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Lou Reed’s 80 best songs

Lou Reed grew up in Long Island, New York, he was born into a family descending from Russian Jews. Reed’s father opted to change the Jewish family name from Rabinowitz to Reed in an attempt to feel more at home in his new nation. Reed would remain largely detached from his Jewish lineage as he grew up and once explained that, although he was Jewish, his “real God was Rock’ n’ roll.”

During his time at school, Reed suffered panic attacks, according to his sister Margaret, and he subsequently became socially anxious and “possessed a fragile temperament”. Despite his adolescent anxiety, Reed would keep busy focusing on his main passion, music.

An avid listener to rock stations on the radio, he began to make moves to learn the guitar and sing; by the time he was in high school in the late 1950s, Reed had begun to play in various bands as a backing vocalist and rhythm guitarist. At around this time, Reed had begun experimenting with drugs, something that would have a major impact on his career over the coming years.

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In Reed’s first year of college, he was brought home after suffering a mental breakdown. His parents were worried about their son, who had become increasingly withdrawn, depressed and anxious, so they took him to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist offered Reed’s parents the option of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which they accepted. The ECT Reed received from his psychologist was the source of ongoing trauma in his life. He would later blame his father for the cruel treatment and was suspicious that it was intended partly as a means of dispelling his feelings of homosexuality. This traumatic experience was most obviously reflected upon in Reed’s 1974 song ‘Kill Your Sons’.

Following his traumatic ECT exposure, Reed continued with college and understandably remained distant from his family. He remained primarily focussed on music, and in 1964, he moved to New York City to work as a songwriter for Pickford Records. During his early days on the new job, he met the Welsh multi-instrumentalist John Cale with whom he became very close. 

Over the next two years, Cale and Reed formed a close creative partnership and decided to live together in Lower East Side. They gradually developed a group that they eventually named The Velvet Underground and soon fell under the nose of pop artist Andy Warhol who welcomed the band into his multi-media art troupe known as The Factory.

The Velvet Underground released their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, in 1967. It wasn’t a commercial success at the time of its release, likely because its avant-garde style was years ahead of its time. As creative marvel and production master Brian Eno would later exaggerate, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” While the statement isn’t exactly true, the general message is entirely accurate.

Indeed The Velvet Underground released a debut album of such subsequent importance and influence that Reed would have been a rock and roll legend had he decided to go no further with his music career after 1967. However, fortunately for us, The Velvet Underground continued for a further three years with Reed at the helm, releasing a further three studio albums.

After leaving The Velvet Underground in 1970, Reed returned to Long Island for a while with his parents to work at his father’s tax accounting firm as a typist, purportedly earning just $40 a week. Fortunately, he didn’t take much to the daily grind and returned to his music in 1971 after signing a recording contract with RCA. Shortly after, he recorded his self-titled debut solo album, which contained a smorgasbord of unreleased Velvet Underground work. The album wasn’t a commercial success despite containing some fantastic versions of some of Reed’s, now well known, songs.

Reed was given a lifeline after his first solo attempt in 1971 when he met David Bowie in London. The two had grown fond of each other, and Bowie had explained to Reed that The Velvet Underground were a huge influence on his own rise to fame as a musician. The dazzling heights of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era was still just around the corner when, in an apparent act of repayment for the blessings of the Velvet Underground, Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson agreed to help Reed produce his second solo album. 

In 1972, Reed released Transformer, which became a commercial success and marked his breakthrough as a solo artist. The masterpiece was buoyed by the involvement of Bowie, which allowed it to reach a wider audience in the UK. The music within contains some of Reed’s most refined songwriting, which was graced with the instrumental involvement of Bowie and Ronson.

Reed rode the wave of this solo success for the next 40 years, releasing a further 20 albums to various levels of acclaim. His influence on popular music has burgeoned over the years, with countless artists naming him as a direct influence to this day. While the music from his days in The Velvet Underground remains the most important, he released some brilliant glimmers of genius throughout his solo career that mustn’t be lost to the obscurity of time. 

Today (March 2nd) marks what would have been Lou Reed’s 80th birthday. In celebration, we have created a list of Reed’s 80 greatest compositions from his rollercoaster career spanning five decades.

Lou Reed’s 80 best songs:

  • ‘Sunday Morning’ 
  • ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’
  • ‘Femme Fatale’
  • ‘Venus In Furs’
  • ‘Heroin’
  • ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’
  • ‘There She Goes Again’
  • ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’
  • ‘White Light/White Heat’
  • ‘Sister Ray’
  • ‘Stephanie Says’
  • ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’
  • ‘Here She Comes Now’
  • ‘The Gift’
  • ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ 
  • ‘Candy Says’
  • ‘What Goes On’
  • ‘Some Kinda Love’
  • ‘Beginning To See The Light’
  • ‘Pale Blue Eyes’
  • ‘Ride Into The Sun’
  • ‘The Murder Mystery’
  • ‘After Hours’
  • ‘I’m Set Free’
  • ‘Foggy Notion’
  • ‘Who Loves The Sun’
  • ‘Sweet Jane’ 
  • ‘Rock and Roll’
  • ‘Cool It Down’
  • ‘New Age’
  • ‘Head Held High’
  • ‘I Found A Reason’
  • ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’
  • ‘Ocean’
  • ‘Lisa Says’
  • ‘I Can’t Stand It’
  • ‘Walk and Talk It’                   
  • ‘Vicious’
  • ‘Perfect Day’
  • ‘Hangin’ Round’
  • ‘Walk On The Wild Side’
  • ‘Make Up’
  • ‘Satellite of Love’
  • ‘Andy’s Chest’
  • ‘Wagon Wheel’
  • ‘I’m So Free’
  • ‘New York Telephone Conversation’
  • ‘Berlin’
  • ‘Caroline Says II’
  • ‘Sad Song’
  • ‘The Bed’
  • ‘How Do You Think It Feels’
  • ‘Lady Day’
  • ‘Crazy Feeling’
  • ‘Charley’s Girl’
  • ‘She’s My Best Friend’ 
  • ‘Kicks’
  • ‘Nobody’s Business’
  • ‘Coney Island Baby’              
  • ‘Dirty Blvd.’
  • ‘Romeo and Juliette’
  • ‘New Sensations’
  • ‘Nobody But You’
  • ‘Street Hassle’
  • ‘Temptation Inside Your Heart’
  • ‘Smalltown’   
  • ‘Vanishing Act’
  • ‘A Gift’
  • ‘Style It Takes’
  • ‘The Gun’
  • ‘Waves Of Fear’
  • ‘The Blue Mask’
  • ‘Men Of Good Fortune’
  • ‘Endless Cycle’
  • ‘Last Great American Whale’
  • ‘I Love You, Suzanne’
  • ‘Some Kind Of Nature’
  • ‘Sally Can’t Dance’
  • ‘The Last Shot’                          
  • ‘The Kids’