the hordes of musicians who grew up listening to his provocative tales and tender love ballads.
Of all the cover versions of Reed’s songs, we’ve gathered six of the best, most genuine, and most interesting covers from across the world of music. From the glam rock sensibilities of David Bowie to the heartfelt earnestness of Colin Hay, here are seven of the best Lou Reed covers of all time.
Best Lou Reed covers ever:
David Bowie – ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’
David Bowie was an early advocate for Reed’s songwriting, often covering his Velvet Underground material during his Ziggy Stardust era. Bowie’s version of ‘White Light/White Heat’ was canonised in the concert film version of Ziggy Stardust, but arguably, his cover of ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ is even better.
Bowie continuously returned to the song throughout his career, and you can find versions of his performances as early as 1970 and as late as his 1997 Earthling tour. During Bowie’s 50th birthday concert, he brought Reed out on stage to perform an instant-classic version featuring the pair trading verses.
R.E.M. – ‘Pale Blue Eyes’
R.E.M. were major fans of both The Velvet Underground and Reed’s solo work, allowing their early blend of folk and alternative rock to bleed over into the Athens band’s signature sound. The Velvets were a stalwart setlist addition in the band’s early days, with ‘Femme Fatale’, ‘There She Goes Again’, and ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ all appearing on their compilation LP Dead Letter Office.
During live performances, R.E.M. would often subvert the traditional explosive opening of rock shows by pulling out a gentle rendition of ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ to start their concerts. The band’s blend of harmonies and chiming lead guitar was the perfect tribute to Reed’s always present but occasionally surprising emotional depth.
U2 – ‘Satellite of Love’
Bono is a reverent guy. He wears his influences on his sleeve, and whether he’s making a pastiche of gospel music like ‘Angel of Harlem’ or aping from The Beatles by doing ‘Helter Skelter’, the singer and his bandmates in U2 always take the time to point towards the people who made them the band they are today.
When U2 began covering Reed’s solo cut ‘Satellite of Love’, it was while the band were on the ZooTV tour, a jaunt known for its heavy dose of irony and tongue-in-cheek bombast. There was nothing pretentious about their cover, however, as it was a heartfelt tribute to one of their heroes. Reed, not a terribly mushy figure himself, joined the band for a genuinely tear-jerking performance.
Patti Smith – ‘Perfect Day’
It’s hard to think of two artists more simpatico that Lou Reed and Patti Smith. A pair of miscreants who translated the grime-hardened realities of New York into urban poetry through anarchic rock and roll, the two were always working on the same wavelength.
That’s why Smith’s take on ‘Perfect Day’ is so, well, perfect. Most covers of the song turn it into a sappy cliche-ridden mess, but Smith retains the edge that hovers just below the surface of the song’s title claim. That edge comes without distorted electric guitars or palpable aggression, but rather in the form of true communion with a song’s origin and writer.
Colin Hay – ‘She’s My Best Friend’
‘She’s My Best Friend’ was a song that Reed kept coming back to in his career. Written in the late ’60s with the Doug Yule version of the Velvet Underground (Yule sings lead on the take included on 1985’s VU), Reed decided to resurrect the song for himself in 1975’s Coney Island Baby.
When featured on The AV Club’s Undercover series, Colin Hay chose (or was left) ‘She’s My Best Friend’. His take, filled with his signature emotiveness and passion, brings the weight and drama that Reed often tried to conceal in his own performances. Straight covers of Reed’s songs can often become twee or chintzy, but Hay expertly gives the song the resonance it deserves.
Julian Casablancas – ‘White Light/White Heat’
No modern artist is as directly and obviously indebted to Reed as Julian Casablancas.
Whether it’s in vocal delivery, musical composition, or lyrical inspiration, Casablancas has been good-naturedly ripping off Reed for nearly two decades. Casablancas himself has never shied away from the comparisons, and he has a pretty great cover of ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ with The Strokes in his back pocket.
But when Casablancas was tapped to channel Reed for the one season HBO series Vinyl, which looked to replicate recordings as accurately as possible, Casablancas chose to take on Reed’s version of ‘White Light/White Heat’ from his fantastic Rock ‘N Roll Animal live album. Casablancas completely embodies the manic energy that Reed brought to the performance, and he shows why it’s okay for him to constantly go back to Reed’s influence: he’s still the closest thing we have to Reed in the modern-day.
Alice Phoebe Lou – ‘Walk on the Wild Side’
A lot of people have tried to put their own spin on Lou Reed’s material over the years but not many have done it with the same panache Alice Phoebe Lou. ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, which first appeared on Reed’s second solo album, Transformer, was famously produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, and released as a double A-side with ‘Perfect Day’.
Reed would later explain that each verse of the song refers to one of the “superstars” who regularly hung out at Andy Warhol’s Factory New York studio. Take, for example, “Holly” which refers to Holly Woodlawn, a transsexual actress who lived in Florida but hitchhiked her way to New York. The “Sugar Plum Fairy” reference was a nod of the head to actor Joe Campbell who appeared in Warhol’s 1965 film, My Hustler.
Given the legacy of the song, Alice Phoebe Lou decided to head out to the streets of Berlin to perform her very special rendition of the track. The South African singer-songwriter, delivers a beautifully simplistic and soulful account of the track.