Forty-five years of “Transformer”: Lou Reed’s commercial breakthrough

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Many people view three albums from the early 1970’s as the pinnacle of what became known as glam rock, and the examples from which all other related genres and sub-genres sprung forth. David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972) brought theatrics and T. Rex’s “Electric Warrior” (1971) brought cocky sleaze. Lou Reed’s “Transformer” (1972) which turns 45, seemed to distill both of these into a celebration of both the culture at large and the social outcasts it both created and rejected.

Bowie himself was brought in to produce “Transformer,” along with fellow Spider from Mars Mark Ronson, who provides flashy guitar on many of the album’s tracks. As a producer of Reed’s album, Bowie helped one of his main musical influences who had been in a career rut since leaving the Velvet Underground.

The Bowie touch was enough to make the album’s commercial appeal spawn several hits including “Walk on the Wild Side”; filled with references to cross-dressing and oral sex. It’s perhaps one of the more unlikely hits ever in pop music.

The song is one of many nods to Reed’s New York background where he hung out with Andy Warhol and his usual cast of misfits, many of whom populate “Wild Side.” Opening track “Vicious” came about as a direct request from his mentor Warhol to write a song with that very title.

Transvestite star Holly Woodlawn (pictured) was one of the many social outcasts and members of Andy Warhol’s entourage that influenced Lou Reed’s Transformer album.

Elsewhere, “Satellite of Love” is poppy and paranoid, with gorgeous backing vocals from Bowie that head to the stratosphere as the song fades out. Bowie’s vocals also sparkle in the surreal “Andy’s Chest,” turning a song-poem that would stand on its own in a spoken word performance into a genuine pop song.

For every classic there’s a middling filler track. “Makeup” while lighthearted in intention, is maybe the only direct song to the kids who listened to Bowie, Roxy Music and Slade. Reed’s effortless yet detached golden croon is enough to carry this otherwise dated song.

While “Transformer” is no doubt Reed’s most accessible and commercial album, it offers only a hint of Reed’s songwriting. His “New York” (1989) album remains his definitive lyrical masterpiece and Transformer’s follow-up “Berlin” (1973) was a darker, depressing underside of the culture Transformer celebrates, themes that permeated most of the Velvet Underground’s discography.

In addition, the more accessible nature means by definition that some of the initial impact of the record has been hijacked by modern pop culture. For every surreal moody sequence in “Trainspotting” that uses “Perfect Day” is a “Britain’s Got Talent” contestant who reads the lyrics at face value and delivers a soulless opera reading.

Yet it’s hard to find albums that retain their inherent and consistent cool factor nearly 50 years after its release and not remain stuck in their decades (even “Ziggy Stardust” and “Electric Warrior” suffer from this a little.)

While the album painted Reed a certain color that remained for the rest of his career, and one he frequently tried to re-create, there’s also little doubt that a timeless album of the rock ‘n’ roll canon was created in the process.

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