16 Essential Lou Reed Songs, New York’s Underground Rock Poet

With his distinctive, deadpan voice and poetic, transgressive lyrics, Lou Reed was one of the most influential, but least-known, figures in the world of music. Much of that was by choice. He refused to compromise his artistic integrity for fame and spent much of his career (happily) in the shadows of the mainstream. His artistic palette was considerable. He covered a range of stylings – from art-rock (as the frontman for avant-garde ’60s cult band The Velvet Underground) to glam to confessional proto-punk to jazz-infused rock to “noise” – but they all shared a constant theme. Namely, the man himself.

His literate songwriting always covered interesting, often risqué (by the standards of the day) territory. In fact, he said his goal was to apply the freedom and creative sensibility of literature to rock music – would we have a David Bowie or Morrissey without him? I think not.

With a lengthy career spanning the ‘60s through the ‘90s, Reed was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice. A prolific artist releasing twenty solo studio albums (yes twenty!) during his career, here we focus on his stunning solo material. Time to walk on the wide side through Lou Reed’s back catalog.

Here’s an accompanying video we did too:

16. Endless Cycle

Lou Reed studied poetry extensively in college, so his lyrical work is often powerful and to the point, a hybrid approach to language that makes a great poet. With Reed’s distinctive deadpan voice, the lyrics for ‘Endless Cycle’ are especially stirring and tell the story of a family’s personal tragedies that repeat through generations. Reed may have drawn from his own childhood experiences for the song. He was often at odds with his traditional parents. When he suffered a mental break while at college, a doctor suggested shock therapy (a popular treatment in the ‘50s and ‘60s). Unfortunately, his parents listened and subsequent treatments had a significant impact on Lou’s mental health. His case is eerily similar to that of folksy-country songwriter Townes Van Zandt, whose parents subjected him to similar shock therapy treatments which had significant negative effects for him as well.

Recommended: Our favorite Townes Van Zandt songs.

15. Smalltown (with John Cale)

Appearing on Reed’s concept album Songs for Drella, ‘Smalltown’ is one of several tracks which explores his relationship with his mentor and manager, Andy Warhol. The leader of the “pop art” movement, Warhol discovered Reed while he was performing with his band Velvet Underground beside fellow musician John Cale. After the band broke up, the two musicians remained close and worked on the Songs for Drella project together. Much of the album is told from the imagined perspective of Warhol himself, who had passed away before Reed and Cale got to work on the record. The album’s title pays tribute to Andy, whose nickname “Drella” was a combination of “Dracula” and “Cinderella.”

14. Ecstacy

In the grand scope of Lou’s celebrated work, ‘Ecstacy’ is often relegated to the backburner. The title track to his last official solo album, the project as a whole featured a singular concept involving Reed exploring all of his past relationships and marriages. This particular track is especially sensual, and utilizes dominant sounding guitar chords like E and F across a light, flamenco-style rhythm. This sets an appropriate tone, given the song’s subject matter revolves around taboo themes of sexual promiscuity and infatuation. It differs wildly from the rest of the straight up rock record, and that’s why despite it not being one of his commercial successes, it remains a longtime fan favorite.

13. Street Hassle

An epic style track clocking in at 11 minutes long, Reed takes listeners on a topsy-turvy ride that is separated into three distinct chapters. The first, “Waltzing Matilda,” opens beautifully with a young couple falling in love. But in true Reed fashion things quickly go awry. The middle part which the song is named after, ‘Street Hassle,’ features the tragic end to the relationship and a more literal ending to one of the lovers as the other tries to move on and claim innocence. For the closing, “Slip Away,” Bruce Springsteen pays a visit to listeners as he overlays spoken word work as the tale comes to a close. The haphazard, sprung rhythm nature of the track vividly reflects the mindframe Lou was in at the time, which consisted of intense pressure from his label for a money-making record, an industry that looked at him already as a “has-been,” and large amounts of drugs and alcohol to cope with it all.

12. Caroline Says (II)

After leaving Velvet Underground, many of Reed’s fellow musicians thought his career was over. In the early ‘70s, it seemed the songwriter proved them right when he took a short lived job at his dad’s accounting firm. But before long, he had signed a solo record deal and hope was restored. After an album release that received little fanfare, Reed was severely struggling. The archangel Ziggy Stardust himself descended from the heavens and threw the former Underground principal writer a lifeline. Bowie just so happened to be a huge Velvet Underground fan, and he thought with the right direction Reed could have a successful solo career. Thus, he headed up production for Lou’s ‘72 project Transformer, and literally transformed Reed into a glam rock legend. So when he stepped back in the studio for his rock opera album, Berlin, a strong foundation had already been poured. Appearing on the concept album is ‘Caroline Says II,’ one of the project’s most haunting, revealing tracks. The whole record follows the complicated, twisted love story between Jim and Caroline, and this track in particular finds the damsel in distress confronting her abusive partner and sealing her own fate.

11. Crazy Feeling

The electroshock therapy Lou received in his younger days had a lasting impact on his ability to connect with people. At one point, when asked about the many personalities he seemed to take on throughout his career, he replied, “I have no personality.” Despite this great divide, he did manage to find love, a few times. One of those times was with Rachel Humphreys. During their time together, he even described Rachel as his “muse.” As a trans woman, Rachel helped Lou deal with some of his own identity issues, resulting in a close connection between the two. This intense love really shines on one of his most masterful albums, Coney Island Baby. While Reed often takes a gothic realist approach to his songwriting, songs on this record like ‘Crazy Feeling’ are full of optimism and romance.

10. Romeo Had Juliette

Reed represented the New York counterculture of the mid ‘70s perfectly. From his flirtatious rendezvous with glam rock to his gritty, haunting writing style, even down to his leather jackets and pop art style poses no doubt inspired by his days with Andy Warhol, perhaps there was no better representation of the city’s avant garde music scene than Lou himself. Even into the ‘80s he continued to personify the outsider character so many young rock fans identified with. This dark lifestyle that exists in a type of underbelly is portrayed in historic fashion with ‘Romeo Had Juliette.’ Part ode to the city that helped make him underground rock royalty, and part remake of the Shakespearean tragedy if it took place on the mean streets of the city that never sleeps, two young lovers and their metaphorical, cataclysmic end are the centerpiece for this 1989 Reed classic.

9. This Magic Moment

An R&B classic gets a gritty rock remake with Lou Reed’s ‘This Magic Moment.’ Originally recorded by Ben E. King with The Drifters backing him, it became one of the 1960s most treasured hits. Though Reed wrote all of his releases, his cover of this popular tune reached commercial success in the late ‘90s when it was included in the film Lost Highway. Before cinema titan David Lynch put it in his film though, Reed recorded it for a tribute project in honor of the single’s original writer, blues-rock hit maker Doc Pomus.

8. Coney Island Baby

The title track to his sexiest album ever recorded, ‘Coney Island Baby’ is a sensual spoken word tune full of romance and nostalgia. With his partner at the time, Rachel Humpreys, Lou was experiencing a rare bit of optimism, and their love affair fueled much of his songwriting in the mid. ‘70s. Suddenly he found himself exploring subject matter like love, longing, and acceptance like never before, with soft rock instrumentation gently backing his poetically-delivered lines. The emotion is palpable in this track and it resonates with listeners to this day. ‘Coney Island Baby’ remains one of his most popular albums, and songs.

7. Dirty Blvd.

With a distinct country feel, Reed got a hit with his 1989 ‘Dirty Blvd.’ release. Appearing on his concept album, New York, the tune explores the differences between rich and poor societies in the Empire State. He had spent much of the ‘70s chasing that elusive number one spot on Billboard charts, mostly due to immense amounts of pressure from his label. Though it would take him a decade, he eventually got there when this easy rock track climbed all the way to the top spot for an entire month on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. Despite it being one of his simpler tunes, only utilizing three standard country-centric chords of G, D, and A, it became one of his iconic releases. Years later, he even performed ‘Dirty Blvd.’ with his friend David Bowie for the glam rock idol’s star-studded birthday bash.

6. She’s My Best Friend

A bass-heavy track with bright chords and an uplifting finish, ‘She’s My Best Friend’ was actually originally a Velvet Underground release back in ‘69. Reed penned the track, and when he was working on his groundbreaking Coney Island Baby album, he decided to re-release the song as a solo artist. The entire record is full of emotional, hit-potential numbers like this one. After its release, Lou had to pick and choose which ones to play live, often having to leave off ones he would have liked to perform due to time restraints. This is one of the tunes his fans still talk about today, saying they wish he would have played it more at his concerts because it’s such a special song.

5. Vicious

Aside from Coney Island Baby, Transformer is one of Reed’s most iconic albums. While the legacy of the record is driven by Lou’s genius songwriting ability, the project’s authoritative production work carried out by David Bowie is another element that adds to its allure. For ‘Vicious,’ Reed’s manager at the time, Andy Warhol, was actually the one to suggest the concept as a song. Back in the ‘70s, Reed often kept a journal near him to jot down song ideas. When he asked Warhol what exactly he meant by the term “vicious,” Andy quipped, “You know, vicious like, I hit you with a flower.” Lou wrote the line down and was so intrigued by it, he kept it as the song’s lyrical opener.

Recommended: This one appears on our pick of glam rock songs.

4. Charley’s Girl

Sometimes Lou hits you with a heavy dose of reality, and sometimes he leaves you with more questions than answers. With this easy groove, classic rock track, listeners are left wondering who exactly “Charley’s Girl” is. She gets the protagonist in a bit of trouble with the law, but he can’t seem to let her go. The effortless electric guitar motif and infectious melody anchor the tune, and its relatability has resulted in several TV features including an appearance in the series, Once Upon a Time. This is another Coney Island Baby gem.

3. Satellite of Love

Another track on his Transformer album, Bowie’s presence is immediately felt with Reed’s top 10 UK hit, ‘Satellite of Love.’ Bowie was a big space exploration fan, and often used imagery of the cosmos in his own works, and he translated that airy, wide-open feeling into Lou’s music as well. While guitar work was a staple for much of Reed’s work, piano drives this breezy number. Using a metaphor involving a satellite launching into space, the songwriter tackles some of life’s biggest challenges within the lyrics. One of his tunes that still has a cult-like following attached to it, English musician Morrissey recorded a notable cover version of it in honor of Reed after his passing in 2013.

2. Perfect Day

“You made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else, someone good.” Lou penned one of his most popular lyrics with ‘Perfect Day,’ another Bowie produced gold medal track. Piano and violin pair up to give it a dreamy, weightless feel and Reed’s vocal work moves back and forth from hushed pleasantries to anthemic chorus declarations. While he keeps some of his tried-and-true darker undertones towards the end of the song, it was originally inspired by a day spent in Central Park with his first wife, Bettye Kronstad.

1. Walk On the Wild Side

From the songs he wrote to the unique career path he forged in a music industry obsessed with copying what works in order to maximize profit, it’s clear Lou could never be boxed into conventional standards. The same went for his personal life too, which waded into exploratory waters. ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ deals in part with much of Lou’s feelings about his sexuality. He explores his own struggles as he tells the story of different sex workers who make their money on the streets of New York. The term “walk on the wild side” was one used during Reed’s time in New York City in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It referenced a phrase cross-dressers would say to potential customers, and Reed expanded upon the phrase and used the tune to tell the stories of these people who he had such a close kinship with. By far one of his most popular tunes, it’s also one that encompasses a lot of the creative principles he stood for, including tackling taboo subjects, challenging gender roles, and embracing the wilder parts of life.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Metal Machine Music Pt.1
  • The Blue Mask
  • Rock And Roll Heart
  • Sweet Jane (recorded with The Velvet Underground, appeared on his live album “Rock n Roll Animal”)

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About Ged Richardson

Ged Richardson is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ZingInstruments.com. He has been featured in Entrepreneur, PremierGuitar, Hallmark, Wanderlust, CreativeLive, and other major publications. As an avid music fan, he spends his time researching and writing about new and old music, as well as testing and reviewing music-related products. He's played guitar in various bands, from rock to gypsy jazz. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel, where he geeks out about his favorite bands.

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