Lou Reed: A Eulogy of Album Covers

Published:  October 28, 2013
Bonnie Abbott
Lou Reed: A Eulogy of Album Covers

This morning, most of Australia woke to the news of the passing of rock legend, Lou Reed.

Thinking back over his life, many graphics designers would instantly think of the incredible covers of his albums, as a soloist as well as his time in The Velvet Underground. Many of these invaluably reflective of the social changes of the 1960s and 70s, with some still stirring controversy in more modern times.

Born Lewis Allan Reed, he learned to play the guitar from listening to the radio, influenced by rhythm and blues, as so many of his rock contemporaries were (Chuck Berry, Rolling Stones, The Beatles…). He studied journalism, film and creative writing at Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, graduating with a BA. It was here that Reed fell under the mentorship of poet Delmore Schwartz, who influenced Reed greatly.

After graduating in 1964, Reed moved to New York City. Playing for a short time in The Primitives, the unstable lineup of The Velvet Underground formed. It was when Andy Warhol took notice, however, and integrated the band into his Exploding Plastic inevitable events that things began to move for the band—primarily in Reed’s influence and inspiration by Warhol. Together with European model and singer Nico, the band released their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, with a cover designed by Warhol.

The Velvet Underground & Nico’s first album. The original artwork, by Andy Warhol, featured a peel-off sticker.

Early copies of the album invited the owner to “peel slowly and see”; peeling back the banana skin revealed a flesh-coloured banana underneath. A special machine was needed to manufacture these covers (one of the causes of the album’s delayed release), but MGM paid for costs figuring that any ties to Warhol would boost sales of the album. Most reissued vinyl editions of the album do not feature the peel-off sticker; the original copies of the album with the peel-sticker feature are now rare collector’s items. Although this album did not receive many sales at the time, it has since been celebrated as one of the greatest rock records of all time.

After this album, however, Warhol was fired from management and Nico was dropped, and Reed refocussed the band towards a slightly more pop-orientated sound. He recorded White Light / White Heat (1968), The Velvet Underground (1969) and Loaded (1970) before quitting the band.

The Velvet Underground present White Light / White Heat

The Velvet Underground’s self titled third album

The Velvet Underground’s 4th album, Loaded (1970)

Back home with his parents in Long Island, Reed worked at his father’s tax accountancy. But it wasn’t long before he was approached by RCA Records to record as a solo artist. It was then he entered an incredible period of prolific writing, recording and tireless performing, releasing an album nearly every year until the 1990s. He then released sporadic albums up until his last in 2011, with Lulu—an album produced and recorded with Metallica.

Reed’s first solo album, self titled.

Lou Reed’s second solo album, Transformer, remains Reed’s ‘break-through’ album.

It was Reed’s second solo album, Transformer, that was for many his break-through album, containing the ever popular Walk On The Wild Side, as well as Perfect Day and Satellite Of Love. The cover is a Mick Rock photograph of Reed performing, that was processed out of focus. Reed liked the effect, so it was printed as it was.

Reed’s third solo album, Berlin

Reed’s 4th solo, and highest selling, album.

Reed’s 1978 album, Street Hassle

Reed’s 1978 live album, Take No Prisoners

Reed’s 1980 album, Growing Up In Public

Reed’s 1983 album, Legendary Hearts

Reed’s 1984 album, New Sensations

It was with Reed’s 1996 album, Set The Twilight Reeling, that he first engaged Stefan Sagmeister to do a cover. The photograph, by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Pete Cornish, was altered blue under a purple/blue transparent plastic cover that encased the album. It was only when the liner notes were removed that the bright yellow rays were revealed. Sagmesiter was inspired by the lyrics of Trade In and produced the poster for Set The Twilight Reeling‘s release.

This working relationship continued with Reed’s 2000 release, Ecstasy. Reported in Sagmesiter’s semi-biographical Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far, he described the process of capturing Ecstasy‘s cover image – instructing Reed to masturbate in front of a camera (given privacy behind a curtain.) The outcomes were images capturing moments of unashamed ecstasy.

Reed’s 1996 album, Set The Twilight Reeling, cover art by Stefan Sagmeister

Stefan Sagmeister’s poster artwork for Reed’s Set The Twilight Reeling album release

Reed’s 2000 release, Ecstasy, again with cover art by Stefan Sagmeister.

The next notable album cover for Reed was also for his last album. Revisiting an interest in noise and sound, Reed began touring with Metal Machine Trio in the late 2010s. This lead to a collaborative album with Metallica, which was largely panned by music critics and fans alike, receiving twice as many “likes” as “dislikes” on YouTube, and regarded as a “noble failure” by Pitchfork. Reed retorted that “I don’t have any fans left. After Metal Machine Music (1975), they all fled. Who cares? I’m essentially in this for the fun of it.” He also later disparagingly commented that the album was for “literate people”.

Reed’s last album, Lulu, was created with Metallica in 2011.

Lou Reed died at his home in New York on the 27th October, 2013. He was 71. As tributes are publicised across the internet and throughout the media, Reed is celebrated for his successful songs that achieved mainstream recognition, his latter-day albums going unmentioned. However, The Wire’s Jennifer Lucy Allan comments that perhaps it wasn’t those moments of his career that Reed regarded as successful. “Ultimately, the reaction to Lulu is a testament to Lou Reed’s ability to still get up the noses and under the skin of even the most open-minded listeners. He’s probably laughing his head off at it all this very minute”.

Here is Sunday Morning, the first song of Reed’s first album, and Junior Dad, the very last song of his very last album, Lulu, recorded 44 years later.

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