On Sunday 27th October 2013 Lou Reed passed away from liver disease, aged 71.
His recent image has been one of that grumpy old guy who sang ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ in the 70’s and did an (unappreciated) album with Metallica in 2011 that almost everyone hated. However Lou Reed was so much more. He and his former band The Velvet Underground, specifically John Cale, were revolutionary in their approach to music, with Reed producing some of the most groundbreaking lyrics ever to be put to song. He wrote about taboos such as sexuality, drug use and the seedy underbelly of New York with a social commentary that was as beautiful and alluring as it was dark and horrific. So why does this all matter? Well if it wasn’t for Reed and his cohorts a lot of the music you listen to today wouldn’t exist. Never again has a band been so ahead of its time in its innovation, experimentation and subject matter.
Something that is not often commented on is Lou Reed’s much underrated work as a solo artist. While it can be a bit patchy in consistency Reed has hit the mark perfectly in many classics such as Transformer, Berlin, Street Hassle, The Bells, The Blue Mask, Magic & Loss, The Raven and his poetic masterpiece New York (even Lulu, the previously mentioned collaboration with Metallica, is brilliant but most people just haven’t realised that yet). When I’m listening to something by Reed or The Velvet Underground it feels as if he is speaking to no one in the world but me. He was by no means the greatest singer and was well known for his monotone, almost spoken word delivery but yet this makes the songs so moving. The poetry conveyed in his lyrics speaks for itself and doesn’t necessarily need a pitch perfect vocalist to get the message across. I have experienced the full range of emotions listening to the man’s work.
Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground’s influence is so far reaching that they are collectively essential when looking back at the history of popular music. As famously put by Brian Eno, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band”, and the famous rock critic Lester Bangs, “modern music begins with the Velvets and the implications and influence of what they did seem to go on forever”. Electrifying and utterly uncompromising; Lou Reed was definitely one of the greatest artists to have ever lived. I and many others worldwide will miss his presence dearly.
By Gavin Bedford