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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Making Of Lou Reed's Biggest Hit

Lou Reed image
As a remembrance of Lou Reed, here's an excerpt from engineer/producer Ken Scott's memoir Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust. Ken worked with Lou on Transformer, which many consider his best record and contained his great hit "Walk On The Wild Side."

"Bowie was a big Velvet Underground fan and had taken to playing a few of its singer/songwriter Lou Reed’s songs (“White Light/White Heat,” “Waiting For The Man,” and “Sweet Jane”) in his shows, so it was no surprise when David announced that he was going to produce Lou’s second solo album in August of 1972.

Although the record took the typical two weeks to record (again at Trident), it was different in that it was all done during the day because David and Ronno (guitarist Mick Ronson) would run off to rehearsals for a big Rainbow Theater show (one that would prove to be a critical career turning point) during the evenings. It was also different because we used all session musicians except for Ronno. Lou would teach Ronno the song, then Ronno would teach the session musicians, then we would carry on as if it were a Bowie record until it was time to do Lou’s vocals. 

The album would become Transformer and was particularly noted for Lou’s signature track “Walk On The Wild Side,” which was special from recording right through mixing in terms of creative inspiration. For instance, when Ronno was teaching the band the song, the drummer, Ritchie Dharma, who was in the drum booth, was initially playing it with sticks. As I was listening upstairs in the control room, I knew immediately that the sticks were too heavy for the song and wouldn’t work so I dashed down and asked him to try brushes, which we finished up using all the way through.

The classic double bass line by Herbie Flowers was another inspiration, although not for the reason you may think. It didn’t take very long to put down the basic track, and after we were finished, Herbie came up to the control room and asked me if he could add another bass part using a fretless electric. After he explained what he had in mind, we all said, “Sure. Let’s have it,” and it was magic. What we didn’t know (as Herbie’s gone on to explain in a variety of interviews over the years) was that he was mostly concerned with getting paid double for playing the additional instrument under Musician’s Union rules. A bit mercenary, but the line he came up ended up making the record, let alone becoming one of the most copied and/or sampled bass parts ever.

Lou and David got on like the world on fire. Those were two that found each other. Their discussions were witty, funny and cheeky. Very camp, it was. Lou had his fingernails painted black. He played a fantastic rhythm guitar. I love the bass Herby Flowers played on that record.
Klaus Voorman

After the track was finished, there was still something missing, and David asked, “Do you know any backing vocalists that we can use?” I called up this group that I used to work with called Thunderthighs (consisting of Dari Lallou, Karen Friedman and Casey Synge), who came in and sang it. While the line of the song goes “And the colored girls say...” it’s more like “And the Jewish girls say…” since they were all white and a couple of them were Jewish, but they got the effect that everyone was looking for and certainly painted the necessary picture.

Finally when it came to mixing, thanks to his fear of flying, David was on his way to America via the QE2 for his introductory US tour. Ronno came by for one mix that we didn’t get very far with, and Lou was there physically but not mentally, so it was just me mixing all by my myself once again. By the time it came to mixing “Wild Side”, I was so sick of hearing the “Do Do’s” so many bloody times that I had to do something just to relieve the boredom of it. I had this idea of them coming from way back in the distance and walking forward finally singing it right in your face. I started off with just the reverb signal which I kept at the same level during the mix, but I had the source background vocal level come up and up until you hardly hear the reverb at all and they’re almost dry and in your face. It’s amazing what comes out of boredom sometimes.

Other than that one song, Transformer was rather uneventful. While I’ve heard and read many claim that it’s a classic rock album, I really don’t see it that way. “Walk on the Wild Side,” yes, I think is amazing. It’s a classic track. But a single classic track does not a classic album make.

As I said, Lou was there in body for the sessions, but that’s about it. A couple of weeks after we finished the album, I saw Lou again in a Chinese restaurant in Wardour Street and he had no idea who I was. It just didn’t register. Then recently I was asked to do an English TV show that’s based on classic rock albums, where they interview everyone they can get that’s connected with it to tell the story of the album. I went there and did my bit in the morning, then it was going to be Lou’s time, then I was going to do a bit more. So Lou comes in and they introduced me, and once again he had no clue, “Oh, you’re Ken Scott.” It was the strangest thing to go through “Who is this guy?” all over again."


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sculley said...

I listened to Transformer today for the first time in years, and my first thought at the end of it was: "What a great f-ing record."

Dragon Lady said...

I'm Richie Dharma's (ex)wife and remember the recording very well - that tune flippin' haunts me still! And as for Lou not remembering you - I don't think he remembered anyone or anything from those days, do you? Still it was a fab record, well produced and there are a couple of other tracks which were brilliant too.


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