Transformer: A Product of Lou Reed and Andy Warhol’s New York.
Above Photo: Street Hassle – The Bowery, New York, 1970s (© Eddie Borga).
One of my favourite Lou Reed albums is Transformer. Released in November 1972, it made a massive impression on me.
I recently watched an excellent documentary about the album, called “Classic Albums – Transformer”, with contributions from musicians associated with the making of the album, including Lou Reed, David Bowie and Mick Ronson, who co-produced it.
The album was in part a tribute to the Andy Warhol art scene in New York, and the ‘transformative’ effect of his influence on younger artists who’d come into contact with him. They often ended up hanging out in his art studio/creative space, called the Factory, originally on East 47th Street in Manhattan, which is where Reed also spent a lot of time.
Andy Warhol had initially been a big supporter and sponsor of the Velvet Underground, he said because he’d stopped believing in painting, and wanted to combine music and art. Reed said Warhol bought all the band’s equipment and also fed them at the Factory, subsidizing the whole outlay on the Velvets by selling his commercial art.
Reed’s first solo album after he left the Velvets flopped, and he was then put together with David Bowie. It was felt that Bowie’s fame and Bowie’s and Mick Ronson’s production could bring Reed’s music to a more mainstream audience.
The plan was to record and produce Transformer as a very basic album – using just bass, drums, two guitars, with overdubs as necessary.
Mick Ronson said Lou Reed was so laid back during the recordings that often his guitar wasn’t even in tune. “He didn’t really care if it was in tune or out of tune,” said Ronson, who would then diplomatically tune it for him.
One of the most famous songs on the album, Walk on the Wild Side, came from a book title, and it was originally written for a musical based on the book, but the musical didn’t happen and Reed rewrote the lyrics to refer to people he knew in Warhol’s Factory.
The song Andy’s Chest references an attempt on Warhol’s life, when he was shot by a disgruntled former Factory hanger-outer, Valerie Solanas in 1968. Solanas had given Warhol a play to read, called Up Your Ass, but he lost it and she wasn’t happy.
One commentator said he liked the urban influence in Transformer, and that Reed was the first lyricist to distil the experiences and characters inhabiting Warhol’s Art clique in New York and bring them to a worldwide audience (think of the lyrics to Walk On The Wild Side, for example).
One thing I have often wondered about the back cover photography – real penis or (almost certainly) not? Answer: it was a banana, stuffed down Lou Reed’s friend’s jeans for the shot.
Another thing that amused/impressed me was that Herbie Flowers, as well as being responsible for the amazing bass playing on Walk On The Wild Side, also played the distinctive tuba on the tracks Make Up and Goodnight Ladies.
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