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Lou Reed: Many Happy Returns To 'Transformer'

Tuesday, 28 November 2017 Written by Graeme Marsh

Now 45 years old, Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’ still manages to hide some of its secrets. At the time of its release in November 1972, its discussions of drug use and transgender issues were taboo and flew right over the heads of many listeners. At this remove it retains the capacity to surprise and challenge us.

Just two years prior to its release, Reed was still immersed in the world of the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol. He’d already made records firmly embedded in drug culture, of course, with the most obvious example being Heroin from the classic ‘Velvet Underground & Nico’.

Reed’s departure all but signalled the end of the band, who had already parted ways with Warhol and seen John Cale leave. They did soldier on, briefly, while Reed returned to his parents’ home and took a job with his father’s company.

That wouldn’t last, of course. He laid down his first solo album  and released it in April 1972 on RCA Records. Made up of songs penned during his Velvet Underground days, the LP was (as usual at this stage) far from a commercial success. But just a few months later things would change, largely due to a new friendship.

David Bowie entered Reed's orbit. Bowie was in his prime at the time, with ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’ displaying his androgynous persona, and when he invited Reed to the UK to work with him, he agreed. “I really wanted it to work for him, and be a memorable album,” Bowie said in the Classic Albums series of 2000.

Along with Bowie came his right hand man, Mick Ronson. The guitarist, an unsung hero if ever there was one, co-produced and also contributed piano and string arrangements to ‘Transformer’. The excellent Satellite of Love is the best example of his talents here. Bowie, meanwhile, provided backing vocals, while Ken Scott was also on board as engineer after working on ‘Hunky Dory’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust…’.

The personnel, though, are just one part of the story. It was the characters that brought ‘Transformer’ to life. Reed was inspired by the city he called home and his friendships with several trans women, among them his muse, Rachel, along with the stories of Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling. Woodlawn’s journey to New York, in particular, was immortalised within the lines of Walk on the Wild Side: “Plucked her eyebrows on the way, shaved her legs and then he was a she.”  

Many listeners still didn’t realise what was before their eyes, something that’s not altogether been remedied over time. “The album was called ‘Transformer’, what do they think it’s about?” Reed’s friend and backing singer Jenni Muldaur told the Guardian earlier this year, after a Canadian student group deemed Walk on the Wild Side to be transphobic.

“I don’t know if Lou would be cracking up about this or crying because it’s just too stupid,” producer Hal Willner, a long-time Reed collaborator, added.

Reed's writing was particularly fearless given the social strictures in place in the early ‘70s - as Paris Lees noted in 2013, homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association at the time - and the record became an important document for trans visibility.

It also found Reed pushing back against events from his own life. In his late teens he had been sent for electroconvulsive treatment, with the repeated suggestion that it had been to “cure” his homosexual urges. “The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable,” Reed said. “You can’t read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again.” The experience, the motivations for which have been disputed by his sister, also fed into songs like Kill Your Sons.

The blindness to the true subject matter on ‘Transformer’ continued for decades, right through to Perfect Day’s use as a song for the BBC’s Children In Need appeal – is it about heroin, or is it just about a nice time in the park? - but it’s a classic we would not want to be without that doubles as one of the great New York albums.

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