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Lou Reed & The Velvet Underground

The career of Lou Reed defied capsule summarization. Like David Bowie (whom Reed directly inspired in many ways), he made over his image many times, mutating from theatrical glam rocker to strung-out junkie to avant-garde noiseman to straight rock & roller to your average guy. Few would deny Reed's immense importance and considerable achievements. As has often been written, he expanded the vocabulary of rock & roll lyrics into the previously forbidden territory of kinky sex, drug use (and abuse), decadence, transvestites, homosexuality, and suicidal depression. As has been pointed out less often, he remained committed to using rock & roll as a forum for literary, mature expression throughout his artistic life, without growing lyrically soft or musically complacent. By and large, he took on these challenging duties with uncompromising honesty and a high degree of realism. For these reasons, he was often cited as punk's most important ancestor. It's often overlooked, though, that he was equally skilled at celebrating romantic joy, and rock & roll itself, as he was at depicting harrowing urban realities. With the exception of Neil Young, no other star who rose to fame in the '60s continued to push himself so diligently into creating work that was, and remains, meaningful and contemporary.

Although Reed achieved his greatest success as a solo artist, his most enduring accomplishments were as the leader of the Velvet Underground in the '60s. If Reed had never made any solo records, his work as the principal lead singer and songwriter for the Velvets would have still ensured his stature as one of the greatest rock visionaries of all time. The Velvet Underground are discussed at great length in many other sources, but it's sufficient to note that the four studio albums they recorded with Reed at the helm are essential listening, as is much of their live and extraneous material. "Heroin," "Sister Ray," "Sweet Jane," "Rock and Roll," "Venus in Furs," "All Tomorrow's Parties," "What Goes On," and "Lisa Says" are just the most famous classics that Reed wrote and sang for the group. As innovative as the Velvets were at breaking lyrical and instrumental taboos with their crunching experimental rock, they were unappreciated in their lifetime. Five years of little commercial success was undoubtedly a factor in Reed leaving the group he had founded in August 1970, just before the release of their most accessible effort, Loaded. Although Reed's songs and streetwise, sing-speak vocals dominated the Velvets, he was perhaps more reliant upon his talented collaborators than he realized, or was even willing to admit in his latter years. The most talented of these associates was John Cale, who was apparently fired by Reed in 1968 after the Velvets' second album (although the pair subsequently worked together on various other projects).

Reed had a reputation of being a difficult man to work with for an extended period, and that made it difficult for his extensive solo oeuvre to compete with the standards of brilliance set by the Velvets. Nowhere was this more apparent than on his self-titled solo debut from 1971, recorded after he'd taken an extended hiatus from music, moving back to his parents' suburban Long Island home at one point. Lou Reed mostly consisted of flaccid versions of songs dating back to the Velvet days, and he could have really used the group to punch them up, as proved by the many outtake versions of these tunes that he actually recorded with the Velvet Underground (some of which didn't surface until about 25 years later).

Reed got a shot in the arm (no distasteful pun intended) when David Bowie and Mick Ronson produced his second album, Transformer. A more energetic set that betrayed the influence of glam rock, it also included his sole Top 20 hit, "Walk on the Wild Side," and other good songs like "Vicious" and "Satellite of Love." It also made him a star in Britain, which was quick to appreciate the influence Reed had exerted on Bowie and other glam rockers. Reed went into more serious territory on Berlin (1973), its sweet orchestral production coating lyrical messages of despair and suicide. In some ways Reed's most ambitious and impressive solo effort, it was accorded a vituperative reception by critics in no mood for a nonstop bummer (however elegantly executed). Unbelievably, in retrospect, it made the Top Ten in Britain, though it flopped stateside.

Having been given a cold shoulder for some of his most serious (if chilling) work, Reed apparently decided he was going to give the public what it wanted. He had guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner give his music more of a pop-metal, radio-friendly sheen. More disturbingly, he decided to play up to the cartoon junkie role that some in his audience seemed eager to assign to him. Onstage, that meant shocking bleached hair, painted fingernails, and simulated drug injections. On record, it led to some of his most careless performances. One of these, the 1974 album Sally Can't Dance, was also his most commercially successful, reaching the Top Ten, thus confirming both Reed's and the audience's worst instincts. As if to prove he could still be as uncompromising as anyone, he unleashed the double album Metal Machine Music, a nonstop assault of electronic noise. Opinions remain divided as to whether it was an artistic statement, a contract quota-filler, or a slap in the face to the public.

Later, Reed never behaved as outrageously (in public and in the studio) as he did in the mid-'70s, although there was plenty of excitement in the decades that followed. When he decided to play it relatively straight, sincere, and hard-nosed, he could produce affecting work in the spirit of his best vintage material (parts of Coney Island Baby and Street Hassle). At other points, he seemed not to be putting too much effort into any aspect of his songs ("Rock and Roll Heart"). With 1978's Take No Prisoners, he delivered one of the weirdest concert albums of all time, more of a comedy monologue (which not too many people laughed hard at) than a musical document. Reed had always been an enigma, but no one questioned the serious intent of his work with the Velvet Underground. As a soloist, it was getting impossible to tell when he was serious, or whether he even wished to be taken seriously anymore.

At the end of the '70s, The Bells set the tone for most of his future work. Reed would settle down; he would play it straight; he would address serious, adult concerns, including heterosexual romance, with sincerity. Not a bad idea, but though the albums that followed were much more consistent in tone, they remained erratic in quality and, worse, could occasionally be quite boring. The recruitment of Robert Quine as lead guitarist helped, and The Blue Mask (1982) and New Sensations (1984) were fairly successful, although in retrospect they didn't deserve the raves they received from some critics at the time. Quine, however, would also find Reed too difficult to work with for an extended period. New York (1989) heralded both a commercial and critical renaissance for Reed, and in truth it was his best work in quite some time, although it didn't break any major stylistic ground. Reed worked best when faced with a challenge, which arrived when he collaborated with former partner John Cale in 1990 on a song cycle for the recently deceased Andy Warhol. In both its recorded and stage incarnations, this was the most experimental work that Reed had devised in quite some time.

Magic and Loss (1992) returned him to the more familiar straight rock territory of New York, again to critical raves. The re-formation of the Velvet Underground for a 1993 European live tour could not be considered an unqualified success, however. European audiences were thrilled to see the legends in person, but critical reaction to the shows was mixed, and critical reaction to the live record was tepid. More distressingly, old conflicts reared their head within the band once again, and the reunion ended before it had a chance to get to America. Cale and Reed at this point seem determined never to work with each other again (the death of Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison in 1995 seemed to permanently ice prospects of more VU projects). In 1996, the surviving Velvet Underground members were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, performing a newly penned song for their fallen comrade, Morrison. Reed closed the '90s with an album that saw him explore relationships, 1996's Set the Twilight Reeling (many speculated that the album was biographical and focused on his union with performance artist Laurie Anderson), which didn't turned out to be one of Reed's more critically acclaimed releases. He also found time to compose music for the Robert Wilson opera Timerocker, and in 1998, released the "unplugged" album Perfect Night: Live in London. The same year, Reed was the subject of a superb installment of the PBS American Masters series that chronicled his entire career (eventually released as a DVD, titled Rock and Roll Heart).

The year 2000 saw Reed's first release for Reprise Records, Ecstasy, a glorious return to raw and straightforward rock, a tour de force that many agreed was his finest work since New York. Another collaboration with Robert Wilson, POE-try, followed in 2001 and continued its worldwide stage run through the year. Including new music by Reed and words adapted from the macabre texts of Edgar Allan Poe, POE-try led to Reed's highly ambitious next album, The Raven. Animal Serenade, a double-disc set recorded at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles during his 2003 world tour, was issued in spring 2004. The live effort was Reed's tribute of sorts to his celebrated Rock N Roll Animal concert album, which was released 30 years before. In 2007, Reed released Hudson River Wind Meditations, a four-song experimental sound collage that celebrated both the best and worst aspects of Metal Machine Music. In 2011, he joined forces with heavy metal legends Metallica to create Lulu, an album of fresh studio material. Written by Reed, with James Hetfield et al. providing input on arrangements and dynamics, Lulu blended Lou Reed's trademark monotone vocals with the power and ferocity of Metallica's musicianship. However, Reed underwent a liver transplant at the Cleveland Clinic in April 2013, and although he subsequently proclaimed his strength and intention to return to performing and songwriting, he died of end-stage liver disease at his home on Long Island in late October of that year. ~ Richie Unterberger & Greg Prato
full bio

Comments

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ive grown to hate my body- lr
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i wish more film was available of the vu performing
i love you lou
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E very thing he did was drug induced brilliance. I wept for 3 days when he died. ������������
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1983 ?? VU is released. A great collect of unreleased Velvet Underground recordings. I hated 80's music although I was in HS at the time. U2 and REM to me were the only ones that stuck. I liked hard metal. Early Metallica etc. GNR came along in the late 80's. Hearing The Velvet Underground for the first time was like hearing the Beatles as a child in the early 1970's. Damn they were so good. Goddamn I love music. It’s the only form of human communicatio n I love.
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mwwarren.usf s
No doubt, what a dick comment. So many rockers have given us so much joy over the years...real rock and roll skipped most of the late 80's and left us with Jack White... iggy pop anyone? Bb king playing eith jimi hendrix? That would happen if hendrix didnt kick it so soon !
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>enzothebake r . . Really? Why do you have to be a dick! So....Tom Waits, Rolling Stones, The Misfits, Bob Dylan, and Guns and Roses, David Bowie, the Pixies, and Rancid (just to name a few off of your very own stations list.) Should all be dead!?! Last Thing, Lou Reed did more for rock and roll then you ever have so! I would say he didn't nearly destroy his legacy.
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If Lou Reed had any class he would've died in 1973 after the release of Transformer. Instead he hung around for another 40 years, nearly destroying the legacy he built up in the first 15 years of his career. If you plan on going into rock please die before you turn 40 in order to secure your reputation, otherwise your continued existence is simply obscene, and hypocritical .
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I miss Lou. Listen to him everyday. The city will never feel the same without him
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A classic song, love hearing it in the 70's on the LIE smoking a joint near exit 44
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nicko252008
R.I.P Lou, your music will live forever!!
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Rock & Roll animal - Lou Reed,
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Thanks for giving me words to heal by, Lou!
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lil.lilley
thank you my sweet love
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rrkaimer7
You were the man
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cornish84
Best years were spent with you.Thanks.. . R I P Lou
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charliesrush t o n
Not such a perfect day!
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arkhammer7
Thanks Lou
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mmantz2
We will always have your music. Thank You
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Peace Lou!
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info91431
My life was saved by rock and roll. Thanks, Lou, I owe you.
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scotmiles195 4
RIP LOU!"Sha La La La MAN
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Live version of Sweet Jane= Best ever
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RIP Lou. A true pioneer.
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1984 at DAR Constitution Hall Wash DC He was awesome ! RIP Lou
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RIP Lou. Your music will live on.
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believe it or not, but i learned how to play the guitar, bass and drums to Sweet Jane! Thanks Lou for being so damn cool and for being here for so long!
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The best!
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Godspeed. Lost but never forgotten. Hero, friend, inspiration. . . 'til we meet again.
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RIP Lou Reed, miss you :(
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leolp4048
RIP LOU, thanks for all the great music you contributed in you lifetime.
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RIP Lou!
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Oh and I have reeds autograph on transformer stationary! Lol
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I saw Cale in person in 78... Small club in Dallas Texas. What a night, what a memory. VU FOREVER
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Gorgeous tune, makes me feel at ease every time I listen
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The Velvet Underground version of Satellite of Love on Fully Loaded is better. But Reed was the heart and soul of the Velvets. It's a shame that they couldn't put their differences aside to continue making great LPs. I wonder how Walk on the Wild Side would have sounded if Reed was still in TVU.
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mitchell_par s o n
Smack...does the music good...
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I love this.
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lisa.mangobl u e
duh...uh...h m m m . . .
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Yay Lou Reed! But nobody at my school knows who he is :(
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xbostoncelti c s x
Lou Reed-excelle n t !
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So im guessig a tribe called quest sampled this!?
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i totally think that it is the velvet underground because lou reed is in the band so yes
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beeeuutifull l l . . .
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Isn't Lou Reed & The Velvet Underground. . . T h e Velvet Underground?
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the best song wright of all time
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vtvideo1
Sister Ray can
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sunlightcall e r
lu lu
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You're dog gone good Lou.
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204945856
Rock the Wild Side!
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janet-oleson
My favorite! Hey, babe..
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