After his self-titled debut, released just seven months prior, had all but slipped under the radar, Lou Reed was ready to make his grand statement, demonstrating to the world what he had already proven to so many of his fellow musicians. With David Bowie (hot off the success of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars) & Mick Ronson (though at the time, that name didn’t carry nearly as much weight as it soon would) serving as coproducers, a perfect storm of influences would come together in order to propel Reed into the public eye as a solo artist. Recorded in London but quintessentially New York, 1972’s Transformer would be the defining moment of his post-Velvet Underground career, giving way to his some of his most memorable tracks and establishing him as a key player in the world of music.
Continuing the proto-punk trends he had built his career on, Reed’s sophomore record would cement his thesis, as he worked to counter the counterculture. With a flamboyant flair for Broadway theatricality and an enraged pulse of glam rock, Transformer was a supernova in which Lou Reed finally and truly found his voice, both in terms of his distinguishable personality and his smoky, spoken-word cadence that is nearly impossible to replicate. A movement was being sparked, and now self-proclaimed freaks and social outcasts had a sound to call their own.
Reed opens the album with “Vicious,” an Andy Warhol-inspired rocker, finding him uncovering his identity outside of the group that had brought him success within the art rock community. With Mick Ronson shredding on guitar and layers upon layers of sound charging toward the listener, the song crafts a melody that very much feels planted in rock history (it sounds a bit like “Wild Thing” and the Sex Pistols would lift its essence for “God Save the Queen” a few years later). Like much of the album, “Vicious” is sexual in nature, and it chronicles a swirl of filthy, angry physical affection.
Refusing to allow himself to become too conventional, Reed interrupts the glam rock jam session with “Andy’s Chest,” a song that plays like a spoken word poem set to a late 70s pop rock beat. Capitalizing on David Bowie’s angelic backing vocals and rooted in psychedelic folklore, Reed uses the track to express gratification for the inescapable impact Warhol’s Factory had in enabling his creative process. Even when speaking in wild, drug-laced metaphors, his voice becomes the physical embodiment of sex.
Before it was given new life in Trainspotting, “Perfect Day,” inspired by spending an afternoon in the park with Reed’s soon-to-be wife Bettye Kronstad, reads like a love letter to the alluring qualities of addiction. Heroin has provided the speaker an escape from any lemons life has given him, allowing him to experience the world as an observer, rather than as an active participant. There is a childlike romanticism to this sentiment, untainted by the trials of adult life. As the key changes from major to minor for the chorus, strings swell, Mick Ronson displays his piano prowess, and Reed finds himself crooning, so involved in the notes that his voice cracks as he strains to reach them.
“Hangin’ ‘Round” brings up the tempo, dripping with self-righteous judgment in a declaration that Reed has outgrown the Warhol-led art scene: “You’re still doing things that I gave up years ago.” Drawing from his tenure at Max’s Kansas City, he has strung together a rocker that belongs in a seedy dive bar. The song oozes with the influence of David Bowie (it plays like the aesthetic successor to “Suffragette City”), and it also has a nice swing to it, making it spiritually akin to T. Rex’s Electric Warrior, which had been released just a year before.
With an infectious, soulful melody that would be sampled by everyone from A Tribe Called Quest to Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, “Walk on the Wild Side” would become the biggest commercial hit of Lou Reed’s career. The song builds mountains out of simplicity, led by the layered bass tracks by Herbie Flowers and building to a saxophone fill by Ronnie Ross. Controversial for obvious reasons, it demonstrated Reed’s ability as a storyteller, with each verse serving as a separate character study, name-dropping actual Warhol superstars. To truly sell its undeniable greatness, it is peppered with wordplay that would make Reed’s high school English teachers proud: “Jackie is just speeding away / Thought she was James Dean for a day.”
“Make Up” continues to lean into a fascination with crossdressing, peeking into the hidden world of the queer subculture and assembling the accoutrements of drag life: “Then comes pancake factor number one / Eyeliner, rose hips and lip gloss, such fun.” The track plays with conflicting instrumentation and off-kilter melodies, in a way that’s not unlike the songs of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As with many of Reed’s songs, “Make Up” is about unlocking one’s authentic self: “Now, we’re coming out / Out of our closets.”
The second single released from Transformer, “Satellite of Love” is a beautiful, celestial trip through the cosmos. In a moment of cheeseball sincerity, Reed struggles to explain his feelings of romance and jealousy. Although the Velvet Underground had performed the song as an aggressive, guitar-driven rocker, here the piano takes center stage, as influences from 1950s pop music can be heard. The track is anchored by an overwhelming, all-encompassing outro, thanks to David Bowie and his marvelous yodels.
“Wagon Wheel” feels a bit like a Big Star song with Motown backing vocals sprinkled in. Told in distinct chapters, the song gets lost in the music, breaking into an unexpected prayer. John Halsey’s drumming is understated throughout the album, but this is his moment to shine, as he busts out his toms. It bleeds beautifully into “New York Telephone Conversation,” a circus waltz interlude that boasts stream of consciousness lyricism. Within its sparse bars, Reed proves he is able to entertain himself while also laying on poignant social commentary.
A bit of a clap-along hootenanny, “I’m So Free” is led by a squealing guitar and a sense of unflinching confidence. It feels primed for driving with the windows down and succumbing to momentary narcissism: “Yes I am mother nature’s son / And I’m the only one / I do what I want and I want what I see.” As he is becoming increasingly removed from The Summer of Love, Lou Reed has no problem mocking hippies: “Oh, please, Saint Germaine / I have come this way / Do you remember the shape I was in?”. Transformer documents Reed’s progression, and now he is giving himself over to pure rock and roll.
With a title that finds Reed quoting T. S. Eliot, who was himself quoting Shakespeare, “Goodnight Ladies” takes the listener back under the blacktop. Ronnie Ross provides a velvety tenor saxophone skeleton for the song in a twisted lullabye that feels like a precursor to the more experimental work of Tom Waits. Set amidst the sounds of The Jazz Age, Reed begins slurring his words, as if drunk after a wild night, and now it is time to turn in.
Although he would constantly challenge this image, Transformer would serve as the basis for audience expectations for Lou Reed’s work throughout the rest of his career. The album was a jolt of electricity, painting a fantastical portrait of New York queer culture, causing countless anxious teens to pick up guitars for the first time, and proving once and for all that Reed was and would always be an unstoppable figure in the world of rock. Four and a half decades later, musicians and weirdos alike are still trying in vain to churn out their own “Satellite of Love” or “Perfect Day.”