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

David Bowie’s “Hunky Dory”

David Bowie Hunk Dory album coverThis week, I’ve been listening to David Bowie’s 1971 LP “Hunky Dory” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician. This was Bowie’s fourth album and my second for this “To My Ear” project after “Ziggy Stardust” about a month ago. I’m doing it backwards, I suppose. “Hunky Dory” came out about 7 months before “Ziggy Stardust” and a line of artist progress runs between the them. Sometimes, I feel this album shows Bowie as an actor seeking a role, which he later finds in Ziggy Stardust.

The album opens with “Changes” which immediately hits me with the same sense of theatrical found on “Ziggy Stardust.” I love this about both albums: they as much about music as they are performance. The peculiar first verse hints at the idea of Bowie as the actor in search of something.   In the first verse, the performer reflects and almost confesses. “So I turned myself to face me, but I’ve never caught a glimpse how the others must see the faker.”

Musically, I love the dynamic difference between the verses and choruses of “Changes”. Bowie sings the verses gently over a quiet accompaniment of piano, bass guitar, and strings with no percussion. It’s theatrical with the lights down low. Then drums march along during the chorus which has more of a 50s rock n roll feel with a bit of boogie-woogie.

Life On Mars” is the best track on the album. The chord progression originated from a french song, “Comme d’habitude” which was also rewritten with English lyrics as “My Way” by Paul Anka. As much as I like the Sinatra song, especially the Sid Vicious cover, I believe “Life in Mars” is a superior song.

The lyrics tell the story of “the girl with the mousy hair” who is to meet her friend at the movies to escape her unhappy mundane life at home. However, her friend doesn’t show up and “the film is a saddening bore”. What isn’t much different than her own dull life is something she’s already seen in countless other movies. The titular line “Is there life on Mars?” is a cry for something more than Earth has to offer. Bowie performs the song over cinematic accompaniment that opens with beautifully played piano, that dances like a snow-globe ballerina. I love that the song begins with a single note that rings for a full second. Strings play majestically with the first chorus. It’s overall a beautiful song that demonstrates fully the principal of elevating the mundane.

One of my other favorite tracks is “The Bewlay Brothers” because of it’s sense of memory, love, and loss. The fairly basic accompaniment mostly consists of piano, acoustic guitars, and watery electric guitar. The lyrics begin with the word “and” relaying the story in third-person perspective, “And so the story goes they wore the clothes; They said the things to make it seem improbable: Whale of a lie like they hope it was.” Then with later verses, Bowie switches to first-person perspective. It does not seem that the characters change, only the perspective.

The endearing song feels like it tells the overall story of two brothers lives together. Lines of the song share emotionally-charged snapshots of moments in their lives.  The general feeling is that those times are in the past and they cannot return. The repeated final line calls out to leave current circumstances and live like they used to: “Just for the day, Please come away.”

David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”

David Bowie's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" album cover This week, I’ve been listening to David Bowie’s 1972 “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”. I’d heard some of the songs before, but I’d not listened to the whole album before this week. I loved the Bauhaus cover of “Ziggy Stardust” and the Nina Hagen cover. This concept album is musical theater that tells stories about a messianic alien outsider. The central character of Ziggy Stardust personifies the legends and mythology of rock music. Bowie wrote his own legend like a child playacting as their self-crafted superhero. There remains this sense of ambiguity, though, so Ziggy could just as well be a combination of Bowie and Ronson.

The album opener “Five Years” set the scene that the Earth is in danger with beautiful variation of the 50s doo-wop chord progression. A dry kick drum and snare slowly fade in to start the song, and then a slowly strummed chord. The well-written opening lines “Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing; News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in” nearly tell the whole story indirectly. I love that emotional imagery hits before the factual news.

Bowie also insist upon rhyme on this album. In the first verse of “Five Years” all four lines rhyme: “sighing”, “cry in”, “dying”, “lying”. After that, the rhymes are in couplets. Towards the end, Bowie sings “And it was cold and it rained so felt like an actor; And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there.” This particularly clever rhyme made me realize something about the album. While Bowie is definitely singing, his vocals are just as much the performance of an actor.

Moonage Daydream” slams in with glam rock guitars and vocals. Like much of the album, I can hear that Marc Bolan and David Bowie were significant influences on each other. The lyrics bristle with rock n roll nonsense that recalls Bo Diddley, Bill Haley, and Jerry Lee Lewis. As an androgynous space invader, Bowie yanks the danger and fire of 50s rock into 1972.

The next track “Starman” tells of the bewildered and bewitched audience catching the radio pirate emission. The starman arrives a cautious savior warning the inhabits of Earth “not to blow it, cause he knows it’s all worth while.” And then he encourages the children to lose it, use it and boogie, which again makes me think of Marc Bolan. The last verse has two young listeners discussing what they heard on the radio. The final line of “Don’t tell your poppa or he’ll get us locked up in fright” reminds us that rock n roll is risky music for youth in rebellion.

The album closer “Rock N Roll Suicide” is probably my favorite track. It has a driving anthemic rhythm that runs from the intro with bare strummed acoustic guitar to the final crescendo of horns, strings, drums, electric guitars, chorus, and desperately cried vocals of “gimme your hands!” It begs for audience participation. The first verse is cinematic in its narrow focus, iconic and poetic with its step-by-step description of disappointment and emptiness:

Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette
The wall-to-wall’s calling, it lingers, then you forget
You’re a rock ‘n’ roll suicide

This is another album that musically is built on basic rock ‘n’ roll chord progressions, many looking back to the doo-wop era. The production is early 70s dry, without the massive reverb found in the early 60s or the shimmering reverb later heard in the 80s. The creates punchy drums that sound fantastic on vinyl. While the instruments are generally playing relatively simple parts, they create a great sound. Bowie’s performance makes us want to believe. It’s really quite out of sight.