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The 20 best Lou Reed solo songs

10. How Do You Think It Feels (Berlin, 1973)

Before Side 2 of Berlin gets really dark, Side 1 is merely very dark indeed. This straddles the line between autobiography and fiction ('speeding and lonely'), with Reed’s phrasing urgent yet studied. Bob Ezrin lets Alice Cooper (opens in new tab)’s guitarists fully let rip only once the story’s told. A tangible plea for a reprieve from the horrors of existence and making love by proxy. The album’s most upbeat track, then. 

9. She’s My Best Friend (Coney Island Baby, 1976)

You could argue the case for A Gift as being one of Coney Island Baby’s highlights – “it’s so funny”, said Lou – but this old Velvets draft from 1968 is updated with terrific feel, for which one-off producer Godfrey Diamond never got due credit. An exquisite surge of rhythm and lead guitars mesh with Bowie-influenced call-and-response “la la la”s, and Reed gauges his vocal to build from confident to pleading. Either his most sincere or artificial love song.

8. Street Hassle (Street Hassle, 1978)

Part seedy punk, part cello-led rock opera, Street Hassle was, hoped Reed, a cross between “Burroughs, Selby, Chandler, Dostoevsky and rock’n’roll. Dirty mainstream snot”. The 11-minute, three-movement title track sees those looped cellos circling like vultures as Lou tells a graphic (even by his standards) tale of O.D.s, “little girls” and “bad shit”. And ultimately, “bad luck”. Probably the eeriest thing Bruce Springsteen has ever anonymously guested on.

7. Temporary Thing (Rock And Roll Heart, 1976)

Rock And Roll Heart, with Reed producing and playing all the guitars, was a confused response to CBGB (opens in new tab) punk, which he took a while to grasp. “I’m too literate to be into punk rock”. It leaps between fiery riffs and self-parodying neo-jazz. Just when you’re boxing it off, he pulls out this moody, wilfully repetitive showstopper, a love-hate song, possibly to drugs, which feels clammy, grubby – you can smell it in your hair the next day. It’s trashy, it’s melodramatic, it’s Reed in excelsis.

6. Walk On The Wild Side (Transformer, 1972)

Yes of course this should be number one… but we’re non-mainstream, hardcore obsessive fans here, right? And if you’re not being perverse and contrary, you’re not doing Lou Reed right. Whether Lou liked it or not – and he argued both sides depending on that day’s mood swings – it’s the song which made his post-Velvets name and by which the world at large remembers him. He didn’t even think it was a single. Inspired by Nelson Algren and the colourful characters and pansexual “superstars” he’d met at The Factory, its atmosphere, created by Herbie Flowers’ two-note bass slide, The Thunder Thighs’ “doo da doo”s and baritone sax from Ronnie Ross (Bowie’s sax teacher) is immortal. Its purring sarcasm transformed his career.

5. The Bells (The Bells, 1979)

Yep, we’re *that* hardcore obsessive. Recorded in Germany, the left-handed jazz-rock of The Bells climaxes with this noir nine-minute electronic drone, punctuated with Don Cherry’s wailing tributes to Ornette Coleman and semi-audible whispers and prayers. At the last, Reed’s chipped voice breaks in, spontaneously reciting the story of a Broadway actor falling in ecstasy from a rooftop to his death. “The whole thing is a mood piece, supposed to cause an emotion”, he explained. It does. Not an easy listen, it’s inexplicably profoundly affecting.  

4. Satellite Of Love (Transformer, 1972)

It had been demoed by The Velvets in the Loaded era, but not with this level of grace and grandeur. The Bowie-Ronson arrangement is redolent of Drive-In Saturday, with the piano flourishing in all the right places and the backing vocals, finger clicks and handclaps extracting the pop from the pomp – Bowie tried multiple other vocal fills before telling Ken Scott this album should be about Lou, not him. The lyric’s main thrust seems to express a comatose wonderment at technology, with Reed as the missing link between Warhol’s screen-entranced passive persona and Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton. 

3. Perfect Day (Transformer, 1972)

It’s frequently tricky to deduce whether Lou’s being open-hearted or slyly sneering. Is Perfect Day a transcendent, vulnerable love song or a subversive paean to smack? Of course, it’s been taken out of his hands since – not least, insanely, by the likes of Boyzone and Pavarotti on the BBC’s chart-topping 1997 Children In Need interpretation. Yet even upon Transformer’s release, most listeners heard genuine romance: sangria in the park, feeding animals in the zoo and catching a movie worked as sincerity incarnate. We thought we were someone else. Someone good.

2. Sad Song (Berlin, 1973)

Berlin – the most gothic thing ever made in Willesden – works best as a whole, especially the slide into unrelenting sorrow of its second half. Yet the great concept albums – “a film for the ears”, producer Bob Ezrin called this – demand a big pay-off finish, and boy does Berlin bring that home. Sad Song is bombastic, but Reed’s forlorn, muted voice contrasts perfectly with the sturm und drang. Every time you think his character’s getting soft ('she looked like Mary Queen of Scots'), he snaps back brutally ('just goes to show how wrong you can be'). They don’t do mean-spirited melodrama like this any more.

1. Coney Island Baby (Coney Island Baby, 1976)

His piece de resistance: a loping soul groove, deft doo-wop and Bob Kulick’s glistening guitar interjections knit a backdrop over which wannabe tough guy Reed drops the façade and exposes his youthful dreams and emotions ('I wanted to play football for the coach'). It’s also a love letter to his transgender muse, Rachel. From the opening monologue’s intimacy through the nod to The Five Keys’ Glory Of Love (one of his favourite oldies), to the redemptive public-declaration-of-commitment punch-line, Coney Island Baby is as sensitive as it is audacious, and, sonically, a glory. Reed’s world was often 'a funny place, something like a circus or a sewer', but here his better angels come shining through.

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.