Sunday , September 20 2020
Another classic elpee for Spring. . .

Lou Reed’s Transformer

Spring can be a season of sudden profound changes, and this week – with temps dropping into snow coldness and flashes of chilling rain making it unclear if the clothes you put on in the a.m. will still by apt by evening – let’s visit my third personal spring disc, Lou Reed’s Transformer.
His second solo release since the break-up of the Velvet Underground, it is also the most thoroughly pop album that Lou would ever release – thanks in part to producer David Bowie, smack dab in his Ziggy Stardust persona. Purists may grouse at the results (even Reed himself has sniped about the recording experience over the years,) but in the end the release has held up better than many of his more serious works. It also, of course, yielded Lou’s big pop hit, “Walk On The Wild Side.”
I first heard Transformer when I was in grad school, back in ’72. One of my buddies was a big Velvets fan, and though he’d proselytizingly played ’em for me, I wouldn’t really get into the group until Transformer provided me a gateway. To a Midwestern liberal arts collegian in his early twenties, Reed’s record echoed everything I thought I knew about the big bad city – and taught me quite a few things I didn’t know. I immediately honed into this album, initially thanks to Mick Ronson’s guitar. Listening to him slash through album opener “Vicious,” I was ready to follow Lou into even the darkest of lyrical territories. The rest of the disc isn’t as sonically edgy, but the sounds and settings that Bowie & Ronson worked up for each are strikingly appropriate.

In addition to its opener and the much-heard hit, Transformer contains other beautiful rock tunes: mournful “Perfect Day” (well-covered by Kirsty Macoll & Evan Dando in the nineties,) which sounds lush and romantic ’til you realize that the song’s about a lover being brutalized by his partner; “Wild Side” counterpart “Hangin’ Round,” which serves up another cast of street types (“Jeanie was a spoiled young brat/She thought she had it all/She smoked mentholated cigarettes/And had sex in the hall,”) only this time from the POV of someone who’s given it all up; “Satellite of Love,” with its sparkling background vocal flourishes and hints of Bowie-esque space odditude; “Wagon Wheel,’ which breaks its rockin’ flow with a solemn lyrical bridge that anticipates the grimmer sounds and themes of Reed’s Berlin; plus the anthemic “I’m So Free.”

And then there’s “Wild Side.” Reed himself has said that the song’s hit status was a fluke, but it’s a just fluke. Building from a riff on the Staple Singers’ soul hit, “I’ll Take You There,” the song captures the feel of outsider hope and promise better than anything to come out of the early seventies. It may’ve been a novelty hit (you can almost hear singles buyers giggling at their bravery over the song’s chorus ref to “colored girls,”) but it also captures one of Reed’s great strengths: his reportorial skills in the midst of a colorfully chaotic milieu. (Which show up full flower in 1989’s exemplary New York.) Herbie Flowers’ jazzy arrangement (love that fading sax at the end) is inextricably bound to the song; catch two notes of that opening bass-line and you immediately recognize “Wild Side.”
Transformer is by no means a pristine album (for that you’d probably have to go back to the Velvets and Loaded). Some of the lyrics can be clunkier than usual for this notoriously discursive songwriter, while there are some cuts where you wish Bowie’d cracked the whip harder on Reed the Vocalist (those half-hearted “whoos” on “Andy’s Chest,” for instance). And that harrumphing tuba in half-serious gay pride song “Make Up” is just too camp to work as more than a fleeting joke. Per the period, Reed sometimes plays dress-up (the back cover features photos of our man both in drag and rough trade pose), but he can’t quite refrain from winking at the audience as he does it. For all his skills as a musical monologist, Reed doesn’t commit to his roles in this disc as strongly as, say, Bowie does in Ziggy Stardust. It may undermine his effects, but it also adds a sparkle to Transformer that Bowie can’t capture in his sludgier dramatic moments.
New York pop for a naively jaded audience: spring’s not just about the bloomin’ flowers, you know.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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