I’m gonna pose a question to the music lovers that frequent this blog. It’s a question that I already know has no correct answer..
What is the single most essential LOU REED song???
The question has no answer because Reed’s music is so personal that it effects everyone differently. The effect that his music has on you depends on your own experiences. This is exactly what made his works stand out, in a time when music was supposed to have an “every man” appeal. Reed wrote about his experiences bluntly and brutally honest, addressing subjects that had never been explored so openly in ROCK ‘N ROLL, mainly drug culture and sexuality. His goal as a writer was “to bring the sensitivities of the novel to rock music”. These were exactly the reasons why his band, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, saw no commercial success during their time. However, it’s exactly why they went on to become known as one of the most influential bands in music history. BRIAN ENO once said, of Velvet’s debut LP, that “although few people bought the album, most of those who did were inspired to form their own band”.
Ofcourse, this post is for the music lovers, so I trust that you know all this.
While there’s no universal answer to the question of the most essential Lou Reed song, there will always be a personal one. Although, even an individual decision can be difficult to arrive at when exploring the works of a musician who has led such a prolific career. I’m going to attempt to draw my own conclusion, and to start, I’ve managed to narrow it down to 9 songs.
This song is critically considered Lou Reed’s greatest musical accomplishment. Many will argue it’s Velvet’s best song. I’m not gonna say anything to the contrary. I’m just gonna put it out there that it might not qualify as Lou’s best work. At the time of Velvet’s debut album (1967), band member, JOHN CALE, had a lot of creative input on the band’s music. Cale left the band in 1970, and Reed took over full creative control. Heroin may have sounded quite different without the contributions of John Cale, at a time when Reed was still developing his own style. For that reason, I just can’t bring myself to pick it as Reed’s most essential.
I’M WAITING FOR MY MAN
As a lover of dance music, I have to consider this song, about waiting for a drug dealer in a bad neighbourhood, as a candidate for most essential. It’s catchy upbeat hook, and singable lyrics have all the makings of a great pop tune, that no doubt inspired countless Garage Rock bands to first pick up their instruments, not to mention the role this song would play in influencing the whole PUNK ROCK movement in years to come. However, seeing as it appears on Velvet’s debut album, I’m afraid the Cale card still applies. The albums producer, ANDY WARHOL, also had a lot of input on this one.
In 1970, with Reed now fully at the Helm of The Velvet Underground, the band was steered in a slightly more dreamy and popy direction. Velvet’s most recognizable song, SWEET JANE, resulted. As a collector of MARIJUANA MUSIC, and can’t deny my fondness for this tune. However, I also can’t deny that, as many will agree, the COWBOY JUNKIES cover is better than the original. I can’t bring myself to nominate a tune that somebody else has done a better version of.
WALK ON THE WILDSIDE
Reed’s biggest hit, and only real commercial success. Each verse ironically but affectionately describes one of the societal misfits of New York’s late 60’s art scene, that hung around Reed and Andy Warhol. Listening today, the lyrics are shockingly lewd for an early 70s POP song. At the time, however, Reed’s clever wording managed to evade the censors, and the catchy, tranquil chords and chorus distracted most listeners from dwelling on the lyrics anyways. I’d have a hard time picking this one as Reed’s most essential simply because no real fan ever wants to pick an artists signature song as their own personal favourite. Beyond that, the song is also not truly representative of Reed’s style. His record label wanted TRANSFORMER, the album that Wildside is found on, to have pop music appeal, so they hired DAVID BOWIE and MICK RONSON to co-produce it. Ronson was put in charge of arrangements and, as a result, the backing music on much of the album is quite atypical for Reed.
TRAINSPOTTING is, at the same time, my favourite novel, movie, and soundtrack. Director, DANNY BOYLE‘s use of PERFECT DAY in the infamous OVERDOSE SCENE was brilliant, and it earned the song a special spot in my heart. Aside from that, it IS one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, and contains one of my two favourite Lou Reed lyrics…
“You made me forget myself.
I thought I was someone else,
This song would easily be my pick for most essential if it wasn’t so damn over-popularized by its use in the movie. Everyone knows this song, many without knowing anything about Lou Reed. Unfortunately, I think it’s association with Trainspotting has overshadowed it’s association with Lou Reed, and there’s nothing that can be done to change that.
CONEY ISLAND BABY
My other favourite Lou Reed lyric is contained within this song, and that lyric is the soul reason why I’m considering this song as most essential. It has to do with my personal passion for urban life (which I won’t get into here).
“but remember that the city is a funny place.
Something like a circus or a sewer.
And just remember different people have peculiar tastes,
and the glory of love might see you through”
Is it fair to give an entire song the title of “most essential” based on one lyric??? Maybe not.
CAROLINE SAYS II
Reed’s BERLIN album is one that really needs to be listened to as a whole. It’s a concept album, that tells the story of two junkies who fall in love in Germany’s most famous city. It’s hard to pick one song on an album such as this, but CAROLINE SAYS II really does stand out. It breaks my heart to listen as Reed vividly describes a damaged woman’s send-off to her abusive husband. It’s deceptively beautiful, and embodies all the defining elements of Reed’s style. Do we have a winner then? Hold on…
This 11 minute minimal Rock Opera might be The ultimate flourishing of Reed’s desire to “bring the sensitivities of the novel to rock music”. A true achievement of his goal. In the songs distinct 3 parts, Lou plays the roll of narrator, aswell as several different characters, each one written with a very different voice from the others. The story is powerful, and extremely complex in its execution. It’s a crowning achievement, for sure, but as it is virtually void of pop sensibilities, could it really stand up as his most essential song? The music nerd in me doesn’t see why not.
PALE BLUE EYES
I believe that the truest beauty is found in simplicity. For me, this song actually excels beyond that of Perfect Day, because it didn’t need orchestral backing, or even singing on key, to achieve that beauty. Just a guitar, a tambourine, and an honest voice feeling every word that it sings. This song contains that Cale Card that I wrote about earlier, but I don’t care. This one is personal for me because it reminds me of somebody that I used to know, and their in lies the true power of Lou Reed’s music. Despite all of the rules that I’ve set for other tunes, this one stands out as the most important Lou Reed song, for me. Regardless, I’m NOT going to name it as his most essential.
For the title of MOST ESSENTIAL LOU REED SONG, all things considered, I have to go with WALK ON THE WILDSIDE. Shocked? Why? Well, earlier this year, on the 70th birthday of Lou Reed, fellow blogger, IRA BROOKER, perfectly worded my position on his blog, A TALENT FOR IDLENESS. Here’s what he wrote about Wildside…
“At this point it’s almost enough of a cliché to turn me off, but it’s not for nothing that this remains Lou’s defining song after all these years. The lulling bass line, the skittering guitar, the almost-whispered vocals and of course the Colored Girls and their “doot-d-doot-d-doots” make it every bit the classic it’s cracked up to be. Unlike “Perfect Day,” whose ubiquity has finally made me weary of a song I once loved, this one will never wear out its welcome”.
…and there, I will rest my case. For those of you who do not have Walk On The Wildside in your music collection, I insist that you download it below. I also hope that you will pick up THE ESSENTIAL LOU REED double CD collection, which contains all of the above songs.
DOWNLOAD: Lou Reed – Walk On The Wildside (RIGHT CLICK>SAVE AS)
No doubt YOU likely have a different opinion on the subject. I hope you’ll share it with me. Either way, thanx for reading.