Lou Reed - Transformer - Review
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critics' view

By the standards he’d set with the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed’s self-titled debut LP in April ’70 was, as good as it was, a bit of a plain-Jane affair, literally recorded with Yes men. By sheer contrast, the follow-up, “Transformer”, out just 6 months later, was way-ahead in every department – production, quality of songs, invention and delivery. So perfect is the first side of this LP, it probably stands in my All-Time Top 5 of album sides. Again, Lou recorded this one in London, but this time he chose his cohorts wisely, falling in with David Bowie and Mick Ronson – the album’s co-producers – who were into Lou’s work and also had loads of their own ideas to bring to the party.

The Warholian influence remains strong throughout the LP, and is apparent from the off on “Vicious” with a brilliant throwaway lyric straight from Andy’s head: “Vicious, you hit me like a flower” juxtaposed with the threatening proto-punk assault from the guitars of Lou and Mick. The sublime “Perfect Day” can be taken innocently as an ode to a beautiful romance or sinisterly to a deadly dalliance; adjust as per your mood of the moment. Mick Ronson’s string arrangements showcase a master craftsman at work; clearly, he’s not your average filthy Rock n Roll animal. Talking of which, “Hangin’ Round” gets the punk action back on track immediately. It’s a super-cool cut – a pop “Waiting For My Man” if you will. On the surface Lou sounds bugged by the presence of an unwanted old friend – I wonder who was “hangin’ round?” The buoyancy of this track is underpinned by some of that “Zimmerman humour” that he’s got running throughout his work – check these lines: “Harry was a rich young man who would become a priest, he dug up his dear father who was recently deceased, he did it with tarot cards and a mystically attuned mind”. Brilliant! “Cathy was a bit surreal, she painted all her toes, and on her face she wore dentures clamped tightly to her nose, and when she finally spoke her twang her glasses broke”. No doubt, somewhere there is a real-life Cathy wincing and, if she has a good sense of humour, smiling.

Closing side 1 is the radically different “Walk on The Wild Side”, as Lou once again reaches to Warhol’s New York scene for inspiration as trans-genders, hustlers, drug dealers and users are immortalized in song. As if the brilliant lyrics and vocals weren’t enough, the stunning framework provided by Herbie Flowers (double bass); Ronnie Ross (baritone sax) and Mick Ronson (strings) raise the work to “masterpiece” level. And, of course, who can forget all the colour girls going “doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo”. Incidentally, Dari, Karen and Casey (collectively known as the vocal trio, Thunderthighs) were as white as English snow (I do love a bit of trivia).

The second side of this LP was always going to be up against it, but has a great go, and in a completely different atmosphere. Campy cabaret abounds, clearly with a nod and a wink to the burgeoning UK glam-scene. “Make Up” and “Goodnight Ladies” are great additions to the album’s overall ambience. With “Transformer”, Lou Reed’s baffling and unjust run of commercial failures came to an end. For once, the public showed great taste, as the album went Top 30 both in the States and in the UK. Thankfully, his typing jobs at $40 a week were now consigned to the past…

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