Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Before he became the official chronicler of seedy underworld New York, Lou Reed was just another Doo Wop obsessed kid from Long Island.  He was socially awkward and plagued with panic attacks, but he was able to focus on his love of music.  Depending on where you look, he either taught himself guitar or took one lesson so he could learn the chords to a Carl Perkins song.  Whatever the story is, he began writing songs at an early age.  By the time he was 16 his high school band The Jades had a single released on Time Records.

The single didn't do much of anything, but it did get some spins on Murray the K's radio show.  Lou kept writing music, though, and by 1962 he was performing with bands at Syracuse University.  He also had the opportunity to record some new demos for Time Records.  Those tracks didn't see the light of day until 2000, when Norton Records put out a terrific EP called All Tomorrow's Dance Parties, which also features the two tracks by The Jades.

These four recordings represent what could be considered the most conventional part of Lou's career.  By Syracuse he was exploring an expanding world of sex and drugs.  In 1964 he moved to New York and became an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records.  Pickwick's reputation was built on putting out reissues of recordings by popular musicians, as well as compilations of recordings meant to cash in on genres and dance crazes.  It was here that Lou Reed really began to build his writing chops.

The folks at Pickwick would pay attention to trends and would decide "We need to put out a record of of surf songs" or "let's press a record of car songs" and then it was up to the staff songwriters to write an album of songs that fit the order.  Some accounts have the musicians messed up on whatever narcotics were around and quickly writing and recording within a day.  Some of the songs were throwaways, but a few were pretty great rock and roll songs.  The best example of this is a track by The Roughnecks (a made up name for a made up band) called You're Driving Me Insane.  The wild drumming and guitar noodling has made it into an obscure garage classic that gets covered by bands today.

The experience of figuring out particular styles of music became to Lou what playing for hours end in Hamburg would be to The Beatles.  It allowed him to develop faster out of necessity.  Songwriting and musician credits are inconsistent on these records, but there a handful of songs have been linked directly to him.

The first two songs by The Beach Nuts are good examples of Pickwick musicians cashing in on the Surf music genre.  The second two by The Primitives are attempts at cashing in on dance music, with The Ostrich being an honest to goodness dance.  The Ostrich actually turned into a regional hit for Pickwick, so to cash in they threw together a band to promote it live.  Reed was in the band, as were John Cale and Angus MacLise.  Cale and MacLise came from an avant garde background and thought it would be a lark to join a pop group for a while.

During this period Lou Reed would write an early version of Heroin that Pickwick wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole.  Cale and Reed starting growing closer musically, and they wrote a terrific song called Why Don't You Smile Now that was recorded by a few different artists in the sixties.

All these tracks are basically footnotes, though.  Reed and Cale went on to form the Velvet Underground with Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker (who replaced Angus MacLise when he left because the band was "going commercial"), and within a year they were recording one of the most important debut albums in music history.

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