Lou Reed - Transformer

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:1972-11-8

Is Transformer Lou Reed’s greatest album? Some might dare venture his most crowning achievement is, Berlin. I might be inclined to agree. But it’s all subjective. At the end of the day, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Transformer is my favorite Lou Reed album. And I’m far from alone in that. At the very least it can be mutually agreed that Transformer is Reed’s most important album. Why? Because without it, there would be no Lou Reed.

Despite cutting another cult classic with Loaded, the truth is, The Velvet Underground fizzled out with more of a whimper than a bang. While Lou managed to release a proper, eponymously entitled solo album, it sank without a trace. Which is a shame, considering how good it is. The harsh reality was, Reed was hardly living the life of a Rock Star. Rather than holding court in The Factory or Max’s Kansas City, he was back home in Long Island working for his dad.

Outside of a small circle of critics and dedicated Velvets fans, no one knew who the hell Lou Reed was in 1972.

Fortunately, one of those fans was David Bowie.

While I wouldn’t hand all the credit to Bowie, it could be argued, were it not for the success of Ziggy Stardust, there would be no Transformer. But great albums are often as not, collaborative efforts. Bowie knew how talented Reed was and gave him the opportunity to shine. This was no ego trip, it was a fan giving his hero his due. Enlisting fellow Spider from Mars, Mick Ronson was another contributing factor to Transformer’s brilliance. Also, add in essential ingredients like great session musicians. Where would ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ be without Herbie Flowers’ now classic bassline? Or Ronnie Ross’ baritone sax solo? Then of course there was the main ingredient: Lou Reed himself.

Even if Transformer bombed commercially, I’d argue it would still be lauded as a classic along with Reed’s work with the Velvet Underground. It’s just that Reed likely may not have enjoyed the solo a career he subsequently had.

Of course, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ became the most unlikely of hits. Lou’s sole Top 40 record. Despite having all the makings of a banned novel. Junkies, drag queens and hustlers weren’t quite mainstream stuff, though there certainly was a thriving counter culture with an appetite for taboo. And Reed was acutely aware of that. But ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ isn’t about being sensationalistic. It’s a love letter to people he knew. Rather than trot these characters to shock, Reed humanized them. And put a big part of himself in it as well. All of which may explain why there’s something transcendent and universal in this song. And the same could be said of Transformer in its entirety. 

No work of art is perfect and for any flaws, Transformer remains a well-balanced album. Undoubtedly, some credit can be tossed to producer, David Bowie. Whether it was calculated or by accident is up for conjecture. The album boasts some amazing deep cuts interspersed with some seemingly breezier tracks, which on closer inspection, are more than meets the eye.

‘Vicious’ is a killer opener. A streetwise send up of Flower Power. ‘Satellite of Love’ is one of the oddest, most infectiously beautiful songs ever written about jealousy. As for ‘Perfect Day’, its simply jaw dropping. Without question the most achingly vulnerable thing Lou Reed ever cut. Despite being lifted for many an ad and soundtrack, on this album, it remains intimately yours. And yours alone. In terms of a song and a recording, it is truly a thing of rare beauty.

Elsewhere, ‘Andy’s Chest’ is downright surreal. It really shouldn’t work but somehow manages to. Reed sounding positively giddy, on the verge of cracking up. Whatever the joke, it’s certainly a private one. Personally, I always look forward to the part where Lou drawls, “Yesterday  Daisy May and Biff were grooving on the street.”

‘New York Conversation’ may be a walk on the snarky side but it also serves to highlight Transformer’s main character: New York City. While it has always played a starring role in The Velvet Underground, Transformer goes so far as to self-consciously crown Lou Reed as the poet laureate of New York. Regardless, this little interlude is pure satire knocking it back with sarcasm.

The likes of ‘Hanging Round’, ‘I’m So Free’ and ‘Wagon Wheel’ are consistently omitted from the all the sundry Greatest Hits anthologies out there. It’s easy to take them for granted because frankly, they’re not Reed at his finest. That said, they grow on you with repeated listens and ultimately serve to compliment the album.

The likes of ‘Make Up’ and ‘Goodnight Ladies’ would be downright cliché if it weren’t for the gauche, droll sarcasm in Reed’s delivery. It’s not gender bending he’s rolling his eyes at, but society’s problem with it. Based on many of the reviews I’ve read of this album, these tracks appear to be most misunderstood by critics. True, Reed may be wearing his eye liner a little too thick but that’s the point.

Perhaps the most insufferable, self-serving and masturbatory review of this record was Nick Tosches’ Rolling Stone review. But Tosches was right about one thing: Lou Reed was a genius. And if Transformer isn’t his finest effort, who really cares outside of a bunch of pretentious assholes?  It sounds just as fresh and remarkable as it did when it came out 45 years ago. Any way you cut it, Transformer is a milestone. It not only established the character of Lou Reed, it literally transformed him into a Rock Star.

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