The Velvet Underground might be considered one of the most influential bands of all time now, but back in the 1960s, they could barely shift a record. When Velvet Underground disbanded in 1970, frontman Lou Reed moved back into his parent’s house in Long Island and took a job as a typist at his dad’s accounting firm. A year later, he was back in business, with a new record contract, a new vision, and the same uncompromising attitude as ever. Over the next 4 decades, he released some of the most legendary songs ever recorded. He also made some right turkeys, but for now, we’ll leave them aside and concentrate solely on the treasures. If your sonic knowledge of Lou Reed begins and ends with that star-studded charity version of Perfect Day from the 90s, now’s the time to change it. These are the 10 best Lou Reed songs of all time.
10. Think It Over
The 1980 album Growing Up In Public is a big, bombastic piece of rock and roll. But rock and roll is entitled to its quieter moments and Think It Over is its. A moving, achingly pretty love song about his soon-to-be wife Sylvia, it’s made all the more powerful by the subtly and restraint of Reed’s vocal performance.
9. I Wanna Boogie With You
Taken from the 1979 album The Bells, I Wanna Boogie With You is a tightly curled fist of intensity that would make for agonizing listening if it weren’t quite so funky. Colored with disco beats and doo-wop rhythms, it’s a gorgeous piece that ranks amongst Reed’s, best, if most underrated, tracks.
8. Dirty Blvd
New York, Reed’s masterful 1989 return to form, is scattered with gems. The best, like the stunning Dirty Blvd, hark back to the simplicity and energy of Reed’s Velvet Underground days. The studio version is outstanding, but the live rendition performed alongside David Bowie at the latter’s 50th birthday celebration is sheer divinity, with the pair trading smiles and lines as they share the mic.
7. Street Hassle
Street Hassle is a lot to take in. Part rock opera, part punk, it pitches rock music alongside orchestral strings, abandons lyrics in favor of a stream of (very graphic) consciousness, and, for some strange reason, features a spoken-word monologue by an uncredited Bruce Springsteen. It’s bizarre, and it shouldn’t work. On paper, it doesn’t. On tape, it does, proving that confessions of failure, deceit, and misogyny can sometimes make for compulsive, if unsettling, listening.
As Rolling Stone says, after years in the wilderness, the 1989 album New York was a return to form for Reed. Accompanied by a beefy guitar backing, he ripped through his seedy tales of New York life with a vicious energy we hadn’t seen from him in years. Strawman, an angry, seething swipe at society’s inequalities, is one of its standouts.
Andy Warhol came up with the line “you hit me with a flower” when he challenged Reed to write a song about someone vicious. Reed did, using Warhol’s quip as part of the song’s famous couplet. David Bowie’s glam-pop production throws something of a dampener on Vicious’ latent power, but Mark Ronson’s restrained riffing and Reed’s churlish delivery keeps the fire burning.
4. Perfect Day
As ultimateclassicrock.com writes, when Reed released Perfect Day, no one was quite sure how to take it. Was it really an ode to simple pleasures like visiting the zoo and enjoying sangria in the park? Or was it a veiled heroin reference? 50 years later, we’re still no closer to knowing the truth. But regardless of whether it’s an earnest love song or a paean to smack (or, as it was in “Trainspotting,” a bit of both), it’s glorious either way.
3. Coney Island Baby
On Coney Island Baby, Reed drops his guard and exposes himself as a kid who wanted to play football for the coach. Laid bare alongside his youthful aspirations is his love for his transgender muse, Rachel, who seems to be both the subject and the recipient of this most tender of masterpieces. Intimate, sensitive, and yet threaded with impudence, Reed would never be quite so open, or quite so angelic, again.
2. Satellite of Love
Like Sweet Jane, Satellite of Love was originally a Velvet Underground track. Unlike Sweet Jane (which had already been included on the band’s fourth studio album, Loaded, by the time Reed recorded a solo version for Transformer, and thus doomed itself to ineligibility for our list), Satellite of Love had never been released. It eventually surfaced on the exhaustive Velvet Underground box set Peel Slowly and See in 1995, but at the time Transformers was released in 1972, it was for all extents and purposes a brand new, Lou Reed original. Like most of Reed’s work, there’s no telling what it’s about. Space-age daydream? A metaphor for infidelity? Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter – it’s got some killer backing vocals from David Bowie, a watertight arrangement courtesy of co-producers Mick Ronson and Bowie, and enough finger clicks and handclaps to keep things fit for the charts. It didn’t reach them (well, barely – it charted at No.119) but what people didn’t appreciate at the time they’ve learned to since.
1. Walk on the Wild Side
Reed’s music might sometimes be alienating, but it can also be utterly joyous. Sometimes, it’s both, as it is on Walk on the Wild Side. Reed’s most famous song turns its eye on the pansexual superstars, make hookers, and cross-dressers of Andy Warhol’s entourage. Mainstream topics they aren’t, and in 1972, it was a wonder it got any airplay at all. But it did, giving Reed the only Top 20 hit of his career. Today, it still sounds as fresh and transgressive as ever, with Herbie Flowers’ sliding bass, The Thunder Thighs’ do doo, doo do doos, and Ronnie Ross’s frankly immoral sax playing perfectly alongside Reed’s pussy-cat drawl.