In November 1972, Reed scored a #16 hit in Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart with arguably the most unconventional hit song of all time, “Walk on the Wild Side,” from the David Bowie production. Transformer album (which itself peaked at number 29 on the Billboard hot 200). The song garnered attention with its overt references to Valium, cross-dressing, and oral sex. (Hard to believe that it had only been five years since Ed Sullivan had banned the Rolling Stones’ comparably suave “Let’s Spend the Night Together”!)
Transformer was followed in October 1973 by the decidedly esoteric Sedan, a melancholic concept album about a couple whose relationship disintegrates into drug use, domestic violence, and prostitution. This time, the radio programmers did not give Reed free rein. The reviews were no better; Rolling Stone he called the album “a disaster”. (The post was later retracted with the placement of Sedan as #344 on their Top 500 Albums of All Time.) It stalled at #98 on Billboardalbum chart.
In the bottom of his heart, however, lou reed he was a rocker He demonstrated it during his years with the Velvet Underground (1964-70). So, resuming his commercially faltering career, Reed decided to reflect on his VU years with a rockin’ live album. the result was rock and roll animalRecorded December 21, 1973 at the Academy of Music in New York City and rush released in late February 1974. The live album surpassed the success of Transformerpeaking at number 29 on Billboard amid a 28-week chart stay and eventual gold certification from the RIAA. But let’s not get too far ahead of the narrative.
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Steve Katz, veteran of the Blues Project and co-founder of Blood, Sweat and Tears, who ended up producing rock and roll animal, takes us back to that year: “It was the spring of 1973 and I was still in Blood, Sweat and Tears, rehearsing in our space in Dobbs Ferry, NY, just up the Hudson River from Manhattan, when my brother (Dennis Katz) had left RCA Records to manage Lou. Lou began rehearsing in a different room in the same building with his new kids rock ‘n’ roll band, the local kids aptly named the Tots. That was how Lou and I were first introduced. It was Lou’s post-heroin, pre-speed period, a period in which critic Lester Bangs referred to him as a ‘drunken bozo’. Lou was drinking a lot then, confused about his sexual orientation and shaking like a leaf.”
Katz knew that Reed was coming from a project that had failed in the market:
“Lou’s latest album, Sedan, [had been] a business failure. The question for Lou now was: ‘What do you do after you come off a bombshell album?’ Luckily, someone asked my opinion and I replied: ‘You put Lou together with a great band and immediately recorded a live album of mostly Velvet Underground songs.’ That way, everyone who first heard Lou through ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ would now be exposed, in a modern context, to some of the best material he’s ever written. The Tots were fired and replaced by an excellent band, some of whom played on Sedan. Steve Hunter and my old friend Dick Wagner, both from Alice Cooper’s band, were the guitarists. In my opinion, it was Wagner and Hunter’s instrumental introduction to sweet janeeven more than Lou, that helped rock and roll animal become a classic album.”
Listen to “Sweet Jane”
Steve Hunter, a veteran of Mitch Ryder’s Detroit and Alice Cooper band who wrote the famous intro he played with Wagner, reveals that the guitar instrumental had a life of its own before he met Lou Reed:
“In fact, I wrote the piece that would later become known as ‘Intro to Sweet Jane’ in 1971, two years before it was recorded at the rock and roll animal album,” he says. “While rehearsing for the tour, we needed a piece of music at the beginning of the show to introduce Lou on stage. I showed the band and after playing it together, it sounded so good that we decided to use it.”
Hunter continues: “Dick Wagner and I played the opening melodies together in harmony. After that, in addition to playing a few lines at the beginning, Dick played rhythm guitar on the rest. I played all the solos until the beginning of ‘Sweet Jane’. Although we kept the same format, everyone improvised their parts to some degree, which kept it fresh every night. And since he was doing solos, I also tried different things each night, all of which made it fun to play and, I think, a great way to start the show.”
the rock and roll animal The album contained only five songs, all of them from Reed’s VU years. Why so few? Well, the live version of “Heroin” came in at 1:05 pm and “Rock ‘n’ Roll” at 10:15, which along with “Intro/Sweet Jane” at 7:55 consumed much of the width of 40 minute vinyl band. The album also contains the VU classics “White Light/White Heat” and “Lady Day”.
Producer Katz continues his recollection: “The tapes of the two Academy of Music concerts were sent to RCA Studios for mixing. It was just me and my engineer, Gus Mossler. Luckily Lou wasn’t around for the mixes or he would still have been mixing today!
“We ran into a problem when we found out we only had one applause track. In those days, without digital, you needed to have two real audience tracks for a stereo broadcast. Someone must have stepped on a cable or moved a fader during the recording. I asked Gus what our options were and he suggested going to the RCA archives room to look for a clue from another concert audience. Fifteen minutes later, Gus came back and said, ‘I found it! We can just add this to the multitrack tape and we’ll have audience applause in stereo. Until the day he died, Lou didn’t know that the applause for his best-selling album came from a John Denver concert!
Summing up, Katz adds: “I think the album has stood the test of time for two reasons: 1) the Velvet Underground material and 2) the Wagner/Hunter introduction to ‘Sweet Jane.’
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Despite Reed’s legendarily complex personality, memories of the Hunter shows remain fond: “Lou was easy to work with,” he says. “He pretty much left us to our own devices when it came to working on song arrangements. We tried to lay a good foundation for him, who seemed to enjoy every night. It was a fun tour and I think we all looked forward to every show because it was so much fun to do.”