Taking a walk on the wild side with Bowie
By the time Lou Reed began recording Transformer, the New Yorker had already fronted the most influential band in history after the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, and had released his first solo album - without anything resembling a hit. So much so, in fact, that the man who would bring him that longed-for success, David Bowie, an avid Velvet fan, had met (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) with Reed in New York the previous year - which gives a good indication of Reed's level of popularity at the time.
The fact is that Bowie had discovered the Velvet's debut album in 1966, before it was even released, when his manager at the time brought a first copy and passed it on to a Bowie who became a devotee of the New York group from that moment on. So much so that when he finally managed to travel to the USA in 1971, the first thing he did was to go to see a Velvet concert at the Electric Circus. There weren't many people there, but that didn't stop Bowie from singing all the songs with the band - Waiting For The Man, White Light/White Heat, Heroin.... Bowie was in seventh heaven and couldn’t wait to go to the dressing room in search of his hero, where he asked for Lou Reed. In the room was a former member of the band, John Cale, who decided to play a joke on the young Englishman. After telling him to wait a moment, he appeared again with the band's ‘singer’; Bowie began to talk to him about songwriting and all sorts of things, until, happy with the encounter, he returned to his hotel with a New York friend. But, before saying goodbye, he said, "I couldn't be happier, I just saw the Velvet Underground and I've been talking to Lou Reed", to which his friend replied, "Lou Reed left the band a year ago, the one you've been talking to is Doug Yule who is the new leader of the Velvet...".
Not surprisingly, once he got in touch with the real Reed, he decided to offer him a visit to England and produce an album for him. Reed, who liked the Englishman, decided to accept, because he had little to lose. When Reed arrived, Bowie was in the midst of his rise to stardom on the back of Ziggy Stardust, and he set to work by taking with him his right-hand man and captain of the Spiders from Mars, Mick Ronson, whose importance in the recording would be fundamental, serving as arranger, co-producer and main musician (playing guitar, piano, as well as doing several backing vocals).
The mix was perfect with Reed offering up the three best songs of his solo career, Walk on the Wild Side, Satellite Of Love and Perfect Day, the second of which was already written in his Velvet days, as were three other songs on the album. Bowie and Ronson then embellished them with strings, backing vocals and saxophone solos to make them shine. One only has to listen to Ronson's string arrangement for Perfect Day or Bowie's high-pitched vocals at the end of Satellite Of Love, one of the most romantic songs of his career, to see the unconditional love of these Englishmen for Reed's work.
The third major influence on the album was again Andy Warhol, who larrgely inspired the also wonderful Vicious, Andy's Chest and the aforementioned Walk on the Wild Side, the most famous countdown of characters from the Factory of the father of pop art: Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, Joe Dallesandro, Jackie Curtis and Joe Campbell. The album was crowned by Ronnie Ross’s saxophone solo, who had been Bowie's teacher on that instrument.
Vicious was a song in which over the chords of Reed's Epiphone Riviera on which he appears on the cover, Ronson played various lines on his Gibson Les Paul as dirty and perverted as the protagonist of the lyrics, a guy who ‘hit you all the time with a flower’, an idea lent to Reed by Warhol. On Andy's Chest, about Warhol's assassination attempt, Bowie shone again with some great backing vocals. Also glistening were the rockers Hangin' 'Round and I'm So Free, and the vaudevillian New York Telephone Conversation and Goodnight Ladies, which closed a near-perfect album.
In the end, on the back of the success of Walk On The Wild Side and Transformer, Lou Reed became a rock star, leaving behind his past as a cult figure who could be mistaken for Doug Yule, although his enormous ego suffered from having to share success with his most successful pupil, Bowie. Transformer is an album in which Bowie and Ronson's hand is very noticeable, with Reed providing the excellent songs and the other two providing the sound, something that Reed himself would recognise much later in his career: "Transformer is clearly my best-produced album. That has a lot to do with Mick Ronson. His influence was stronger than David's, but together, as a team, they were great". The result is the best solo album of his career; even though his essence is better represented on others like Berlin or New York.