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Top 10 Best Lou Reed Songs

Updated on November 21, 2016
Lou Reed.  His distinctive deadpan voice and unique guitar sound enchanted and inspired many, including David Bowie.  Reed's music often expressed a humanitarianism, but he could be a difficult man to interview.
Lou Reed. His distinctive deadpan voice and unique guitar sound enchanted and inspired many, including David Bowie. Reed's music often expressed a humanitarianism, but he could be a difficult man to interview. | Source

The outpouring of tributes to Lou Reed after his death, aged 71, demonstrated how important his contribution was to the music world. It also showed what a tremendous impact Reed had on people’s personal lives.

Lou Reed was a founder member of the 1960’s band, The Velvet Underground, a group who never found commercial success during their heyday, but who’s influence would help to mold the shape of future music in the 1970's and onwards. Decades later, their influence is as enormous as ever.

After the split up of the Velvet Underground, Reed’s output as a solo artist, it is fair to say, was mixed. His biggest commercial success was his seminal album, Transformer. From this album would come huge hits like, Walk on the Wild Side and Perfect Day. As well as his solo albums, his work with John Cale on the Songs for Drella project was gold dust.

One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz.

— Lou Reed
Lou Reed's portrait photo from Freeport High School, New York, 1959.  He was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Freeport, Long Island.
Lou Reed's portrait photo from Freeport High School, New York, 1959. He was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Freeport, Long Island. | Source

There was weaker output from Lou Reed too, however. The collaboration with Metallica, for instance, was probably misguided.

Reed's personal life was also plagued with heavy drinking and drug problems, which affected his creative output, and undermined his health.

Reed dated experimental artist and musician, Laurie Anderson from 1992 and was married to her from 2008 up until his death in 2013. He was a notoriously difficult person to interview and many journalists have recounted their attempts.

Here is my top 10 list of the best Lou Reed songs that he either wrote, or performed, or both.

Included are Velvet Underground tracks, as well as his solo material, plus a song that he recorded with John Cale for the Songs for Drella concert and subsequent album.

I'll tell ya, I'm a genuinely nice guy. I really am. A real nice guy. But I think I'm temperamental.

— Lou Reed

Reed Shows Why He had such a Difficult Reputation for Interviewers

Walk on the Wild side

Reed’s most recognizable song, it received widespread radio play, despite the raunchy lyrics, presumably because radio execs didn’t understand the sexual slang words.

It still sounds just as good today, as it did when it was released in 1972. The bass guitar introduction, played by Herbie Flowers, is instantly recognizable.

The lyrics tell the stories of a variety of characters who are social outsiders coming to New York. The individuals are people that Reed met through Andy Warhol's New York studio, The Factory, and include Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis and Joe Campbell (who called himself by his nickname: Sugar Plum Fairy).

As is the line: "And the colored girls go: Doo do doo do doo do do doo…"

Perfect Day

Another great song from the Transformer album, which was co-produced by David Bowie, this track has since been used in movies, such as Trainspotting, and was a major hit in 1997 for the BBC’s Children in Need charity, when it was sung by a star-studded cast.

The song was also a hit in 1994 for the UK pop band: Duran Duran. Lou Reed re-recorded the track for his 2003 album: The Raven.

The music is all. People should die for it. People are dying for everything else, so why not the music?

— Lou Reed

Smalltown

Reed got back together with John Cale in order to write some songs, which they performed live and later released as the Songs for Drella album. The album deals with the biography of Andy Warhol: his early life; his art work; his relationship with Reed and Cale and The Velvet Underground; the assassination attempt against him; and the decline in his physical health and mental well being.

This track documents Andy Warhol’s frustration with growing up in Pittsburgh and his sense of alienation.

The Songs For Drella collaboration led to the reformation of the Velvet Underground for a time, until the tensions between Reed and Cale reappeared and the band fell apart.

Last Great American Whale

Reed’s evocative, bleak but incisive attack on aspects of American culture that he found unpalatable. It features on his classic: New York album from 1989.

The whale metaphor could be read in part as a reference to New York writer, Herman Melville’s classic American novel, Moby Dick.

John Cale once said of Reed that he preferred to define himself by attacking the things that he hated, rather than expressing the things that he liked.

These are really terribly rough times, and we really should try to be as nice to each other as possible.

— Lou Reed

Dirty Boulevard

A stark steamroller of a rock song that contrasts the lives of rich and poor people living in New York.

The song’s simple chord progression works well with the lyrics, which show Reed at his best.

Reed performed a live version of this song with David Bowie at Bowie’s 50th birthday celebration.

I’m Waiting for The Man

One of the Velvet Underground’s most popular songs, which would later be performed by Reed as part of his solo performances, the track has a driving sound and features a rock ’n’ roll style piano.

Reed wrote about his drug usage and this song concerns buying $26 worth of heroin in a Harlem brownstone close by to the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street in New York City.

In the late '70s I started to search for the perfect sound - whatever that might be, before that I was mainly interested in drugs, insanity and the rock'n'roll lifestyle.

— Lou Reed

Heroin

Another Reed song about heroin use and abuse. As well as being radical with regard to its subject matter, its formation and structure were also innovative and the track still sounds powerful today. The track just consists of two chords, but it is the work of Morrison and Cale that give it a distinctive sound.

What Goes On

From the Velvet Underground’s third album, the song was released as a single, and has an accessible, poppy melody sung over chunky guitar chords and an infectious rhythm.

The organ riff from the track would later be used by the Talking Heads on their 1980 album Remain in Light.

As well as the studio version, there is a recording of the track on the Velvet Underground's double, live album 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, featuring Doug Yule on keyboards.

How can anybody learn anything from an artwork when the piece of art only reflects the vanity of the artist and not reality?

— Lou Reed

Sweet Jane

Originally recorded on the 1970 Velvet Underground album, Loaded, Reed would come back to this track and explore it again and again in subsequent live solo performances. Consequently, the track appears on numerous Reed live albums.

Waves of Fear

Reed’s The Blue Mask album was released near Reed’s 40th birthday and featured Robert Quine on guitar. The stripped down sound and tough and tender approach of the album harked back to the Velvet Underground period.

Waves of Fear features some of Reed’s edgiest lyrics for years, plus some psychotic guitar work from Quine.

© 2013 Paul Goodman

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