When Lou Reed's Transformer was first released back in the early seventies, a lot of mainstream audiences must have wondered where this guy had sprung up from. After all, the Velvet Underground weren't a household name, and the one solo album he had released prior to Transformer had pretty much vanished without a trace.
It was shortly after his first solo effort had tanked that Lou was contacted by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, who had been playing guitar with Bowie, about being interested in producing his next solo project. Bowie at the time was enjoying extensive popularity in England as the leader of the glam rock movement, and for him to want to produce a seemingly unknown Yank must have seemed strange.
In Eagle Rock Entertainment's re-issue of Transformer, Bowie laughs as he remembers being very nervous about approaching this "unknown" American. Bowie had been a big fan of the Velvet Underground and thought the stuff that Lou Reed and the rest of them had been doing was brilliant.
Lou on the other hand remembers being equally nervous, because of Bowie's extreme popularity. He made a really funny comment about the differences in the public's perception of the two men. Bowie would perform with Lou to help him promote Transformer and Lou said, "People would throw, you know, like room keys and stuff to Bowie, me they they'd throw joints and needles to."
As with other DVDs in the Classic Album series, this one focuses on the creation of the record under discussion. Lou Reed's Transformer happens to contain some of his most well known songs, including "Satellite Of Love", "Perfect Day", "New York Telephone Conversation", and of course "Walk On The Wild Side."
While none of the songs are really that technically complex with any fancy studio tricks for people to be amazed by, there were still some interesting moments that were brought to light by listening to the masters in the studio. Of those, the one that will probably interest people the most is the description of how the bass line in "Walk On The Wild Side" was put together.
What has to be one of the more famous bass lines in pop music is actually a cheat; if you've ever heard a live version of "Wild Side" and something has sounded a little off, it's because you can't reproduce the bass live. It's two separate basses being played with one being overdubbed on top of the other while being recorded at a different speed. The opening line was done on the stand-up acoustic bass, while the second line was an electric.
Listen to the studio version of the song again, paying attention to the bass line. There will be moments in the song where it becomes a fuller, richer sound and then will switch back again. The irony is that what has become one of the most recognised bass lines in pop music was the result of a session player using an old trick. It wasn't any great composition or developed through any sort of writing process.
According to Mick Ronson and Lou himself, Reed had very little to do with the session musicians. He'd come in and play them the chords of the song to teach it to them, or to give them an idea of the melody and that would be the only involvement he'd have in creating the music for each number.
I personally found the most interesting part of this disc was the amount of time that was spent with Lou Reed. He's always seemed like such a fascinating man judging by the lyrics he'd written and the subject matter that he was willing to explore – not the stuff of your typical pop song. In some ways it always felt like he was an extension of people like Allen Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs.
He would write about people that most of society preferred to pretend didn't exist – gays, cross dressers, drug addicts, and other outcasts and miscreants. His lyrics were never judgemental, if they weren't sympathetic; they were at least not negative in portraying their attempts to have a life surrounded by a majority that hates them.
Everybody in "Walk On The Wild Side" exists, or existed, as the case maybe. They were all people who had been involved with Andy Warhol's Factory; a facility for creative expression in whatever form that would take, and a drop-in centre for New York's burgeoning underground artistic scene.
Reed never says in any of these interviews on the disc whether he had liked Warhol or not, but one thing you do get is that he had a lot of respect for Andy and had no problem acknowledging the debt he bore him for helping foster the career of the Velvet Underground. I think that Warhol's reputation suffered from the excesses of those around him at the Factory more than anything else and that he did have a unique ability to help people focus their artistic energies to make the most of their talent.
Aside from his observations on and about the people around Andy Warhol and the Factory, Lou of course talked about his songs and his creative process. To me he sounded far more like a poet than a songwriter. One of the people, an editor type from Rolling Stone magazine, talked about this fact in terms of his lyrics and music.
He said that unlike most pop music where the lyrics don't work without music because they are so integrated, Lou's words can and do stand alone. That is very similar to other poetic types like Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen, who have set their poetry to music, the only difference being that Lou never set his writing down on paper as poetry.
Perhaps it is because of that relationship between Lou Reed and his material that no matter how hard the documentary tried to bring its attention back to the actual business of recording Transformer, the focus kept on returning to Lou. In some ways what Classic Albums: Lou Reed – Transformer does is make you realize really how unimportant the music is in terms of the words Reed creates.
The lyrics to the songs on Transformer would have probably existed in one form or another even if the album had never been created. That the music does exist is a bonus for the rest of us as it increases our enjoyment of his words. Classic Albums: Lou Reed – Transformer is a great reminder of the singularly unique talent that is Lou Reed.