Behind the Scenes of Transformer
The Making of Lou Reed’s Greatest Album
Lou Reed’s Transformer is among the greatest rock albums ever. On the making-of documentary Transformer (paired on the Blu-ray release with the concert movie Live at Montreux 2000), Reed half dismisses the LP as just “a moment in time” before the rest of his life continued. But Rolling Stone critic David Fricke speaks for the fans by calling it timeless. “It sounds great now because it wasn’t made to sound like 1972.” True, and yet, like Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, Transformer vividly encapsulates a certain time and place—Andy Warhol’s New York circle in the early ‘70s. And yet, Transformer was recorded an ocean away in London by a cast of talented Brits headed by producer David Bowie.
The conundrums and paradoxes of great art are all over Transformer, whose best songs walk the line where light dissolves into darkness and shadows brighten if only for a few hopeful moments. Transformer also contains one of the least likely hit singles of its or maybe any era. "Walk on the Wild Side,” an explicit catalog of drugs and deviancy naming characters from Warhol’s Factory, slipped past every censor and moralizer on the strength of a looping, relaxed delivery riding easy on history’s most famous bass line, conjured from four strings by British session man Herbie Flowers.
Transformer was like that: beauty emerged from the strangest places. The Blu-ray documentary includes Reed reminiscing while playing the songs on acoustic guitar, alongside interviews with Bowie, album cover photographer Mick Rock and many of the players. Funny stories abound. Turns out Reed found guitarist Mick Ronson’s accent impenetrable while Ronson often had no idea what Reed was driving at. Somehow it all worked out beautifully.