1972 was a great year for rock; the years in and around 1970 were definitely the golden era.
The Beatles had broken up but The Stones were at their absolute peak. Bowie was now Ziggy. The MC5 disbanded and Sunbury happened. It was all going on.
1972, then, in album titles: Exile on Main Street, Number 1 Record, Honky Chateau, and Still Bill. Also – Ziggy Stardust, Roxy Music, Superfly, Long John Silver, Clear Spot, Can’t Buy A Thrill, and Ege Bamyasi. Trouble Man, Sailin’ Shoes, and Sail Away.
There’s heaps more classics, including Transformer by Lou Reed, produced by David Bowie and featuring, among other Class A musicians, Mick Ronson on guitar. It contains at least four masterpieces and, aside from Exile, was the best album of an incredible year.
There’s a show coming up in Melbourne on September 8 for the Festival of Jewish Arts and Music (FOJAM) where noted musicians do Transformer in sequence. Gabriella Cohen and her chief collaborator Kate ‘Babyshakes’ Dillion are curating it. There are 27 performers, including a choir. Gabriella first heard ‘Perfect Day’, one of the album’s four masterpieces, when she was 12.
“It stabbed me in the heart,” she says. “What is this pain? This is something I am never going to get. How do I write like this? I knew I wanted to be a musician already, and that pain! It really got me. It was something else. I knew I wasn’t going to be a junkie so I asked for my heart to be broken and I guess that’s what I’ve been writing about ever since.”
"What is this pain? This is something I am never going to get. How do I write like this?" - Gabriella Cohen
Lester Bangs, the famously unhinged rock critic, was not convinced. Lou Reed, with his breakthrough post-Velvet Underground records Transformer and then Berlin the following year, had become Lester’s nemesis. He thought Lou had gone soft.
Creem magazine sent Lester to meet Lou, and in a piece called “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves”, Lester wrote hateful things about Lou’s trans lover and called Lou “…a liar, a wasted talent, an artist continually in flux”. He accused Lou of being the guy “that gave dignity and poetry and rock ‘n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide”.
Everyone was scared of Lou. He cultivated a pitch-black aura of unapproachability. But Lester wasn’t afraid of “that spooky man, booga booga”. Rather Lou was still his weirdo hero “principally because he stands for all the most fucked up things that I could ever possibly conceive of.” Lou lived to be 71, Lester Bangs died at 33.
Surprisingly, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ – the centrepiece of Transformer, a song so familiar it is like air – was not banned in 1972. It somehow slipped through despite less transgressive pop songs being identified by the BBC as bad for cultural health.
Two songs by Paul McCartney’s Wings were banned – ‘Hi, Hi, Hi’ (sex and drugs) and ‘Give Ireland Back to The Irish’ (a bit political). Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out’ was dropped from Top of The Pops on the urgings of infamous conservative activist Mary Whitehouse, who also didn’t like Dr Who because it had monsters.
But ‘Wild Side’ got through the gatekeepers despite documenting drug use (heroin, speed and Valium), prostitution (“Little Joe never once gave it away”), transsexualism (“Holly, from Miami FLA”), and oral sex (Candy, from Coney Island; she never lost her head).
‘Wild Side’ was a B-side to ‘Perfect Day’ on the vinyl single, a fact which continues to do my head in as someone who considers it maybe the most exact and perfectly realised four minutes in rock history.
Also, and even more extreme a claim perhaps, is the moment where the “coloured girls” doot-dee-doots soar and fade into the saxophone the best few seconds of rock music, like, ever? I think so. Lyrically it is unimpeachable; the storytelling is what it’s really about. The fact ‘Wild Side’ is a song is secondary to the story it unpicks.
AS a rock album, Transformer is studiously diverse.
Lou (and Bowie) indulge their obsessions with cabaret, soul, the avant-garde, doo-wop and jazz, as well as the Ronson-led pure rock sound. Exile on Main Street is a bit like this, too. It goes everywhere and sounds like nothing but itself, and sounds perfectly natural.
Similarly, the cast Gabriella and Kate have gathered for the FOJAM show is eclectic. Alex Gow of Oh Mercy is doing ‘Satellite of Love’ (masterpiece three) and ‘Make Up’, which really is the most empowering, kind and tender song about gender fluidity. It’s wonderful. Deborah Conway does ‘Vicious’ (masterpiece four: “….hit me with a flower…”).
Spike Fuck does ‘Perfect Day’, which is what might be called a good synergy. Bella Venutti from IV League does ‘Wagon Wheel’ (“….why don’t you wake me, shake me, don’t let me sleep too long…”) and ‘I’m So Free’.
"My experiences with Transformer are limited to listening to it on the way to school in the '90s with the Goth teenager who gave me a ride.” - Chris Cohen
Ryan Downey sings ‘Wild Side’ and ‘Hangin’ Round’. Emily Lubitz does ‘Goodnight Ladies’. Vivien Goldman, a legendary British journalist and author who hung out with John Lydon and Bob Marley and was in The Flying Lizards, does ‘New York Telephone Conversation’.
“I live in New York now,” Vivien tells me, “and that may be partly to do with the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed and the mystique of poetic transgressive possibilities they wove for me and my friends when I was a student in the UK.
“It seemed like a silver-walled wonderworld of self-discovery, community and creativity,” she continues. “With the mutual admiration society of Bowie, Ronson and Reed there was a coming together of glam in a way that presaged today’s gender fluidity.”
Chris Cohen, of Deerhoof and many other things, is doing ‘Andy’s Chest’ (about Andy Warhol after he was shot) but doesn’t rate Transformer as high as his peers.
“I recognise what’s significant about it to other people,” he says, “but to my taste it’s over-produced and dumbed down musically. They use musical elements as short-hand and for the cultural associations they bring, rather than as direct sounds.
“There’s other Lou Reed I like a lot more: Legendary Hearts, Blue Mask, The Velvet Underground, and Metal Machine Music. My experiences with Transformer are limited to listening to it on the way to school in the ’90s with the goth teenager who gave me a ride.”
WHEN I was about 21 I was living in Brisbane and I had just moved to West End and I was working in this rambling old coffee shop that no longer exists.
There was a funny man I used to work with – I wish I could remember his name – and he always used to play Transformer and that’s how I was properly introduced to the record.
He would often close the cafe at random times whenever he felt like it and blast Transformer and we would play chess. That became the soundtrack to that period of my life. I remember hearing ‘Satellite of Love’ and ‘Make Up’ and I didn’t like it at first – but it really grew on me. It was pivotal.
‘Vicious’ was a massive soundtrack to my early 20s. Me and my boyfriend at the time were in a band called The Furrs and that was our theme. A damn good song. The energy is the best, just the best. It’s very exciting as a young person to listen to it for the first time.
The Velvet Underground was like my bible already and then ‘Vicious’ became something I would try to emulate, that punk attitude.
Ryan Downey "He sings most of the record so vulnerably."
When I think of the record I guess it’s the gentlest elements that come to mind first which is interesting for a Lou Reed record – the shuffling brushes on the snare in ‘Wild Side’, the really thin, wispy string arrangements throughout the album, and his vocal treatment and delivery.
He sings most of the record so vulnerably, like he pushed all the song keys up a few steps at the last minute and his voice had to just find its way nakedly – I think that gives the record its unaffected charm.
From the music that I’ve engaged with from throughout his [Lou Reed’s] career it’s always struck me that on Transformer he achieved a great balance between writing about his era – the movements and characters he’d been involved with – with his own personal and emotional life.
His outer and inner worlds seem to meet at a resting place in the middle and that’s an interesting place for the listener to visit. I find Bowie is also at his best when he does that and perhaps he recognised that responsibility to capture the intimacy appropriately when the songs were in front of them.
[The album is] its own mood. It borrows motifs and feels from all sorts of places – jazz, soul, big band, and ties them in with Lou’s brand of off-kilter rock but manages to result in something of its own. It doesn’t just sound like a collage or montage, Transformer is a style in itself and not one that could be used again by anyone else. I think it’s probably loved by so many because its experimentation doesn’t alienate, it actually draws you into the new-found world.
I also find the record has quite a chameleonic sensibility – sometimes I’ll hear the record during the day and it really ties in and accentuates the hustle and bustle of city life, but I can equally hear it in the middle of the night and it’s the perfect slow mood, drifting relaxer. That’s the kind of record I love, the ones that do different kinds of magic because the songs are full of layers and colours that are there to move people, not just say what they’re saying once.
Transformer was quite transformative for me! It’s one of the first records I heard and immediately valued for its sense of effortlessness and authenticity. It refuses to adhere tightly to genre or preconceived notions of rock music or even Lou’s previous work.
It feels like an artist wholly embracing the full scope of their writing ability, their many faces – the abrasive eyeliner-clad rockstar, the pop melody virtuoso, the tender and genuine poet. With every re-listen it’s constantly a breath of fresh air to me, especially in a day and age in which I feel like a lot of artists are encouraged to be and sound one certain way in order to be more easily digestible.
The first time I heard ‘Perfect Day’ was in my bedroom as a teenager digging through a box of records that I had newly inherited from my mum. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the lyric, “You made me forget myself, I thought I was someone else, someone good.” It’s incredible when lyrics or poetry have the power to make you feel so seen.
The song always makes me think of Mum, actually. She’s my best friend and I’ve always felt more capable of being kind to myself in her presence. We often discuss the way in which people sensationalise the typical landmark moments in life that are meant to leave the most profound impact on us and bring us the most fulfilment when often the reality is that mundane; daggy activities in the presence of someone you really connect with can feel so extraordinary. The song perfectly captures that sentiment to me.
I think the fact Bowie was so heavily inspired by the Velvets and an adoring fan of Lou’s work and went on to coproduce this album is such a wonderful little piece of music history.
I often think about the fact that the desire to play and write music often stems from fandom. I can only imagine how rewarding it would feel to have one of your idols become your contemporaries and collaborators.