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45 Years Ago: Lou Reed Strikes Out on His Solo Debut

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Lou Reed‘s self-titled 1972 album found one of rock’s most innovative, uncompromising auteurs striking out on his own for the first time. But even though it kicked off a long, celebrated solo career, it’s always been largely (and unjustly) ignored.

When Reed left the Velvet Underground in August 1970, his prospects were far from promising. Though they earned plenty of critical plaudits, the band he spearheaded for the last five years had never come anywhere near commercial success. The relatively radio-friendly feel of Loaded, their last Reed-led album, was the result of pressure to produce some hits. Fed up with it all, Reed split in between the album’s completion and its release.

Loaded failed to turn the Velvets into Hot 100 denizens, and though Reed’s departure didn’t immediately end the band, it sent them into a freefall that finally hit rock bottom with the group’s official dissolution in 1973. With a legacy of four commercial failures to his name, Reed didn’t exactly emerge as a hot property. Wearied from his Velvets experience and unsure about his next move, Reed ended up moving back to his parents’ house on Long Island and taking a job in his father’s accounting office.

But destiny didn’t permit Lou to lay low forever; by 1971 he’d found his way into a deal with RCA, and hopped a plane to London to start work on Lou Reed. With him he brought a batch of Velvets songs that hadn’t made the cut for Loaded.

Much fuss has been made about the fact that the sidemen on the sessions include guitarist Steve Howe and keyboardist Rick Wakeman of Yes, as though the album found Reed’s songs festooned with proggy filigree. But Richard Robinson’s production is actually rather stark. There’s nary a shred of art-rock excess to be found anywhere in the arrangements. Wakeman doesn’t even abandon his piano for any other keyboards. And despite the presence of these art-rock avatars (alongside Elton John‘s guitarist Caleb Quaye and other top-flight British players) didn’t keep Lou Reed from achieving an appropriate level of toughness.

The opening track, “I Can’t Stand It,” is downright dirty-sounding, arguably harder-hitting and more visceral—if less primal—than the Loaded outtake version that was unearthed years later on the VU collection. Similarly, “Walk and Talk It” is undeniably edgier and more biting than on the Velvets’ 1970 demo. On these tracks—the most overt rockers in the pack—the Brits managed to give Reed an entirely credible New York mean-streets sound.

Listen to “I Can’t Stand It”

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Even “Lisa Says,” a near-ballad in its Velvets version, gets a bump up in tempo, and Wakeman’s piano and the backing vocals of Helene Francois and Kay Garner actual inject a dash of soul flavor that didn’t exist in the earlier iteration. And instead of amplifying the artiness of the Velvets arrangement for “I Love You,” with its merry-go-round running-down feel, the Reed version adopts a more straightforward (and slightly speedier) feel.

For the Loaded sessions, “Ride Into the Sun” was given an almost hymnal vibe, dominated by sustained organ chords and largely eschewing a backbeat. But here it’s hopped up considerably, and the groove even has an R&B undercurrent to it.

There are only a few songs on the album that didn’t hail from the Loaded sessions. “Going Down” is a melodic, mid-tempo track adorned by graceful piano licks and soulful background vocals. Its compassionate and gentle feel find a precedent in Velvets tunes like “Pale Blue Eyes,” but in this context it still feels like its pointing a possible way forward for Reed.

“Wild Child,” with its lyrical mix of the prosaic and the poetic, has a constantly shifting cast of street characters, the kind who would become increasingly familiar over the course of Reed’s subsequent releases. It’s not a huge journey from this track to the carefully cultivated noir seediness of “Walk on the Wild Side,” which would see the light of day less than a year later.

Listen to “Wild Child”

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Of course “Berlin” would appear on a later Reed album too, providing the title track to his 1973 cult-classic song suite. But it’s fascinating to hear the germ of that album’s conception coming this early in the timeline. Where the 1973 version overflows with archness and irony, this one is played comparatively straight, with full-band backing instead of just cabaret-style piano; and instead of dispassionately intoning the lyrics in his signature style, Reed commits himself to putting the melody across.

Ultimately, Lou Reed was everything it should have been—an album that kicked off Reed’s solo career by picking up where the Velvet Underground’s artistic thread left off, honoring the style he’d created while leaving room for Reed to grow. The production strikes just the right balance between spare and full-bodied, giving the songs and their singer plenty of space to breathe. It all feels a lot more natural than the overblown arena rock that would break Reed through to the American market in 1974 with the overrated Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal.

But for whatever reason, the record failed to connect. It staggered its way to the 189 spot on the Billboard album chart, and neither of its singles (“I Can’t Stand It,” “Walk and Talk It”) earned a foothold on either side of the Atlantic. The vagaries of the music business are eternally inscrutable, but more puzzlingly, the album has never really been reassessed by critics either. Fortunately, what Reed achieved on his first solo flight is still there to hear for anyone with ears.

Lou Reed Albums Ranked in Order of Awesomeness

Next: Revisiting Lou Reed's 'Magic and Loss'

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