Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal is Lou Reed making good on a promise. He assured his record label RCA he’d made a commercial (fourth) album after Berlin bombed. The public’s disinterest in that now revered 1973 concept album must have hurt. But by the same token, Lou had a hit record under his belt (Walk On The Wild Side, from the Bowie and Ronson-produced Transformer) so what better time to show the world where he started. Four of the five songs on the original Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal are Velvet Underground tunes as played by a polished hard rock band led by two smokin’ guitar gods: Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter who would soon be playing with Alice Cooper. Unusually, for such an accomplished and influential guitarist Reed didn’t play a note.
Of course, for many Reed’s influence had more to do with his seemingly simple-to-replicate talk/sing vocal tones and streetwise lyricism than his axe chops, although he certainly worked with top-flight musicians over the years. In the Rolling Stone History Of Rock, critic Ken Tucker cited his influence on proto-punk band the New York Dolls: “The mean wisecracks and impassioned cynicism that informed the Dolls’ songs represented an attitude that Reed’s work with the Velvet Underground embodied, as did the Dolls’ distinct lack of musicianship.”
Was Lou Reed mean? That was the image, at least, for a long time. Pretenders’ frontwoman Chrissie Hynde wasn’t just influenced by him as a musician; she wrote about him when she was a rock critic at NME, reviewing Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, Hynde summarised the appeal of his unwillingness to kiss up to a fanbase: “He looks like a monkey on a chain, court geek,” wrote the future rock star. “Listen to him scramble to a corner, damaged and grotesque, huddled in rodent terror. Animal Lou. Lashing out in a way that could make the current S&M trend freeze in its shallow tracks. And the audience cheers after every song: we’re with you, yeah, we always loved those songs, ha ha. Well…he hates you.”
In an interview with the Telegraph decades later, Morrissey downplayed the idea of Reed as the grumpy old man of rock. “He’s terribly nice! Terribly, terribly nice,” insisted Morrissey — although, as an admitted misanthrope himself, Morrissey may not be the best judge of that.
“And he’s one of those people who, when I first met him, I expected the worst. But he’s terribly nice. Once again, very friendly and very interested. Not a difficult, abrasive moment. But you have to remember that throughout the ’70s he was exclusively drug-ravaged. And that doesn’t really make for terribly balanced relationships.”
Entering the Bowie-dominated British album charts in mid-March 1974 (at 26, the same week Mick Ronson’s Slaughter On Tenth Avenue crashed in at nine), the recording and 1975’s even less essential Lou Reed Live were recorded on 21 December 1973 at Howard Stein’s Academy Of Music in New York. Reed performed with swagger even though his singing remained as wooden as ever. But the review that probably hit Lou hardest was from his former Velvets bandmate John Cale, who was less than impressed: “He thinks that by sticking to his guns, he’ll succeed and he has. He’s got the whole sickness market tied up.”
Indeed, in tours that would soon follow, Reed would pretend to shoot up during Heroin. The two disc, all-noise “fuck you” onslaught of Metal Machine Music was just a year away. How exciting.