Music

Counterbalance No. 78: Lou Reed's 'Transformer'

The 78th most acclaimed album of all time came and hit the streets, looking for soul food and a place to eat. It’s such a perfect day to discuss this 1972 glam rock spectacular.


Lou Reed

Transformer

US Release: 1972-11-08
UK Release: 1972-11-08
Label: RCA
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Klinger: Has there ever been a weirder song to make the playlists of mainstream FM rock stations than Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side"? It was an odd enough song by most rock standards, and to hear it sandwiched between AC/DC and 38 Special on our local AOR radio station just made it that much stranger. Of course you have the lyrics about the various transgendered doyennes of the Warhol scene—that alone is absolutely astonishing for a Top 40 single. But then the song is set against a folkie boho-jazz backdrop, complete with double bass from veteran session cat Herbie Flowers and an honest-to-Rollins sax solo from Ronnie Ross (who, by the way, also played on the Beatles' "Savoy Truffle"). And then, as if all that weren't enough, Lou makes an ill-advised, Archie Bunkeresque reference to the "colored girls". It's as if there was a brief crack in the dimensions and hit singles from Bizarro World leaked into the public consciousness.


Even if that were the only song of note on the album, I think it would make a strong case for Transformer's place here on the Great List. It's a brave and occasionally baffling statement from one of rock's most noteworthy figures, so critics were bound to take notice. The fact that it miraculously became a touchstone for the Dazed and Confused generation—people who likely had little familiarity with Reed's earlier work with the Velvet Underground—seals the deal.

Mendelsohn: You said a mouthful, my friend. But then, I think to get anywhere near hitting the marrow of this record, one best be prepared to take or give a couple of mouthfuls. And if you want to talk about bizarre rock—the boho jazz notwithstanding—how about the emergence of the tuba as a rock and roll player? But you know what I love most about this record? I have no idea where the (trans)sexual innuendo starts or stops. I don't even want to think about it because doing so is like trying to untangle Christmas lights. It's nearly impossible. The fact that Transformer—and especially "Walk on the Wild Side"—addressed such taboos and was welcomed into living rooms like a beloved neighbor boggles my mind. Not that it was weird for Lou Reed to be writing about those things in the first place, but I'm pretty sure a lot of what he is singing about is still illegal in much of the South.

I think what really puts this record over the top is it's pop simplicity. Lou tapped a vein, with a little help from some friends, and put down a suite of songs that were so simple and so arresting. If only Reed didn't have one of the worst singing voices . . .

Klinger: To me, Lou's casual relationship with pitch has always been one of his most endearing traits, but that's just me. I'm a little more concerned about his occasionally indifferent approach to lyrics. When he's on, he's really on—"Perfect Day" still has the power to devastate. But someone really should have pointed out to him that the "toes/nose" rhyme in "Andy's Chest" gets uncomfortably close to cutesy. Using that same rhyme again in "Hangin' Round" is practically inexcusable.


And in listening to Transformer up-close for the last few days, I've been really struck by how often Reed seems to be dogging it out there lyrically, and how many of the words seem to be first draft. As much as I like this record, I'd be reluctant to over-defend it to a Lou Reed skeptic. Because every time I'd start to state my case, in the back of my mind I'd know that there's a cringer line about hairy-minded pink bare bears lurking there to hoist me on my own petard.

And by the way, Mendelsohn, you may recall that the Band beat Lou to tuba-rockin' about three years prior.

Mendelsohn: The Band may have brought the tuba out of the closet but Lou Reed put a dress and a wig on it and trotted it around on almost every other song. Who does that? I understand your reluctance to stand up for Reed. I too have my reservations. He's like that one dude you know who finds out you are going to a party and decides to tag along and as soon as you get there, you do your best to ditch him because you don't want to be anywhere in the vicinity when he starts dropping weirdo bombs on the carpet, but you also don't want to get too far away just in case it turns into one of "those" parties and Reed and his guitar turn into the star of the night.

You know, some of the blame (and a lot of the praise) for this record also has to be laid at the feet of the people who helped Reed put this album together, namely David Bowie and Mick Ronson. While Ronson had his hands full arranging some of the best string work in rock, it probably should have fallen to Bowie to tell Reed to take another crack at those lyrics. But then, that's one of the pitfalls of working with someone who has influenced your work so much—it's hard to be critical even if they are obviously half-assing it. Bowie was the new, hot commodity and Reed was the grizzled veteran who had a tremendous influence on Bowie's work—that power dynamic didn't result in the best lyrical content but the music is hard to beat. Thanks to a little spark from Bowie and Co., Reed was able to catch fire again.

Klinger: I would like to stress again that I do like this record a great deal—even his sillier lyrics have a certain goofy charm that belies Reed's curmudgeonly reputation. Make no mistake, beneath his gruff exterior lies an even gruffer interior. But beneath that even gruffer interior lies a tiny inner cornball that seems to pop out on occasion, only to be quickly subsumed once again by the layers and layers of sheer gruffery.

I was also surprised to realize just how closely linked the sound of Transformer is to Reed's last album with the Velvet Underground, 1970's Loaded. There's a distinctly rootsy sound on songs like "Hangin' Round" and "Wagon Wheel" that's pretty clearly in line with the earlier "Lonesome Cowboy Bill" or "Cool It Down". (Of course, many of the songs here are in fact holdovers from his Velvets days.) For all the influence that the Velvets' first album had on rock music, it's interesting to hear how their post-John Cale work was leading them in some, dare I say it, pretty poppy directions. Here, Lou takes those instincts and plays them to the hilt, and with Bowie's assistance he's able to mold them even further. I mean what is "Goodnight Ladies" but the Velvets' "After Hours" taken to its natural conclusion?


Mendelsohn: Well, what is a solo career but the extension, to some extent, of a band's career? You have some artists who use the solo career as a way to explore different avenues not open to them in the confines of the band—to mix things up or add a little variety. And then you have some artists who keep on pounding away at the same old hole. Reed is more the latter than the former. Transformer offered up a couple of oddities like "Walk on the Wild Side" and "Satellite of Love", but for the most part, it was simply an extension of the work that Reed had been doing all of his career—writing straight-ahead rock songs that lean heavily on pop inflections juxtaposed with goofy/unseemly lyrical content addressing any myriad of taboos.

I think it's also important to note that while Reed is still working, Transformer marked the beginning of the end of Reed as a force in the critical music complex. He put out Berlin next, an album that was originally not so well-received, although it’s gained a lot of ground since (#188 on the Great List), and then continued to put out music that didn't really go anywhere. So I have to ask, does Reed need a co-pilot? Does he need a Cale or a Bowie to help him mold better music? Is he like Eric Clapton, who played at his best when he had someone to challenge him? Or did he just come to the end of his run as disco took over?

Klinger: I am absolutely the wrong guy to ask about that, because I happen to really like Lou's later-'70s and early-'80s works—right up to 1984's New Sensations. In particular, I love his speed-freak jive on Live: Take No Prisoners and his Blue Mask-era attempts at cozy domesticity. Throughout that time, Reed was flying solo and pretty much flying blind, and he brings a thorny insanity that's quite appealing. He may not have always captured the critical imagination on such a large scale, but given his open antagonism toward critics, that clearly doesn't bother him—and I can't help being kind of drawn to that. (Regardless, Metal Machine Music is still a bridge too far for me.)

I'd say that for critics, Transformer represents that curious place where art meets commerce and still manages to escape unscathed. No matter how toxic their relationship would become over time, a lot of critics had been pulling for Reed throughout the Velvets years, and to see him achieve a genuine hit record without sacrificing much in the way of integrity had to be gratifying. (But I suspect they love Berlin for the same perverse reasons that drove Reed to make that album in the first place—more on that in 2014.)

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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