The 10 best songs by Lou Reed

By Sergio Ariza

Imagine a world without David Bowie, without the Sex Pistols, without Sonic Youth or the Pixies, without glam rock, without punk or indie: the history of rock would be different if the man who would have turned 80 this Wednesday had never been born. Lewis Allan Reed, better known as Lou, is not only part of that history, but one of the ten most important men in it. We take this opportunity to pay tribute, from Guitars Exchange, to sweet Jane, the satellite of love, rock animals, Venus in furs, walks on the wild side, femme fatales, Sunday mornings and pale blue eyes, by choosing our ten favourite Lou Reed songs.  

Sweet Jane

Sweet Jane
is much more than a song, it's a monument in which, with just four chords, you can build the most rocking song in the world, but also the most melancholic. Lou Reed wrote it in 1969 and it began life as a beautiful ballad in which Reed had a different lyric to the one that would later be released. This first version, with Reed and Sterling Morrison on guitars, Doug Yule on bass and Maureen Tucker on percussion, would not be released until the end of 1974, on the album 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, and it also contained a wonderful bridge that later versions would unjustly cut; from this incredible take would come my favourite cover of the song, by the Cowboy Junkies.

The next version was the one recorded for the outstanding Loaded, Reed turns up the volume on his Sunn amp to infinity and turns the guitar riff into one of the most classic guitar riffs in history. The song begins with a guitar intro and then in comes that wonderful riff and a Reed sounding more cocky and confident than ever, the chorus sounds like pure two-chord glory. The unforgettable bridge was recorded but was cut because they were looking for a radio-friendly three-minute hit. For me the version with the bridge added is a real winner and possibly my favourite. Yule is at his best on bass, drums and backing vocals - someone should remember that, okay, he wasn't John Cale, but his contribution to the band deserves a lot more respect than just being a footnote...This is the version that another great cover, in this case Mott The Hoople's, would feed off.

But in 1973 Reed delivered the best known version. The Berlin creator had hired the two best session guitarists of the time,
Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, for his concerts and asked them to improvise something for the intro of Sweet Jane. Hunter rescued a piece of his own for the occasion and the electric guitar found one of its greatest monuments. The way Hunter and Wagner interact is incredible, with Steve playing the melody and Dick doing the harmonies; then the song comes in and it's Wagner who shines with several solos. Rarely have two guitarists ever got on better than these two with their Les Paul TV Specials: Hunter's through a 100-watt HiWatt amp and Wagner's through a 100-watt Marshall half-stack. 

One song, multiple combinations, there may be prettier, more adventurous and wilder, but in my heart it's clear that hearing Sweet Jane for the first time was one of the mainreasons that made it clear to me that I couldn't live without listening to music.


Pale Blue Eyes

Recorded on the Velvet Underground's eponymous third album, this beautiful song proves that Reed is one of the songwriters who is most capable of breaking your heart, although in this song he is the one who is heartbroken, after discovering that his childhood sweetheart had married another man. Sterling Morrison perfectly accompanies Reed’s aching melody with his delicate guitar and a solo: so simple and beautiful, that it seems like it could break at any moment. When the original line-up reunited in 1993, Reed included it in the repertoire despite it being a piece that was recorded when John Cale was no longer in the band, although the Welshman added a wonderful viola arrangement that suited the song like a glove.


Walk On The Wild Side

In the most famous song of his career, Walk On The Wild Side, Lou Reed took us on a walk on the wild side of life with some of the wildlife that swarmed Andy Warhol's Factory: such groundbreaking characters as Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Joe Dallesandro, Jackie Curtis and Joe Campbell. Included on Transformer, this was the song that brought him the first commercial success of his career, thanks in large part to the help of a very special fan - David Bowie - who produced the album at the height of the Ziggy Stardust era. Bowie also brought in someone who is often overlooked but who was an essential help -
Mick Ronson - who not only co-produced with Bowie, but also did most of the arrangements and was the main musician, as guitarist and pianist. Of course, the big star here, apart from Reed himself and his great lyrics and melody, is bassist Herbie Flowers, who recorded the immortal descending line doubling with a fretless Fender Jazz Bass and a double bass, an achievement for which he only made 17 pounds. Topping off a perfect song are the backing vocals by the Thunder Thighs, who, by the way, were not coloured, and the sax solo by the man who had taught Bowie to play the instrument, Ronnie Ross.


Femme Fatale

If Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker had not released their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, rock history would have been totally different. Legend has it that the Velvets only sold a few thousand records of their early work but that every single person who bought them formed a band. As John Ford well knows, even if it's a lie, when the legend becomes fact, we print the legend. Still, it doesn't sound like an exaggeration when, in order to sum up one of the most brilliant careers in rock history in ten songs, I've ended up choosing five songs from that seminal album, and I've reluctantly left two others out. The fact is that my favourite from that album is this marvel that Reed wrote at Andy Warhol's request about one of his superstars, Edie Sedgwick, the same woman who had led
Bob Dylan to write Like a Rolling Stone. When Reed asked Warhol to tell him one reason why he should write a song about her, the Pop Art icon replied: "Don't you think she's a femme fatale? The rest is history with Reed delivering one of his best songs, one that also suited the icy, distant voice of Nico, another true ‘femme fatale’.


Sunday Morning

The opening track of The Velvet Underground & Nico was one of the sweetest songs Reed ever wrote, in this case with the help of Cale; even his tone of voice is much warmer than usual. It was the last song to be recorded for the album and was originally intended to be sung by Nico, but in the end it was decided that Reed's voice would suit it better, and the German ended up providing some lovely backing vocals. Musically, however, Cale is the absolute protagonist, playing the marvellous celesta, viola and piano, although Reed also has his moment to shine with a brief guitar solo. It could be said that all indie pop, from twee to dream pop, is based on this marvel that sounds thirty years ahead of its time.


I’m Waiting For The Man

In 1966, the year The Velvet Underground & Nico was recorded, and 1967, the year it was released, the music world was full of calls for love, peace and good vibrations. Reed and the Velvets were talking about what was really going on in the underworld of the big cities, in this case New York. A little white kid who has fallen into heroin addiction goes to Harlem to get his fix, where he will have to go through cold turkey while he waits for "his man", who is none other than his dealer, all while the Velvet plays a pounding rhythm that emphasises the junkie's nerves, this time anticipating punk and hard rock. Again it's Cale who provides the biggest edge with a piano played like a drill and some spectacular bass lines.


Oh Sweet Nuthin’

By the band's fourth album, Loaded, the Velvet Underground was all but disbanded, with John Cale long gone, Moe Tucker pregnant and not playing on the album and Sterling Morrison pissed off by Reed's infatuation with Cale's replacement, Doug Yule. Reed himself was almost one foot out the door and after delivering an album worthy of his name, Loaded, loaded with hits, he left the band. But there were some of the best songs of his career, Sweet Jane, Rock & Roll, New Age and the wonderful closing gem, Oh Sweet Nuthin', not only sung by Yule but also benefiting from a great solo from him in a much more conventional, but equally effective, style than his bandmates, possibly on a Gibson ES-335TD. Despite being one of the great songs of his career, with covers by the Black Crowes,
Neil Young and My Morning Jacket, Reed never performed it live outside the Velvets, I guess because he thought the version with Yule's fragile voice was the definitive one...



Perhaps rock hasn't suffered a bigger shock since the days of Johnny B. Goode than when the Velvets recorded Heroin in May 1966. Reed's Gretsch Country Gentleman, plugged directly into the console, begins to tap lightly, Sterling Morrison's clean Stratocaster enters and the two guitars begin to interact, arpeggios begin and a menacing background sound, John Cale's viola, Sterling Morrison pounds his drums with no clear rhythm, Reed's voice enters and everything begins to rev up, from the lyrics we learn that someone is injecting heroin and the music follows his changes of state, at first it seems placid but, little by little, the music becomes more strident and elusive, Cale's viola gets louder and louder and the atmosphere is increasingly tense. In the end everything spirals out of place, the viola begins to emit dirty and aggressive sounds, the voice becomes more and more nervous, the heroin comes into contact with the blood, it is a descent into hell, with a stop in heaven... It's neither for nor against, it's a descriptive and neutral song that leaves it up to the listener to decide. But musically, it is one of the biggest leaps into the void ever made by a rock band.


Satellite Of Love

Another marvel from Transformer in which it is worth noting what Reed said about it: "Transformer is clearly my best-produced record. That has a lot to do with Mick Ronson. His influence was stronger than David's, but together, as a team, they were great". And listening to the first version of this song that appears on the Loaded extras and then the definitive one, one can understand the enormous influence of Ronson, who in this song showed that he also played the piano to perfection, giving much more depth to the song, although in the end the one who steals the spotlight is Bowie himself with those soaring choruses with which he rounded off a magical song.


Venus In Furs

Closing our list is another marvel from The Velvet Underground & Nico, a song that also serves perfectly to explain how that mythical band worked. Reed had a half-folkie song about masochism and sadism, whips and boots to lick, but it was Cale who gave it the definitive shape, lowering the tempo and turning it into an avant-garde song with a cacophonous viola and that drone feeling. Reed was the compositional genius but it was Cale who turned his songs into a musical universe apart.


A further 10 essential songs:
All Tomorrow’s Parties
New Age
Stephanie Says
Halloween Parade
Perfect Day
I’ll Be Your Mirror
Romeo Had Juliette
Who Loves The Sun
Beginning to see the light
Rock & Roll