Lewis Allan “Lou” Reed (March 2, 1942 – October 27, 2013) was an American musician, singer and songwriter. He was the guitarist, vocalist, and principal songwriter of the Velvet Underground, and his solo career spanned over fifty years. The Velvet Underground was unsuccessful during their active years, but gained a significant cult following to become one of the most widely acclaimed and influential bands in rock history. Brian Eno famously stated that, while the Velvet Underground’s debut album sold only 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band”.
Reed’s solo career began in 1972. He had a hit the following year with “Walk on the Wild Side”, but this level of mainstream commercial success was not repeated. Reed was known for his distinctive deadpan voice and poetic lyrics, and for pioneering and coining the term ostrich guitar tuning. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time included two albums by Reed as a solo artist: Transformer and Berlin, and also included the Velvet Underground albums The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground and Loaded.
Reed’s breakthrough album, Transformer, was released in November 1972. Transformer was co-produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, and it introduced Reed to a wider audience, especially in the UK. The hit single “Walk on the Wild Side” was an ironic yet affectionate salute to the misfits and hustlers who once surrounded Andy Warhol. When first introduced to Reed’s music, Bowie had said, “I had never heard anything quite like it. It was a revelation to me.”
Reed followed Transformer with the darker Berlin. Berlin is a concept album about two junkies in love in the city. The songs variously concern domestic violence (“Caroline Says I,” “Caroline Says II”), drug addiction (“How Do You Think It Feels”), adultery and prostitution (“The Kids”), and suicide (“The Bed”). Reed’s late-1973 European tour, featuring dual lead guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, mixed his Berlin material with older numbers. Response to Berlin at the time of its release was decidedly negative, with Rolling Stone pronouncing it “a disaster”. Since then the album has been critically re-evaluated, and in 2003 Rolling Stone included it in their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
After Berlin came two albums in 1974, a live record Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, and Sally Can’t Dance; the former containing performances of the Velvet Underground songs “Sweet Jane” and “Heroin” and would go on to become his biggest selling album. Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, featuring primarily Velvet Underground material, and its follow-up released in early 1975 Lou Reed Live, its time divided primarily between Transformer and Berlin songs, with only one Velvet Underground song, were both recorded at the same show (Academy Of Music, NYC December 21, 1973), and kept Lou Reed in the public eye with strong sales. The later expanded CD version of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal taken together with Lou Reed Live are the entirety of the show that night, although not in the running order it was performed.
As he had done with Berlin after Transformer, in 1975 Lou Reed responded to commercial success with a commercial failure, a double album of electronically generated audio feedback, Metal Machine Music. Critics interpreted it as a gesture of contempt, an attempt to break his contract with RCA or to alienate his less sophisticated fans. Reed claimed that the album was a genuine artistic effort, even suggesting that quotations of classical music could be found buried in the feedback. Lester Bangs declared it “genius”, though also psychologically disturbing. The album was reportedly returned to stores by the thousands after a few weeks.
1975’s Coney Island Baby was mainly a warm and mellow album, though for its characters Reed still drew on the underbelly of city life. At this time his lover was a transgender woman, Rachel, mentioned in the dedication of “Coney Island Baby” and appearing in the photos on the cover of Reed’s 1977 “best of” album, Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed. While Rock and Roll Heart, his 1976 debut for his new record label Arista, fell short of expectations, Street Hassle (1978) was a return to form in the midst of the punk scene he had helped to inspire.
The Bells (1979) featured jazz musician Don Cherry, and was followed the next year by Growing Up in Public with guitarist Chuck Hammer. In the early 1980s, Lou Reed worked with a number of innovative guitarists including Chuck Hammer and Robert Quine. Hammer appeared on Growing Up in Public (1980) and Quine appeared on The Blue Mask (1982) and Legendary Hearts (1983).
In June 1986, Lou Reed released Mistrial (co-produced with Fernando Saunders), a more commercial album than previous records. To support the release, he released two music videos: “No Money Down” and “The Original Wrapper”.
Following Warhol’s death after routine surgery in 1987, Reed again collaborated with John Cale on the biographical Songs for Drella (1990), Warhol’s nickname. The album marked an end to a 22-year estrangement from Cale.