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Poetic, gutsy art rock

Posten on: 2006-06-21 17:22:16

Detractors may view him as a world weary cynic or just a plain, miserable old sod but that would be to dismiss his incredible, creative bravery. Together with influential art rockers The Velvet Underground, Reed emerged from the 60's at a time when most bands were still singing about boy/girl love. However a pro-queer, anti-hippie Reed would pen tracks about drug addiction, paranoia, S&M and amphetamine psychosis, culminating eventually in his best known solo album, Transformer which featured a song about a smalltown transvestite looking for better things. (Walk On The Wild Side). He practically single-handedly invented art rock and without him everyone from Bowie to The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand would be unthinkable.Lou Reed was born Louis Firbank on 2 March 1942 in Freeport, Long Island New York. After graduating from Syracuse University he joined the Pickwick stable of songwriters in 1964. To promote one of his songs, the local minor hit, The Ostrich, Pickwick assembled a house band which would include future Velvet Underground member John Cale. Reed and Cale resolved to continue working together. Recruiting Sterling Morrisson on guitar and Angus Maclise on percussion the foursome began performing on the avant garde New York circuit before becoming The Velvet Underground in 1965 at which time Maureen Tucker replaced Maclise. The band accompanied artist Andy Warhol's travelling multimedia show The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. On their travels they met German art house chanteuse Nico, recruiting her for three songs on their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. With a cool cover featuring a peelable banana, the album was an astonishing mix of Cale's avant garde temperament ("We hated everybody," he said. "Our aim was to upset people, make them vomit.") and Reed's harsh street poetry on tracks like the druggy celebration of Heroin and Waiting For The Man. Feedback, dissonance, hate, drugs, self-contempt, it was all there in a groundbreaking album. Released in 1967 in an America and Britain gripped by flower power and the summer of love, the album was largely overlooked although David Bowie, for one, was taking notes. Cale left the band soon afterwards. Without him, Reed's songwriting took centre stage and three more albums followed - 1968's White Light/White Heat, 1969's Velvet Underground, and 1970's Loaded which featured the pulsating Sweet Jane and Rock and Roll. But by the release of Loaded, Reed had also left the group, retiring from music for almost two years.He returned in 1972 with his eponymous debut solo album. The album made little impact, spending just two weeks on the chart and consisting of several songs he'd written for the Velvet Underground that had gone unnoticed. The LP boasts a curious musical lineup including Yes members Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman.Later that year Reed returned with the seminal Transformer album, featuring stories from the New York gutter. Produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, the album gave Reid his first major triumph when it reached the Top 30 in the UK and US. The album spawned some of Reed's best loved tracks including the piano melancholy of Perfect Day, about a heroin addict and Walk On The Wild Side, his only hit single %u2013 about a transvestite trying to make his/her way in NYC. The album was the epitome of sleazy New York chic and took Reed close to the mainstream, setting him up as a streetwise, drug savvy icon for the impending punk explosion.In typically obtuse and morose fashion, Reed's follow up, 1973%- Berlin album, was a relentlessly bleak affair, with subject matter including suicide and child neglect on The Bed and The Kids.1974's live album, Rock 'n' Roll Animal probably came as a relief to Reed's paymasters at RCA. Reed's next studio album, Sally Can't Dance was produced with former Blood Sweat and Tears member Steve Katz and mixed soul music influences with Reed's typical biting cynicism.But laughing Lou played his ace card with his next release, 1975's Metal Machine Music. A double album of cacophonous, feed back noise interspersed with human screams and hums, the record managed to alienate both Reed's long suffering fans and the casual record buying public. There were rumours that Reed deliberately made it so impenetrable in a bid to be released from his contract with RCA Records. In true contrary style however, he sashayed back with the mellow, reflective Coney Island Baby although the lyrics remained as bitterly perverse as ever.1976's Rock 'n' Roll Heart album was Reed's first for his new label, Arista but was generally regarded as a slapdash affair. Follow up Street Hassle, released in 1978 was a return to form with Reed returning to the sleazier side of the New York sidewalk as the setting for another series of bleak narratives. Reed started to show uncharacteristic signs of maturity on his next projects, collaborating with various artists to expand his horizons on the hit and miss 1979 album The Bells, which featured songs he co-wrote with jazz trumpeter Don Cherry. Follow up Growing Up In Public was a stronger set. The eighties brought a new contract with his old label RCA and Reed hooked up with Richard Hell and the Voidoids member Robert Quine and various new wave musicians to record the accomplished Blue Mask album in 1982.The album showcased a newly married singer seemingly at peace with himself and capable of writing serene songs such as My House, a tribute to poet Delmore Schwartz but there were still several traces of the old Lou on the title track with the lyrics: "The pain was lean and it made him scream/He knew he was alive/He put a pin through the nipples on his chest. (Don't try that at home kids!)Reed's ensuing trio of mid eighties albums were largely hit and miss. Legendary Hearts (1983), New Sensations (1984), and Mistrial (1986) were satisfying, but still somehow seemed lacking. Reed's voice, one of the most imitated speak-song croaks in pop, began shifting toward a near-constant conversational style, and actual singing was becoming less frequent.So fans were completely unprepared for his renaissance with 1989's New York album. With skeletal musical accompaniment this was Lou in raw and sparse mode, back on familiar territory, on the seedy side of New York. The album included memorable songs about AIDS, crack, anti-Semitism, violence, and urban disintegration. "Manhattan's sinking like a rock," sang our cheerless hero.In 1990 Reed again teamed up with John Cale for the Andy Warhol tribute album, Songs For Drella. A sombre work, it set the tone for 1992's Magic and Loss album, a reflection on death and illness inspired by the loss of two of Reed's closes friends, one of whom was the songwriter Doc Pomus. Despite a probably ill-advised Velvet Underground reunion in 1993 for European dates and a live album, Reed retained critical favour with the release of 1996 album, Set The Twilight Reeling. And in 2000 Reed entered his fourth decade as a recording artist analysing the uncomfortable consequences of man's primal urges on 2000's Ecstasy album.In 2003 Lou showed no sign of becoming any less obtuse with the release of The Raven album, a musically ambitious attempt to set Edgar Allen Poe's poetry to music. Despite a stellar cast including David Bowie, Laurie Anderson and even actors Willem Dafoe and Steve Buscemi, the project baffled the critics and record buying public alike proving that even at 62, a cantankerous Lou still exudes more bile and perversity than many artists half his age.

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