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Week 78 | Transformer (1972)

Lou Reed’s, “Transformer,” like Mott the Hoople’s, “All the Young Dudes” and the Stooges’, “Raw Power,” is one of the early 70s classic albums produced by Bowie that helped resurrect a flailing career.  It includes some of Reed’s best known songs, such as, “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Perfect Day,” and, “Satellite of Love.”  Bowie’s influence on the album runs deep— in addition to producing it, he plays instruments and sings backup on several of the songs.  He presumably was also responsible for making the connection between Reed and Mick Ronson, who co-produced the album (Reed subsequently would heap praise on Ronson’s contributions both as a producer and for his playing multiple instruments on the album).  Other musicians connected with Bowie appear on the album, including saxophonist Ronnie Ross and fellow Spider from Mars Trevor Bolder.  More than any of that, Bowie’s glam-persona clearly influenced Reed’s, which though shorter lived than Bowie’s, resulted in the iconic cover image of Reed in makeup, as well as homoerotic back-cover art, and gay-themed songs, notably, “Walk on the Wild Side” and, “Make Up.”  

All that said, for whatever reason, I don’t associate this album as much with Bowie as I do some of his other collaborations.  Bowie himself performed the song, “

All the Young Dudes,” enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if the better known Mott the Hoople version is mistaken as a Bowie recording.  And Bowie’s subsequent work with Iggy Pop makes it difficult not to associate Iggy with Bowie.   But Lou Reed was already out of the Velvet Underground by the time Bowie was emerging, and he would go on a a career that didn’t much include Bowie (with the notable exceptions of his 2013 album, “The Raven,” and an extended joint-appearance with Bowie at his 1997 50th birthday concert).  So I still find it striking that Bowie had something to do with, “Walk on the Wild Side.”

Bowie sings backup on at least four of the songs on, “Transformer”: “Andy’s Chest;” “Satellite of Love;” “I’m So Free,” and “New York Conversation.”  His voice is unmistakable in each case, and his contributions represent the absolute peak of his Ziggy-era high-pitched voice.  To my ears, he somehow manages to inflect hoots and howls with a campy subtext, without actually saying anything.  As should be obvious, I am far more partial to Bowie’s voice than I am to Reed’s, so there would have been a danger of Bowie overshadowing Reed entirely if his voice was even more prominent than in the end it was. 

Bowie clearly admired Reed and the Velvet Underground.  He frequently performed, “Waiting for the Man” and, “White Light/White Heat,” live versions of each appear on various Bowie albums.  Nonetheless, I am not aware of Bowie performing any of the songs off this album (with one quasi exception, which I’ll get to).  I get the sense that, as with Mick Jagger (“Dancing in the Street”) and John Lennon (“Fame”), Bowie wanted to touch the hem of Lou Reed, and to mark the occasion with some sort of collaboration.  

The quasi exception— the one song from, “Transformer,” that I know of that Bowie partially performed later is, “Perfect Day.”  Bowie, Reed and several other musicians recorded a few lines each for a 1997 version of the song in support of some sort of BBC-backed charity.  I included the video of this performance in my year-long song-a-day Bowie tribute.  In that Bowie had something to do with creating Reed’s original recording, Bowie could claim at least a minority stake in the song’s identification.  

A further note on, “Perfect Day”— as far as I can tell, the song is totally earnest.  I understand that there’s an interpretation of the song that has it about heroin, rather than a guy having a nice if simple day with his girlfriend.  I just don’t see anything in the song that supports that theory (Reed himself dismissed the drug-song interpretation).  The only hint that there’s something up, is the closing sequence of, “you’re going to reap just what you sow.”  I don’t know what that’s about, but the term shouldn’t automatically have a negative connotation and certainly doesn’t imply anything about heroin.  

“Transformer” usually appears on lists of best rock albums of all time.  Its three best-known songs keep reappearing in other contexts such as movie soundtracks and even commercials (I’m assuming that Honda was hoping that people wouldn’t look up the lyrics of, “Walk on the Wild Side” in its commercials).  And while Lou Reed properly gets the credit for the album, it also represents another way Bowie contributed not just to music of the time, but to the culture.  

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Hey John, Zack from the office here. Just a thought on your interpretation of Perfect Day. I agree it is earnest and not about heroin. I think the key to the song is the line you made me think I was someone else, someone good. The narrator has done some terrible thing to his spouse, but the day they spend together makes him think he is good. There is some biographical support for that. During the period Reed was writing about, he had started an extramarital affair with a transgender woman named Rachel. I’m loathe to try to match up biography with verse, but here I think that may be the hurtful thing the narrator did, leaving his wife perhaps ambivalent about the marriage and keeping him hanging on. Just a thought. I’m a big fan of Reed and Transformer and enjoyed your take on it from the view of the Bowie production!

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