In the early 1970s, Lou Reed’s career was floundering. Having walked away from the Velvet Underground (possibly the hippest, most influential rock band of all time, albeit one who had almost zero commercial success in their lifetime) he had recorded a debut solo album that had followed the Velvet’s route to success (i.e. none). But he had established a reputation as a literate, alternative (before the term had even been invented) musician who was unafraid to tackle potentially controversial topics, with a particular focus on the seedy side of his home town, New York.
It was that reputation that led to him hooking up with David Bowie, a long-time fan of Velvet Underground, and Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson. At the time of recording Bowie’s star was in the ascendant, having just broken through with Starman, via. his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, but he was far from the superstar that he was to become over the following year. Bowie and Ronson came on board to produce the album that would become Transformer, and arguably brought a focus and clarity to proceedings that reflected what they had achieved on The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, a record released just a couple of months before the Transformer recording sessions. Glam rock was reaching some kind of peak, and Transformer picks up on that vibe – less in the more cartoon-ish elements of that scene (Mud, Sweet, Gary Glitter) – but more aligned to the more literate likes of Bowie and Roxy Music.
Feature a selection of old songs that had originally been performed and/or demoed with Velvet Undergound (Andy’s Chest, Satellite Of Love, New York Telephone Conversation and Goodnight Ladies), alongside a collection of sharply focussed new songs, Transformer is a strongly coherent collection of songs that takes a mirror to the strange and perverse underground scene that Reed took as his own. Whilst New York – by name – would be the title and subject of a much later album, much of Reed’s material is rooted in his experience of that city and its underground scene, and Transformer is a spectacular example of that. Characters from that scene (Candy, Holly, Daisy Mae, Biff) are constantly being referenced in the songs, along with nods to Andy Warhol (the Velvet’s were in effect the house band for The Factory), and the stories in the songs are liberally peppered with tales of transgender individuals, drug use, and sex. Walk On The Wild Side became a breakout hit from the album, yet when you listen to the lyrics it’s a wonder that it even got airplay given some of the subject areas it touches on.
Reed’s career flip-flopped over the years, seemingly alternating from commercial and critical success to almost-deliberate career suicide (Metal Machine Music being the most extreme example of that). In hindsight, Reed – always his own man – attempted to downplay the Bowie connection and influence, but it is without doubt that Transformer represents an early peak in his career, one that may at times have felt like an albatross around his neck, but which clearly established as a significant artist.
And so welcome to the Transformer songbook. Lou Reed songs aren’t – for the most part – musically complex, and that certainly applies to Transformer. Which means that these songs lend themselves well to translation to sing-along ukulele style. Only one of them (Perfect Day) I’ve had to transpose from the original key, so all the rest you can easily play along with. Sometimes the timing of the wording can be a little tricky, and I’ve tried to help in here with some occasional “…”‘s to highlight little pauses – whether these help or not you can decide. I’ve also added in some of the backing vocals which certainly enhance the songs (the outro to Satellite of Love being my favourite) – obviously these won’t work so well if you do these by yourself, but in a group setting they’re definitely work adding. Enjoy!