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When Lou Reed called Pete Townshend of The Who “talentless”

It’s no well-kept secret that Lou Reed was a cantankerous contrarian, and there was little he enjoyed more than sticking in the craw of his peers. He was known for being difficult to work with from time to time due to his headstrong and unwavering opinions. In the early 1970s, a magazine collated some of Reed’s thoughts on contemporary artists and countercultural figures. 

The article is headed: “Lou Reed’s obsessive interest in rock and his complete understanding of it as a medium means he has up-front views about his contemporaries and what they contribute to its development. His views are particularly refreshing in these days of ‘Wow, man – far out…’, and, needless to say, are transparently honest…”

What is immediately apparent when looking at the collection of quotes is that Reed was loyal to his friends but rather dismissive of those he didn’t know so well – his competitors. For example, of his early career mentor Andy Warhol, Reed said, “I really love him.” Of Velvet Underground bandmates, he said that Moe Tucker is “so impossibly great,” and hopes “that one day John [Cale] will be recognised as… the Beethoven or something of his day.”

Speaking of his friend and Transformer (1972) collaborator David Bowie, Reed said, “I love the guy. He’s got everything. The kid’s got everything… everything.”

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In stark contrast, the East Coast musician had only negative things to say about his West Coast competitors. Commenting on the Californian music scene of the 1960s and ‘70s in a sweeping statement, Reed said, “We had vast objections to the whole San Francisco scene. It’s just tedious, a lie and untalented. They can’t play and they certainly can’t write. I keep telling everybody and nobody cares. We used to be quiet, but I don’t care anymore about not wanting to say negative things, ‘cause things have gone so far that somebody really should say something.”

Another band that Reed seemed particularly unsatisfied with was The Who and their guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend in particular. “Tommy is such – Jesus, how people get sucked into that,” Reed vented. “So talentless, and as a lyricist [Townshend is] so profoundly untalented, and, you know, philosophically boring to say the least… like the record ‘The Searcher’ [meaning ‘The Seeker’]; ‘I ask Timothy Leary…’, I wouldn’t ask Timothy Leary the time of day, for cryin’ out loud.”

Fortunately for Townshend, Reed somehow elevated The Who guitarist from the bottom of the pile with a comment on Alice Cooper: “God, do you really want my opinion on them? They are the worst, most disgusting aspect of rock music.” He even placed avant-garde sensation Frank Zappa in the burn pile calling him “probably the single most untalented person I’ve heard in my life. He’s a two-bit, pretentious, academic, and he can’t play his way out of anything. He can’t play rock ‘n’ roll because he’s a loser.”

Reed’s characteristic contentious views were, of course, to be taken with a pinch of salt. He was known to enjoy a dry sense of humour but was also known to have been subject to bouts of jealousy and petty feuds. So who knows, perhaps Reed met these artists and didn’t get on well with them. Either way, if you fell under Reed’s judgement, he wasn’t one to hold back; he would love you or loathe you.