Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The innocent allure of Lou Reed's 'Transformer'

I remember, when I was about twelve years old and even more naïve then than I am now, how much I blushed when my cousin showed me the cover of Lou Reed’s Transformer. It’s not that I had any moral objections to a photo of a man with an exaggerated erection in his jeans, it’s just that I never expected to see it on a record cover, and especially not in the presence of my cousin.

Still, I understood little about the underworld in those days, and even less about its role in music. At that age I had scarcely progressed from Rolf Harris to Beethoven in my musical development.

But as I listen to the music of Transformer again today, there is still just a little part of me, deep inside, that wants to blush. At the risk of describing this music with a totally absurd oxymoron, it seems to me to have a kind of innocent sleaze about it – music that strays into the dark and seedy part of town without ever having meant to go there, and then finds itself irresistibly drawn to its shadows and sordidness.

It’s a world of sex and sexuality, of drugs and dingy nights; but it’s a world that is presented to you unadorned, told with a naïveté, a simplicity, in music that sometimes dances along to a merry rocking jing-a-ling, like in ‘Hang’ Round’, or else has an oomp-pah jollity to it, as in‘Make Up’, or a merry sing-a-long bipping and bopping, like in ‘Satellite of Love’, or in music that just flows along as easy as pie, while giving you a sleazy wink of the eye, as in ‘Walk on the Wild Side’.

Not that these songs are just simple little ditties with rude words. There is often a subtle, undercurrent of irony here, which, when you sink yourself into it, can become almost disturbing in the way that it relaxes so easily into its own uneasiness. Listen, for example, to ‘Perfect Day’, a song that would be kind of nice, if kind of corny, if it was really about the simple things it at first seems to be about but which, when you realise that it’s actually about heroin, is one of the most heart-wrenching things you will ever hear.

It’s this interplay between sunshine and shadows, between simplicity and seediness, between ease and sleaze, that makes Transformer so darkly alluring, music that beckons you to join its game before telling you that the gambling stakes are going to be your very soul.

It was surely a towering achievement that Lou Reed, on this his second album, was able to achieve such a subtle balance of colours and moods in his music, music that does so much while pretending to you that it is doing so little.

I no longer blush when I see the cover of Transformer, just maybe feel a little embarrassed that a man of my age can still feel the urge to follow where its music wants to take me.


  1. Ah yes, Ian - 'innocent sleaze' indeed! Just ask the BBC, which happily played 'Walk on the Wild Side' for several weeks before someone let them in on the secret of the lyrics!

    David Bowie & Mick Ronson co-produced 'Transformer', and LR's music had influenced their own. I don't always understand the role of a record producer, but when you put 'Transformer' alongside LR's other albums, you hear that Bowie/Ronson had 'produced' something unique.

    'Perfect Day' - despite the content and the lush string arrangement (by Ronson)- has an inexplicable air of dread and menace that would colour future LR albums. Its chorus ends,'You keep me hangin' on', but you just know that it doesn't mean the same as when The Supremes sang the line! (The cover version of their song by Vanilla Fudge certainly had menace, if little else.)

    Good (p)luck with the banjo and remember - speed isn't always everything!

    P.S. Belated congratulations on the new-look blog, although I miss the Russophile hat.

  2. Many thanks for the good wishes Patrick. The banjo is still on the list, rather than in my possession but, if I ever do given in to the persistent urge to buy it, I'll see if they'll throw in some sort of approprate hat as well.