Lou Reed’s “Transformer”

Album cover for Transformer

This week, I’ve been listening to Lou Reed’s album “Transformer” from 1972. My dad gave me a copy of “Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed” as a gift when I was a teenager. I was already a fan of the Velvet Underground, who I’d learned about through an interest in Andy Warhol. So, I’d already heard some of this album from that compilation, plus some other sources. Still, there were a few tracks here that I’d never heard before, and the whole album is great. Reed studied creative writing in college and had an obsession with Rock N Roll. I believe he dreamed at various points of being a poet, novelist, or journalist. He found an outlet for those drives in the lyrics of the Velvet Underground and later his solo work.

Walk on the Wild Side

The first time I heard the music from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” was in the Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch song from 1991 that sampled it. Thankfully, I heard Reed’s song a couple years later. A couple decades later, I still love it and I’ve forgotten all about the Marky Mark song. ” The music is cool, smooth, and cinematic; Reed’s nearly spoken vocals deliver poetic voyeuristic journalism over grooving, cool, cinematic music.

The song opens with Herbie Flowers playing the iconic bass riff. Flowers produced this groove by layering an acoustic upright bass with an electric bass, both fretless. The upright gives the groove its percussive quality, while the electric smooths the glissando between notes. Rhythmically strummed chords on a significantly high-passed acoustic guitar shuffle above the bass like a hi-hat. Brushed snare completes the rhythm, gently emphasizing the 2nd and 4th beat.

The instrumentation remains fairly sparse throughout. Distant strings pad the atmosphere, playing long extended notes in the upper range. Wordless backing vocals bridge between verses, sung by vocal group Thunder Thighs. Reed speaks like poetry that the “the colored girls sing doo doodoo doo doodoo,” and their vocals pick up the riff, singing. A fantastic baritone saxophone solo by Ronnie Ross, with a bit of echo, leading us through the closing fade-out. I dislike a lot of saxophone solos, but this I love.

Reed wrote short vignettes of people he knew around the Warhol Factory scene for each verse of the song. The second first, below, paints a picture of actress Candy Darling. I don’t know how pleased she may’ve been with this description; Still, Darling managed to be fairly successful, especially for a transexual in the early 1970s.

Each verse is a set of two couplets. The first two lines introduce the character and the following two lines describe what they do. Each verse is followed by repeated refrain of “Take a walk on the wild side.” The colored girls singing “doo doodoo” follows the 2nd verse and then the fifth verse, acting first as a bridge then as an outro.

Candy came from out on the island,
In the backroom she was everybody’s darling,
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, hey baby, take a walk on the wild side
Said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side
And the colored girls go

Hanging’ ‘Round

On “Hangin’ ‘Round,” Lou Reed plays more of a straight-forward rock no roll song. Again, like “Walk on the Wild Side,” he introduces the listener to three different characters. In this case, they are people from the past that keep trying to reconnect with the speaker, even though he’s moved past that lifestyle. He looks at them now with a bit of disgust.

Immediately, the groove starts with bass, guitar, and two dirty overdriven guitar. One guitar chugs along a rock n roll rhythm while the other, with mid-range kicked up, plays repeated rhythm-lead riffs. The verses follow first a I-IV-I played twice, and then II-IV-I-II-IV-I repeated twice, folled by the V to allow the next verse to provide cadence.

The first two lines of the verses introduce the character, their appearance then something about their behavior. The difference in chord progressions emphasizes the twist. Then the next two verses provide a contrast in their behavior, a little twist of consequence. The first two lines rhyme at the end, the second two do not. However, he does play with internal rhymes within the second two lines. They way the second two lines rhyme, though, is not done consistently across verses.

Cathy was a bit surreal, she painted all her toes
And on her face she wore dentures clamped tightly to her nose
And when she finally spoke her twang her glasses broke
And no one else could smoke while she was in the room

Satellite of Love

One of my most favorite songs by Lou Reed, “Satellite of Love” was the opening track on the RCA best of compilation, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Here, the placed in the inauspicious position as the second song on side 2. The song tells the story of a man watching the a satellite launch on tv, while plagued by jealousy over his girlfriend’s cheating. Reed recorded a demo with the Velvet Underground, but they did not record an official album version. The narrative slightly reminds me of Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” where “the girl with the mousy hair” disappointedly watches a movie while wishing to escape her dull life. Coincidentally, Bowie sings backing vocals on “Satellite of Love.”

The bass, kick drum, and piano come in at the same time to open the song. The vocals begin at just one second in. The feeling of late night longing and thoughtfulness is presented in a casual, somewhat languid manner, yet the song wastes no time getting started. Mick Ronson plays the distinct piano riff that combines ascending and descending arpeggios with chords.

The verses repeat a I-II7-IV-V chord progression. That second chord is a major 7th supertonic, which is usually played in minor. Raising it to a minor and playing it in a the seventh adds a little tension. It also hints that the opening chords are the IV-V7 of the dominant key. Because of this, the feeling is that we’re coming to a resolution that doesn’t happen until the I-V-vii-IV-I-V-vi-I-IV-I-V chorus leads back into the verse.

I love the way the chorus ends on the dominant chords (a common thing to do) and rests with the unfinished line: “Satellite of..” This unfinished chorus comes to it’s conclusion with the beginning of the outro. In the Velvet Underground and his solo career, Reed demonstrated in a few songs that he likes a Latin flavored coda, and this song is a great example. A variety of instruments, including backing vocals, recorder, trumpet, tuba, hand-claps and fingersnaps join in. It’s a triumphant end to a wistful tune.

Satellite’s gone up to the skies
Things like that drive me out of my mind
I watched it for a little while
I like to watch things on TV