As the songwriting powerhouse behind the influential band The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed has rightly been revered as one of the most potent pop stars ever. Though preferring to stay on the peripheries of society, Reed managed to take the essence of pop, subvert it, and turn it back into a classic within a single breath. Though his songwriting has always been lauded as some of America’s best, he also knew a good song when he heard one too.
It’s meant that over the years, Reed has always been more than adept at taking on another artist’s song and making it his own. It’s a skill that very artists today can muster but one that Reed handles with his natural disdainful aplomb. Judging by the songs featured below, Reed largely keeps his eyes set on only the finest songwriters for his covers, so expect to see the great and the good in our list of Lou Reed’s best covers below.
Now, we must say, just because Lou Reed was good at performing covers of other people’s songs, it doesn’t mean he was necessarily very prolific. In fact, compared to a lot of his contemporaries form the sixties and seventies, Reed was rather shy of sharing his version of someone else’s song. Having famously once proclaimed he “liked nobody,” the chances that the same singer would belt out another artists tune, especially considering his own catalogue, were slim.
Still, on the odd occasion and especially as he neared the end of his life, Reed began to open up to the challenge of providing a perfect cover. It’s a challenge he more often than not rose to. Every song listed below is almost the definition of a perfect cover. None of the entries below are copies of the original; all, instead, rely on a delicate balance of paying tribute to the past and putting one’s own determined spin on it.
Below, find Lou Reed’s seven best covers of all time, featuring John Lennon, David Bowie and more.
Lou Reed’s best covers:
‘Jealous Guy’ – John Lennon
Lou Reed paid tribute to the iconic John Lennon at a concert for the former Beatle in 2001 to mark his birthday. Reed takes on the brilliant ‘Jealous Guy’.
The tribute concert, titled Come Together: A Night for John Lennon’s Words and Music, took place at New York City’s historic Radio City Music Hall less than a month after the city was devastated following the 9/11 attacks. It made the evening even more poignant and Lennon’s message even more pertinent.
Reed stole the show at with his impeccable version of ‘Jealous Guy’ as it not only incorporated the talent of its original creator but the verve Reed held for the song..
‘Foot of Pride’ – Bob Dylan
In 1992, there was only one ticket floating around the New York City streets that everybody wanted, yet nobody could get. It was a ticket to pay tribute to Bob Dylan, so named by the great Neil Young as, Bobfest. Amongst a host of incredible acts, Lou Reed was on the bill to perform.
The event was held at Madison Square Garden and was put on to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Dylan’s first-ever record release on Columbia Records. The ginormous stage was set and the list of artists willing to get under the spotlight and perform a cover of their favourite Dylan songs was bigger than most festivals. The roster of acts included Pearl Jam, George Harrison and so many more.
But it was Lou Reed’s cover of ‘Foot of Pride’ that made the most impact. Reed isn’t often one to share praise for no reason but it’s clear he holds Bob Dylan in high esteem.
‘Queen Bitch’ – David Bowie
As rock ‘n’ roll friendships go, Lou Reed and David Bowie have a very strong one. The duo found each other in the early seventies and connected instantly. Bowie went on to produce Transformer, Reed’s break out solo album, and the duo remained friends until Reed’s death.
“We’re still friends after all these years,” Reed told Rolling Stone in 2004. “We go to the occasional art show and museum together, and I always like working with him. I really love what David does, so I’m happy he’s still doing it and that he’s still interested. I saw him play here in New York on his last tour, and it was one of the greatest rock shows I’ve ever seen. At least as far as white people go. Seriously.”
Though you would probably call this more of a duet than a cover, it’s easy to see the joy with which Reed approaches the track. Sharing the stage with Bowie for his 50th birthday party at Madison Square Gardens, Reed is on fine form.
‘Mother’ – John Lennon
The former Velvet Underground man wasn’t ever a true fan of The Beatles and, in an old interview from 1987 which resurfaced following his death, he made his feeling about the Fab Four know: “I never liked The Beatles, I thought they were garbage,” he said. However, Lennon’s solo career was one that he was firmly on board with and described ‘Mother’ one of his favourite songs of all time.
“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.”
Lou Reed went on to perform the song at various concerts publicly approving the new and improved John Lennon. He generally sang it in a slower tempo and with abundant emotions. One could tell that he liked the song from the way he delivered it.
‘Peggy Sue’ – Buddy Holly
No matter your allegiances, if you were a songwriter in the sixties and had been swayed by the devilish allure of rock ‘n’ roll then chances are you would cite Buddy Holly as a serious influence on your career. The Beatles certainly did and, as it turns out, Lou Reed also thought of the Crickets man as a hero.
Reed got a chance to put his own spin on the track in 2011 as part of a Buddy Holly tribute album and he certainly didn’t disappoint. Using his unique vocal and a quick tempo, Reed makes the song his own, if only for a few minutes.
It’s a fitting tribute to the rock ‘n’ roller that we’re sure he would have approved of, drenched in distortion and pulsating with Reed’s penchant for industrial sounds. It may not sound like the original but it certainly is one. As was Lou Reed.
‘What A Wonderful World’ – Louis Armstrong
There are few songs as ubiquitous and anthemic as Louis Armstrong’s classic song ‘What A Wonderful World’. A heroic number by anyone’s reckoning, the song has rightly been regarded as a piece of integral pop culture for decades. Given the opportunity to put his own spin on the track was too tempting for Reed to turn down.
Recorded alongside Dan Zanes for the 2002 album Night Time!, it’s an acoustic version of the song that feels like it could have been taken straight from a Velvet Underground record.
Laid-back and permeated with a foreign language, the song is more rounded than you might expect and truly sounds as if it is an original Lou Reed composition.
‘The Tracks of My Tears’ – Smokey Robinson
The song, originally written by Smokey Robinson, Pete Moore, and Marv Tarplin, was recorded and released in 1965 by their group, The Miracles, on Motown’s now-iconic Tamla label. The song would go on to earn the band critical and commercial success in the sixties and is widely considered one of The Miracles’ finest recordings.
While Robinson, Moore and Tarplin triumphed with the track upon its original release, ‘The Tracks of My Tears’ enjoyed repeated success in the years that followed as more contemporary artists began putting their own spin on the song. The likes of Aretha Franklin, Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Rivers and more released their own cover versions to moderate success. One cover version, however, has received less coverage.
While teaming up with Kris Kristofferson for the collaborative double record The Bottom Line Archive, Lou Reed added his own version of ‘The Tracks of My Tears’ to earn a place in the song’s long history.