“The public has never discovered him, and, unfortunately, Transformer will not help his cause,” a 1972 New Yorker review said about the second solo outing by Lou Reed.
According to Aidan Levy, author of Dirty Blvd: The Life and Music of Lou Reed, the review’s writer, Ellen Willis was a fan of the Velvet Underground, but had no time for this latest record. She called it ‘terrible—lame, pseudo-decadent lyrics, lame, pseudo-something-or-other singing, and a just plain lame band.’
Although widely hailed as his most accessible and best loved work, it’s not an overstatement to say that not everyone always ‘got’ Lou Reed’s genius, nor the special place this album would continue to occupy in many people’s lives.
Time has a way of making certain albums seem out of place in a modern context. In other cases, the passage of time can illuminate the enduring qualities and craft of a great artist.
Lou Reed did have a huge fan in David Bowie, who talked about his intense nerves approaching the making of Transformer.
“I was petrified that he said yes he would like to work with me in the producer capacity,” Bowie recalled in the 1998 documentary Rock and Roll Heart.
“I had so many ideas and I felt so intimidated by my knowledge of the work he’d already done. Even though there was only that short time between us [in their artistic careers], it seemed like Lou had this great legacy of work. Which indeed he did have.”
Bowie and Mick Ronson (a member of Bowie’s Spiders from Mars band) brought on key contributors like Herbie Flowers – who played tuba and devised that signature bass riff for ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ – and Ronnie Ross who delivered that same song’s riveting sax solo.
Bowie jumped in on backing vocals for a number of tracks, Ronson’s guitar features throughout, and his wonderful string arrangement lifts the brilliant ‘Perfect Day’. As much as this was a Lou Reed album, there was also a very special meeting of minds at the Trident Studios in London.
The coming together of two of music’s great innovators resulted in a record that would intrigue and inspire music fans and new generations of music makers many decades on from its release.
Melbourne band Totally Mild recall obsessing over Transformer as young teens.
“It is the best piece of work that either of them [did] in my opinion,” guitarist Zach Schneider says. “I think it's a combination of the two of them – Bowie's pop sensibilities mixed with Lou Reed's lyricism – that makes it the best thing.”
A large part of its appeal comes down to its simplicity.
“I've always been struck by its starkness, and was just really into how minimal and bold everything was on that record in comparison to the Velvets, which tends to be like a big smoosh of crazy wildness. They're all over the shop, just throwing stuff at the wall, where this record just is so considered and stripped back. it’s just one of those quintessential records.”
Frontwoman and songwriter Elizabeth Mitchell found the stories, and the way they were told, left a lasting impression on her.
“He was pushing the boundaries of what it meant to be a masculine man in rock music and questioning masculinity in general,” she says. “I think they're really positive things he was doing.”
“Bowie's always angling at his sexuality [on his records], but Lou Reed just goes [in ‘Make Up’] ‘We're coming out of our closets’,” Schneider says. “He just tells you.
“He's really challenging social norms. 'Make Up' is one track, singing about transgender characters. He's kinda the first person, outside of Ray Davies who did it in ‘Lola’. It’s really potent, relevant stuff that he managed to slip by all the radio stations!”
The fact that many stations at the time played songs like ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ without twigging to what ‘Candy’ was doing when she was ‘giving head’ testifies to the magnetism of a compellingly told story. But Mitchell also observes that lyrics like “…and the coloured girls say…” mark the record as a document of its time.
In Rock and Roll Heart, Lou Reed described his vocal approach.
“The way I sing, I want you very much to feel like someone’s sitting next to you. Very intimate, very real. You gotta believe that its real.”
It’s this fundamental quality as a singer and narrator that draws you in.
Reflecting on his love across the board of Lou Reed’s work, Zach Schneider puts it down to his weathered tone.
“I feel like it is because of his voice. There's this brutal truth going on where it's just like, ‘I'm real telling how it is’. He’s super laconic and just able to get so much across, and his turns of phrase are always simplistic but always really impactful.”
Forty-five years on from its release, Transformer’s cause as a measure of great achievement is clear to bands like Totally Mild.
“I think, as an accessible pop record, that's just like ‘the one’,” Schnieder says. “It's a really high benchmark to get up to.”