Lou Reed was a lifelong musical innovator and the driving force behind the Velvet Underground, one of the world’s most influential bands. He began writing songs around 1963 while at New York’s Syracuse College, after learning to play the guitar from listening to and obsessing over rhythm and blues, doo wop and jazz records on his radio in the mid-1950s.
John Cale first met Lou Reed at a party while Reed was in a band called the Primitives. Reed was unhappy they weren’t letting him play his song ‘Heroin’, so he formed a new band with Cale, Mo Tucker and Sterling Morrison: the Velvet Underground.
With Reed’s song subjects chiefly concerning his drug use, S&M and the darker, seedier side of New York life in the 1960s, the band’s commercial appeal seemed limited.
The Velvet Underground fell in with the upper Manhattan scene helmed by the artist Andy Warhol – who came on board as the band’s ad-hoc manager and something of a mentor to Reed. They found themselves at the epicentre of the city’s most vibrant artistic hotbed.
The band’s debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967), is consistently voted among the top albums ever in polls. Last week it was named as the fifth greatest record of all time by NME.
The album’s meagre sales at the time and subsequent cult status prompted Brian Eno, speaking in 1982, to state that “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band”.
By the time the Velvet Underground recorded ‘White Light/White Heat’, Nico had quit the band and Andy Warhol had been fired, both against John Cale’s wishes.
John Cale left the band and was replaced by Doug Yule. They released two further albums with Reed at the helm: 1969’s ‘The Velvet Underground’ and 1970’s ‘Loaded’. The latter includes two of the group’s most poular and commercially successful songs, ‘Rock & Roll’ and ‘Sweet Jane’.
Lou Reed released his eponymous debut solo album in 1972, comprised of eight new recordings of then-unreleased Velvet Underground songs and two new songs.
David Bowie, in particular, would be a huge asset to Reed’s fledgling solo career in the early 1970s, co-producing his 1972 classic ‘Transformer’ and covering many of Reed’s songs live around the same time. He’s seen here with Reed and Mick Jagger.
It was in part Bowie’s patronage that brought Reed to the attention of the record-buying masses in the UK, propelling him to superstar status with songs such as ‘Perfect Day’, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ and ‘Satellite Of Love’.
Never one to toe the line, Reed turned alienating his fans into an art-form throughout his solo career, with the likes of ‘Metal Machine Music’ – a barrage of guitar feedback and abrasive effects that is now praised and loathed in equal measure – released in 1975 off the back of the chart-friendly ‘Sally Can’t Dance’, which was at that point his most successful and mainstream release.
Throughout the 1970s Reed continued to live out the hell-raising lifestyle, but in 1982 he married Sylvia Morales and began to calm, continuing to release new music with varying degrees of success.
He reunited with John Cale for the first time since The Velvets’ split for ‘Songs For Drella’, a concept album dedicated to Warhol after his death in 1987.
Of his guitar style, Lou Reed once said: “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”
Of his lifestyle, he commented: “I tried to give up drugs by drinking.”
Upon hearing of his death, David Bowie said of his old friend: “He was a master.”
The Velvets reunited properly in the mid 1990s for a successful European tour, and were inducted into the Rock’N’Roll Hall Of Fame in 1996.
Meanwhile, Reed continued to live up to his persona for being equal parts enigmatic and difficult – whether by grilling journalists in interviews, or bringing his Tai Chi instructor onstage with him during performances.
A multi-artist cover of ‘Perfect Day’, conversely, was a huge mainstream success, reaching Number One in the UK charts in 1997 after being released to raise money for Children In Need.
The turn of the century saw The Velvets and Reed re-introduced to a new generation, thanks to patronage from bands like The Strokes and The Libertines (the latter’s ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’ is a tribute to ‘Ride Into The Sun’, while The Strokes and Reed conducted press interviews together).
Antony Hegarty from Antony & The Johnsons was another collaborator, working with Reed on several projects including his 2003 release ‘The Raven’. The album also features contributions from Bowie and Reed’s second wife, the musician and performing artist Laurie Anderson, with whom he had been with since the late 1990s.
A heavy drinker and drug user for years, Reed had a liver transplant in May 2013.
Soon after, he announced that he was aiming to get back to work quickly, stating, “I am a triumph of modern medicine,” and adding, “I look forward to being on stage performing, and writing more songs to connect with your hearts and spirits and the universe well into the future.”
Passionate and unpredictable until the end, one of the final things Reed did in public was to write a huge, sprawling review of Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’ record, praising it for its “moments of supreme beauty and greatness” while also chastising it for being the “same old shit” elsewhere.
The penchant for the absurd and confrontational established by ‘Metal Machine Music’ continued right up until Reed’s later years, with his 2011 album with Metallica, ‘Lulu’ widely ridiculed upon its release.
Lou Reed died on October 27, 2013. He is survived by his wife Laurie Anderson.