Legendary producer Brian Eno once famously remarked, ìThe first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.î These thoughtful words say a lot about the type of artist Lou Reed wasóbut not everything. While reflecting upon that quote, it struck me just how great the singular and idiosyncratic contribution he made to popular music was.
Enoís quotation addresses the fact that Reed influenced many artists, but it leaves out that the way in which he exerted influence was what truly made him great. Sure, a lot of punk bands recorded songs that sound like ìIím Waiting for the Manî; however, his music was dynamic in such a way that one could feel his sway without necessarily wanting to write songs that sounded anything like his. Certainly, one can desire to create something that rawly expresses sensation with the tangibility of ìHeroinî or melancholically evokes longing like ìPale Blue Eyesî in any other style of music or artistic medium.
This phenomenon can be most recently seen in Kanye Westís Yeezus, an album which Reed himself glowingly reviewed just a few months before his death.Yeezus references a plethora of genres, including hip-hop, soul, industrial, and dancehallóall styles that donít immediately seem to have much to do with Reedís work. The possible exception is industrial, but the two treat it so differently that to connect them musically would be a stretch. Yet, itís hard to imagine an album like Yeezus existing without Reed as a spiritual ancestor. His fearlessness, commitment to his musical vision, and refusal to aesthetically compromise paved the way for artists such as West to have the freedom of experimentation at the risk of failing to meet popular expectations.
Enoís quotation also doesnít get to the heart of just how revolutionary Reed was. Just as Elvis redefined what a white man could sound like, Bob Dylan created a new style of popular singing, and Jimi Hendrix gave us a new notion of how the electric guitar could be used, Reed reinvented how a rock band could be defined and what they could aspire to be. Could a rock album have a track featuring an instrumental jam underneath a spoken word story about an accidental killing, as heard in ìThe Gift?î Could it have an 18-minute free-form ambient improvisation with lyrics about drug dealers and transvestites like ìSister Ray?î Reedís importance depends not on whether these became popular trendsóthey didnítóbut rather that they opened up a new realm of musical possibilities for the artists who followed him.
Finally, Enoís quotation doesnít capture the seemingly perpetual ënewnessí of Reedís output. Even though the earliest Velvet Underground recordings are nearly 50 years old, they sound like they could have been released last week and would still be avant-garde as hell. Their abrasiveness, disregard of traditional structures, and willingness to push boundaries would place them on the fringe of any era of popular music since its conception.
Amazingly, none of this boldness makes the work feel esoteric in the slightest. Even at its most experimental, his music always had something to keep it from feeling completely insular: a sense of humor, a powerful exhibition of passion, or a melody you just couldnít forgetóeven if you wanted to.
Eno certainly made a valid point about Lou Reed, but he didnít capture the scope of his importance to popular music. Reed has been a vital figure since the release of his first recordings, and itís difficult to imagine a future where he wonít continue to be one. Lou, youíll be sorely missed.