Lou Reed: a guide to his best albums
When American rock critic Lester Bangs described Lou Reed as “a totally depraved perverted and pathetic death dwarf … a liar, a wasted talent, a perpetual artist, and a huckster who sells pounds of his own flesh,” he was describing a hero.
Few artists in rock and roll history are as enigmatic as Lou Reed, and few have created work as influential, unpredictable and controversial as Reeds, first with the pioneering art rock group The Velvet Underground and then as a solo artist.
Born on March 2, 1942 in Brooklyn, New York, Lewis Allen Reed was always an outsider. As a teenager, he was given electroshock therapy to “cure” homosexuality. In his early 20s, he dropped out of college to work as a songwriter at Pickwick Records, where he wrote new pop songs that were completely at odds with his love of experimental jazz.
In Pickwick, Reed met the Welsh, classically trained musician John Cale. The couple formed a band called The Warlocks, which mutated into The Velvet Underground by 1965. It consisted of Reed on guitar and vocals, Cale on bass, viola and organ, Sterling Morrison on second guitar and Maureen ‘Moe’ Tucker on drums.
The Velvets were a band without time. Her debut album, released in 1967, was the opposite of Summer Of Love’s hippie idealism. Their lo-fi sonics and Reed’s dark lyrics proved too uncompromising for mass consumption, but the Velvets’ influence would span generations, from David Bowie to punk rock and beyond. It was Bowie who gave Reed his breakthrough as a solo artist and in 1972 co-produced Transformer, the album containing two of Reed’s most popular songs: Walk On The Wild Side and Perfect Day. But pop star didn’t fit Lou Reed, and in 1975 he attempted suicide on Metal Machine Music, an album that consisted entirely of guitar feedback.
This underdog streak runs through Reed’s career, as evidenced by his last two albums: the Ambient Electronica of the Hudson River Wind Meditations in 2007 and the unlikely collaboration with Metallica on the Lulu in 2011. But with guitar in hand, Lou Reed made his definitive work as classical Rock’n’Roll antihero: the outsider in black leather and shades, the original figurehead for heroin chic, the straightforward New York City poet award winner.
The Velvet Underground & Nico (Verve, 1967)
The Velvets’ debut album was a chart flop and was rejected or worse, ignored by the mainstream rock press. But four decades later, it is considered one of the most innovative and influential rock records of all time. Reed was its chief architect and wrote most of the songs alone.
And although three tracks were sung by Nico (labeled “deaf” by Cale), it was Reed who defined the Velvets’ dark aesthetic with his raw guitar style, dead vocals, and deviant lyrics depicted on the heroin love letter. Reed’s first shot was an avant-garde rock and roll masterpiece. View deal
Lou Reed Transformer (RCA, 1972)
Reed’s self-titled solo debut featured various leftovers of Velvets and most notably Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman of Yes. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t sell better than the Velvets’ albums. His second, released just six months later, made him a superstar.
Produced by David Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson, Transformer got the glam rock-era mood going with Mick Rock’s cover of an androgynous reed and some classic pop songs – notably Satellite Of Love and Perfect Day – that echoed Bowie’s material from the early ’70s . The album even gave Reed a top 10 hit, Walk On The Wild Side, despite blasé references to drugs and oral sex. View deal
Lou Reed – New York (Father, 1989)
Not for Lou Reed the celebratory swing of Sinatra’s New York New York theme or the romance of Woody Allen’s Manhattan; Reed’s portrait of his hometown is from the streets he knew so well in his junkie years. New York is essentially a concept album with instructions from Reed to “listen in one sitting as if it were a book or a movie”.
With Dirty Blvd the withering satire dominates. one of many brutally funny vignettes. Dirty blvd. is basically a great rock and roll song too, and New York is an album filled with them. It’s Reed’s late career classic. View deal
Lou Reed – Berlin (RCA, 1973)
Rolling Stone magazine featured Lou Reed’s third solo album as “the Sgt. Pepper of the 70s”. Many have since called it the most depressing album of all time. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
Berlin is undoubtedly Reed’s most exaggerated statement. With an elaborate production and an all-star cast including Steve Winwood, it’s a concept album cum rock opera: the story of a doomed, drug-fueled romance that Reed took on in the style of a heavily drugged torch singer tells. He was rewarded with a top 10 hit in the UK. In the US, the album stiffened and Lou went back underground. View deal
The Velvet Underground – Loaded (Atlantic, 1970)
In addition to pointing out the group’s drugstore reputation, the title of the band’s fourth studio album was also a ruse by the new label Atlantic, which the band signed after they were dropped by Verve / MGM and asked for an album with “hits”. .
In a way, Reed delivered; Loaded is by far the most radio-friendly VU album. Sweet Jane is the catchiest, and effortlessly coolest rock and roll song he has ever written. Reed left the band a month before the album was released. Two years later, the Velvet Underground had broken up and Reed finally had a hit with the Transformer.View Deal
Lou Reed – Coney Island Baby (RCA, 1976)
After the Metal Machine Music commercial disaster of 1975, Lou had his back to the wall. “I had no money and no guitars,” he confessed. Reed had to promise his record label he wouldn’t do Son of Metal Machine Music, and he was as good as his word.
Coney Island Baby is classic Lou Reed, described in Rolling Stone as “timeless, great rock and roll.” Reed has never written a better song than the title track of this album. A bittersweet lament reminiscent of Dylan’s best work from the 70s, ending with the redeeming mantra, “The glory of love could get you through.” In desperation, Reed had dug deep
Lou Reed – Rock and Roll Beast (RCA, 1974)
The best of Reed’s 11 live albums was in part a reaction to the harsh criticism and poor US sales of ambitious Berlin. As the spiky title suggests, Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal Reed got back to basics and repeating Velvets songs while reasserting his popular image as a rock junkie-in-chief.
Reed is supported by a five-piece band with guitarists Dick Wagner (a future Alice Cooper buddy) and Steve Hunter. Their flashy licks turned Sweet Jane and rock ‘n’ roll into boastful arena rock anthems, while the album’s centerpiece, a bustling 13-minute version of heroin, couldn’t have done more to glorify Reed’s drug of choice
The Velvet Underground – White Light / White Heat (Polydor, 1968)
The making of this second Velvets album began and ended with a power struggle. First Andy Warhol was ousted as band manager and with him Nico went to general relief. More damagingly, a rift developed between Reed and John Cale that ended with Cale’s departure.
Even so, White Light / White Heat was a strong and cohesive collection. Galvanized by their newfound independence from Warhol, the band ditched the pop element of the debut album in favor of the visceral rock frenzy. Cale described this new ethos as “consciously versus beauty”. View deal
Lou Reed – New Sensations (RCA, 1984)
In the early 80s, Reed gave up alcohol and drugs and regained his credibility with two classic cult albums: The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts. What followed was the most accessible work of his entire career. Terrifyingly, New Sensations was the sound of Reed lightening up.
I Love You, Suzanne, the most upbeat pop song Reed has ever written set the tone, while the nonchalantly funky title track even led him to “root out my negative views”. The album was not a hit (# 56 in the US, # 92 in the UK). Maybe the public just wouldn’t buy a happy Lou Reed. Five years later, desolate New York turned out to be a more effective comeback. View deal