“I don’t think Transformer is a decadent album. Singing about hustlers and gay people isn’t decadent, is it? Singing about violence isn’t decadent…the only song that I’d put in that category would be New York Conversation.”
“But something like Vicious – the only motivation for that was because Warhol asked me to write a song called Vicious – ‘it would be so faahbulous, y’know.’ – So I said ‘what kind of vicious?’, and he said – ‘Oh, ‘Vicious, you hit me with a flower’.” — Lou Reed, 1973
Lou Reed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, a live album from 1974 that’s half supercharged versions of Velvet Underground songs and half solo oddities, is the arguably most “glam” moment on his timeline.
But the New Yorker’s most celebrated collection of glam-rock songwriting is undoubtedly his second solo set, the calculatedly androgynous Transformer, an era-defining meisterwerk released by RCA on 8 November 1972, and which generated Reed’s only bona fide hit single, the wondrous Walk On The Wild Side.
Few would deny that Transformer was one of Reed’s greatest achievements. It was beautifully produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, who also supplied some of the backing vocals. And, as both title and ‘horny sailor’ back cover blatantly suggested, the pervading subject matter was sexual ambiguity – with touches of other peccadilloes, the odd mention of drugs and the occasional barbed love song thrown in. The lyrics were coupled with easy-going rhythms and gingered up with very gently acid humour.
Looking at it half a century later, Transformer certainly wasn’t Reed’s last important work. But the record has more swagger and campy sex appeal than any of his other recordings, as best heard through sardonic rockers like Hangin’ Round, the transcendent space ballad Satellite Of Love, and the teasing opener Vicious, a rocker with whiplash guitar licks adding a visceral edge to the sarcastic sado-masochistic lyrics.
For an album that started life receiving mixed reviews — Rolling Stone magazine’s Nick Tosches dismissed most of the album as “artsyfartsy kind of homo stuff” that lacks assertiveness — its reputation has soared over the decades. Transformer was named the 44th greatest album of all time in a Music of the Millennium UK poll, ranked No. 55 on NME’s list of Greatest Albums of All Time. And listed in Q magazine’s 100 Greatest Albums Ever.
Being that it’s a Lou Reed album, however, it takes a lot of other curious turns, from vaudevillian pop (New York Telephone Conversation) to a saucy, sassy burlesque (Goodnight Ladies).
Lamentably, he didn’t stick to this approach for long, however, and his career only took bolder and stranger turns from there. I mean, who would have predicted Perfect Day reaching No. 1 as a multi-artist jigsaw puzzles charity record exactly 25 years later? First re-popularised by its use in the Trainspotting film, received wisdom suggests Perfect Day was sung by a man whose life is so shot that the perfect day for him is one that the good and prosperous people of the world would forget about in a week. Whether it’s explicitly about heroin or not, it combines a lovely piano and Mick Ronson’s sublime string setting and plain, halting vocals that turn out to be ideal for the all-star re-recording’s purpose.
I mean, covering a Lou Reed (alleged) ode to smack for Children In Need sounds like a hideously whiskery idea, so it’s remarkable how startling and beguiling Perfect Day sounds. It’s a successful reinvention of Bob Geldof’s Band Aid concept that also more or less finishes it off.
Released on 17 November 1997, there are several things this record gets right. Firstly, it wasn’t a record. The Perfect Day collage was a video first – a promotional film for the BBC justifying its licence fee masquerading as a celebration of 75 years as a broadcaster – and it had a huge visual impact. This triumph of marketing boasted colour-saturated portraits of slightly famous celeb sorts, enticingly shot, and – crucially – not huddled around the microphone duelling/duetting. The point of Band Aid and USA For Africa was that the famine crisis had been big enough to bring all of pop together, but the BBC’s aim on Perfect Day was to celebrate its diversity, not its unity. It’s a carefully compiled mixture of the current and the classic, of obscure and household names, which then rejects tastefulness in favour of delightful spectacle.
There’s room for strong, dominating readings which take their cue from the enhanced orchestration – and there’s room for fleeting cameos from weaker or more idiosyncratic vocalists to take the song flat, like Lou did. Indeed, with that laidback lounge reading of “You’re going to reap just what you sow”, Joan Armatrading is chiller than a freezer in the Antarctic, while directly before her, Suede’s Brett Anderson drops his vowelly fruitiness for a grave, beaten-down reading of the same line to begin the song’s coda, making it sound more like a warning than Reed ever did.
The idea on Perfect Day seems to have been for every performer to be as much themselves as they could possibly be. So Ian Broudie sounds more scouse than ever, Bowie more Sphinx-like, and Huey from the Fun Lovin’ Criminals somehow sounds more of a ninny.
It feels like the first time since the original Band Aid that someone has thought about how to make one of these Frankenrecords work aesthetically – instead of trying to smooth the juxtapositions over, revel in them. You can spot several places where the gear-shifts seem joyfully deliberate – cutesy Boyzone’s timid harmonies shifting to opera diva Lesley Garrett; Tammy Wynette feeding The Pogues’ toothless twit Shane MacGowan the track’s best gag. It’s as good as any record that lets Bono have a go twice can be.
By the time Perfect Day finishes, with over-emoting Tom Jones and elephantine foghorn Heather Small in an absurd, colossal reap-off, we’ve gone back beyond charity records and are firmly in an older entertainment tradition – the telly Christmas special. There’s a loveable, vaguely tacky pantomime ambience at work here – guest stars galore, in relaxed holiday mode – which overwrites any lingering remnants of the song’s original context or emotional heft, and in fact makes its bombastic arrangement enjoyable kitsch. You might say Perfect Day’s drive at the spectacular kills the feeling in the song – the specific line readings are mostly just singers karaokeing themselves. But given how overwrought previous charity pass-the-parcels have been, this feels like a price worth paying.
This, more than anything, nudged commentators to consider at the politics behind the record. Of course, the BBC didn’t create this simply to give Dr John and Laurie Anderson a No. 1 single – this is and remains an advert. The whole piece is an argument for the licence fee, explicitly stated at the end: without that, you can’t have things like this.
Depressingly, a whole quarter-century later the same old arguments seem not to have gone away.
I still want my BBC. Happy birthday Aunty.
Additional reporting: FreakyTrigger