Like most people into good music (wink), I was a huge Lou Reed and Velvet Underground fan in my teens.
I still am, most recently having been reminded of the late Reed’s wonderfully emotive songwriting and superb turn of phrase whilst preparing for this month’s CAS Album of the Month, ‘Transformer’ and paying my own private tributes. Lou’s tales of New York City’s underbelly and the fringe-dwelling night creatures was one of the reasons I had to break out of my small suburban town and experience The Big Apple for myself. Yes, his music ‘transformed’ me.
The entire album makes for wonderful listening and still surprises me with how many different styles and emotions are squeezed into the grooves of it’s 36 minutes: the T Rex raucous glam of ‘Wagon Wheel’ and ‘I’m So Free’, the giggle-inducing ‘New York Conversation’, the proto-punk of ‘Viscious’, the urban noir of ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and the indelible beauty of ‘Perfect Day’. Lou taught us to sympathise with the characters he portrayed and also helped us to understand conflicted emotions, such as the barely contained jealousy in ‘Satellite of Love’.
Lou originally wrote this song after the 1969 moon landing and recorded it as a demo with The Velvet Underground for possible inclusion on their 1970 LP ‘Loaded’. The song didn’t make the final cut for their fourth album but was later released in ’95 on the ‘Peel Slowly and See’ five-disc box set. Comparing the VU alternate demo with the solo Reed ‘Transformer’ version is interesting as the VU demo proves how complete the song already was before Lou re-recorded it in London for his second album. Lyrically it is almost the same sans the names of the girlfriend’s lovers and melodically it is centred on the same three musical themes. The big difference is the stripped down, rockin’ instrumentation and delightfully naive intro.
The VU take was raw but the ‘Transformer’ version was Bowie-fied, and not just by Bowie himself, but also by co-producer and arranger Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson and producer/engineer Ken Scott. They had just finished recording ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ and together they were on fire. Add this influx of new ideas to an already amazing song and you have one of the most amazing and somehow romantic songs about obsession printed in wax.
While Lou’s solo version is much more melodic, it is still somewhat stripped down as there is barely any guitar, the drums are minimal and for the most part the bass line follows the root of the chord. The song is dominated by Lou’s wonderful lyrics and vocal style, David Bowie’s stupendous backing vocals and the sublime piano arrangements played by Ronson. We have to make special mention of Bowie’s vocals as they are indelibly printed in our minds and have become integral to the melody (his high pitched vocals at the end of the song truly impressed the usually straight-faced Reed). Ken Scott told CAS, “All of his backing vocals are great on this and yes they’re all him. The BV’s are something he loved getting into for all his recordings.”
What I love about this version is how such a weighty topic is counterbalanced by such tender instrumentation such as axe-grinder Ronson’s humble recorder solo in the middle eight and the lovely percussion at the end which Ken reminded me was “reminiscent of Bowie’s own recordings such as ‘Soul Love’.” Scott gave CAS another headphone listening tip: “You might want to listen for the very specific piano effect that is heard strongest for the ending section. It’s something I actually used a lot where the pianist double tracks his part with the tape slightly sped up giving the out of tune piano effect. Check ‘Elderberry Wine’ by Elton John.”
This sweet and somewhat modest arrangement offsetting heavy emotions is an example of what Lou Reed did best: romanticizing intense feelings and situations. He did this with ‘Satellite of Love’ even if he was unaware of it. With his characteristic deadpan humour, he told Classic Albums, “I find out what the songs are about when I do them out loud in front of an audience, actually performing them. And over the years I realized ‘Satellite of Love’ is about jealousy. But I could be wrong. Just because I wrote it doesn’t mean I know what its about.”
- The Hanbury Arms, London on Sunday, January 12th 2014
- The Empire, Portland, Maine on Sunday January 19th
- Tickets $5 on the door and online coming soon.
If you can’t make this event, grab a decent copy, turn down the lights and listen in full at home.