The crash course: Five decades of Lou Reed

Lou Reed's career stretches five decades of wild experimentation and frank songwriting.

For the past five decades, Lou Reed has been a silent but daunting presence in the alternative scene. His work with the Velvet Underground in the 1960s may not have been commercial successful at the time but, in Brian Eno’s words, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies [of their record debut] started a band.” (Update: Brian never never really said that, but agrees with the sentiment.) His solo records in the 1970s established him further, and he continued collaborating with many artists up until his death. For a guy who wrote about the grimness of New York, and consistently pushed the boundaries, “impressive” doesn’t quite cover it. [NB]


“The Ostrich” by the Primitives | Arguably Reed’s first hit was “The Ostrich”, released in 1964 almost after graduating from Syracuse University. A parody of the dance hits of the time – the lyrics are, err, unsavory in a Halloween way – his bosses at Pickwick Records decided to promote it and formed a band around him, called the Primitives. Among those recruited was a Welsh musician named John Cale, and while the band didn’t last, their partnership would stretch the next five decades.


“Venus in Furs” by the Velvet Underground | The two, along with Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, formed the Velvet Underground in 1964. Their debut record, Velvet Underground & Nico, was released three years later, but was a commercial and critical failure, despite the involvement of Andy Warhol. It would take hindsight for the album to reach critical acceptance, thanks to its tackling of the seedier side of humanity – drug abuse and sexual deviancy were common topics – and its experimental leanings. Despite internal strife (John Cale was forced out after the second album, White Light/White Heat) and a poppier direction, the band established itself as one of the most influential, and they’re often cited by modern bands as an inspiration.


“Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed | Reed left the Velvet Underground in 1970 and struck out on his own. Arguably he made best use of his nonchalant singing and his provocative songwriting at this stage: his second solo record, 1972’s Transformer, became his most successful release, his tributes to the more unusual characters he was exposed to during his time with the Velvet Underground expressed with a jazzier, more downbeat sound. (Also see “Perfect Day”, purportedly about heroin.) He would release several more albums, each completely different from the last: a pop record here, a very experimental record next, but each drawing from New York’s underbelly, and his expanding knowledge as a musician. “I’m too literate to be into punk rock,” he once said, despite being arguably one of the guys that started the movement in the United States.


“Metal Machine Music, Part 1” by Lou Reed | Reed’s experimental tendencies often went very far. In 1975 he released Metal Machine Music, which is essentially an hour of guitar effects and feedback, with no discernible structure underneath. It was widely seen, then, as a joke, a way for him to get out of contractual obligations, and while it cost him some credibility, it is now considered the precursor to industrial music and modern sound art. Reed’s solo albums would swing wildly between the accessible (yet artistically sensible) to the experimental, from 1987’s Song for Drella (a collaboration with John Cale paying tribute to the now deceased Andy Warhol) to 2007’s Hudson River Wind Meditations, a meditation album, and his final solo release.


“The View” by Lou Reed and Metallica | Reed also continued collaborating with many artists throughout the decades, perhaps a not to his more recent status as one of rock music’s elder statesmen. His most recent release – Lulu, a collaboration with Metallica – was a widely-panned concept album featuring his songwriting and the band’s arrangements. In recent years he also worked with Gorillaz, the Killers and, most recently, Metric. And then there’s that moment when he directed the music video for Susan Boyle’s cover of “Perfect Day”. That song did him well: it was, most notably, covered by several artists for a BBC promotion (him included), and became a successful charity single.


“Last Night I Said Goodbye To My Friend” by the Velvet Underground | But it all goes back to the Velvet Underground. Fueled by Songs for Drella – the first time Reed and Cale worked together since the band broke up – the band reunited in 1992 and began touring Europe. The tour was still shaky – Reed and Cale would fall out again – but the band would continue as an entity managing rights to their records. The band would make one final performance in 1996, when they were inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; they performed this specially written song in tribute to Sterling Morrison, who died of non-Hodgkins’ lymphone the year before. Eighteen years later, Reed, the band’s principal songwriter, revealed he underwent a liver transplant, but admitted he might not completely recover. He died on 27 October at the age of 71.


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