By the time the '80s rolled around, American singer-songwriter and punk rock godfather Lou Reed had been a rock and roll legend for more than a decade, revered for his seminal work with influential '60s experimental rock band The Velvet Underground as well as a rich '70s solo career. As an artist for the ages is inclined to do, Reed simply pressed forward into a new era, releasing six acclaimed studio albums during the '80s that continued to explore the poetic potential of rock music. Reed's portraits of the many, typically dark facets of urban street life remained as edgy, profound and searing as ever throughout the decade. Here's a chronological look at the finest Lou Reed songs from one of his most prolific periods as a solo artist.
1. "Keep Away"
This energetic standout track from 1980's Growing Up in Public, Reed's first album of the new decade, features an inventive guitar riff that nevertheless thrives on driving simplicity. Vocally, Reed careens in exhilarating fashion, spitting out joyously acerbic lyrics that list various pledges and self-recriminations. Listening to this tune can result in a suddenly emerging, pleasurable exhaustion, like one of Reed's characters might get after running from the cops. Just great rock and roll music.
Reed relaxes a bit into gentle arpeggios for this lovely, piano-colored tune that demonstrates yet again his amazing depth and versatility as an artist. Ultimately, this is a tender love song that never shies away from the reality of doubt that always threatens to spoil fevered romance as well as long-term commitment. Reed seems to know and accept that "a faraway place where all is ordered and all is grace" remains ever out of reach, but he doesn't necessarily think this is a proper excuse to curl into a relationship fetal position.
Back to panic and chaos for this track, the most obviously muscular guitar rock selection on 1982's The Blue Mask. The primal fury of ex-Richard Hell guitarist Robert Quine serves as fitting accompaniment to Reed's vivid portrait of an emotionally shredding, chemically enhanced freak-out. This is gut-wrenching stuff all the way from the shambling rhythm guitars to Quine's squeals to, of course, Reed's lyrics of potent immediacy: "I cringe at my terror, I hate my own smell, I know where I must be, I must be in hell."
Reed goes for an odd, jangly sort of power pop on this visceral song of self-examination, and his quavering vocals certainly communicate plenty of desperation but also fascination with his own shortcomings. The melodies happen to be quite lovely, but along with the assured chord progression, supporting musician Fernando Saunders on prominent bass adds some confident, welcome musical wrinkles to the arrangement here. As always, Reed is well aware there are many things wrong with the world as well as his daily approach to it, but a tune like this announces clearly that at the same time he manages to have fun and enjoy the messy nature of being alive.
For this bouncy track from 1984's New Sensations, Reed again proves himself a nimble riff master of a guitarist. Such precise, compact musicianship would probably be enough on its own to recommend this tune, but in true maverick fashion, Reed manages to lay himself emotionally bare in yet another astoundingly affecting way. His lyrics repeatedly apologize for a petty lack of control on the part of his first-person narrator, but what he's really guilty of is simply being all too human. This narrator may be abusive to one degree or another, but in typical Reed style, he's never without awareness of how messed up his situation is.
7. "Turn to Me"Reed mines a familiar basic rock and roll guitar groove here that he's visited on dozens of his own compositions over the years. Nevertheless, the sound of his guitar remains utterly distinctive. Throw on top of that lyrics like "When your teeth are ground down to the bone and there's nothin' between your legs, and some friend died of somethin' that you can't pronounce," and you instantly have an unforgettable, raggedly raw rock song. Even if portraits of seedy desperation had by this point become old hat for Reed the songwriter, his songs never feel any less urgent because of it.
For the most part, Reed maintained his solid '80s no-nonsense momentum for 1986's Mistrial. This lean and mean mid-tempo rocker makes the most of its composer's wry observational bluntness, which works particularly well in the context of its perspective within the song's storyline. The narrator's disgust with his mother's pretentious, artsy new beau allows for Reed's precise lyrical dismissal of "so much he has to say about urban decay."