Transformer, the second solo album by Lou Reed was released in November 1972 and is nowadays considered a classic, being voted at reasonably high positions in all sorts of polls. Rolling Stone magazine has it just inside the Top 200 in its list of greatest albums of all time (#194 back in 2012), but it’s fair to say that the original reviewer wasn’t fully convinced:-
Nick Tosches, January 4,1973
A real cockteaser, this album. That great cover: Lou and those burned-out eyes staring out in grim black and white beneath a haze of gold spray paint, and on the back, ace berdache Ernie Thormahlen posing in archetypal butch, complete with cartoon erectile bulge, short hair, motorcycle cap, and pack of Luckies up his T-shirt sleeve, and then again resplendent in high heels, panty hose, rouge, mascara, and long ebony locks; the title with all its connotations of finality and electromagnetic perversity. Your preternatural instincts tell you it’s all there, but all you’re given is glint, flash and frottage.
Lou Reed is probably a genius. During his days as singer/songwriter/guitarist with the Velvet Underground, he was responsible for some of the most amazing stuff ever to be etched in vinyl; all those great, grinding, abrasive songs about ambivalence, bonecrushers, Asthmador, toxic psychosis and getting dicked, stuff like “Venus in Furs,” “Heroin,” “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” “Sister Ray,” “White Light/White Heat,” and those wonderful cottonmouth lullabies like “Candy Says” and “Pale Blue Eyes.” His first solo album, Lou Reed, was a bit of a disappointment in light of his work with the Velvets. Reed himself was somewhat dissatisfied with it.
Between that album and this one came the ascendancy of David Bowie, a man who had been more than peripherally influenced by the cinematic lyrics and sexual warpage of the Velvet Underground. Lou Reed, in turn, was drawn to Bowie’s music. Bowie included Velvet tunes such as “Waiting for the Man” and “White Light/White Heat” in his stage repertoire; Reed, last summer, made his first English appearance with Bowie. Now, on Transformer, Bowie is Reed’s producer.
David Bowie’s show biz pansexuality has been more than a minor catalyst in Lou Reed’s emergence from the closet here. Sure, homosexuality was always an inherent aspect of the Velvet Underground’s ominous and smutsome music, but it was always a pushy, amoral and aggressive kind of sexuality. God knows rock & roll could use, along with a few other things, some good faggot energy, but, with some notable exceptions, the sexuality that Reed proffers on Transformer is timid and flaccid.
“Make Up,” a tune about putting on make-up and coming “out of the closets/out on the street,” is as corny and innocuous as “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story. There’s no energy, no assertion. It isn’t decadent, it isn’t perverse, it isn’t rock & roll, it’s just a stereotypical image of the faggot-as-sissy traipsing around and lisping about effeminacy.
“Goodnight Ladies” is another cliche about the lonely Saturday nights, the perfumed decadence and the wistful sipping of mixed drinks at closing time.
“New York Telephone Conversation” is a cutesy poke at New York pop-sphere gossip and small talk, as if anyone possibly gave two shits about it in the first place.
Perhaps the worst of the batch, “Perfect Day” is a soft lilter about spending a wonderful day drinking Sangria in the park with his girlfriend, about how it made him feel so normal, so good. Wunnerful, wunnerful, wunnerful.
And then there’s the good stuff. Real good stuff. “Vicious” is almost abrasive enough and the lyrics are great: “Vicious/You want me to hit you with a stick/When I watch you come/Baby, I just wanna run far away/When I see you walkin’ down the street/I step on your hands and I mangle your feet/Oh, baby, you’re so vicious/Why don’t you swallow razor blades/Do you think I’m some kinda gay blade?” It’s the best song he’s done since the days of the Velvet Underground, the kind of song he can do best (his voice has practically no range).
“Walk on the Wild Side” is another winner, a laid-back, seedy pullulator in the tradition of “Pale Blue Eyes,” the song is about various New York notables and their ramiform homo adventures, punctuated eerily by the phrases “walk on the wild side” and “and the colored girls go ‘toot-ta-doo, too-ta-doo.’” Great images of hustling, defensive blowjobs and someone shaving his legs while hitchhiking 1500 miles from Miami to New York that fade into a baritone sax coda.
“Hangin’ ‘Round” and “Satellite of Love” are the two remaining quality cuts, songs where the sexuality is protopathic rather than superficial.
Reed himself says he thinks the album’s great. I don’t think it’s nearly as good as he’s capable of doing. He seems to have the abilities to come up with some really dangerous, powerful music, stuff that people like Jagger and Bowie have only rubbed knees with. He should forget this artsyfartsy kind of homo stuff and just go in there with a bad hangover and start blaring out his visions of lunar assfuck. That’d be really nice.
I think it’s fair to say there would be an outraged reaction if this was a newly released album and this was a contemporary review. It’s quietly satisfying that we have come along way since 1973.
I’m way too young to remember Transformer, but as I mentioned previously, I have very vivid memories of Walk On The Wild Side, albeit I didn’t, as a ten-year old, buy the single.
It’s been a long long time since I listened to Transformer in its entirety….probably in the region of 35 years since my student days. I don’t have a CD copy but Mrs Villain does own a vinyl copy that she bought in 1973 (it was the Bowie/Ronson connections that clinched it for her teenage self) and so, with my purchase of a decent turntable and amp a short time ago, it was given a spin.
Tosche’s review highlighted that four songs were classics. He’s spot on about Vicious – it is still, after all these years, a tremendous song, and must be up there with the best opening tracks of any album in the history of pop music (the old blog had that as a regular feature and I’m often tempted to resurrect it). Walk On The Wild Side is one of the most memorable tunes ever written and recorded. Satellite of Love has stood the test of time but I’d argue that Hangin’ ‘Round has lost much of its initial impact from the fact that the tune became something of a template for years to come, but a template that later singers and bands were able to improve.
Of some the songs that Tosche finds unappealing, I find myself nodding in agreement but not for the vindictive and homophobic reasons he’s used in his review.
Goodnight Ladies might well have been fun to write and record, but its jazz persona offers a tune and style that does nothing for me.
He’s right about Perfect Day. It’s a run-of-the-mill soppy ballad that far too many folk have tried to say, over the years (particularly after its inclusion in the film Trainspotting) that it has a deeper meaning around drug addiction.
He’s also right about New York Telephone Conversation and even if it is a song that does find favour, credit has to be given for the catty putdown that nobody really gave a toss about such whispering and gossip in the first place.
But he’s way wrong that Make Up has no energy and isn’t assertive nor rock’n’roll seems to simply highlight that he was let down by a lack of aggressive energy as it is a song full of assertion while being decadent and, in the early 70s, perverse in a way that would have shocked the majority of people.
The review makes no mention of three other songs – Andy’s Chest, Wagon Wheel and I’m So Free – but it is interesting to note that many later reviews that are available online, written when the album was reissued or when it was a significant anniversary, rarely mention the tracks either. I actually like the first two but the third of them just jars as a sub-standard throwaway that when I heard it again had an opening that reminded me of Parklife by Blur.
If I was asked to come up with a one-word review of Transformer, it would be ‘patchy’. There are some bits of magic that are offset by a bits of whimsy that are easily disposable and a number of bog-standard numbers. It’s one that I was never driven to own although I do fully get why it is seen by many as such an important album in the history of pop music, but I look on it in the same way as other ‘important or influential albums’ by The Beatles or Led Zepellin or The Beach Boys or Pink Floyd or Bruce Springsteen.
Feel free to take the mic and argue the toss.
Oh, and before I go, ripped from the vinyl bought by Rachel back in the day, well before the big hit single:-