Lou Reed – in concert at l’Olympia, Paris – May 25, 1974 – Radio France International -Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
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Lou Reed this weekend. One of the touchstones of the 70s, whose work with The Velvet Underground helped define the 60’s, Lou Reed was one of those forces who pointed in directions that were new and urgent. Rolling Stone was quoted as saying he “fused street-level urgency with elements of European avant-garde music, marrying beauty and noise, while bringing a whole new lyrical honesty to rock & roll poetry.”
That nails it.
As a member of the The Velvet Underground in the 1960s, Reed broke new ground for the rock genre in several important dimensions, introducing more mature and intellectual themes to what was then considered a largely simplistic genre of music.
In 1964 Reed moved to New York City and began working as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records. In 1964 he scored a minor hit with the single “The Ostrich”, a parody of popular dance songs of the time, which included lines such as “put your head on the floor and have somebody step on it.”
Reed first found prominence as the guitarist and principal singer-songwriter of The Velvet Underground. The band, which lasted from 1965 until 1973 (with Reed departing in late 1970 after the Loaded sessions), gained relatively little notice during its life but is often considered the seed from which most alternative and underground traditions of rock music sprang. As the Velvet’s songwriter, Reed wrote about such taboo subjects as S&M (Venus in Furs), transvestites and transsexuals (Sister Ray, and Lady Godiva’s Operation), prostitution (There She Goes Again), and drug addiction (I’m Waiting for the Man, White Light/White Heat, Heroin).
As a guitarist, he made innovative use of abrasive distortion, volume-driven feedback, and nonstandard tunings. Reed’s flat, New York voice, stripped of superficial emotions and, like Bob Dylan’s, flaunting its lack of conventional training, was no less important to the music’s radical effect. One of rock’s most volatile personalities, Reed made inconsistent albums that frustrated critics. The reputation he established more than forty years ago with The Velvet Underground has both haunted and elevated him to near-mythic stature.
Reed began a long and varied solo career in 1972. He scored a hit that year with Walk on the Wild Side off the Bowie-produced Transformer. For more than a decade he then seemed purposely to evade mainstream commercial success. Transformer was followed by the dark and challenging Berlin, an album that shed his fan base just as he’d cultivated it.
Albums such as the one-take low-ball wonder Sally Can’t Dance and Metal Machine Music continued his nose-thumbing at mainstream success and his label. Metal Machine Music, upon which Reed later commented, “no one is supposed to be able to do a thing like that and survive.”, although considered a contract-fulfilling joke upon its release, has been widely recognized as the invention of “noise music,” and many artists, such as Japan’s Merzbow have regarded it as a pioneering classic.
Despite his best efforts, the 70’s were not without artistically and commercially successful albums. He had a major success with the live Rock ‘n Roll AnimalLP, recorded following the release of Transformer, which received vast FM airplay in the mid-to late ’70s due in no small part to the superb guitar solos of Steve Hunter. Coney Island Baby contained some of the best written and performed songs in Reed’s oeuvre and Street Hassle saw Reed brave new-wave stylings.
As a reminder of that mid-70s period – have a listen to this concert from Paris in 1974.
And it all starts to make sense.