#194 on Rolling Stone Top 500 albums list
The thing with Lou Reed was that, outrightly, very few knew exactly what to do with him. As enigmatic figure as there ever was in rock history, the former front man of the Velvet Underground often found himself out of place with his surroundings, sometimes a step ahead, sometimes on some other path completely. Late 60's era rock simply was not ready for the Velvets, despite the generation's fixations with experimentation. Reed's gritty socially realist poetry coupled with adventurous sonic textures led to a cult following and critical respect that grew as decade after decade ticked by. At the time, however, the music clashed with the innocent, "peace and love" paradigm rock fans had come to embrace. The Velvet Underground and Nico sold poorly.
Thirty-seven years later, Lou Reed would remark in an interview, "One of my rules is: Never listen to your old stuff. If you do that, then you’re not a musician anymore, then you’re just a self-satisfied nostalgic idiot who’s not interested in inventing anything." It would appear that in regards to his solo career, Reed adhered to such an ideology. However, in just as many ways it would come to appear as though the advice of the future-Reed had not yet taken root. After a short hiatus following the collapse of the Velvet Underground, Reed embarked on to new artistic grounds. His debut self-titled solo release was a mishmash of minimalistic rock and tracks perfumed with arrangements not quite properly suited, all layered over songs both post- and pre-Velvets breakup. The result, while acceptable, sounded somewhat errant and in search of a destination. The destination would arrive with self-proclaimed Reed adherent, David Bowie, and the collaboration that would become Transformer.
Bowie brought guitarist Mick Ronson along and the duo made an effort to create a sound and image that would grace Reed both stylistically and commercially. The influence is indiscrete on nearly every inch of the album, down to the packaging which features Reed, whom looks just as he was once described by a Rolling Stone reporter as "an effeminate Frankenstein monster." Many songs feature lush pop arrangements, complete with strings arranged by Ronson, as well agreeable backing vocals and gentle piano dirges. That's not to say Reed couldn't still rock. The album opener, "Vicious" attacks with a full out stomp. In contrast, "Perfect Day" finds a balladic Reed nearly crooning, an odd sound from the singer mostly noted for his sing-talk style. Sparse strings follow Reed and ascend alongside of his warble as he lovingly proclaims, "Oh, such a perfect day/You just keep me hanging on" only to lament by the end of the song, "You're going to reap, just what you sow." The complete change of pace from amorous serenade to allusions of something more caustic gives the tune that much more value.
The first single, "Walk on the Wild Side", would be Reed's greatest mainstream success to date. The unlikely hit was filled with images of cross-dressers, drug addled characters and hustlers based on persons Reed met while consorting with Andy Warhol's posse at the Factory. Introduced by a lazy upright bass and Reed's barely audible acoustic playing, a shuffling jazz beat trips along and eventually meets up with delicate strings and a vibrant sax solo that points exit, stage left. The charming, leisurely pace of both the tune and Reed's vocal delivery ensured a palatable listen despite the subject matter and ensured its success on the pop charts, reaching #16 on US pop charts and #10 in the UK.
Transformer also found Reed digging into his days with the Velvet Underground, as per his first solo album. Searches through the MGM vaults unearthed unreleased Velvet Underground recordings of both "Andy's Chest" and "Satellite of Love", which were heard first as Transformer songs. In comparison, it's not hard to enjoy the animated nature of the Velvets tracks but some of the shine is lost from Reed's solo versions. It should be noted that the Velvets tracks were found a considerable time after the release of Transformer; "Andy's Chest" appears on the Velvet Underground collection, VU (1985), "Satellite", some 20 years later on the Peel Slowly and See box set. "Satellite" followed in the massive steps of "Walk on the Wild Side" but failed to reach the same pop acclaim, despite equally attractive backing vocals and arrangements.
Reed's sexual ambiguity and daring led to much of the success of Transformer as well as the providing a direction for the next few years into his solo career. He was able to capitalize on the glam-rock movement that had edged into popularity at the time, especially with the help of one of the herald who brought the style to the mainstream. Bowie, whom is given a producer and arrangement credit on the album, was very hands on with the project. This is reflected in the poppier structures introduced to Reed's canon by the very musically astute Ronson but also from Bowie's vocals on tracks such as the bouncy "New York Telephone Conversation" and his design of vocal harmonies on "Satellite of Love". Although the style often fit Lou Reed, it arguably led to overindulgence as well. Songs like "I'm So Free" and "Make Up" vary between rockers and more jazzy numbers but can't but help seem like attempts to pander to the glam audience. It was a habit that followed in subsequent solo releases and would bite back as the movement died down, culminating with the noise barrage of Metal Machine Music which was essentially regarded a statement of defiance by Reed.
Amidst all the decadence and posturing of Transformer is a creator who is ultimately in control. Reed is by no means pulled and pushed in directions he does not want to go; he's all but admitted to his own dictatorial presence when recording material which led to falling out with past collaborators such as John Cale and the rest of his associates in the Velvet Underground. Conversely, it's been debated that Reed is at his best when he has a proper foil such as Bowie or Cale to provide anchor or inflation. Perhaps this is the case, as suggested by the career rekindled after Transformer. And although the material is a bit hampered in comparison to Reed's iconic work with The Velvet Underground, as well as in comparison to the tracks exhumed from the vaults, Transformer manages to stand more than well enough on it's own.