Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Late Great Lou Reed

Lou Reed, pioneering rock performer and leader of The Velvet Underground, died today the age of 71. The cause was liver disease.

Lou Reed was born on 2 March 1942 in Brooklyn, New York. He grew up in the village of Freeport, New York on Long Island. He discovered rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues while he was very young, learning to play guitar. He played rhythm guitar with various bands in high school, including The Eldorados, Pasha and the Prophets, and a doo-wop band initially called The Shades, but later renamed The Jades. It was with The Jades in 1957 that Mr. Reed recording his first song, "So Blue". He attended Syracuse University, where he studied English and Modern Philosophy. He was also the host of a jazz programme on the university radio station. While at Syracuse he befriended critic and poet Delmore Schwartz, who would prove a lasting influence on him.

After graduating from Syracuse in 1964 Mr. Reed took a job as a songwriter with Pickwick Records. The small, Long Island record label had designs of being a hit factory, and followed whatever trends were in the music industry at the moment. While at Pickwick Records, Lou Reed wrote or co-wrote such varied songs as the Chuck Berry inspired "Cycle Annie", a dance song parody entitled "The Ostrich", and the surf music influenced "I've Got A Tiger In My Tank". While Mr. Reed worked only briefly for Pickwick Records, it was there that he got his first experience in a recording studio. It was also at Pickwick Records that he wrote his first songs with future Velvet Underground song writing partner John Cale. It was also while they were at Pickwick Records that Messrs. Reed and Cale founded their first band together, The Primitives.

It was in 1964 that Lou Reed and John Cale formed a new band that included guitarist and bassist Sterling Morrison and percussionist Angus MacLise. Initially called The Warlocks and later The Falling Sparks, the band received the name by which it would be forever known in November 1965. It was John Cale's friend filmmaker Tony Conrad who introduced the band to a paperback book on paraphilia, The Velvet Underground by Michael Leigh. It was Angus MacLise who suggested they adopt they renamed the band after the book's title and as a result they became The Velvet Underground.

The Velvet Underground would see a few changes before they received a recording contract. Angus MacLise did not remain with The Velvet Underground for long, and was replaced by  Maureen Tucker. It was in 1966 that artist Andy Warhol saw them performing at the Café Bizarre in Greenwich Village, and made them part of his  multimedia show The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. It was largely due to Mr. Warhol's influence that The Velvet Underground received a recording contract with MGM/Verve in 1966. It was also at Mr. Warhol's insistence that Nico sang some of the songs on their first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico. Released in March 1967, The Velvet Underground and Nico featured subject matter that was shocking at the time, including carnal lust, drug addiction, and sado-masochism. The album featured a wide array of styles, from pop rock ("Sunday Morning") to ballads ("I'll Be Your Mirror") to garage rock ("Waiting for the Man").  The Velvet Underground and Nico performed somewhat respectfully well for a debut album, reaching #171 on the Billboard albums chart.

It was after the release of The Velvet Underground and Nico that the band broke with Andy Warhol. They recorded their second album, White Light/White Heat, in two days in January 1968. Like the first album it dealt with subject matter that had previously been forbidden in pop music (everything from drug abuse to transsexualism), although it was musically far more experimental. By the time of their self titled third album The Velvet Underground had moved from MGM's subsidiary Verve to MGM Records. The album was also a dramatic departure from the band's first two records. The songs were gentler and more melodic. The subject matter of The Velvet Underground would also be less controversial than the band's first two albums, with songs that tended to be more reflective. Indeed, the album even included a few love songs. Unfortunately, The Velvet Underground sold poorly, not even hitting the Billboard Top 200 albums chart.

In 1969 The Velvet Underground would find themselves dropped by MGM, along with  Eric Burdon and the Animals and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. The band was then signed by Atlantic Records. It would be that label that would release the last studio album Lou Reed recorded with The Velvet Underground. Loaded was released on the Atlantic subsidiary Coalition in November 1970. Loaded was a much more traditional rock record for The Velvet Underground and produced two of their most popular songs, "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll". Unfortunately, Loaded was also re-edited and resequenced without Lou Reed's permission, and its compositions were credited to The Velvet Underground rather than Lou Reed himself. John Cale having left the band in 1968, Lou Reed would leave The Velvet Underground in 1970. The Velvet Underground would continue to exist until 1973 with Doug Yule as lead vocalist, but its glory years were over.

Lou Reed spent the next two years as a typist in his father's office. It was in 1971 that he signed a contract with RCA Records. His first solo album, Lou Reed, was released in June 1972. His second solo album, Transformer, was released in November of that year, and proved to be his first hit. Produced by David Bowie and Mark Ronson, it went to #29 on the Billboard albums chart and produced the hit single "Walk on the Wild Side". Lou Reed's next album, Berlin would only reach #98 on the Billboard albums chart, but his fourth solo album would prove to be his biggest hit to date. Sally Can't Dance went to #10 on the Billboard albums chart. His following album, Metal Machine Music, was entirely guitar feedback played at differing speeds. It did not perform well. It was followed by Coney Island Baby in 1975, which went to #41 on the Billboard albums chart.

Lou Reed moved from RCA Records to Arista, his first album on the label being 1976's Rock 'n' Roll Heart. His following album, Street Hassle, was the first to use binaural recording technology. He recorded two more albums while with Arista, The Bells and Growing Up Public. With 1982's The Blue Mask Mr. Reed returned to RCA. With RCA he recorded in the Eighties he recorded the albums Legendary Hearts, New Sensations, and Mistrial. Lou Reed contributed songs to the animated feature Rock & Rule, released in 1983.

Lou Reed then moved to Sire Records. His first album on Sire, New York, produced a hit single in the form of "Dirty Blvd." His next album, Songs for Drella, saw Mr. Reed exploring his past. He reunited with John Cale on the album, and the album itself was a concept album centred around Andy Warhol ("Drella" was a nickname given to Mr. Warhol by actor Ondine). His next album would also deal with his past. Magic and Loss (released in 1992) was inspired by the illness and death of Mr. Reed's friend (and legendary songwriter) Doc Pomus, and a woman only called Rita (sometimes assumed to be Rotten Rita of Andy Warhol's Factory),

Following Magic and Loss Lou Reed's output slowed considerably. He released only two more albums in the Nineties:  Set the Twilight Reeling in 1996 and Ecstasy in 2000. From the Naughts to the Teens he released three more albums: The Raven from 2003 (a concept album inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe); Hudson River Wind Meditations from 2007 (it was a collection of meditational music), and Lulu (a collaboration with Metallica).

It is quite possible that Lou Reed was one of the most influential rock musicians and songwriters of all time. He was certainly a pioneer. In an era when The Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together" and The Standells' "Try It" were considered controversial, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground were recording songs with much more controversial subject matter than mere sexual desire. Lou Reed pushed the envelope on what was considered acceptable in rock music, writing songs that dealt with such forbidden subjects at the time as drug abuse, prostitution, homosexuality  transexualism, and sado-masochism. During his solo career Lou Reed continued to address subjects not generally addressed by pop music at the time, everything from domestic abuse to psychiatric hospitals. That having been said, it would be a mistake to think that Lou Reed did not write gentler material. He could write love songs, as demonstrated by "Coney Island Baby". And he did have a sense of humour, taking the mickey out of his imitators with "NY Stars".

It is probably impossible to measure the entirety of Lou Red's influence on rock music. While he is often cited as having a major impact on the development of punk, it would be hard to find a subgenre of rock in which Mr. Reed did not have an impact. He was very important to glam rock, influencing such artists as David Bowie and T. Rex. He was also pivotal in the development of New Wave, having an impact on artists (most notably The Talking Heads). Lou Reed would even prove to be an influence on power pop, providing inspiration for artists from Big Star to Matthew Sweet. Artists as diverse as Iggy Pop and The Stooges, MC5, Roxy Music, The New York Dolls, The Sex Pistols, R.E.M., and Sonic Youth took inspiration from Mr. Reed. Only a very few artists could boast having had the impact on rock music the way that Lou Reed did. Rock musicians are often called pioneers and legends. In Lou Reed's case, both were true.

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