Superficial discussions of Lou Reed focus on his days with the seminal Velvet Underground and his legendary 1972 David Bowie and Mick Ronson produced Transformer, and stop there. His work thereafter sometimes gets short shrift. Now, a new package from Eagle Rock Entertainment, bundling together the documentary Classic Albums: Transformer along with the concert film, Live at Montreux 2000, goes back to Reed’s most commercially successful period and then presents Reed as an elder statesman of rock when he was at the peak of his powers at the dawn of a new century. While both these films have been available separately for some time, together they serve as a high-quality artifact of just how vital and unique Reed was in the pantheon of rock giants.
Originally released in 2001, director Bob Smeaton’s 80 minute Classic Albums: Transformer was universally praised for its well-constructed anatomy of a touchstone album. Now expanded to interweave the original broadcast version with the bonus features on the original disc, the story appropriately begins with Reed remembering his days with the Velvet Underground and the importance of Andy Warhol in making them a New York-based phenomenon. These discussions provide more than the historical context for Transformer. For one matter, that album had many nods to and inspirations from Warhol beyond the cast of characters in “Walk on the Wild Side.”
Then, we’re taken into the studio to see the process of how the songs, track by track, evolved via interviews with Reed, Bowie, Ronson, album engineer Ken Scott, and session musician Herbie Flowers, who explains how he created the bass lines for “Walk on the Wild Side.” We hear Reed performing acoustic versions of several tracks to illustrate the basic ideas he had in mind before the producers and musicians made the final result a memorable collaborative effort. The participants discuss Reed as a poet and he shares insights into the characters he was describing in his lyrics. After viewing this documentary, I suspect few listeners will ever hear Transformer the same way again.
Live at Montreux 2000, originally released in November 2005, captured a concert from a tour in which Reed and his then current band were promoting his 2000 studio release, Ecstasy. From Ecstasy, Reed’s 18th solo album, the stellar band performs eight then-new songs, including “Paranoia Key of E” and “Modern Dance.” The latter is a “Walk on the Wild Side” breed of poetic story song, this time with Reed dancing around the capital cities of Europe. “Turn To Me” is a tad Stones-esque with a Keith Richards guitar riff. “Ecstasy” is a Middle Eastern-flavored sequel to “Heroin.”
At first listen, the standout performance of “Rock Minuet” might seem another nod to the Velvets with the violin sounds reproduced on guitar. However, the studio recording featured an electric violin all right, but it was played by Reed’s wife, Laurie Anderson, who collaborated with her husband on a number of his songs during this period. Throughout the program, Reed reached into his back catalog with “Romeo Had Juliette,” “Set the Twilight Reeling,” “Dirty Blvd,” and the encore, the only song from Transformer, “Perfect Day.”
As with Classic Albums: Transformer, the reviews for the original release of Live at Montreux 2000 rated the disc very high indeed, and rightly so. Much of the positive response centered on the players, the same core band from Ecstasy including Mike Rathke (guitar), Tony “Thunder” Smith (drums), and the astonishing Fernando Saunders (bass). With this four-piece band, you can expect a raw, straightforward sound, full of instrumental experiments along with some warts that remind listeners this was a live event. For example, during the lyrics of “Twilight,” about accepting that a lover has found a new man, Reed’s voice is conspicuously wobbly. This is more than made up for due to some very jazzy bass note jamming.
Even if you already own the 2001 and 2005 releases, there’s good reason to upgrade your Lou Reed collection with Classic Albums: Transformer + Live at Montreux 2000. Mainly, the re-issue is in an upscaled standard definition with uncompressed stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound. If you haven’t seen Live at Montreux 2000 before, it’s a serious treat to witness a very relaxed Reed, with no frills beyond a minimalist light show, deliver his journeys into the underbelly of urban life. There are those who think of Reed is a Godfather to Punk—a claim Reed despised—but the musicianship on stage in Montreux defies categorization beyond the very obvious umbrella of rock and roll. That’s how it all began and that’s what we bear witness to in this very worthwhile package.