Revisit and Re-love: Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’

In this new series, we take a look back at some iconic records from the ages that hold a special place within the hearts of the LGBTQ+ community and examine just why they’re so damn great.

Take a look at our revisits of Goldfrapp’s Black Cherry and Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing

Date released: 2 November 1972

Best bit to dive straight into: Walk On The Wild Side, Vicious, Make Up, Satellite Of Love & Perfect Day

What makes this record so great: Transformer is an intoxicating glimpse into the underground of early 1970’s New York. A Glam Rock masterpiece that has become a cult classic; it exposed the world of Warholian decadence, underground gay culture before homosexuality was even legal in all of the United States and that it was OK to not be the same as everyone else – wrapped up in 11 unconventionally glam tracks.

The beginning of the 1970’s was a time full of political and social change; the world saw the second wave of the feminist movement make headlines, the Watergate scandal rocked politics in the United States, and the gay rights movement was picking up pace with the States on the verge of decriminalizing homosexuality. It was gay culture that became the muse to Lou Reed, formerly of the ultra untouchable and ultra underground band The Velvet Underground, to inspire his next album. Telling the stories of Andy Warhol’s Factory and the queer personalities that went hand in hand with it.

By 1972 Reed had already released his first solo, self-titled album without much commercial or critical success, deciding it was time reevaluate and get some edge. Who better to help out than David Bowie, the worlds biggest star in music at the time. Riding high on the Ziggy Stardust persona, Bowie had finally broken into the mainstream with his Glam Rock character from outer space, selling millions of records in the process. He had long been a fan of Reed from his Velvet Underground days, so naturally the pair met becoming quick friends (with rumours of an affair) and decided to collaborate on Reeds next album alongside right-hand man and the Spiders From Mars bandmate Mick Ronson.

The result is a dark masterpiece of how good it is when music merges that marvelously magical pairing of subculture lyrical content with British influenced androgynous glam rock. Who could resist?! It’s a method that had already worked so well in the UK for the likes of T-Rex, Bowie, Slade, and Roxy Music. Now it was Reed’s turn to demonstrate his version of glam rock in the States.

Being part of Warhol’s Factory set had been a part of Reed’s life since the mid-1960’s when Warhol took The Velvet Underground out of obscurity and made them the darlings of the arty farty New York music scene with their take on alternative rock and folk. Reed was exposed to Warhol’s inner circle of misfits and tenacious wannabes. Candy Darling, Edie Sedgwick, Joe Dallesandro et al; the transvestites, actors, models, artists all rejected by mainstream society seeking solace in Warhol’s factory, to be made into stars by their individuality that made them outsiders everywhere else. If you get a free moment, Google them; all really did have star quality that only Warhol could capture (Joe Dallesandro especially, trust me, you’ll thank me.)

Many were eternalized in Walk On The Wild Side, the most famous track on the album; it broke boundaries with its candid content chronicling the Factory clique. The dipping bass carries throughout the track with Reed’s account of each character. He brought non-hetero oddities into the mainstream consciousness with the song. In his plainspoken manner he told how “Holly came from Miami, FLA. Hitchhiked her way across the USA. Plucked her eyebrows on the way, shaved her legs then he was a she. She said ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side’”. Holly Woodlawn was actually a transgender Puerto Rican actress, who appeared in Warhol films like Trash (1970) and Women in Revolt (1972).

Other verses were more suggestive like the one about transgender model/actress Candy Darling; “Candy came out from the island / In the back room she was everybody’s darling / But she never lost her head even when she was giving head.” Even today those lyrics could make your mum blush. In the States, however, the verse about Candy was cautiously taken out of the single release; in the UK, BBC programmer’s weren’t’ familiar with the expression “giving head” and so they let the original version pass, much to the glee of many.

Reed gained his first UK Top 10 and US Top 20 hit with the track, if you listen to it now you’ll have the catchy “Doot, di-doot, di-doot” of the backing singers, The Thunder Thighs, in your head all day with a smirk on your face. The floozy saxophone solo at the end, supplied by Bowie, adds a touch of jazzy elegance to an already indecipherable track you can’t quite pigeonhole. It’s important to appreciate how it evaded censorship by describing an element of queer culture never exposed before by a singer who wasn’t even gay himself (Reed was always rumoured to be bisexual but neither confirmed or denied the allegations).

The album’s artwork reflected that provocative Warholian World. It featured photography by glam rock documenter Mick Rock, with art direction by Ernst Thormahlen. It shows a heavily filtered Reed on the cover in black and white, with his dark, heavily made up face looking like a handsome version of Frankenstein. Hold on, a male performer wearing make up on a record cover?! This was groundbreaking for the time. That and the fact the back cover shows a guy in a tight white tee shirt with rolled up sleeves and a suspiciously large bulge in his pants (don’t get too excited, later Lou revealed it was a large banana) and a leggy beauty in heels and a black, lacy body suit who sported more angles than curves if you know what I mean; it made the project even more edgy and revolutionary. Where no other artist was willing to go, Lou went.

Don’t forget the eerily romantic Perfect Day; the B-Side to Walk On The Wild Side that became a cult classic over the years. Remember when the BBC commissioned a Various Artists treatment of the track in the late 1990’s? Featuring artists like Elton John, Bono, Tom Jones, Heather Small that girl from Morcheeba….. oh and Boyzone! Reed and Bowie both made cameos in the cover version that went onto sell over 1.5 million copies, raising £2.1m for Children in Need. Interesting choice for a track that’s rumoured to be about drug addiction (not his then-fiancée at the time, sorry babe) that featured on the Trainspotting soundtrack, but who cares when you’ve raised that much money for charity eh? On Make Up, Reed casually describes witnessing the application of cosmetics, “rouge, and colouring, incense and eyes, perfume and kisses, ooh it’s oh so nice….”. He’s telling a story of a minority group who are presenting themselves to the world out of their usual habitat, “now we’re coming out, out of our closets, out on the streets, yeah we’re coming out”, I doubt “coming out of the closet” had even been used before in rock music. This is 8 years before Diana Ross dared to utter anything about “coming out”; Reed, like with so many aspects of this monumental, unique, and ageless record, was simply ahead of his time.

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