A Short Biography
Lewis Allen Reed (also Firbank), 2 March 1942, Freeport, Long Island, New York, USA. A member of several high-school bands, Reed made his recording debut with the Shades in 1957. Their 'So Blue' enjoyed brief notoriety when played by influential disc jockey Murray The K, but was lost in the multitude of independent singles released in this period. Having graduated from Syracuse University, Reed took a job as a contract songwriter with Pickwick Records, which specialized in cash-in, exploitative recordings. His many compositions from this era included 'The Ostrich' (1965), a tongue-in-cheek dance song that so impressed the label hierarchy that Reed formed the Primitives to promote it as a single. The band also included a recent acquaintance, John Cale, thus sowing the early seeds of the Velvet Underground Reed led this outstanding unit between 1966 and 1970, contributing almost all of the material and shaping its ultimate direction.
His songs, for the most part, drew on the incisive discipline of R&B, while pointed lyrics displayed an acerbic view of contemporary urban life. Reed's departure left a creative vacuum within the band, yet he too seemed drained of inspiration following the break. He sought employment outside of music and two years passed before Lou Reed was released. Recorded in London with UK musicians, including Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman from Yes, the set boasted some excellent songs - several of which were intended for the Velvet Underground - but was marred by an indistinct production. Nonetheless, an attendant UK tour with the Tots, a group of New York teenagers, was an artistic success.
David Bowie a long-time Velvet Underground aficionado, oversaw Transformer, which captured a prevailing mood of decadence. Although uneven, it included the classic 'Walk On The Wild Side', a homage to transsexuals and social misfits drawn to artist and film-maker Andy Warhol. This explicit song became a surprise hit, reaching the UK Top 10 and US Top 20 in 1973, but Reed refused to become trapped by the temporary nature of the genre and returned to the dark side of his talents with Berlin. By steering a course through sado-masochism, attempted suicide and nihilism, the artist expunged his new-found commerciality and challenged his audience in a way few contemporaries dared. Yet this period was blighted by self-parody, and while a crack back-up band built around guitarists Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter provided undoubted muscle on the live Rock n Roll Animal, Sally can't dance showed an artist bereft of direction and purpose. Having sanctioned a second in-concert set, Reed released the stark Metal Machine Music, an electronic, atonal work spaced over a double album. Savaged by critics upon release, its ill-synchronized oscillations have since been lauded by elitist sections of the avant garde fraternity, while others view its release as a work of mischief in which Reed displayed the ultimate riposte to careerist convention.
It was followed by the sedate Coney island Baby, Reed's softest, simplest collection to date, the inherent charm of which was diluted on Rock 'N' Roll Heart, a careless, inconsequential collection that marked an artistic nadir. However, its successor, Street Hassle, displayed a rejuvenated power, resuming the singer's empathy with New York's subcultures. The title track, later revived by Simple Minds, was undeniably impressive, while 'Dirt' and 'I Wanna Be Black' revealed a wryness missing from much of the artist's solo work. Although subsequent releases, The Bells and Growing Up in Public, failed to scale similar heights, they offered a new-found sense of maturity. Reed entered the 80s a stronger, more incisive performer, buoyed by a fruitful association with guitarist Robert Quine, formerly of Hell, Richard 's Voidoids.
The Blue Mask was another purposeful collection and set a pattern for the punchy, concise material found on Legendary Hearts and Mistrial. However, despite the promise these selections offered, few commentators were prepared for the artistic rebirth found on New York. Here the sound was stripped to the bone, accentuating the rhythmic pulse of compositions that focused on the seedy low-life that Reed excels in chronicling. His lyrics, alternately pessimistic or cynical, reasserted the fire of his best work as the artist regained the power to paint moribund pictures that neither ask, nor receive, pity. New York was a splendid return to form and created considerable interest in his back-catalogue.
Songs For 'Drella was a haunting epitaph for Andy Warhol on which Reed collaborated with John Cale, and the downbeat mood carried over to the superb Magic And Loss, an album inspired by the death of legendary songwriter Pomus, Doc. Both albums demonstrated another facet of the dramatic regeneration that had placed this immensely talented artist back at rock's cutting edge.
In 1993, Reed joined together with his legendary colleagues for a high-profile Velvet Underground reunion. Although it was short-lived (rumours of old feuds with Cale abounded), Reed had the benefit of being able to fall back on his solo work. Set The Twilight Reeling saw Reed in a remarkably light-hearted mood, perhaps inspired by a romantic partnership with Anderson, Laurie, although he was still capable of causing controversy with the satirical 'Sex With Your Parents (Motherfucker)'. Anderson also appeared as one of several guest singers on a cover version of Reed's 'Perfect Day', released in 1997 to promote BBC Radio and Television. Perfect Night documented a 1996 concert at London's Royal Festival Hall. Ecstasy received some favourable reviews, although the ultimate result was a patchy album, very good in places ('Paranoia Key Of E', 'Baton Rouge') and poor in others, notably the 18-minute-plus 'Like A Possum'. Reed's future work will always be scrutinized and chewed over by rock critics, young and old; he is, after all, one of the most important rock poets of the modern age. His influence is immense and his capacity to surprise remains just around the corner.