Music/Popular Culture

Lou Reed’s musical influence? Not so fast, Dr. Sammy

by Patrick Vecchio

My man Sam Smith posted yesterday about the wide-ranging influence Lou Reed had—and continues to have—on popular music.

Alas, though, Sam was no doubt in the throes of grief and unable to think straight when he wrote: “The Beatles were the biggest thing in the history of popular music and it’s hard to imagine any band or solo artist ever surpassing the influence they exerted, both musical and cultural. But it’s entirely possible that the #2 position on that list belongs to Lou Reed.”

It’s also entirely possible that Justin Bieber is the reincarnation of Sam Cooke. But that’s a topic for a different time.

As his readers noticed, Dr. Slammy rounded up a long list of artists who say Reed influenced them. Many of them are no-brainers. For me, David Bowie is the obvious connection, a connection has existed from probably before the release of Bowie’s Hunky Dory (1971). Listen to “Queen Bitch” from that LP and tell me it’s not a Lou Reed song.

As part of his case, Sam wrote, “If you’re a devotee of serious popular music today, it’s nigh-on inconceivable that your collection is free of Lou Reed’s legacy, whether you knew it or not.” That statement is inarguable, but such broad phrases—“serious popular music today” and “nigh-on inconceivable”—make the pronouncement sound much grander than it is.

Let’s consider who else could be contenders for the No. 2 spot—who else has a musical legacy bubbling through our music collections. Here, then, are the names that come to my mind, in no particular order:

• James Brown

• Robert Johnson

• Paul Anka (Kidding! Just kidding!)

• Chuck Berry

• John Mayall

The real heavyweight, though—the guy who slams the “Lou’s No. 2” argument down on the mat for a 10-count in the first round—is Bob Dylan. If there had been no Bob Dylan, there would have been no Lou Reed. Simple as that. And the influence of artists Dylan influenced would take a month to read.

We need to remember that the measure of an artist’s merit does not lie mainly in the number of artists she or he has influenced. We also have to consider the artist’s body of work. As I posted yesterday, I am more than familiar with Reed’s work from 1972 to 1984. It is uneven at best—shards of brilliance, but all too often, it shows an effort exemplified by the nameless critic who said Lou “phoned in” his vocals on his Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal LP (1974). I don’t know—maybe Reed suddenly became a genius after New Sensations, but by that time I’d stopped caring, viewing Lou as a wasted talent and a talent gone to waste.

Speaking of an artist’s body of work, let’s not forget Metal Machine Music, which I mentioned in my Reed post yesterday. I had a friend, Jerry, who ran a record store/head shop, and I spent a lot of time there when MMM came out. Jerry was looking to close the store late one Saturday afternoon with a bunch of people in the store, and they ignored him when he politely asked them to leave. So what did he do? Put Metal Machine Music on the turntable and cranked it up. The place was empty inside of a minute, except for me and Jerry, who had a look of unadulterated glee.

As for the list of acts that Reed has influenced, there’s at least one artist on it whose presence puzzles me: Brian Eno. I’ve been listening to Eno since his first solo LP, Here Come the Warm Jets, was released in 1974. I can’t say I have every record from Eno’s more-than-considerable discography (I have 16), but if Reed’s music is reflected in Eno’s work, I can’t hear it.  It makes me wonder exactly what kind of influence Reed had on all of those people.

In the end, I cannot and will not argue with the premise that Lou Reed was an influential artist whose sonic fingerprints are all over the modern musical landscape. But is he second only to the Beatles in the influence he exerted both musically and culturally?

No. It’s not possible. It’s not even close.


Image Credit: Crow’s Garage

11 replies »

  1. Well, yes and no, sorta. For starters, no way in hell I have anything bad to say about Dylan’s import. If anything, you’ve understated the case. As for the rest:

    James Brown: No doubt. Massively important, and even moreso in light of the current neo-Soul revival, which serves as yet another generational validation of the style. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, anyone?

    Robert Johnson: Duh.

    Chuck Berry: This is tough. No doubt a lot of future stars paid close attention and imitated his style. Did he really change things that much, though?

    John Mayall: Very important, but probably not quite in this particular conversation.

    And we could go on all night about the bender that Dylan laid on the future course of popular music, including rock & roll.

    I guess there’s a part of me that shies away from handing him this title because I can’t really make myself see him as rock. He’s a folkie in my view, albeit one whose influenced skipped across every border it could find. Same kind of response to Johnson – not just a Blues guy, THE Blues guy.

    Let’s see, what else. Oh, this: “We need to remember that the measure of an artist’s merit does not lie mainly in the number of artists she or he has influenced.”

    Agree completely, but the discussion isn’t about the artist’s merit, it’s about his influence specifically. I would never argue for Reed’s inclusion in a top ten greatest artists of all time list because there have been so many who were better. But as I indicated in my piece with the Burroughs example, sometimes an artist can inspire others to scale heights that they could never dream of. Reed isn’t just an example of that in music, he may be the single best example of it. If he isn’t, Ian Curtis is.

    I know I’m tap-dancing on the genre question above, and please don’t take that as any kind of emphatic denial of the point you’re making. Instead, I suppose it’s more a function of what was in the frame of my mind as I thought about the piece. That I didn’t articulate the name of the bee in my bonnet isn’t on you, though.

    Still, glad to hear that, if nothing else, you agree with me that whatever his ranking, he was certainly high up on the list.

    • C’mon, Sam…

      John Lennon, whom you may have heard of, said, “If rock and roll had another name, it would be Chuck Berry.”

      Mayall’s influence is probably through the number of fantastic musicians who played in the Bluesbreakers on their way to stardom. He was a gateway for some heavy hitters.

      I do like your Ian Curtis reference. Don’t care for all of what he fostered – but hugely influential.

      Second to The Beatles in influence? No, no….Did you really claim that? Everyone knows that Ozzie is second to the Fabs…

      • John Lennon, whom you may have heard of, said, “If rock and roll had another name, it would be Chuck Berry.”

        Agreed, but we have talked before about the difference between changing the genre and merely doing what others have done better. Much as I love Berry, he seems more like the latter.

        Mayall’s influence is probably through the number of fantastic musicians who played in the Bluesbreakers on their way to stardom. He was a gateway for some heavy hitters.

        No argument, but as I said, do you really think he belongs in this conversation? If we’re talking top ten, maybe. But top two or three? No way.

        I do like your Ian Curtis reference. Don’t care for all of what he fostered – but hugely influential.

        Yep. I know it’s heresy to say it, but I think New Order (the surviving members of JD, for those who don’t know the bands) was better. Maybe less edgy and bleak and downright suicidal, but was the better band. Of course, had Curtis not offed himself they might have evolved into a slightly edgier New Order, and that would have been the fucking awesomes.

        Second to The Beatles in influence? No, no….Did you really claim that? Everyone knows that Ozzie is second to the Fabs…

        You joke, but Sabbath by god changed the game like few ever had. Imagine the course of metal without him. (In some cases this would not doubt be a pleasant thing to consider, I realize…)

    • Strictly in terms of change agent, I’ve gotta go with Jimi. Carlos Santana once said something like this: Before Hendrix, everybody was playing in black-and-white, but then Jimi came along playing in Technicolor. Everybody who plays guitar today, from pros to pretenders, has a little Jimi inside.

      I once read a piece in which Lou claimed he was a better guitar player than Hendrix. And based on what I know about Reed, he probably meant it.

  2. Buddy Holly is often credited for inciting the British Invasion because he was not Elvis. He was a geeky kid with glasses who wrote great songs; his legendary status was somehow attainable. If he could do, maybe so could I.

    Lou Reed did the same for punk, but perhaps even more for what came after punk. He could play guitar and write songs, but all of that seemed secondary. First and foremost, he was a freak and he didn’t give a shit who knew or cared. In that, he made every disaffected outcast feel like maybe there was room for one more left of center perspective.

    When the Beatles were on their rise to stardom, manager Brian Epstein tried to hush John Lennon’s marriage to Cynthia. Lou Reed wrote songs about hustling and dating transvestites. Young fans of the Beatles probably envisioned that a night spent hanging out with the Fab Four might get you in trouble with your parents. A night out with Lou Reed might land you in jail, questioning your basic assumptions about life and anatomically improbable sex acts.

    After Lou Reed, nothing was taboo. Everything was fair game to write about.

    • I think Mike is making a hugely important point here, and he comes at the question with a first-hand perspective. While the early days of rock gave us squeaky clean (Fabs, Beach Boys) and dangerous types (Stones), they were all at various points along the “cool” spectrum. The Stones were dangerous compared to the Beatles, but they were dangerous within the accepted range.

      But there wasn’t so much place for the genuine outcast, the reject, the punk, the loser. Lou Reed kicked that door down, and ever since rock has been a breeding ground for the creative impulse you only find on the underbelly. You couldn’t really get to NIN from the Stones, but it was an express bus to NIN from VU.

  3. 1) Chuck was a black guy whose writing combined elements of country and R&B with lyrics that deconstructed the world of 50’s white kids. Jesus, Sam, who are you crediting.with inventing rock and roll? Little Richard? Elvis? Fucking Bill Haley? Please…. And both Chuck and Reverend Penniman brought the dandy thing into rock – Elvis imitated them in that and other things….

    2) Talking about what management did/didn’t do is complex – in The Beatles’ case affected by Epstein’s closeted homosexuality and the cognitive dissonance he lived and inflicted on them. And Murry Wilson ruled – and ruined – The Beach Boys, especially the Wilson Bros. – especially the genius Wilson Bro. Brian. Think about how different either of those bands would be with an Andrew Loog Oldham as manager.

    3) Mike’s Buddy Holly mention is prescient. In some ways, Buddy was the first punk. ,Look at Elvis Costello and tell me he didn’t pattern himself after Buddy as homage of the first order.

    4) Without the Stones, there is no VU. It’s all on a continuum. Maybe that’s what none of us is doing a very good job of – noting that no single figure appears in the history of rock without . They’re all interrelated – and the merging of the cultural elements with the music didn’t start with Lou – though he brought new things to the table. As did Chuck, Dylan, the trinity (Fabs, Stone, Who), and yes, Sam, Sabbath/Ozzie, I agree. And rock’s history is partly that struggle between the music and the lifestyle/cultural elements it not only allowed but celebrated. Musically there are arguably more important figures – felixwas points at one in Hendrix – but in ideas Reed was, to use a godawful but at least in his case an accurate term, a thought leader.

    5) Mike’s not the only one with 1st hand perspective here, Sam…just sayin’

    And all this is irrelevant because it all comes from Robert Johnson, anyway….

  4. I think you’re both right. You can’t really have a conversation about the foundation of rock without talking Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Robert Johnson. But Lou Reed’s legacy wasn’t about the foundation of rock. It was about the next generation of it.

    When I try to think about the collective insanity that was western civilization in the ’70s and into the ’80s, I think it’s amazing that we’re all still here to talk about it. Vietnam? Watergate? Reagan and Thatcher? With all that cynicism and gladhanding and faux naivete, how did we not all lose our minds? I can’t draw a rational line from Buddy Holly to the Clash without intersecting Lou Reed. Without Lou Reed, I don’t think rock would have gained the vocabulary to tell young people “you’re absolutely okay for thinking everything is fucked up. It is.”

    If I’m forced to name a rock songwriter who best embodies my generation, most days I’d probably say Leonard Cohen. That weltschmerz of “don’t worry kid, the game was lost before you sat down at the table” speaks volumes. And where was Cohen when he decided to give up writing poetry and start writing songs? Watching Nico and the VU at the Factory? You don’t say.

    And that brings me to a criticism about Lou that I’ve heard a lot of this week: his wasted potential. It’s a fair comment, but it’s also emblematic of the times. Would jazz artists of the ’50s who were junkies have put out so many records had they been raking in the royalties that the arena rock music industry of the ’70s afforded? Heroin makes a man get busy when he doesn’t know how he’s going to get the cash for the next hit. A lot of people got soft in the ’70s.

  5. I have a friend who’s an avid guitarist. He played a remastered set of Robt Johnson recordings for me. I couldn’t hear it, but he claims that some of what Johnson did was anatomically impossible.

    This sounds like another S&R list discussion. I don’t know music, but I’m mildly supportive of Penniman because he’s from Macon, right up the road from me, and because he wrote one of the first openly homosexual songs, even though the record company changed “good booty” to “oh Rudy.”

  6. Who gives a flying fuck about B.Hs’ & B.Wilson….and puhleese stop the comparisons between Buddy H and Elvis C just because of the eyeglass frames!! Man oh man…………..there is enough rock blasphemy going on here to kill rock outright….PERHAPS I will come back to folks on this in a cogent fashion…..but in the meanwhile PLEASE let’s leave genuine historical influences like Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Hendrix, Mayall, Beatles and the Stones aside ……it sucks that someone talked about the British invasion without any effing reference to Cream or Blind Faith. Oh and talking about Leonard Cohen, he is the only one who brought ANY literary integrity to the mix…other than the RELATIVELY fragile efforts of our man Jim Morrison.

    Lou Reed figures real low in the rock galaxy………sure VU were a great band esp. when we listen to Heroin but I will take John Cale over LR (without meaning any disrespect to Lou) any day. Just look at JC’s body of work in comparison to LR and I am not just talking about album fucking count here.

    By the way Leonard Cohen never stopped writing poetry….he just set it to music…..and if you are talking about rock royalty in the new millennium (oops sorry for using the “m” word) as far as I an concerned there is only Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Tom Waits……the holy fucking trinity. Outside of VU Lou Reed will be consigned to the dust heap of rock history. I am open to being educated about Lou’s claim to the genre of rock beyond VU.