Artist: Lou Reed / Velvet Underground
Writers: Lou Reed
Year Released: 1967 – 1972
Genre/Sub Genre: Assorted
Why it’s a “Penn’s Pick”:
Few artists have the guts or the desire to spend their entire career doing things THEIR WAY, without much regard for achieving mainstream success, maximizing sales or conforming to the trends of the day. For them, artistry comes first and everything else is secondary.
Lou Reed was one of those rare artists.
Whether as a solo artist or with the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed always stayed true to his own unique vision. This includes masterpieces such as Transformer and the first VU album, or his big “f*!k you” with the torturous, unlistenable Metal Machine Music.
It was the Velvet Underground however that had the most profound impact on me both as a songwriter and a lover of music. Lou’s dark, raw, avant-garde, disturbing, minimalistic, frantic and sometimes delicately beautiful compositions went against the grain of the “peace, love and happiness” vibe that permeated the air in the mid to late 60’s, bringing the grit and grime of NYC to the masses (though it certainly wasn’t the masses at the time!)
Brian Eno put it best in an interview with Musician Magazine in 1982: “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. The sales have picked up in the past few years, but I mean, that record was such an important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”
Sadly, Lou Reed passed away on October 27, 2013 at the age of 71. In his honor we’re going to feature 5 of my all-time favorite VU/Lou Reed compositions as a tribute to a man who truly did things “his way.”
Venus In Furs
The dark, foreboding, dirge-like nature of this song stood out like a sore thumb against the peace, love and happiness vibe that permeated the air in 1967. This version, taken from Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable film, possesses a Door’s like quality that wasn’t found on the original studio recording.
Clocking in at an exceptionally long 17:00+, Sister Ray is a snarling, raw, freeform/freakout proto-punk song with “debautchery/decay” themed lyrics that was way ahead of its time in ’67/’68. Reed said of the lyrics: “Sister Ray’ was done as a joke—no, not as a joke—but it has eight characters in it and this guy gets killed and nobody does anything. It was built around this story that I wrote about this scene of total debauchery and decay. I like to think of ‘Sister Ray’ as a transvestite smack dealer. The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear.”
One of the best known Lou Reed / Velvet Underground compositions, what really stands out about this track (besides the lyrics) is the manner in which the song mimics a heroin high, growing in intensity throughout until reaching a frenzied crescendo before putting the listener back down on the ground almost 7:00 into the song, quite lengthy for that period of time.
I Heard Her Call My Name
Included on 1968’s White Light/White Heat album, this is the Velvet Underground at their most raw, frenetic and disjointed best. You know that when the second line of a song reads “I’ve got my eyeballs on my knees” that you’re in for something quite “different” to say the least.
Walk On The Wild Side
This song has one of the most recognizable bass lines ever coupled with a narrative that depicts Reed’s experiences in NYC during the 60’s and early 70’s. This is Lou Reed at the very top of his game.