One Song/Three Versions – Walk on the Wild Side – Lou Reed

Wherein I take the original, throw in a couple of covers, see what happens. I am a fan of radical reinvention when I can find it. 

This is not a post about the Velvet Underground. But suffice it to say that they became one of the most influential rock bands of their day, maybe of all time. All that without having one recognizable hit (other than maybe on FM radio.)

Like all bands, the Velvet Underground had their day, largely contained to the Sixties with one album released in 1973. Lou Reed had been the primary songwriter and he left the band in 1970. According to Wikipedia, after leaving the Velvet Underground, Mr. Cool “moved to his parents’ home on Long Island, and took a job at his father’s tax accounting firm as a typist, by his own account earning $40 a week.” (He was 28 at the time so one surmises he was pretty fucking broke.)

It gets weirder: “In1971, he signed a recording contract with RCA Records and recorded his first solo album at Morgan Studios in Willesden, London with session musicians including Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman from the band Yes.” (Caleb Quaye from Elton John’s band is on it too. ME says this is the most unlikely combination since Hendrix opened for The Monkees, got booed and left the tour. Who does he think he is- Davy Jones?)

Other than the six people who even knew who Lou Reed was, the album did not do well. But in 1972, Reed was to hit his stride with the David Bowie/Mick Ronson produced Transformer. Against all possible odds, the song “Walk on the Wild Side” became an international hit and doubtless Lou’s signature song. “Two decades after the song’s release, Reed told interviewer David Fricke, “I know my obituary has already been written. And it starts out, “Doot, di-doot, di-doot.”

The song was a hit despite its “touching on taboo topics such as transgender people, drugs, male prostitution, and oral sex.” Now you can hear songs like “Wet Ass Pussy” on the radio but back in 1972 well, I’m not 100% sure if the radio stations knew they were playing the aural version of Midnight Cowboy.

Lou got the title from a book that later became a movie. But the colorful characters in his song – Holly, Candy, Sugar Plum Fairy, etc. – were all part of Reed’s Andy Warhol circle.

The song itself has a sinuous, almost sinister feel, perfect for the lyrics. There’s only a couple of chords and bassist Herbie Flowers plays twin interlocking bass lines on double bass and overdubbed on a 1960 fretless Fender Jazz Bass. They decided they needed some ladies to sing the “colored girl” part so naturally they went out and got the white British trio known as Thunder Thighs. The film noir-ish sax during the fadeout is played by Ronnie Ross who taught Bowie how to play.

Please note – There are two things that are guaranteed to be said by either me or my friend Steve whenever we meet up in The Big Apple. One is “New York City. Just like I pictured it. Skyscrapers and everything.” The other is “Lookin’ for soul food and a place to eat.” These are non-negotiable.

Spotify link

Ok, let us flat-out admit here that no one is ever gonna top that performance. It is, as Sonny Boy likes to say, sick. But that won’t stop other artists from trying and well, why should it?

In fact, what inspired this post is hearing fellow New Yorker Suzanne Vega cover it from a 2020 live album called An Evening of New York Songs and Stories. (If you’re wondering it was recorded in 2019.) I’ve recounted before that my high school chum Mike Visceglia played bass for years and years with Vega and is, I think still tight with her but is not on this album. Mike turned me on to so much good shit it’s ridiculous from Coltrane to Yes to ELP who I swear we saw 37 times.

Here’s Vega:

Spotify link

I featured singer Karen Souza once before in these pages where I said this: “Karen Souza is a jazz singer from Buenos Aires. (A city I’d love to get to someday). Apparently, she’s got quite the fan base in Mexico. And then there’s this tidbit from Wikipedia: “Souza’s lounge music cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” was used extensively in the 2013 film The Zero Theorem, directed by Terry Gilliam, who had not been familiar with the original rendition.”

Here’s her “Wild Side” to which you can cha-cha if you’re so inclined:

Spotify link

Doo, doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo-doo
Doo, doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo-doo
Doo, doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo-doo
Doo, doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo-doo
(Doo, doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo-doo
Doo, doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo-doo
Doo, doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo-doo
Doo, doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo-doo
Dooh)

 

28 thoughts on “One Song/Three Versions – Walk on the Wild Side – Lou Reed

  1. I dig the original and like both of the covers you highlighted. Suzanne Vega’s take has a great mood, while in Karen Souza’s rendition it’s the groove that stands out.

    BTW, I used to listen to Vega quite a bit in the ’80s. But after her first two albums, she kind of disappeared from my radar screen. I guess I have to check out “An Evening of New York Songs and Stories.”

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    1. Yes, I know. Good album. I was referring to the fact hat they were largely a Sixties band and that album was, for all intents and purposes, that band’s swan song. The Beatles final album was released in 1970 as well but they were, for all intents and purposes, a Sixties band.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s probably diverging too far from the original post, but sometimes I think 1969 just about belongs as part of the 1970s – records like Led Zeppelin’s first two and King Crimson’s Court of the Crimson King kind of belong to the 1970s.

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        1. Yes, they were both Seventies bands. And as far as diverging, may I note that in two comments you’ve only mentioned tangential things and nary a word about the point of the post. I mean, it’s your comment. But, hello?

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, this is one of those songs, innit? Expectations can’t be avoided. Before I listened I kinda made up my mind. It’s just a song that has a mood and a groove that can’t be touched. Best thing is to try something different (like Souza does), but my expectations are set because of the song itself.

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    1. Yes, well it’s not intended to be a contest. Rarely does a cover match the original. (Although that said, even Bob Dylan does Jimi Hendrix’ version of ‘Watchtower.’

      So these are intended more to show how different artists interpret a song. And “before I listened I kinda made up my mind” isn’t something I subscribe to.

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      1. I didn’t really intend to suggest it was a contest and I’m not sure that having expectations of a certain song is a bad thing. Not necessarily saying it’s something to subscribe to, but in certain situations a song has such an impact on me that any version other than that one isn’t likely to move me. I knew that going into both cover versions there.

        And Hendrix’s Watchtower really is quite something. I dare say my favourite.

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        1. Right but “Watchtower” makes my point. I heard Dylan’s version almost a full year before I heard Hendrix.’ Loved it. Moody, mysterious, ambiguous, all at the same time. Didn’t figure anyone could top it. If I’d said that to myself I would have fought the Hendrix version. But I didn’t, loved it and accepted it as a different version while still going back to the original. So, you never know.

          That said, we are in agreement that Lou’s original is so unique that it’s likely untoppable. The fun is in hearing other artists – who doubtless know that – take it on anyway and try to put their own spin on it, regardless of the outcome. That takes an artistic sensibility plus a boatload of balls. That’s what “Three Songs” is really all about.

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        2. Hey, I like the whole one song/three versions thing and I like to hear what artists bring to a song. There are loads of artists who are great at interpreting the work of others – Cash, Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin (ha!). There are just some songs that I know (or have an expectation) that I won’t like. Some might surprise me. I won’t fight it if my impression is “hey, this is actually good”. So, me kinda making up my mind isn’t being completely closed to a take. Just having expectations. Like I say, I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing. But I’m not here to convince that I’m right and that’s the way to go about things. We’re all get something different out of music and certain songs. Like kinda knowing I’d prefer to listen to Led Zeppelin before listening to Greta Van Fleet (that’s another wee joke there).

          Back to Watchtower, Hendrix was the first version heard. I love both.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. I had read a quote from the singer (I think) a while back claiming that Led Zep weren’t an influence. Or not their biggest influence. Something like that. They’re not for me, but aye, hopefully they can find their own vibe.

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        4. Haha. Brilliant. But I completely agree – they should really own it at this stage (I’ve heard a couple of tracks from the new album that ‘sounds nothing like Led Zep’ and, well, y’know…).

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I did like the different interpretations, and I did chuckle at the contrast between musical style & lyrics in Souza’s version.

    And, regarding your comment on this getting radio play in 1972 despite the lyrics, I often wonder how this song & others like Lola and One Toke Over The Line got extended airplay. I think it’s a combo of management wanting the ad sales from playing popular songs and the fact they never listened to the songs cuz they didn’t like the music.

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    1. And frankly, in the late Sixties/early Seventies FM radio here was a little freer. Certainly the hipper DJ’s knew exactly what they were playing. And you’d hear Floyd singing ‘do goody-good bullshit’ regularly. But then the FCC realized that hearing the word ‘fuck’ would make the hippies even more degenerates than they already were and cracked down. So now we have satellite.

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  4. I always like interesting covers. The two gals put their own spin on it
    This is a pretty high up there tune for me. Lots going on musically for me. My intro to Lou and I never looked back. Ate up all his previous and later works.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I heard of Velvet Underground but neither me or any of my friends were really into them. As to “Wild Side,” my confidential sources tell me that CB has frequently been a denizen of that side of things. Often enjoying life in the fast lane, sometimes down at the end of lonely street.

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      1. After this I went whole hog on Lou. One album that i wore out was ‘Rock n Roll Animal’. I know you like it as much as I do. So that was my intro to the Velvets library (Reeds).

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        1. More or less the same trajectory as me. Your buddy Pete recommended a pretty good live album by the Velvets before he disappeared. Can’t recall the name of it.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Now you’re going all educated on me. Making me look things up. And yes. I agree.
          (Other take. Im on a Jimmy Barnes jag. Lots of good stuff to go with what I knew about)

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