Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Lou Reed Transformer (1972)


Lou Reed’s glam rock album? It’s not me who made that up – that’s an opinion widely shared by critics, and they do bring up vital arguments in favour of it. However, most of the ‘glam’ here turns out to be superficial at close look. Of course, it is no small coincidence that the album was produced by Lou in close collaboration with David Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson (the latter also contributes a fair share of guitarwork and is even responsible for the strings arrangements).

And the fact that the album is filled to the brim with themes of homosexualism, perversion, sexual bitches, etc., etc., etc., not to mention the album title and the album cover, also contributes to the general delusion. One must not forget, though, that most of these lyrical topics were essential to Lou’s creativity long before Bowie started getting draggy and the term ‘glam rock’ was even coined. And even if Bowie did leave a slight imprint of his personality on some of the songs, he was in no way such a patron and creative godfather to Reed as he was for, say, Mott The Hoople. This is a real Lou Reed album – and it has as much to do with glam rock as, for instance, Peter Gabriel and Genesis: you could argue that Genesis were a glam band, but apart from certain theater elements in their show, there was not much of a glam influence in the band.

Musically, the album is a little less interesting than the unjustly underrated debut – which might be due to the fact that Lou had nearly emptied the barrel of Velvet Underground outtakes (only ‘Andy’s Chest’ and ‘Satellite Of Love’ got recycled) and finally got around to the necessity of composing a complete record by himself and on his own. Basically, it’s just a little underarranged and devoid of hooks: I just don’t see as many interesting melodies as on the previous one.

This is, however, mostly compensated by the weird, dark atmosphere that Lou weaves around his compositions, transferring a potentially perfectly normal pop album into a gloomy tale of half-legal night clubs and the down side of New York’s night life. His voice is in perfect form, and bad and wheezy as it might be, it’s certainly the ideal instrument for conveying these dark feelings – and providing them with enough sincerity and conviction to forever ban this record from the glam category.

The moderate rockers here are ‘Vicious’ (my personal favourite, though for no obvious reason, it seems) and ‘Hangin’ ‘Round’, groovy but not very memorable foot-stompers: the best thing about them are again lyrics, incredibly smutty and almost sacrilegious on the latter and incredibly funny and almost stupid on the former (‘Vicious/You hit me with a stick/But all I’ve got is a guitar pick’ is my fav line there). There’s also the anthemic, rambling ‘I’m So Free’ – the loudest and clunkiest on here, but not very entertaining.

Anyway, it isn’t the rockers that make the record – the most important stuff is usually stripped down, peppered with tubas and harmonicas to get that lounge jazz/German cabaret sound again, and combined with Lou’s voice, becomes almost magical. This includes the hit ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ (although I’m still baffled as to how could a song that mentions giving head become a hit), with its horrible dirty imagery set to a quiet little shuffle and Lou’s gentle ‘doo doo doo’s that almost suggest that there’s nothing bad going on.

I’m also a big fan of ‘Make Up’, the one where Lou proudly announces that ‘we’re coming out of our closets’: it’s probably the closest he got to imitating that German sound (except for ‘Berlin’, of course), and it sounds so generic that it’s almost ingenious. And, of course, in order to appreciate the ‘concept’, one has to take some close listens to ‘Andy’s Chest’ and the ridiculous piano groove of ‘New York Telephone Conversation’ – a song where Lou plays the jerk so convincingly that you can’t help being totally sucked in by the very fact!

Still, in between the ‘conceptual’ songs are sandwiched some beautiful ballads that continue developing Lou’s romantic side along the unforgettable lines of ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Love Makes You Feel’. ‘Perfect Day’, with its ‘Berlin’-style atmosphere, quiet, Dylan-ish singing, and gentle piano chords moves me to tears, and ‘Satellite Of Love’, while some might call it a trifle cheesy, actually features a magnificent arrangement – the vocal harmonies on the choruses are superb, the jazzy bits are tasty, and the melody is right there – it’s just that you have to wait for it.

And what a better way to end the record than to sign it with such a flourish as ‘Goodnight Ladies’ – one more cabaret send-up with perfectly innocent, yet fascinating lyrics about lonely Saturday nights and sucking lemon peels? Even if you hate this loungy type of music, you could still be enthralled by Lou’s style on this one – the melody is as generic and ripped-off as possible, but it’s the combination of the melody with the lyrics and the vocal tone that makes this listening experience unforgettable (actually, this applies to the record as a whole).

And don’t forget that this sounds nothing like the classic Velvet Underground – punk lovers, please do not bother! This is lounge music, not your standard three-chord rock!

December 30, 2013 - Posted by | Lou Reed Transformer |

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