Artist Spotlight: Lou Reed

Lou Reed is a fascinating artist. His music broke rules, whether they be societal bound of acceptability or musical conventions. But above all else, Lou Reed is one of rock’s great storytellers. He invented characters with practically every song, all of whom were unique and interesting, and this solid backing as a narrative expert is what allowed the more subversive aspects of his music to succeed.

Lou Reed’s first widely-distributed work, and, many would say, his greatest, was done with a New York band called the Velvet Underground. You may have heard of them. Though the band never achieved widespread popularity during its lifetime, it managed to influence countless rock artists who came after.

The Velvet Underground originally consisted of Reed on vocals and lead guitar (as well as songwriting for the most part), John Cale (who went on to have a fruitful solo career of his own) on bass, Sterling Morrison on rhythm guitar, and Maureen “Moe” Tucker on drums. On their first album, The Velvet Undergroundand Nico, they were joined on three tracks by German vocalist Nico, hence the title. This album was produced by legendary pop artist Andy Warhol, who employed the Velvets as the house band at his Factory. (Warhol would be fired after this album, but would go on to be a friend and mentor to Reed until Warhol’s death). The Velvet Underground and Nico told the stories of the dark, seedy underbelly of New York City, while maintaining a musically avant-garde edge (“European Son”), courtesy of John Cale. Reed’s lyrics dealt with kinky sex (“Venus in Furs”), drugs (“Heroin”, “Run Run Run”), paranoia (“Sunday Morning”) and general darkness (“Black Angel’s Death Song”). However, the tracks where Nico sang showed a gentler, sweeter side (“I’ll Be Your Mirror”, “Femme Fatale”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”). The most famous track from the album is below.
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After ditching Warhol and Nico, the VU released another album: White Light/White Heat. This one is only six tracks, though the final one (“Sister Ray”) makes up for it by being 17 minutes long. Cale becomes a bigger creative voice here, showing his avant-garde leanings on the spoken-word track “The Gift”, and even doing lead vocals on “Lady Godiva’s Operation”. The combination of Reed’s character-focused lyrics and Cale’s noisy arrangements comes to a perfect head on the fifth track, included below.
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The egotistical Reed wanted to be the only creative voice in the Velvet Underground, so he kicked Cale out of the band after White Light/White Heat. Soon after, the band released their third album, simply titled The Velvet Underground, with bassist Doug Yule. Reed’s lyrics take center stage here, paired with minimalist arrangements. Gone are both the lyrical harshness of Nico and the sonic harshness of White Light/White Heat. Instead, Reed sings about self-doubt (“Candy Says”), the qualities of romance (“Some Kinda Love”), religion (“Jesus”), and his changing worldview (“Beginning to See the Light”, “I’m Set Free”). This is the Lou-Reediest Velvet Underground album; his creative vision achieves some of its purest expression here. Included below is one of the most popular songs off this album.
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Before Reed and Morrison left, the Velvet Underground recorded one more album. With Tucker on maternity leave (replaced by Angus MacLisle), only two original members remained. Yule joined Reed as a songwriter on this album, which would be called Loaded, as the record company wanted it “loaded with hits”. It actually did end up containing two popular singles, one of which is included below. Where The Velvet Underground was gentle and calm, Loadedwas outright joyous. Songs like “Rock and Roll” and “New Age” celebrated life and all it had to give, and the band’s grand finale, “Oh Sweet Nuthin’”, saw destitution as nothing but a source of opportunity. Loaded is a flawed album, with a fair bit of filler, but its highs are possibly the highest that the Velvet Underground had.

After leaving the VU (who recorded one more album, Squeeze, with no original members left), Reed began a solo career. He first released a solid but unimpressive self-titled album, followed shortly by the bona fide classic Transformer, produced by none other than David Bowie (who saw the Velvets as a major inspiration). Transformer was a landmark album for the LGBT community (Reed himself was bisexual) and other societal outcasts, particularly the tracks “Walk on the Wild Side” (included below) and “Make Up”. Bowie’s production lends each track a different feel, whether they be soaring ballads like “Perfect Day”, jazzy croons like “Goodnight Ladies”, or hard rockers like “Hangin’ Round” or “Vicious”. The whole album (with the possible exception of “Perfect Day”) maintains a playful, coy tone, furthering its subversiveness.

Reed did one of the biggest musical 180s of all time after Transformer, recording another classic in the process. This album was called Berlin, and it was a concept album, based around expanding the story of a song of the same title from Lou Reed. Berlin tells the story of a doomed marriage between two characters named Jim and Caroline, who fall in love and quickly fall out. Caroline cheats on Jim, and Jim beats Caroline, and eventually their children are taken away from them, causing Caroline to commit suicide. As you can tell, this is a rather dark album. (Possibly the darkest track, “The Kids,” is included below.) Its instrumentation is different from every other Reed album; it has a jazz feel with a prominent horn section.
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Reed would move into fairly traditional rock and roll, while keeping his racy themes, after the release of Berlin. One of the best albums from this period is called Coney Island Baby, and while it contains a lot of good songs, all are overshadowed by the titular ballad that closes out the album (included below). Many would consider this one of Reed’s finest songs, or even his single finest. It’s barely sung, almost spoken, and its unbelievably poetic lyrics speak of life, the universe, and everything. It’s a must-listen.
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In the 80’s, beginning with the album The Blue Mask, Reed began to clean up his act a little. Sex was out of the picture, and when drugs came up (such as in the track included below), they were condemned. However, this didn’t ruin the music. Reed still had stories to tell, and he told them well, just not as brilliantly as he did in the Seventies.
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Lou Reed had been a political activist basically by default. His support of the LGBT community wasn’t something he made grand statements about; it was just something he took for granted. That all changed with 1989’s New York. This album railed against hypocrisy (“Good Evening Mr. Waldheim”,
“Strawman”), environmental decay (“Last Great American Whale”), AIDS (“Halloween Parade”), apathy (“There is No Time”, included below), and poverty (“Dirty Blvd”, “Xmas in February”). This is one of Reed’s finest solo albums, but its trajectory would not last.
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The best Reed album to come after New York is one called Magic and Loss, inspired by both Reed’s experience with the occult and the deaths of two close friends. Magic and Loss is a hard listen, but a worthwhile one. It’s full of both joy at the wonders of the world and melancholy reflections on its sad side, and the two come together in the self-titled final track. Included is one of the album’s finest sad moments, “Magician”.

The last notable album released by Reed (after this he only released gimmicks and collaborations) was an album called Ecstasy. Reed seems to have finally found some inner peace with this one, as its lyrics are generally happy, even, well, ecstatic. The most ecstatic moment comes in the album’s closer, “Big Sky”, which is included below.
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Hope you enjoyed this! If you did, or if you didn’t, feel free to ask questions or make comments.