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Transformer
Lou Reed

RCA 4807
Released: December 1972
Chart Peak: #29
Weeks Charted: 31

Lou ReedA real cockteaser, this album. That great cover: Lou and those burned-out eyes staring out in grim black and white beneath a haze of gold spray paint, and on the back, ace berdache Ernie Thormahlen posing in archetypal butch, complete with cartoon erectile bulge, short hair, motorcycle cap, and pack of Luckies up his T-shirt sleeve, and then again resplendent in high heels, panty hose, rouge, mascara, and long ebony locks; the title with all its connotations of finality and electro-magnetic perversity. Your preternatural instincts tell you it's all there, but all you're given is glint, flash and frottage.

Lou Reed is probably a genius. During his days as singer/songwriter/ guitarist with the Velvet Underground, he was responsible for some of the most amazing stuff ever to be etched in vinyl; all those great, grinding, abrasive songs about ambivalence, bonecrushers, Asthmador, toxic psychosis and getting dicked, stuff like "Venus in Furs," "Heroin," "Lady Godiva's Operation," "Sister Ray," "White Light/White Heat," and those wonderful cottonmouth lullabies like "Candy Says" and "Pale Blue Eyes." His first solo album, Lou Reed, was a bit of a disappointment in light of his work with the Velvets. Reed himself was somewhat dissatisfied with it.

Lou Reed - Transformer
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
Between that album and this one came the ascendancy of David Bowie, a man who had been more peripherally influenced by the cinematic lyrics and sexual warpage of the Velvet Underground. Lou Reed, in turn, was drawn to Bowie's music. Bowie included Velvet tunes such as "Waiting for the Man" and "White Light/White Heat" in his stage repertoire; Reed, last summer, made his first English appearance with Bowie. Now, on Transformer, Bowie is Reed's producer.

David Bowie's show biz pansexuality has been more than a minor catalyst in Lou Reed's emergence from the closet here. Sure, homosexuality was always an inherent aspect of the Velvet Underground's ominous and smutsome music, but it was always a pushy, amoral and aggressive kind of sexuality. God knows rock & roll could use, along with a few other things, some good faggot energy, but, with some notable exceptions, the sexuality that Reed profiles on Transformer is timid and flaccid.

"Make Up," a tune about putting on make-up and coming "out of the closets/out on the street," is as corny and innocuous as "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story. There's no energy, no assertion. It isn't decadent, it isn't perverse, it isn't rock & roll, it's just a stereotypical image of the faggot-as-sissy traipsing around and lisping about effeminacy.

"Goodnight Ladies" is another cliche about the lonely Saturday nights, the perfumed decadence and the wistful sipping of mixed drinks at closing time.

"New York Telephone Conversation" is a cutesy poke at New York pop-sphere gossip and small talk, as if anyone possibly gave two shits about it in the first place.

Perhaps, the worst of the batch, "Perfect Day" is a soft lilter about spending a wonderful day drinking Sangria in the park with his girlfriend, about how it made him feel so normal, so good. Wunnerful, wunnerful, wunnerful.

And then there's the good stuff. Real good stuff. "Vicious" is almost abrasive enough and the lyrics are great: "Vicious/You want me to hit you with a stick/When I watch you come/Baby, I just wanna run far away/When I see you walkin' down the street/I step on your hands and I mangle your feet/Oh, baby, you're so vicious/Why don't you swallow razor blades/Do you think I'm some kinda gay blade?" It's the best song he's done since the days of the Velvet Underground, the kind of song he can do best (his voice has practically no range).

"Walk on the Wild Side" is another winner, a laid-back, seedy pullulator in the tradition of "Pale Blue Eyes," the song is about various New York notables and their ramiform homo adventures, punctuated eerily by the phrases "walk on the wild side" and "and the colored girls go 'toot-ta-doo, toot-ta-doo.'" Great images of hustling, defensive blowjobs and someone shaving his legs while hitchhiking 1500 miles from Miami to New York that fade into a baritone sax coda.

"Hangin' 'Round" and "Satellite of Love" are the two remaining quality cuts, songs where the sexuality is protopathic rather than superficial.

Reed himself says he thinks the album's great. I don't think it's nearly as good as he's capable of doing. He seems to have the abilities to come up with some really dangerous, powerful music, stuff that people like Jagger and Bowie have only rubbed knees with. He should forget this artsy-fartsy kind of homo stuff and just go in there with a bad hangover and start blaring out his visions of lunar assfuck. That'd be really nice.

- Nick Tosches, Rolling Stone, 1/4/73.

Bonus Reviews!

The year started out with David Bowie fast gaining recognition as one of Lou Reed's trendy disciples; the year will end with the tables neatly turned. Reed, Bowie and Iggy Pop (nee Stooge) are Britain's present darlings; David has successfully invaded these shores the rest being a mere matter of time. The album is all that one would expect from the Velvet Underground's erstwhile leader. Wrap yourself around "Walk on the Wild Side."

- Billboard, 1972.

All that's left of this great singer and songwriter is his sly intelligence, and sometimes I'm not so sure about that. Whether this is scenemaking music or anti-scenemaking music doesn't matter -- it's effete, ingrown, stripped to inessentials. First line of strongest song: "Vicious, you hit me with a flower." B-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Lou Reed's second solo album after leaving the Velvet Underground is his most highly regarded. Two reasons are obvious -- the Bowie connection and the presence of his only major world hit, "Walk on the Wild Side." BBC Radio 1 came in for considerable abuse for playing the singe as if it were any other pop ditty, either not noticing that someone was "giving head" or not knowing what it meant. It must be pointed out, though, that the American top forty happily programmed the record, too, suggesting that those who did understand assumed potential critics were naive or not paying attention.

The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock reported Reed's classy riposte to those who considered Transformer and subsequent efforts inferior imitations of his work with the Velvets. "I mimic me probably better than anybody," he said, "so if everybody else is making money ripping me off, I figured maybe I better get in on it. Why not? I created Lou Reed. I have nothing faintly in common with that guy, but I can play him well. Really well."

In 1987, Transformer was chosen by a panel of rock critics and music broadcasters as the #100 rock album of all time.

- Paul Gambaccini, The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time, Harmony Books, 1987.

After the failure of a first album, Reed continued to record with UK artists and studios working on this album with David Bowie and Mick Ronson, then at the height of their glam rock power. Bowie's blessing and involvement as producer created sales that otherwise may not have come for the album but it did generate the then rather risque hit single "Walk on the Wild Side."

Bowie and Trident Studios pulled out the stops for Reed, providing a superb sound for this album which has really come to light in CD remastering. The fade and reverb effects on the backing vocalists' voices on "Wild Side" and the sheer intensity of the sax solo have made this an unlikely but succcessful hi-fi demonstration track. "Wagon Wheel" is equally fine though not every track crackles with quite this quality while hiss levels are high on songs like "Hangin' 'Round."

Playing time is short but the sound quality may be adequate compensation.

- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.

While the Summer of Love and Me Decades passed merrily by, Lou Reed continued to sing about the seamier side of things. In the case of Transformer, the premise is "affected trendiness." Aided and abetted by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, this results in some engaging moments, "Walk on the Wild Side" being the obvious one. The rest of the recording delivers more of the same, but it's not nearly as well realized. The sound varies, with some muddiness and compression evident, but a number of the cuts, (notably, "Walk on the Wild Side") are beautifully rendered on disc; clear, detailed and open. C-

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

Produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, Transformer has a lushness and beauty to its production and arrangements that Reed's material had never before received. The hit single "Walk on the Wild Side" was a fluke brought about by the actions of one fill-in disc jockey at the BBC. The song chronicles several personages from Andy Warhol's Factory retinue, including speed-freaks and transvestites giving head' it is boggling to this day that it got by AM radio programmers. Other Reed classics such as "Vicious" and "Satellite of Love" get similar treatment. * * * *

- Rob Bowman, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

After leaving the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed was looking for commercial success. His career took a giant step forward with Transformer, produced by two of the most successful rockers of the day, David Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson; glam's cutest couple. Since Reed and the Underground had championed cross-dressing and camp five years earlier, the glam vogue for dark eyeshadow on men and suits on women proved perfect for him. Reed's dry vocal is a delight on "Vicious," a camp classic, driven by petulant outbursts from Ronson's guitar. "Hangin' 'Round" is a chugging boogie, with Reed as a rock'n'roll bitch. Ronson's crunching guitar re-emerges on "I'm So Free" along with some spirited backing vocals. But it's not all rock'n'roll. "Perfect Day" is a sublime song of understated beauty, featuring fragile vocal and piano (Ronson) and delicate strings. With Transformer, Reed was back as a poet of the city: check the back cover -- a pouting drag artist and a gay icon with an improbable protuberance in his jeans. "Walk On The Wild Side," a delight of jazzy bass and soft hi-hat, was a U.K. Top 10 hit despite its lyrics, and the laconic delivery is a joy. Special mention should be made of Ronson, whose musical talents are all over this record. But it's Reed's discover of form that thrills the most.

- Collins Gem Classic Albums, 1999.

There's good fake Bowie (you remember Al Stewart's "Year of the Cat"), and there's bad fake Bowie (you don't remember Spacehog), and, of course, there's transcendent fake Bowie (you could probably hum "Rocket Man" right now). But Lou Reed's Transformer is one of the all-time great fake-Bowie albums, partly because David Bowie himself produced it (with longtime guitar pal Mick Ronson), and partly because Bowie copped so much of his steez from Reed in the first place. Reed's 1972 solo debut, Lou Reed, had been a folksy beauty, with ballads such as "Going Down," "I Love You" and "Love Makes You Feel." But Transformer turns up the guitar flash for a glam manifesto every bit as outrageous as Lou Reed himself. If a sexy New York sociopath in lipstick and a motorcycle jacket sneering, "You hit me with a flower" isn't glam, what is?

On Transformer, Reed chronicles a pansexual night world of leather queens, slick little girls, eyebrow pluckers, lemon-peel suckers, down-and-out angels looking for soul food and love sweet love. He speeds away in bitch-rockers such as "Vicious" and "Hangin' Round," while Bowie and Ronson add a touch of sentimental splendor to the ballads, especially the doo-wop-inflected goof "Andy's Chest," the ironically majestic "Satellite of Love" and the unironically openhearted "Perfect Day."

But the most famous song here is also the best, "Walk on the Wild Side," which doo-doo-doo'd its way into history as one of the filthiest and most terrifying Top Forty hits ever. Reed's acoustic guitar, Herbie Flowers' stand-up bass and Ronnie Ross' sax take off from Jean Knight's classic R&B shuffle "Mr. Big Stuff" for a decadent tour of Reed's old Warhol Factory crowd: Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, Sugar Plum Fairy and others. Over the years, this song has somehow managed to survive hip-hop samples, Reed's infamous TV ad for Honda scooters ("Don't settle for walking" -- yeah, right), and getting played by Tori Spelling on the high school radio station on Beverly Hills 90120. On his 1978 live album Take No Prisoners, Reed does an utterly over-the-top seventeen-minute version, adding much, much more than you ever wanted to know about the characters ("Little Joe was an idiot!"). Reed and Bowie never made another album together, but Transformer still looms large in both their legends. * * * * 1/2

- Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone, 3/28/02.




Further reading on
Super Seventies RockSite!:

Album Review:
Berlin

Album Review:
Rock N Roll Animal

Album Review:
The Velvet Underground -
Loaded

"Glam Rock 101"

Lou Reed Lyrics

Lou Reed Videos

Lou Reed Mugshots

An amazing transition from the Velvet Underground, this defining moment in glam rock jammed with great melodies is funny, wasted, brilliant and far ahead of its time. David Bowie's glossy, detailed production -- best heard on a 2002 reissue -- added charm to Reed's songs administering electroshock therapy for the masses with the poetically beautiful "Walk on the Wild Side" -- ya can't help but hum "doot, da doot, da doot." * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

David Bowie counted former Velvet Underground leader Lou Reed as a major inspiration -- and paid back the debt by producing Transformer. The album had glam flash courtesy of Ziggy Stardust guitarist Mick Ronson as well as Reed's biggest hit, "Walk on the Wild Side" -- which brought drag queens and hustlers into the Top Twenty -- and the exquisite ballad "Perfect Day." It was Reed's first producer, VU impressario Andy Warhol, who inspired the lead cut when he suggested "Vicious" as a song title. "You know, like 'Vicious/You hit me with a flower,'" Warhol elaborated. Reed took him at his word, penning the song and cribbing the lines verbatim.

Transformer was chosen as the 194th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

Lou Reed had the credibility and the songs. David Bowie the sound and the media appeal. The meeting of American master and British alumni gave the Seventies one of its most delicious icons, a record that exploited and at the same time defined glam rock.

Reed had left The Velvet Underground in 1970 with the bitter taste of defeat and animosity. New York had been cold and unappreciative; London now seemed where the action was. Reed moved to England and debuted on RCA with a failed self-titled solo album concocted with Velvet's leftovers rehashed by non-empathic studio musicians.

A second chance was offered by Bowie, who had been producing shiny, dramatic recordings with his guitar player Mick Ronson. Both labored to extract from the usually dry poet and musician an exhilarating mix of camp decadence and unforgettable tunes: transatlantic hit "Walk On The Wild Side," "Satellite Of Love," and "Perfect Day." The vocal arrangements are as gorgeous as the guitars were searing; the presence of upright bass and saxophone adding a cabaret ambience; the sexual ambiguity of front and back cover appealing to a teenage audience still discovering the facts of life. It also had rockers to warm up the dancefloor. And, behind it all, the shadow of a never-made Warhol musical populated by adoring transvestites and debauched speed freaks, arty parties, and urban sophistication.

Transformer is Lou Reed's more commercial effort, and its chart history in the UK alone spans three decades. It's also a superficial exception, as proven by the depths of Reed's adventurous career.

- Ignacio Julià, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.


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