Lou Reed has taken quite a beating in the press for his recent ‘Lulu’ experiment with metal mavens Metallica, so we here at Ultimate Classic Rock are taking a look back at some of the highlights of the founding Velvet Underground frontman’s solo career, just to even things out a bit. From his influential and challenging ‘Metal Machine Music’ album through to his iconic ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and beyond, fans turned off by ‘Lulu’ should visit –or revisit — our list of the 10 Best Lou Reed Songs to remind themselves that there’s more to Reed than singing about being “a table.” Turns out Reed does have a leg to stand on after all.
‘Metal Machine Music, Part 1’
There’s no other way to put it — ‘Metal Machine Music’ is a dare. Released in 1975, people still consider it either a sick joke, the fulfillment of a contractual obligation or the embryonic beginnings of the avant genre of music known as noise rock. No matter which you pick, it definitely challenges the listener, with 64 minutes of formless feedback spanning ‘Part 1’ through ‘Part 4.’ Easy listening, it ain’t, but worth noting simply for being so influential.
A No. 1 hit on the newly created Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart for four weeks when it dropped, many consider the album ‘New York’ a masterful return to the three-chord simplicity of the Velvets, and ‘Dirty Blvd.’ the album’s most dazzling pop nugget one of the best Lou Reed songs ever. It was also one of four songs Reed performed with David Bowie during the latter’s 50th birthday bash in 1997.
Recorded by Reed for his 1978 album of the same name, ‘Street Hassle’ is an 11-minute rock opera broken into three separate and distinct parts: ‘Waltzing Matilda,’ ‘Street Hassle’ and ‘Slipaway.’ Essentially a William S. Burroughs-like stream-of-consciousness monologue set to rock music with orchestral backing, it features an uncredited spoken word section from none other than Bruce Springsteen.
‘Vicious’ kicks off Reed’s second solo album ‘Transformer’ with 2:58 seconds of spiky, slightly glam-ish pop that takes the Velvet blueprint to its inevitable conclusion. In fact, the song is considered to date back to the VU days with artist/producer Andy Warhol himself credited with coming up with the line “you hit me with a flower” when he challenged Reed to write a song about a viscous person.
‘Caroline Says (II)’
‘Caroline Says (II)’ is a rewrite of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Stephanie Says,’ which was originally recorded in 1968 but only appeared on bootlegs until finally surfacing in remixed form on the 1985 outtakes compilation, ‘VU.’ That makes ‘Caroline’ technically the first of the two to come out, although they both carry the memorable refrain “It’s so cold in Alaska.” Hot!
‘Coney Island Baby’
Lyrically, Reed really puts himself out there on ‘Coney Island Baby,’ probably the most tender and emotionally revelatory ballad he’s ever recorded. A bonus track version of the song featured on the album’s 30th anniversary deluxe edition reissue was recorded with Doug Yule, who joined the Velvets in 1968 following the departure of founding member John Cale.
‘Perfect Day’ paints a picture of a surprisingly normal day of simple pleasures: visiting the zoo, going to the cinema, a walk in the park. Perhaps a little too normal? Some fans interpret the tune, clearly one of the best Lou Reed songs ever, as a veiled heroin reference, while others note that Reed’s never been shy about about explicitly mentioning drugs and consider it an earnest love song. When it had a second life on the ‘Trainspotting’ soundtrack, it became both: an earnest love song about drugs.
Originally a Velvet Underground tune, Reed reworks ‘Sweet Jane’ on this live album, adding a noodling, Grateful Dead-like intro jam that runs three minutes before kicking into those familiar three chords. Sure, maybe it’s cheating to put a Velvets song on this list, but the line between the band and his solo work is so blurred that it actually makes sense. In the end, it’s really not cheating at all.
‘Satellite of Love’
The second single from ‘Transformer,’ ‘Satellite’ is another solo Reed song that he originally played with the Velvet Underground. He even originally recorded for the band’s ‘Loaded’ album, although it never made it on that disc and didn’t surface as a VU track until the 1995 exhaustive box set, ‘Peel Slowly and See.’ David Bowie , who produced ‘Transformer,’ also sings some soaring backing vocals on this track.
‘Walk on the Wild Side’
Really, is there any other way to walk when you’re strolling with Lou Reed? ‘Wild Side’ documents the seedy underbelly of New York life in the ’70s, touching on taboo subjects like transexuality, narcotics, male hookers and oral sex. Not exactly mainstream subjects here, but somehow this tune still managed to hustle its way onto the Top 20 and became the definitive solo Reed cut in the process. Doo do doo, doo do doo, doo do doo…