Few artists captured the authentic intensity of bohemian living more astutely than Lou Reed. His time with The Velvet Underground quickly saw him rise to the position of underbelly royalty as he effectively reigned over his subjects with a balance of fear and respect. Up until his death in 2013, nobody would dare question the authority of Lou Reed when it came to rock and roll, fearing the evisceration of their very soul with just one of the singer’s famous icy glances. While some of that fear was garnered through interviews, his short sharp wit allowing him to reduce a whole genre to a puddle of goop within a few words, most of his authority came with songwriting.
That’s because, unlike many rock stars, if you peeled away the eyeliner, the tight leather and the over-produced menace, beating Reed’s blood around his body was the heart of a poet. It means that, across his career, he has produced some of the most impressive and immersive pop sounds in memory. Below, we’re trying to harness just that and bring you ten of Lou Reed’s greatest songs as a testament to his greatness.
One thing we should make clear from the very beginning, we’re avoiding Velvet Underground songs in this list. Yes, there’s no doubt that Reed was an integral part of the New York stalwarts and, it could be said, much of what made the band so highly influential was because of Reed’s unique viewpoint, however, their impact is so large, that they feel like another story for another day. Today, we’re focusing on the singular talent of Lou Reed and his solo material.
We’ll concede that losing Velvet Underground songs from a list like this is always potentially dangerous — their sound is so intrinsically linked to Reed that it is very hard to separate them. However, we’re also removing the possibility of including another of Reed’s explorations into band life with The Jades, a doo-wop group that captured Reed’s heart for a while. There’s also the song he wrote for The Primitives, ‘the ostrich song’ which would garner Reed his first real taste of the charts and introduced him to soon-to-be-Velvet member John Cale.
We’re focusing, however, on the time Reed spent recording music after The Velvet Underground. The moment Reed made his own name, stepped out of the shadow of the band and began to bang his own drum. The list, gathered from a plethora of incredible albums, places Reed as one of the most sincere songwriters of his generation. As happy to note the varying degrees of drug-taking running amok on the city streets as he was to portray the trans-women of the world in the most beautiful light — Reed was an enigma.
The only way to truly hear the thoughts of Lou Reed was to press play on his songs. Below, we’ve got ten of our favourites to sink your teeth into.
Lou Reed 10 best songs:
10. ‘The Blue Mask’
Most of what Reed produced during the eighties was somewhat disappointing. That said, he did get it right on a few occasions, and most of those occasions are on 1982’s classic LP The Blue Mask. A concept album about marriage (another one), Reed admits that making love stretch out forever is a task not many people can manage.
While offering a drastic sense of foreshadowing (his own marriage didn’t last very long after this) the stripped-back tracks show Reed’s songwriting at its potent best. Arguably the finest moment of that reflection comes on the title track.
9. ‘What’s Good?’
There aren’t many entries on our list from Reed’s later career. That may be because the singer decided to make Tai Chi albums later on in life. But this song sees Reed adopt an unusual style as he opts to become a middle-of-the-road rocker on ‘What’s Good?’.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is how Reed keeps the song feeling authentic.
Magic and Loss may not be the greatest album from Reed, however, on this song, the singer delivers a searing piece of classic rock. Presenting surreal scenarios for the song, Reed transcends the confines of music and presents his theory for living.
8. ‘Street Hassle’
‘Coney Island Baby’ saw Reed share his love for his trans-girlfriend, Rachel, accurately capturing the sheer adoration he held for her. However, as with every rise, there has to be a fall and on ‘Street Hassle’, Reed seemingly deals with breaking up with Rachel.
Or as Reed described it “a great monologue set to rock; something that could have been written by William Burroughs, Hubert Selby, John Rechy, Tennessee Williams, Nelson Algren, maybe a little Raymond Chandler.”
A string quartet adds some extra texture to the song but with an eleven-minute sprawling number, Reed allows the story of their love to unfurl. ‘Street Hassle’ is Reed performing at his highest level.
7. ‘Caroline Says I’ and ‘Caroline Says II’
Lou Reed’s Berlin was widely panned when it landed in 1973. The album was given a resounding thumbs down by the music press who seemed to be disappointed that Bowie was no longer the mastermind behind the music. But, in the 21st century, it’s hard not to recognise Berlin as one of Reed’s foundational moments.
One of the best songs on the record are ‘Caroline Says I’ and ‘Caroline Says II’, songs which are incredibly raw, even by Reed’s standards. The lyrics of the track are explicit and inevitable as he demonstrates a searing command of songwriting skill.
Of course, the song is reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’s style but, looking back, it’s hard not to see this as Reed’s signature style more than the band.
6. ‘Kill Your Sons’
The early seventies saw Reed endlessly wrestling with the idea of being a rock star. Things had changed since the sixties, and the art of being a performer had begun to wane in favour of making money and chasing women. The art of being a rock star had become hugely commercialised.
Reed was being encouraged to write and record as many albums as possible, and it left some of his output below-par. However, on Sally Can’t Dance, the singer hit his stride and ‘Kill Your Sons’ is certainly one of his finer songs. Reed had always shown himself within his songs, but on this track, he cut deeper than ever before.
The song was written about the electroshock therapy Reed had undergone as a 17-year-old. It’s a naturally dark and twisting piece of music that sees Reed demonstrate his life for his audience, no matter how dark.
5. ‘I Love You Suzanne’
On 1984’s New Sensations, Lou Reed had achieved what he never could in the previous two decades; he became a bit of a pop star. The singer’s new album had quickly turned his subversive pop into something not only enjoyable but saleable.
‘I Love You Suzanne’ may well have been the archetypal track of the moment. Built upon a simple riff, the song is honest and open — a classic virtue of Reed’s writing. He said of the song’s signature riff, “I must have had that riff in my head for six months. It’s just a cheap D chord because for what I’m interested in, you don’t need a lot of chords. It just came out full-blown, and it was always like that. I sat playing that riff for six months because I’m capable of sitting and playing one riff for hours, and then I said, ‘Well, it’s so simple, why not use it?’”
A powerful foot-stomper, the song is pure radio fodder and, alongside a Honda scooter advert which we won’t mention again, saw Reed make his way on to the dancefloors. Of course, Reed would continue to make music until his dying day but the singer never really triumphed as greatly as he did with New Sensations.
4. ‘Perfect Day’
Somehow passed up for consideration as a single from Transformer, the song ‘Perfect Day’ has gone on to be recognised as one of Reed’s greatest. The cult classic quickly gathered fans for its not so subtle references to drugs, as Reed placed heroin as the song’s main heroine.
Mick Ronson works his magic on the piano, transforming what might have been a droning ode to a pile of brown into something more beautiful and more achingly heartening than one could ever have imagined. If it is about heroin, and the jury is still largely out, then the song reflects Reed’s ability to transcend style and provide pop poetry.
Taken on by a BBC promotional film, the song gained huge acclaim in the UK and hit the number one spot, with Reed providing his own gruesome take amid work from Heather Small and Boyzone. While the track may not have ended as he had envisioned, the song remains one of his greatest.
3. ‘Coney Island Baby’
Having spent much of the seventies rejecting the notion of writing music to pay the bills, instead, preferring to keep his music pure and unadulterated, by 1976, Reed was broke. It meant he had to change tact and forget his anti-establishment ways.
Things had changed, and Reed was again employing the subversive pop sensibilities that had seen him and the Velvet Underground become one of the most influential bands of the sixties. The eight-track album was a return to form, and its titular track saw something happen which the audience had never seen from Reed before. The singer was looking back rather than driving forward.
In the song, Reed reminisces about being in high school before the fame landed at his doorstep but how he still craved the limelight and always wanted to “play football for the coach”. He continues: “Remember that the city is a funny place,” he sings of his hometown in the song. “Something like a circus or a sewer.”
It’s a near-perfect reflection.
2. ‘Walk on the Wild Side’
Taken from Lou Reed’s iconic solo album Transformer, a record we could’ve picked five or six from alone (‘Perfect Day’ deserves a special mention), ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ has become an anthem for the outsiders of society. It’s a song that reflects on the humanity of us all and the underlying core values of love and kindness that we all share. The fact it’s wrapped up in a shimmering doo-wop tone is just the icing on the cake.
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.
The fact that the track is so embedded in Reed’s actual life and yet feels so deeply universal is not only a mark of Reed’s songwriting skill but the genuine honesty with which he approached everything he did. With Bowie behind the mixing desk, Transformer gave Reed the solo career he desired.
1. ‘Satellite of Love’
There’s no doubt that Transformer proved to be a seminal moment for Reed. The singer had finally left the band behind him and, with the help of David Bowie, had found a way to turn his unique viewpoint into something the kids wanted to not only hear but actually buy too. The noted quote about the Velvet Underground barely selling any records is all well and good but, the reality was, Reed needed to make ends meet like the rest of us. Transformer allowed him to do that.
Reed had been living with his parents following the Velvet Underground’s break up, and it took the Starman himself to shake him from his slumber. However, with a quick jolt, Reed was back up and running, crafting songs that would still ring true some fifty years later. Using some of his old work as a starting point, Reed was churning out some of his finest work on the record. Undoubtedly the best of the bunch is ‘Satellite of Love’.
Perhaps not as easily recognised as the songs previously mentioned from the album, this one does the best job of distilling what made Reed such a hero into one song. Not only is there the lightness of hope and love but also the darkness of cold modernity. A glam-rock sheen was sprayed over the recording with Bowie picking up backing vocals for the song, Reed commenting in 2003, “It’s not the kind of part I ever would have come up with, but David hears those parts, plus he’s got a freaky voice and he can go up that high and do that. It’s very, very beautiful.”
Beneath any trickery, as with every Reed song, is a pure pop number. Innocent and intelligent, it provides us with the clearest vision of exactly who Reed was, or at least, hoped to be.