By Rick Polo (Editor-in-Chief)
Visionary, trailblazer, cool, godfather, original, genius, brooding, artistic, inspirational. Those are just some of the terms that come to mind when referencing the godfather of art rock, Lou Reed.
Reed’s 46-year career spanned several eras, trends and movements. Somehow, the iconic rocker always managed to be cited as a leader or influence. And up until his passing last month, Reed was still going strong, still challenging his audience and still making an intellectual and trend-setting statement.
Reed’s career begin in the mid-60’s as frontman of The Velvet Underground. While most bands of the time were drenched in psychedelia and trying to play louder than their predecessors, Reed and his bandmates were taking an intellect in rock and roll to a whole new level, birthing the sub-genre of art rock.
The Velvet Underground were, at the time, rock’s best-kept secret. With themes of sex, drugs and violence, it certainly wasn’t very in step with much of the “hippie” movement. They were arguably the first cult band, with a devoted underground audience despite a serious lack of national radio play or television exposure. In a pre-Internet world, they were among the first acts to connect others like-minded, one a smaller yet wide-ranged scale, selling only 30,000 copies of their debut album. As Brian Eno was once famously said, “…everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
Their association with Andy Warhol and their artsy approach gained the band even more popularity throughout three studio albums in the late 60’s and lasted long after the group disbanded in 1970.
Reed’s career was far from over after The Velvet Underground. He took the world by surprise in 1972, releasing two of rock’s greatest masterpieces, his self-titled solo debut and the David Bowie and Mick Ronson co-produced Transformer. Transformer was arguably the first glimpse of Gothic rock, featuring Reed on the cover donning black clothing and eyeliner. The album’s smash hit, “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” was a dark and ironic tune, paying homage to all the misfits and freaks that surrounded The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol in the late 60’s.
The following year, Reed took steps into progressive rock, releasing the concept album, Berlin. Darker than Transformer, Berlin told the story of two junkies in love in the city of Berlin. Songs of severe drug addiction, prostitution and suicide further expanded Reed’s fascination with the darker side of the human experience.
By 1975, Reed released another critical work, Metal Music Machine. Although the album was considered a commercial failure and sold poorly compared to Transformer and Berlin, it’s influence spread wider than originally imaged. The album consisted heavily of electronic noise and feedback; a stark contrast to his well-produced earlier solo works. However, the album’s noisiness went on to heavily inspire early NYC punk/alternative acts like the Talking Heads, as well as entire sub-genres such as noise rock and proto-industrial.
Reed’s experimentation, both sonically and lyrically, continued over the next 30 years. With the occasional commercial successes and the equally occasional commercial flops, Reed always managed to remain relevant through out the ages. Punks admired his ambition and lack of interest to play nice with the music industry. Acts as diverse as Iggy Pop, The Flaming Lips, The Smiths, Sonic Youth and Jane’s Addiction all cite Reed, as well as The Velvet Underground, as critical influences on their music.
His final musical stand came as a very unlikely collaboration when he teamed up with metal icons Metallica in 2009. He first performed with them at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s 25th Anniversary Concert, and later announced he would be recording an entire album with them. The result was 2011’s Lulu. The album, based on a late-1800’s German play, went straight to number one on the Billboard charts. However, the album was quickly deemed a critical and commercial flop. Both parties stood behind the project, as Reed again managed to challenge his audience, whether they liked it or not.
Reed’s unrelenting search for thought-provoking and challenging artistic statements were ultimately the reason for his long-lasting relevance and his wide-spread influence. Reed never tamed himself and never necessarily gave his fans the music they were expecting to hear next. It’s because of his ambition and fearlessness that he remains a true icon, visionary, and the King of Cool. Even after his death, as long as rock and roll is still kicking, his life and influence will continue to be celebrated.