Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Lou Reed
The mercurial creator and serial pop agitator, the late, great Lou Reed, is a man who deserves special praise. Praise not only for his unquestionable creative foresight nor his ability to make alternative pop songs that still ring out some six decades later. No, Reed deserves praise because he never questioned himself as an artist through all the muck and mire that the music industry provides.
Whether it was creating the aforementioned subverted pop ditties alongside The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol or it was a pursuit of solo stardom with David Bowie on his seminal album Transformer or, of course, his mind-splitting record Metal Machine Music, Reed’s ability to create and craft was unlike any other.
With the genre of rock music struggling to hold the attention of the masses as it once did, we are doing our bit to help educate our readers on some of the genre’s greatest ever artists and, perhaps most importantly, their foundational moments in the world of music. While some of these acts are rightly known as icons, we’re a little concerned that they will remain just that—icons. For us, the real pleasure of such stars is the art they created, so we are handing out a crash course in some of music’s finest, this time we’re bringing you the six definitive songs of Lou Reed.
There are few artists in music history as uncompromising as Lou Reed. A singer and songwriter who had genuinely lived the struggles and strife he put down in song, Reed was unstoppable when it came to making music that everybody could touch upon.
From the very start as a maker of pop music with Pickwick Records, Reed had found he had an immovable talent for song making and he was keen to show it wherever he could. That first manifested as of his early band The Jades, a doo-wop group filled with promise, but first truly materialised with the song that formed the Velvet Underground. From there, reed went from strength to strength, consistently solidifying himself as an artist of the ages.
Here, we traverse Reed’s career from the very beginning.
Lou Reed’s six definitive songs:
Before Lou Reed became a songwriting sensation with New York’s underbelly’s royalty, AKA the Velvet Underground, he was writing songs to pay the bills. Reed worked as the in-house musician for Pickwick Records, starting his professional musical career in the early 1960s, churning out ten-a-penny records for supermarkets and convenience stores. During this time, he wrote a joke song called ‘The Ostrich’ to spoof the well-known pop track, ‘The Twist.’
Originally only a studio side-project, the track about a fake novelty dance grabbed enough interest to put together a band for a few live gigs. Amazingly enough, that touring version of The Primitives featured John Cale, Tony Conrad, and Walter DeMaria.
The track, along with the “ostrich tuning” that the song had spawned, whereby all the strings were tuned to D, did a great job of putting Cale and Reed working alongside each other. Cale had himself been experimenting with a similar style and this connection seemed to form the basis of their friendship. It would go on to help form The Velvet Underground as we know it.
‘Waiting For The Man’ – The Velvet Underground & Nico
It’s almost impossible to sum up the contribution both he and John Cale made as songwriters to The Velvet Underground. The NYC group are a band that, without which, we may never have had such acts as Iggy Pop or David Bowie, let alone Nirvana, The Strokes and countless others. It is, in fact, impossible to surmise this huge contribution with just one track. But here we are.
‘Waiting For The Man’ is quite possibly one of Reed’s slickest compositions. It distilled everything that was great about his writing, it’s a piece of succinct, smart, streetwise and utterly captivating storytelling. It could quite easily be his finest work bar none.
The story of a drug user waiting for his connection is one we know all to well but in 1967, when the song was released, to hear such things on record was unfathomable. The fact that Reed managed to sneak it under record execs noses shows just how uncannily smart he really was.
‘Walk on the Wild Side’ – Transformer
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.
‘Metal Machine Music Pt. 1’ – Metal Machine Music
Or did he? The fact that the next few years of Reed’s life was spent either relentlessly touring or arguing with journalists may suggest that the singer wasn’t particularly enjoying his newfound fame. His struggles with substance abuse were growing as quickly as his disgust for the music industry.
The antidote for the latter was Reed’s 1975 album Metal Machine Music. A quick note: if anybody ever says this is their favourite Reed album, they are either being deliberately obtuse, or they’re bonafide sociopaths. While some will debate its value, we’d argue the record only acts as a tipping point for the artist himself.
The self-professed inventor of heavy metal, Reed once claimed the album to be the ultimate conclusion of the genre. What we get is an ear-wrenching sludge of electronic screwdrivers bored straight through the skull. For that alone, it acts as a defining moment of Reed’s career.
‘Coney Island Baby’ – Coney Island Baby
Metal Machine Music may have proved a few things to Lou Reed. Firstly, not everything he did would be widely loved, and secondly, that experimental albums of electronic sludge do not pay the bills. It saw Reed once again turn his attentions to the pop charts and the settings we all share.
Returning in 1976, it seemed as 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 on the song. “Something like a circus or a sewer.”
It’s a near-perfect reflection.
‘I Love You, Suzanne’ – New Sensations
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.