There aren’t many people who can impress Lou Reed, especially when it comes to songwriting. The founder of the Velvet Underground was a difficult man to please at the best of times and reserved praise for only the best of the best. He even had some pretty tough words for The Beatles, a group which unlike the VU, enjoyed plenty of commercial success. But while he may not have enjoyed the Fab Four, he was handsomely impressed by one member of it, John Lennon, and a particular track which simply blew him away.
The song in question is found on Lennon’s 1970s musical milestone album, Plastic Ono Band, and it also happens to be the chosen single off the album. Unfortunately, but maybe not surprisingly, the song only reached number 43 on the Billboard Charts. Despite its lowly position in the charts, the profundity of the song was not lost on Reed.
Like the album, ‘Mother’ marked a significant evolution in Lennon’s writing — he began to explore new territory within himself and in his external world. “See, I keep thinking ‘Mother’ is a commercial record,” recalled Lennon, “Because all the time I was writing it, it was the one I was singing the most and it’s the one that seemed to catch on in my head… I write singles. I write them all the same way. But ‘Mother’ — you’ve got to take into account the lyrics, too. If I can capture more sales by singing about love than singing about my mother, I’ll do it.”
Is it the subject matter that could explain why the single failed to chart? Probably. Did that bother Lennon, especially after his immense success in The Beatles? Probably not. Lennon was a consummate rebel and enjoyed his role as an outsider agitator immensely. Constantly experimenting and disappointing record labels as he followed the beat of his own drum.
Lennon, at the time, was undergoing a new form of therapy, which saw the bespectacled Beatle experimenting with primal screaming. This was a huge inspiration behind the song with parts of his screaming sessions heard on the record for extra punch. The raw primal power that stemmed from the songwriter is apparent, as he began to dredge up deep childhood trauma, surrounding the death of his mother. True to his own leanings, the song was initially written on the guitar.
Lennon famously said about the song: “Many, many people will not like ‘Mother’; it hurts them. The first thing that happens to you when you get the album is you can’t take it. Everybody reacted exactly the same. They think, ‘fuck!’ That’s how everybody is,” concluded the singer. “And the second time, they start saying, ‘Oh, well, there’s a little…’ so I can’t lay Mother on them. It confirms the suspicions that something nasty’s going on with that John Lennon and his broad again.”
Up until that point in the music world, the kind of unbridled honesty found in Lennon’s frail vocals on ‘Mother’ was rare in popular culture. So, when none other than the poet Laureate of the New York City underground himself, Lou Reed, heard the realism in Lennon’s expression of this song, the underbelly hero was instantly hooked and could not believe that the former Beatle was capable of communicating on this level.
A songwriter such as Lou Reed, who early in his career sought to “advance” the genre of rock music from what he perceived to be its adolescent stage, would explain why Reed throughout his career would at times disparage The Beatles for their “corny” rock n’ roll earlier on in their career. “I never liked the Beatles,” Reed once boldly stated in an interview with The Rolling Stone.
However, he had different words for Lennon’s new single in 1970: “That was a song that had realism,” Reed told Bruce Pollock. “When I first heard it, I didn’t even know it was him. I just said, ‘Who the fuck is that? I don’t believe that.’ Because the lyrics to that are real. You see, he wasn’t kidding around. He got right down to it, as down as you can get. I like that in a song.” Reed was a poet and songwriter and believed in the beauty of the art of songwriting. He knew that this art form could influence society in a meaningful way, and this is precisely what he did with The Velvet Underground, and as a solo artist.
So considering this kind of credibility, when he would make quips about other stars or voice his opinion on any subject for that matter; the press, fans, and the like took him seriously.
Watch Lou Reed cover Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’ and ‘Mother’ below as proof of his love for the new and improved John Lennon.