Lou Reed's first solo period boxed

By Tom Von Malder | Oct 13, 2016
Photo by: Legacy Recordings The new Lou Reed box set covers 1972 to 1986.

Owls Head — Lou Reed: The RCA & Arista Album Collection (Legacy/RCA/Arista, 17 CDs). Reed, who oversaw the remastering of the 16 albums contained in this box set during the summer of 2013, just four months before his death in October, was a street poet of sorts. Many of his lyrics came from his observations of living in New York City. Most famously, his signature song, "Walk on the Wild Side," featured the stories, one per verse, of five of the "superstars" who hung out at Andy Warhol's New York studio, The Factory. They are, in order, transgendered actress Holly Woodlawn, transgendered actress Candy Darling (also the subject of his song, "Candy Says"), actor Joe "Little Joe" Dallesandro, actor Joe Campbell who played "Sugar Plum Fairy" in Warhol's "My Hustler" and actor Jackie Curtis. Reed often brought a journalistic eye to his lyrics, as he tried to make rock 'n' roll for adults.

The box set contains 16 albums made over a period of 15 years. The 80-page hardcover book that accompanies the set quotes a 1984 interview with Bill Flanagan, from his collection "Written in My Soul," in which Reed says of his albums: "I've always felt that if you thought of it as a book, then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter. They're all in chronological order. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there's my Great American Novel. It tells you all about growing up in the Sixties, Seventies and now the Eighties. That's what it was like for one person, trying to do the best he could, with all the problems that go along with everybody. Except mine took place in public. And I wrote about that too." Here, the listener gets a complete novel. And while there is no new material in the collection, the recordings have increased clarity and more of the little details in the recordings come through. None of the bonus tracks from previous individual album reissues are included. It is expected that Legacy someday will begin to release more, rarer Reed material, similar to its "Bootleg" series for Bob Dylan. Also, two label-created live albums, including "Live in Italy," are not included as they were not considered by Reed to be proper albums.

Reed, who cut his first single as a teenager in the late 1950s, began his career as a New York in-house assembly line songwriter in the early 1960s, while developing his artistic vision as front man for the beloved Velvet Underground, starting in 1965. VU was a commercial failure then -- however, since its legend has grown as one of the most influential bands of all time -- and Reed left the group in 1970, only to immerse himself as an accountant in his father's firm for almost two years. He then began his solo career, with the years 1972-1986 covered in this box set. During that time, he made albums both iconic -- "Transformer," "Berlin," "Coney Island Baby" and "New Sensations" -- and iconoclastic --"Metal Machine Music" and "Lou Reed Live: Take No Prisoners." Reed was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist in 2015 and as a member of the Velvet Underground, along with John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, in 1996.

The 16 albums here were written, recorded and often produced by Reed. They include the live albums, "Rock 'n' Roll Animal" (1974) and "Lou Reed Live: Take No prisoners" (1978, 2 CDs), and 14 studio albums, namely "Lou Reed" (1972), "Transformer" (1972), "Berlin" (1973), "Sally Can't Dance" (1974), "Metal Machine Music" (1975), "Coney Island Baby" (1975), "Rock and Roll Heart" (1976), "Street Hassle" (1978), "The Bells" (1979), "Growing Up in Public" (1980), "The Blue Mask" (1982), "Legendary Hearts" (1983), "New Sensations" (1984) and "Mistrial" (1986).

Both "Lou Reed" and "Transformer," the album that made Reed a solo star, were recorded in London. Among the session musicians he used on the first album were guitarist Steve Howe and keyboardist Rick Wakeman, both members of the progressive rock group, Yes. Eight of the 10 songs on "Lou Reed" actually were written for the Velvet Underground, with seven of them actually recorded by VU, but those recordings were shelved. The first album includes "Walk It and Talk It," which has a David Bowie-ish melody. The connection went further on "Transformer," as Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson (the principal musician on the album, playing a variety of instruments) produced the album. Ronson also arranged the pretty strings on the ballad, "Perfect Day." Bowie can be heard on background vocals on several tracks, including "Satellite of Love," another of Reed's classics. Herbie Flowers contributes tuba to the awkward-sounding "Make Up." Again. four of the 10 songs were written while Reed was still in the Velvet Underground, which cut a demo of "Satellite of Love."

Reed stayed in London for the following year's "Berlin," a polarizing album that is the story of a doomed couple, Jim and Caroline. The lyrics deal with prostitution, drug use, depression, suicide and domestic violence. The album has heavy orchestral arrangements (a rarity for Reed), horns and top session musicians, including guitarist Steve Hunter (who would later work on Reed's two live albums included here), bassist Jack Bruce (Cream), bassist Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel), drummer Aynsley Dunbar (Frank Zappa, Bowie), Steve Winwood (Cream, Traffic) on organ and harmonium, the Brecker Brothers on horns and producer Bob Ezrin (Kiss) on piano and mellotron. Next up was "Rock 'n' Roll Animal," recorded live in New York and featuring glam-rock versions of four Velvet Underground songs in the five-song set.

After "Sally Can't Dance," with its title single, Reed recorded his most controversial album, the four-part "Metal Machine Music," which is nothing but guitar and feedback. In the album's notes, Reed says, "My goal at the time was to have a sound in which to surround and intoxicate yourself." In the booklet, Reed acknowledges the album is not for everybody and states: "No one I know has ever listened to it all the way through, including myself. It is not meant to be." In a later interview with Lenny Kaye for Hit Parader, Reed said that, at one point, "Metal Machine Music" was going to be his last record. Luckily for the world, it was not. The classic "Coney Island Baby" came next, which was his last album for RCA until "The Blue Mask" in 1982.

During his Arista period, Reed recorded four studio albums and one live album. "Rock and Roll Heart" yielded the title track and the single, "I Believe in Love." Two of the songs dated back to the Velvet Underground. For "Street Hassle," Reed combined live recordings from Germany -- minus the audience -- with studio tracks. The three-movement title tone poem about life on New York Streets features a spoken vocal by Bruce Springsteen on "Slipaway." Arguably the finest album released on Arista was "The Bells," with Reed collaborating on most songs (something he rarely did, but also did on "Growing Up in Public"), including three songs with Nils Lofgren and "All Through the Night" with trumpeter Don Cherry. One was written with keyboardist/guitarist Michael Fonfara ("I Want To Boogie With You"), who went on to co-write all 11 songs on "Growing Up in Public." Fonfara had been in The Electric Flag, with Buddy Miles and Michael Bloomfield, replacing founding member Barry Goldberg.

Back at RCA, Reed released "The Blue Mask," which returned to a sparser sound, much like the Velvet Underground, accompanied only by three other musicians. Similar was "Legendary Hearts." Finishing up the collection are "New Sensations," featuring "I Love You, Suzanne," and "Mistrial." The accompanying book is a wonder as well, with liner notes by Hal Willner, complete album credits, portions of Reed interviews about his music through the years and memorabilia from Reed's personal archives of rarely seen photos and artwork. Willner was Reed's longtime friend and a co-producer of this collection, which also includes five 8-by-10-inch prints and a facsimile reproduction of a rare RCA promotional poster.

On Nov. 18, a six-album, 12-inch vinyl edition, "Lou Reed: The RCA & Arista Vinyl Collection Vol. 1," will be released, with a 30-page book and the albums, "Transformer," "Berlin," "Rock 'n' Roll Animal," "Coney Island Baby," "Street Hassle" and "The Blue Mask." Grade: box set A+

Lou Reed: The Sire Years: Complete Albums Box (Rhino/Warner, 10 CDs). If you have gotten this set yet, it came out last year and contains eight albums on 10 CDs, Reed's output when he left RCA for the second time and signed with Sire Records. The first album is "New York" (1989), on which he comments about crime, AIDS, Jesse Jackson and Pope John Paul II. After Andy Warhol died, Reed collaborated with John Cale on "Songs for Drella" (1990), ending a 22-year estrangement from Cale. "Magic and Loss" (1990) was inspired by the deaths of two close friends from cancer. Next come the Hal Willner-produced "Set the Twilight Reeling" (1996) and "Ecstasy" (2000). Also included is the live album, "Perfect Night Live in London" and the double-album, "The Raven," based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Finally, there is the two-disc "Animal Serenade," recorded live in Los Angeles in 2003. Grade: A

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