Lou Reed was a musician’s musician.
Lou Reed’s death last Sunday rang like a dirge through the hearts of musicians everywhere. Tributes and lamentations came from every direction, from Miley Cyrus to Iggy Pop. All the while, the general public was left to wonder: who was Lou Reed?
This is unfortunate, but understandable. From his tenure in the mythical Velvet Underground to his capricious solo career, the totality of Lou Reed’s legacy is left in a paradoxical space: his music was too bizarre for the pop scene, while his influence would become too ubiquitous for the hipsters. But among musicians and music lovers, he stands among the greats of his era and of all time.
Like Reed himself, the Velvet Underground is one of music’s best-kept secrets: well-known and highly revered in certain circles, and virtually unknown outside them. The Velvets were never commercially successful in the band’s short and tumultuous lifespan, but they have since been recognized by many critics as one of the most influential bands of the 60’s. Their debut album only sold 30,000 copies, but as Brian Eno put it, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
Lyrically and musically, the Velvet Underground were far ahead of their time, anticipating prog rock, punk rock, and just about everything that happened in the 90’s. As the band’s songwriter, Reed wrote songs that were simple but unique, rarely requiring more than two or three chords. His lyrics often dealt with the taboo in a blunt and unavoidable fashion, but he sang them with a poker-faced indifference. After leaving the Velvets, Reed brought his style to the charts with his biggest hit, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Reed went on to test the limits of music (and the patience of his fans) through his solo career. In 1975 he released Metal Machine Music, a double-album of music-esque noise that many believe was intended to be a joke. Ironically, this too would prove to be ahead of its time, serving as a forerunner for industrial music and giving Reed the last laugh.
The saga of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground began during a time when musical achievement and innovation were at their highest, when competition was fierce and not even Andy Warhol could guarantee you popularity. Reed’s saga now ends during a time when the music industry is battered and bruised, and many people feel disillusioned with modern music. It is also a time when, thanks to social media, word can spread fast about anything, from an emerging new artist to the death of a cult hero. As morbid as it sounds, death is sometimes the best thing that can happen to one’s career. Maybe now, Lou Reed will get the fame and respect that he has always deserved.
Here are the most well-known Reed compositions:
The Velvet Underground’s entrancing epic is one of the most surreal trips in music. Some people took the song as a promotion of the titular drug, which disturbed Reed so much that he hesitated to play the song live.
Named after and inspired by the 19th-century novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, this twisted nocturne deals overtly with sadomasochism, and is another example of Reed’s exploration of the taboo.
This rocker appeared on Loaded, the Velvet Underground’s most radio-friendly album. It contains traces of Mick Jagger and seems to anticipate David Bowie, whom Reed would later work with.
The original release of this bouncy, irreverent classic was edited to cut out the bridge without Reed’s consent, which angered him. This was fixed in later reissues. The song was also brilliantly covered by the Cowboy Junkies in 1988.
Reed’s biggest hit was at least two decades before its time when it was released in 1972. It speaks to Reed’s masterful lyricism that he managed to sneak references to transsexuality and oral sex onto pop radio.
Remember, no matter what genre you’re into, WUD Music has you covered. Like us on Facebook and/or follow us on Twitter (@WUDmusic) to stay up to date on all the artists and bands playing the Rathskeller, the Terrace, or the Sett each week.