RIP: Lou Reed

Posted October 27, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Velvet Underground leader and ambitious rock pioneer dies at the age of 71

Influential on the realms of glam, rock, punk and rock – Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground leader and avant-garde-meets-street poet, died Sunday, October 27 at the age of 71. There’s no word on the cause of death, but Reed did underwent liver transplant back in May.

Born in Brooklyn, Lewis Allan “Lou” Reed grew up enjoying doo-wop and rock & roll, but started taking up poetry while studying at Syracuse University. By the time he developed his first band The Primitives, Reed’s style was absorbing it all. John Cale, a Welsh musician who was gifted on the violin, was the first to join his side, and then Reed’s band changed into the Warlocks. The name changed ultimately reflected the shift in the various musical styles that defined the new artsy path he had trodden. After meeting guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker, the Warlocks transformed into Velvet Underground. By this time, Andy Warhol was engaged in their image, style and presentation. With Warhol earning credit as producer, The Velvet Underground & Nico, the band’s 1967 debut album, became one of the most influential albums of all time. It married rock and noise, while describing New York life in dark, explicit forms that had never been cut on vinyl. Inside were images of psychedelic life and wretched behavior: drugs, S&M, prostitution, sexual rebellion. The band’s follow-up albums were also extravagant pieces – 1968’s White Light/White Heat continued in the vein of their debut, while 1969’s folk-aimed The Velvet Underground and 1970’s Loaded, experimented with musical shifts. Jumping from label to label (Verve to MGM to Atlantic’s Cotillion) was also a part of the band’s routine.

By the time Reed split from the Velvets in 1970, he was on his way to London and worked on his debut solo album, using a few noisemakers in the progressive rock world who wound up forming the prog-rock band Yes. The album was a commercial failure, only reaching 189 on the Billboard 200. But his sophomore disc, 1972’s Transformer, lit the way for Reed as he teamed up with glam star David Bowie, who was a great admirer of Reed’s Velvet Underground era. From that album came “Walk on the Wild Side,” an ode to Warhol’s wild and crazy Factory scene. The song, even with all of its taboos, became a pop hit, rocketing to number 16 on the Hot 100 in early 1973. “Satellite of Love,” which would later be covered by U2, was also on the disc and has become a popular favorite with Reed’s fans. Another gem of Reed’s, “Perfect Day,” was attached as the B-side to “Walk on the Wild Side” and has been covered by a number of artists including Duran Duran and Susan Boyle (After a minor conflict with Boyle performing it on NBC’s America’s Got Talent, he allowed her to record it for her album The Gift and even directed her concept video). He would work with a host of producers for his next set of albums, including Steve Gatz, Bob Ezrin and Godfrey Diamond. But 1975’s double-LP noise experiment Metal Machine Music stands out as one of his career’s greatest talking points. Panned by critics universally, the disc gave birth to yet another musical genre, one that many will label “non-musical” in the greatest degree. Nevertheless, it would influence the genres of noise rock and industrial music.

By the time the Eighties shouldered around, Reed seemed to have cooled down some, signing with Clive Davis’s Arista label and settling into married life. He continued recording, and even bending back into mainstream rock when he teamed up with Metallica on 2011’s Lulu. His collaborative work also intensified. In 2011, Reed joined up with Stax legendary organist Booker T. Jones to perform a rap-like soul number called “The Bronx” on The Road From Memphis. It remains one of his last recordings.

Despite only have very limited Top 40 success due to his experimental rock, Reed’s music has crossed barriers. Evidence of that can be traced in Beat System’s 1989 take of “Walk on the Wild Side.” The German Eurodance group found a clever way to marinate Reed’s beatnik lyrics with Soul II Soul riffs and shades of hip-hop. In the UK, the track climbed to number 63. Listen to Beat System’s remake below.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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