Street poet, dissonant godfather of punk, amphetamine-fueled deviant, humanitarian, ground-breaking musician and a unique and on-going influence to generations of musicians, Lou Reed was all this and more.
A special edition of Greasy Tracks on Nov. 28 featured a four-hour program touching on numerous parts of Reed’s amazing career. The show featured nearly 30 Reed-related tracks and interviews with those who knew and worked with him.
The inimitable Reed — who passed away in 2013 at the age of 71 — was a multifaceted person, with an oft-wry or downright dour sense of humor which came through in his incredible catalog of music.
There were interviews with renowned guitarist Steve Hunter and producer Steve Katz who discussed Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, Reed’s first gold album; biographer Aidan Levy provided insight to his outstanding, recently published Dirty Blvd. The Life and Music of Lou Reed (Chicago Review Press); Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club drummer Chris Frantz shared recollections of his early interactions with Reed and guitar technician/confidante Stewart Hurwood reminisced about some of his fondest experiences during his decade working with Reed.
There was more light shed on Reed’s career and him as a personality. Most people are not aware that he underwent electroshock therapy as a teen and that there’s an indirect link to John Denver and Reed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal album.
“We had some fun going more in-depth when it came to Reed’s music,” said host Chris Cowles. “Sadly, there just wasn’t enough time to truly do justice to the incredible scope of the body of music he (Reed) he produced.
“Based on the group of people we had on, there was no shortage of interesting stories and the feedback — literally from coast to coast — was really great as we got calls from across the country,” Cowles added.
Even when cutting his first singles as part of The Jades in 1958, Reed had contact with masterful musicians such as the legendary saxophonist King Curtis and innovative guitarist Mickey “Guitar” Baker who each played on the group’s debut sides: “Leave Her For Me” and “So Blue.”
The roots of the influential Velvet Underground can be traced to 1964 with Reed linking up with Welshman John Cale (keyboards, bass, viola), Sterling Morrison (guitar) and Angus MacLise (drums) whose group initially went by the name The Warlocks and later the Falling Spikes. MacLise ultimately gave way to Maureen Tucker and by 1965, the Velvets had Andy Warhol as a manager who brought German model/singer Christa Päffgen — better known as “Nico” — to the band whom he suggested be added as a singer.
The group became Warhol’s house band at The Factory and provided the soundscapes for his multimedia events dubbed the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” initially in New York in 1966 — as the band was recording its debut album — but later on the road until May 1967. Earlier in the year, The Velvet Underground & Nico was released on Verve records with its famed Warhol “yellow banana” cover.
By that fall, the band had cut ties with Nico and Warhol, but still working with wizard producer Tom Wilson, recorded White Light/White Heat which came out in early 1968.
Nearly five months before Iron Butterfly unleashed the In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida album with its 17-minute title track, the Velvet’s checked in with the twisted “Sister Ray” which clocked in at 17:28 and allegedly forced Wilson from the studio — if not because of its over-the-top debauchery and subject matter never-before put on vinyl by a band — then for the distorted cacophony that was captured in the single improvisational take the band used for the album.
The band would record their self-titled third album in California, bringing in Doug Yule to replace Cale who was fired due to artistic differences with Reed in September 1968. The record, released in the spring of 1969, was more rock- and ballad-oriented with tighter arrangements with all but two tracks under five minutes in length.
Loaded, the last Velvet’s studio album with Reed — who left the band before it was released in November 1970 — was intended to be “loaded” with hits as all but one track were around radio-friendly lengths of about three-and-a-half minutes. Ultimately, the most commercial of all Velvet’s releases failed to deliver any hits, but did feature two of Reed’s most popular songs: “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll,” which would be included in his live sets for the rest of his career.
Loaded is ranked 109th in Rolling Stone’s Top 500 albums, with the Velvet’s second and third releases also making the list.
Reed would move back to his parents house on Long Island, becoming a typist at his father’s accounting firm. While technically not a member of a band or even recording material, he continued to write.
In 1971, he signed with RCA Records and recorded his debut solo album. The self-titled effort, released in the spring of 1972, was recorded over a month-long span in London with a number of UK session players as well as Yes guitarist Steve Howe and keyboardist Rick Wakeman. Of the album’s 10 tracks, eight
were unreleased compositions for the
Velvets. Despite expectations for the ex-Velvet’s frontman debut release, the album failed to impress, only reaching 189 on the Billboard 200.
That August, Reed was again in London and with David Bowie and Mick Ronson co-producing, he recorded Transformer which was released in November. This album proved to be the one that gained Reed widespread attention as a solo artist — reaching No. 29 in the Billboard charts — buoyed by the breakthrough single of “Walk on the Wild Side” which went to No. 16 in the U.S. and No. 10 in the U.K. There were a handful of other standout tracks on the album, including “Perfect Day” which was the B-side to “Walk on the Wild Side;” “Satellite of Love;” and “Vicious.”
Reed’s third solo work, Berlin, was essentially a rock opera of the most tragic sort chronicling a doomed, speed-freak couple, Jim and Caroline in Berlin as their lives, accented by drugs, prostitution, violence and suicide with one of the most gut-wrenching points coming when Caroline’s children are taken by the authorities in the track, “The Kids” — featuring a part with producer Bob Ezrin’s young sons crying and screaming “Mommy.”
Ezrin, who would make his mark working with Alice Cooper, Kiss and Pink Floyd, brought in a number big-name musicians for the sessions, including Steve Winwood, Jack Bruce, Randy Brecker, Michael Brecker, Aynsley Dunbar, Tony Levin and guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner who were gaining a reputation as go-to session and touring players.
Berlin failed to make any substantial mark and was generally panned by critics. Despite this, Reed made ample use of the material in live shows over the years and in 2006, with Ezrin back as producer and Hunter playing lead guitar, the album was played in its entirety for the first time on stage as Reed took it on the road with a 30-piece band and 12-person choir. A five-night stand at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn was filmed and released to great acclaim in 2008.
Reed would finally hit gold status on the release of the live album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal in early 1974, the culmination of a pair of shows recorded at Howard Stein’s Academy of Music in New York City. Co-produced by Steve Katz who captured what was potentially Reed’s best-ever backing band, tight and road-tested, featuring the Hunter-Wagner guitar pairing. The duo would go on to play key roles with Alice Cooper as they played on Cooper’s career-defining material in the 1970s with Wagner having a hand in co-writing much of it.
While the set the band played during the Berlin tour — September-December 1973 — was comprised of a mix of Reed solo material and Velvet’s standards, the live offering was heavy on Velvet’s material, including “Sweet Jane” — featuring the legendary Hunter-penned intro that initially was used as a prelude to “Vicious” — “Heroin,” “White Light/White Heat” and Rock ‘n’ Roll” with “Lady Day” being the only post-VU track included on the initial release. The album would reach No. 45 on Billboard.
Reed would follow with his first album of all new material in 1974, Sally Can’t Dance, which proved to be his most successful, hitting No. 10 on the charts. Reed, who co-produced the LP with Katz, was hardly thrilled with the final product, but even so, it made him a star.
He appeared to be disillusioned by the success of Sally Can’t Dance and the direction of his career at RCA. In 1975, to fulfill a contractual obligation, Reed released Metal Machine Music, a two-LP set of nothing short of flipping off the label and, potentially fans, as he delivered 64-plus minutes of noise.
Describing it as avant-garde would be kind as Reed utilized two guitars placed in front of amps to effectively create feedback so the guitars essentially played themselves. The instruments each had different reverb settings and when recorded on simplistic four-track, Reed would then mix the recordings at different speeds. RCA, which actually released one version in quadraphonic, pulled the album after three weeks, but it allegedly sold 100,000 copies in the U.S., in spite of being critically slammed.
While Reed would not get close to the success of
Sally Can’t Dance until he collaborated with Metallica on Lulu in 2011 — the album, widely dismissed by many critics and fans — reached No. 36 on the Billboard charts in the U.S.
Lulu’s success notwithstanding, fans and critics alike would probably agree that while Reed never had a chart-dominating release post-Sally Can’t Dance, there were certainly some solid efforts: Coney Island Baby (1975), Street Hassle (1978), The Bells (1979) and The Blue Mask (1982); one that should be on everyone’s best category: New York (1989) and another that provided some closure following Warhol’s passing in 1987, Songs For Drella (1990) which saw Reed collaborating with John Cale in the studio for the first time since 1968 during the Velvet’s White Light/White Heat sessions. The other, not to be overlooked was Magic and Loss (1992), dedicated in part to the hugely influential songwriting legend Doc Pomus.
Reed was inducted to the Rock Hall of Fame in 1996 as a member of the Velvet Underground and posthumously, in 2015, as a solo artist with Patti Smith providing the induction honors.
Focusing on soul, blues, jazz and funk, Greasy Tracks debuted in 1995 and is the longest-running program of its kind in Connecticut, regularly airing on Saturdays, 3:30-5:30 p.m.