Transformer was the second student album Lou Reed released as a solo artist coming on the back of his work in the late 60s with the highly influential band the Velvet Underground. Released in 1972, Transformer was produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson and saw Reed become very much associated with the burgeoning glam rock scene of the mid-70s both visually and musically. Reeds work with the Velvet Underground had been a strong musical influence on many of the acts within this scene including Bowie himself, Iggy Pop, and the New York Dolls, therefore, it wasn’t much of a surprise that one of the scenes leading lights got involved in the making of this record.
Musically, Transformer contains a mixture of mid and up-tempo rockers with driving Chuck Berry-like guitar, and slower songs that focus more on the subject matter of the lyrics rather than melody, or musicianship. Some examples of the heavier rock tracks include the guitar-driven “Hangin Round” and album opener “Vicious” that was influenced by Andy Warhol, while the slower more lyrically focussed songs include “Make Up” which is a mini-commentary on the glam scene itself and album closer “Goodnight Ladies” which is a sleazy jazz influenced track. The album also contains some of Reed’s most well-known songs, notably the slow ballad “Perfect Day”, “Walk on the Wild Side” which touches on subjects such as trans-sexuality, male prostitution and drugs, and “Satellite of Love” which features Bowie himself on backing vocals.
At first glance, Transformer appears very much like a standard glam rock album, but in certain areas, things stand out which set the album apart from some of the other stuff from the period. Notably for me the use of a tuba on several songs, a quite brilliant jazz arrangement complete with sax and tuba on “Goodnight Ladies”, and the appearance throughout the album of female singing trio The Thunderthighs. The structure and arrangement of signature tune “Walk on the Wild Side” are also quite interesting and appears quite experimental and different from anything else on the album. Reed mixes things up on this track by including everything from a driving double bass line, quietly played acoustic guitar, subtle strings, and a sexy sax solo for good measure. This harks back to his Velvet days, in particular how Reed was very much an experimenter with music, a musician who was willing to try different sounds and play around with arrangements on tracks.
Transformer is considered to be Reeds greatest solo album and a 70s classic, while Rolling Stone Magazine ranked it 194 on their list of the 500 greatest albums. It was the moment when Reed broke away from his Velvet Underground roots and went out on a limb musically to establish himself as his own musician and as a solo artist, a move which would hold him in good stead for the rest of the decade at least. Yes, Lou Reed will always be remembered for his work with the Velvets, but this album is a testament to his credentials as a solo artist and is definitely up there with the work he had done previously in the confines of a group. A fun listen all and all, with some very interesting musical moments.