“One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”
Over the last few days my Facebook timeline has been littered with tributes for Lou Reed, who died on Sunday 27 October, from a wider assortment of lefties than for anything I can remember for a long time. There’s a message in there somewhere which Reed would no doubt have delighted in deconstructing.
I discovered Lou Reed almost by accident in my mid-teens, when I bought a copy of Transformer, his first hit album as a solo artist, mainly because it was produced by my real idol at the time, David Bowie.
Though he admired and worked with Bowie, his work was very different. Where Bowie tended towards creating fantasy, Reed sang about the here and now; life as he experienced and observed it.
I was fascinated by the songs of the dark underbelly of New York on that album, and the realisation that this was music not destined for hours of airplay on the BBC – and music you didn’t want your parents to know you were listening to! The songs were challenging and at times surreal – images of prostitution and drug use were interspersed with poems of real beauty about love and friendship, with even some humour thrown in. The album contained arguably his best-known songs, Perfect Day and Walk on the Wild Side.
My fascination inevitably led me back to the Velvet Underground, the band that Reed formed in the 60’s with a Welsh viola player called John Cale, and which came under the tutelage of Andy Warhol. A band years ahead of its time.
The Velvet Underground were never commercially successful. The first album, produced by Andy Warhol, and featuring on vocals an Austrian model called Nico, sold just 30,000 copies. But, as Brian Eno remarked, ‘all of those 30,000 people formed a band”.
In reality, the Velvet Underground’s music did not fit with the music of the Summer of Love which was coming out of the west coast of the US in the mid to late 60’s. Reed wrote and sang about “difficult” subjects – drugs, violence, pain, rejection, and a host of sexual themes, including transsexuality, well before Bowie ever got around to it. Today’s stars are sexualised by big business to make money; Reed wrote and sang about sex honestly and on his own terms.
The music was mainly harsh guitar, leavened with Cale’s screechy strings and Maureen Tucker’s drums.
There was always a sense that Reed was drawing on some of his own background. When he was in his teens his parents sent him for electro-convulsive therapy to “cure” him of his rebelliousness and “homosexual tendencies”.
The Velvet Underground went on to make a number of albums and produced brilliant songs like Sweet Jane, Heroin, I’m Waiting for the Man, Venus in Furs and Pale Blue Eyes. They were also prolific live performers and concert albums (official and bootleg) are available. None of the albums sold but their influence is incalculable.
When Reed went solo he was happy to embrace glam rock for a time, but in reality his influence went much further. Later on, his work became noticeably more political in character with lines like this from the song Dirty Blvd –
“Give me your tired your poor I’ll piss on ’em
That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says……”
Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground can be heard in punk and in the work of artists as diverse as Bowie, Morrissey and Joy Division. In a time when popular music is “autotuned” and performers are treated as commodities to make money for corporations, Reed was an original, a one-off, who made his own rules.
Lewis Allen Reed
2 March 1942 – 27 October 2013
If you want to get into Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground try the first album (with the banana on the cover!). Another great album is Loaded.
For solo work, there’s Transformer, the very depressing Berlin and the very political New York.