Lou Reed: The Phantom Of Rock In The '70s

Kris Needs remembers the songwriter's turbulent decade...
Lou Reed

“I don’t remember anything about the ’70s,” said Lou Reed when asked by a former promoter about a gig he’d played at his club in mid-1972. That’s quite possible as, looking back at that decade, Reed seemed to be more famous for his drug intake, fluctuating weight and raging battles with journalists like Lester Bangs. His albums were patchy but never stood still, always moving on to new sounds and subject matter, occasionally throwing up a classic like ‘Street Hassle’ or a stroke of controversial genius like ‘Metal Machine Music’.

It was Reed’s first decade as a solo artist, a time of change and escalating outrage starting with glam and climaxing with punk. Reed could claim instigation rights on both, especially the latter. But he’d begun the decade by quitting the Velvet Underground, leaving Reed-clone Doug Yule to lead a line-up which soon only included Mo Tucker from the original band. After working for a while as a typist at his father’s tax accounting firm he eased back into music by signing a deal with RCA, resulting in 1972’s ‘Lou Reed’ album recorded in London with Yes members Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe plus session guys, containing several re-recorded Velvets songs like ‘Ocean’ along with the odd classic like ‘Wild Child’. There was little of the Velvets’ danger or invention. In fact, Lou now sounded quite normal.

All that was set to change when David Bowie visited New York that year and met Reed, along with Andy Warhol who introduced him to the whole transsexual underground scene which would prove such a big influence on Ziggy Stardust. A big fan of Reed’s, Bowie started playing ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ and later ‘White Light/White Heat’ at his shows. He felt that Lou had been poorly represented on his debut album and, as he would with Iggy Pop and Wayne County, brought him under the wing of his new manager Tony DeFries [although he was never his manager] and over to the UK. Here’s where it gets confusing, for both public and Lou, as when Reed popped up as special guest at Bowie’s breakthrough gig at London’s Royal Festival Hall, the hollow-cheeked be-shaded Lower East Side underbelly-chronicler came trotting out in a black velvet rhinestone-emblazoned suit and vast amounts of slap.

The same apparition greeted me on July 29th when, following a successful show at London’s Scala where he came on at around three in the morning, Reed played Friars Aylesbury, my local club where Bowie had played to a plane-load of US journalists two weeks earlier and Roxy Music would follow a week later. Backed by American band The Tots, featuring a rather annoying gangling bassist in white satin suit pulling similar moves to Mick Ronson with Bowie, Reed started with ‘White Light/White Heat’. The legend had been stoking anticipation in the town for weeks and it was lift-off from here on. Although not yet enjoying the kind of mythical Godfather of punk status he would later, Reed was already the consummate icon, although unsettling with his immersion into Bowie’s world of transsexual tease. But that came from New York in the first place, so why shouldn’t he? ‘Vicious’ trailered the new album while ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ was slowed to a decadent crawl.

The set moved through more recent songs like ‘Walk And Talk It’ and more Velvets classics including ‘Sweet Jane’ and a seizure-inducing ‘Heroin’, which he later said he still felt every time he played it. The typically-ecstatic reaction of the crowd, the reason so many bands cited the gig as their favourite place to play, visually relaxed Lou, who started slipping in camp hand gestures and jigging about. By the encore of ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’ we knew we were in the presence of greatness.

Afterwards I made my way up to the dressing room [I seem to recall sporting black satin jacket, green velvet loon pants and lots of slap myself!]. A bit trepidatiously I approached the man who’d provided the soundtrack to my adolescence and congratulated him on the show. He smiled and said he’d love to come back and even signed my ticket. First time I’d met one of my heroes!

Reed’s new panda-eyed image would adorn the sleeve of ‘Transformer’, the album which Bowie produced for Reed that year, spawning unlikely hit single ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, his smooth jazz narrative on Warhol’s subterranean characters. The album was characteristic of the quick-dried productions Bowie and Ronson were applying to themselves and Mott The Hoople, whose career Bowie resuscitated the same year with ‘All The Young Dudes’.

The Bowie connection undoubtedly assisted Reed to rise back into public vision. It has to be remembered that the hit single was the first time many had heard his name as the Velvets had almost totally flown beneath the radar during their glory days. Reed wasn’t entirely comfortable with sudden pop stardom or even the kissy-pics with his saviour, despite an initial publicity flurry, which pictured him in diaphanous costumes and lipstick accompanied by wildly camp journalist-baiting.

Next time I saw him at Dunstable Civic Hall later in the year he’d ditched most of the makeup and glitter suit in favour of a brown leather ensemble and earthier approach. Plus I’ll always remember the shiver I got up the old spinal column when he kicked up the opening chords to ‘Sister Ray’, delivered much slower with terrible menace.

He was already emerging as an entertaining interview, telling NME’s Nick Kent, as he knocked back double scotches with a vengeance, that he was honoured to be in the same Who Will Be The Next Rock Casualty top ten as Keith Richards, deflating ‘Transformer’’s gay overtones and dropping quotes like, “I’ve always been cheap and decadent.”

With his confidence back, Lou was already moving on. His next move almost seemed designed to annihilate any pop idol status he may have acquired presenting a tour de force which transcended any rock rules: ‘Berlin’. “If I hadn’t got it out of my head I would have exploded,” Lou later told Nick Kent. Wildly ambitious for the time with Bob Ezrin’s lavish orchestration, it was a truly draining experience to sit through side two with its harrowing events climaxing the tale of domestic violence, drug abuse, adultery, violence and suicide which, after initially being derided at the time, has emerged through the years as enough of a masterpiece to present as a full, extravagant production in 2007. He didn’t do that then, preferring to play Hammersmith Odeon with a new band and drawl through the same set with some additions from the new album. This was the infamous panda phase, Lou still sporting leather but puffed out with heavy makeup now applied less subtly, looking like nothing less than a giant panda at Halloween.

Lou was fairly bamboozled by the blank negativity which greeted ‘Berlin’, scarred for life even, later telling one journalist, “The way that album was overlooked was the biggest disappointment I ever faced. From that point on there was nothing anybody could do that would affect me. I pulled the blinds SHUT at that point. And they’ve remained closed. There’s really no talking to me now. I don’t care what people write about me any more. I have no respect whatsoever for their opinions.” Thus began his unhidden contempt for the press that has remained ever since. If anything, this current production is a face-rubbing act of revenge and closure on a defining moment in the convoluted Lou Reed story.

But he got some kind of commercial recompense in March 1974 when he emerged with the ‘Rock ‘N’ Animal’ album. Produced by Bob Ezrin, it featured the twin guitar bombast of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner on new arrangements of Velvets classics like ‘Heroin’ and ‘Sweet Jane’ plus ‘Berlin’ songs. Looking like some kind of gutter Frankenstein on the sleeve, it heralded a new phase as major live attraction.

Lou was now wholeheartedly in the strangest phase of his career, blowing out from booze before deciding to go on a crash diet involving copious amounts of pure, system-annihilating speed. Suddenly he looked like a concentration camp victim, his other-worldliness exaggerated by a brutal crop of his curly locks, first dyed black then with World War One iron crosses branded into the side and finally bleached blonde. During ‘Heroin’ he whipped out a cord and syringe and mimed banging up. Nick Kent heralded the new-look Lou in NME, describing, “the face which possessed not only the most uniquely grey decayed fleshly pallor I’ve yet to witness on any human visage coupled with disturbingly prominent cheekbones, but also a fixed glazed look of pure zombie collapse. The body was skinny and emaciated beyond reasonable belief.” He goes on like this for paragraphs before concluding, “I’ve never seen a man so utterly paralysed, so useless, so godamn close to death as Reed was that night.”

Again almost in direct retaliation to the preceding album, Reed introduced an R&B feel to the September 1974’s ‘Sally Can’t Dance’ album. Dismissed at first as flimsy, it’s now another fascinating piece of the Reed jigsaw with zombie ballad ‘Ennui’ and nasty ‘Kill Your Sons’ shining as twisted mini-masterpieces beneath the unsympathetically overcooked production.

I saw him play a couple of times around this time. He supported The Who at a one-day event at Charlton football ground. The figure who staggered into the mid-afternoon sunshine was indeed quite shocking; pencil-thin in black studded leather jacket, blonde crop and shades [completely foreshadowing the oncoming punk uniform by two years]. He auto-piloted through ‘Sweet Jane’, ‘Vicious’, ‘Sally Can’t Dance’, ‘Lady Day’ and ‘Heroin’, which was weirdly placed in bright sunlight. He also played two nights at the Rainbow Theatre. The Saturday night had a better sound and band than the previous gigs although Lou had trouble keeping his shades on. As if to quash the rumours he added a discreet “don’t you believe it” after the, “When I’m closing in death” line in ‘Heroin’ [and apparently dropped his strides and flashed his arse at the crowd the following night!].

The following year saw the ultimate two-fingered salute at record company, fans and press with ‘Metal Machine Music’…or so it seemed with 16.01 on each side swathed in Reed’s relentless grinding feedback drone. Obviously dismissed as a cruel joke, Lou maintained its worth as an artistic statement and it’s true: if you listen beyond the racket there’s a wealth of melodies and musical ghosts jostling and shagging in its aural onslaught. I used to find it quite cathartic, simply a continuation of the Lamonte Young dronescapes favoured by John Cale and I won’t hear a bad word about it!

1975 also saw Reed’s infamous battles with Lester Bangs, printed here in the NME. “Lou Reed is a completely depraved pervert and pathetic death dwarf – a wasted talent living off the dumbbell nihilism of a ’70s generation that doesn’t have the energy to commit suicide,” wrote Lester about the man he says is his hero in the same piece [“because he stands for all the most screwed up things that I could ever possibly conceive of.”]. “You really are an asshole, Lester”, countered Lou as the two jousted on chemical components in various strains of amphetamine derivative. It was certainly the most entertaining, hilarious feature of that year. Another gig at Hammersmith in March was compelling and sharp in this barren period for real music. No matter how emaciated or podgy, speeding or drunk, Reed always turned in nothing less than a good show that was much more than car crash TV.

The ’70s saw more Reed albums as punk exploded. “I’d mastered the art of negative punk with Warhol, and that stuff is so cute,” he told Melody Maker’s Caroline Coon. Now Reed could be held up as godfather along with his old Mainman colleague Iggy Pop. ‘Coney Island Baby’ [another New York underworld album dedicated to current transexual lover Rachel] and ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Heart’ were good rock albums imbued with a sense of humour so dry it was barely visible but not classics then, just as he liked to piss on any momentum that might be gaining steam, Reed employed reverse tactics in April 1978 and dropped ‘Street Hassle’, whose twelve-minute suite title track was, to my mind, the most compellingly-atmospheric thing he’d done since the Velvets. Semi-spoken, orchestral and wildly ambitious, with even Bruce Springsteen popping up in one of the sections, it showed that Reed’s powers as a writer not only exceeded his career as a rock performer but cemented him up there with greats like Burroughs and Ginsberg. New York street dirt translated into evocative lines that loved a sting in the tail. “I’m told that I’m a parody of myself but who better to parody?” he said. “I can do Lou Reed better than most people and a lot of people try.”

Reed compounded that milestone with the ‘Take No Prisoners’ live double album, which was the total opposite of the previous live albums in that he now stretched the songs into lengthy vehicles for his cutting, hilarious narratives, often recalling Lenny Bruce’s razor-rants. He closed the decade by collaborating with Nils Lofgren on ‘The Bells’ [ending with the criminally-overlooked free jazz dissonance of the title track featuring jazz great Don Cherry, who the following year would tour the UK with Ian Dury].

For Lou Reed the ’70s were a period of mad pinball changes and statements in image and music, success and failure, hilarious demolition of hapless journos and, above all, a way with words matched by few in musical history, both on record and in the press. When he wanted to. It’s a shame Lou can’t remember the ’70s. He was fun. 

Words: Kris Needs

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A version of this piece first appeared in Clash Magazine back in 2008. Find an archive Lou Reed interview on Clash HERE.

The latest issue of Clash Magazine is available to purchase online - click HERE for details.

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