There is little left to be said regarding the influence left behind by The Velvet Underground, a band so ahead of their time that their concepts of drone, improvisation, minimalism, alternative guitar tunings, metronomic drumming, layers of harsh distortion and later use of intimate reverb arguably lay the foundations to what many consider to be modern independent music, giving birth to noise rock, dream pop and everything in between. However, the band itself would not have the same kind of respect, reputation or relevancy had they not incorporated these experimental ideas into fully fleshed-out, timeless songs.
Behind many of the most memorable melodies (and, in some cases, anti-melodies) was singer/songwriter and guitarist Lou Reed. After releasing an eponymous debut featuring songs originally intended for The Velvets, Reed unleashed Transformer in 1972. Despite being produced by dedicated fan David Bowie, the album is not as “glam” as one would expect. All the better for it, as the songs on Transformer remain fresh and exciting as opposed to overproduced and over-the-top.
There is a lushness present that was otherwise absent or underplayed in previous V.U. recordings, particularly on the singles “Perfect Day” and “Satellite of Love,” featuring string and piano arrangements. Fortunately, Reed’s fragile crooning grounds these songs and keeps them from becoming the kind of grandiose ballads that eventually implode. On the contrary, opener “Vicious,” as its title implies, and “Hangin’ Round” are just as raw and driving as anything off of White Light/White Heat, while songs like “Make Up” and “Goodnight Ladies” recall the glitz of early Roxy Music, complete with subtle and subdued sax riffs.
Bowie may have attempted to craft a sound for Reed that was more accessible to the mainstream, but the content on Transformer remains exclusively for the left field. Take “Walk on the Wild Side,” for instance, a narrative concerning gender ambiguity that, oddly enough, became a regular on the radio. Quite the rarity for the ever eccentric and eclectic Lou Reed. While not nearly as forward-thinking (or inconsistent) as his work with The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed’s solo output successfully takes the foundations laid by his former outfit and harnesses them into cohesive bodies of work that still manage to rock without becoming dreaded “classic rock.” Transformer has recently been reissued and is now available at Sweat Records. Fans should also check out Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, a gritty collection of live performances featuring renditions of several Velvet Underground classics. –Kelvin K.