Review Summary: How post-Velvet Underground Lou Reed should be remembered.
I'm probably in the minority in believing that Lulu is not in fact one of the worst albums ever recorded, but the wreckage it's left is pretty catastrophic. That equilibrium of two (formerly) great artists never looked like one which would end well, but even so the amount of bile directed at Lou Reed has come as somewhat of a surprise to me. Metallica's unforgiving fanbase ensured that it was they who bore the brunt of the ensuing hilarity, yet the main question from many detractors seemed to be just why they wanted to hook up with an archaic fool who bears frightening resemblance to grandpa Simpson. What shocked me even more were the numbers of listeners apparently ignorant to Reed's past glories, while there were even some who had evidently never encountered the man behind numerous game-changing musical landmarks. His achievements with The Velvet Underground in the late sixties are all but beyond dispute, and rightly so. This has, however, had the effect of overshadowing his solo work, despite the fact that some of it reaches equally stellar standards. Sure, he also made Metal Machine Music (you think Lulu's bad" you've heard nothing!), but when he hit a spot he did so with his full weight behind it.
Often regarded as Reed's definitive solo venture, Transformer was conceived during a relatively barren spell for the ambitious New Yorker. Having left The Velvet Underground two years previously, his career was in a state of limbo, with a self-titled solo debut hardly setting the world alight and his overall future in the music business looking uncertain. Salvation, however, was at hand in the form of British innovator David Bowie, who along with Mick Ronson handled production details and cited The Velvets among his primary influences. Although not credited with any of the tracks, Bowie's creative influence here is clear, as it provided much needed direction to Reed's ambitions, with predictably splendid results. Reed's voice and crunchy guitar are still the overriding themes of the record, but there's an obvious glam influence in tracks like 'Perfect Day' which could only have been brought to the table by Bowie, and has the curious effect of enhancing one of the least glamorous musicians of the age.
An even clearer example of this comes in 'Satellite Of Love,' the classic single Reed had composed some years prior to this albums sessions, but it's only with Bowie's input that it become the moment of pure pop genius which still rules airwaves to this day. Elsewhere, though, it's the man whose name is on the cover that stands out. Reed's voice is without doubt an acquired taste, but it was around this time that he arguably reached the peak of his vocal abilities, with his distinctive monotonous drawl coming across in a strangely charismatic manner. Its case is helped no end by his lyrics, which retain their usual crudeness while also portraying a light-hearted and humorous side he is not so renowned for. All of these positive factors combine on the likes of 'Andy's Chest' and 'Hangin' Round,' moments of genuine songwriting perfection characterized equally by their witty refrains as their driving melodic engines.
What these songs would sound like without Bowie and Ronson at the mixing desk is open to debate, but what can't be questioned is just how well this collaboration turned out. Transformer was the album which truly launched Lou Reed's solo career, one which would go one to have many more peaks (as well as the notable troughs), but never quite managed to reach such heights again. Sure there are a select number of fairly nondescript songs at the album's back end, but the overall success of this record is testament to the genius and ambition of it's maker, who continues to push the boundaries almost 40 years later - albeit with less success!