The album cover photo was overexposed, and so, in 1972, was Lou Reed, in all the wrong ways. The Velvet Underground had sputtered out, he was strung out and turning weird in interviews, and he was trying to find his way as a solo artist. But David Bowie owed him much and loved to help, and so produced his friend at the best possible time: right when glam, which Bowie sort of predicted, was ascendant. The result was Reed’s best-selling album, containing his biggest hit, “Walk on the Wild Side.”
On Transformer Reed revisits beloved New York sounds for a new age: cabaret, doo-wop, jazz. And yet he recorded most of this distinctly New York album in London—Marc Bolan, Bowie, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music, and others were all looting rock 'n' roll of the past like they were raiding the thrift store for as much pose and artifice as they could get their hands on. Reed plays along, sounding playfully cheeky on the opener, “Vicious,” and never looking back.
When it came out, a lot of male rock writers dismissed Transformer as a sellout, a cash-in on the new “androgyny trend.” But what once looked like a marketing strategy turned out to be a new world being born, and “Wild Side,” “Satellite of Love,” “Make Up,” and “Goodnight Ladies” are some of its founding songs of innocence and experience. The Velvets’ fuzz and feedback had fallen away into dust, and here was Reed, throwing confetti into the air with a perfectly turned wrist. Transformer is artificially jolly, frivolous in a way that stands brightly against the grain of its dark lyrics. It was one more edition of Lou, introducing him to a world audience at a propitious moment.