A Walk on the Other Side: Lou Reed’s Influence on Popular Music

Lou Reed, one of the most influential songwriters in rock n’ roll history, died on October 27th, 2013 from an illness related to a liver transplant. His music challenged the status quo of the late 1960s and 70s, exploring the dark and experimental themes that most mainstream artists avoided. While radio stations of the time played standard folk ballads, Reed and the Velvet Underground were delving into dirty, real-word issues like drug abuse, prostitution, and ambiguous sexuality. Although the majority of Velvet Underground albums never had any real commercial success, their influence, in time, would grow to be monumental.

Lou Reed’s Musical Influence Lives On After His Passing

Mr. Reed’s 1967 debut album with the Velvet Underground, “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” was the first alternative or underground rock album ever made. Nonetheless, it was also an enormous commercial and financial failure. Essentially, the raunchy and provocative content deterred record stores, radio stations, and magazines. Richie Unterberger of Allmusic noted, “The music was simply too daring to fit onto commercial radio; ‘underground’ rock radio was barely getting started at this point, and in any case may well have overlooked the record at a time when psychedelic music was approaching its peak.” The mainstream press was completely thrown-off by Lou Reed’s avant-garde emergence, and like any other institution, was frightened by the unknown.

What’s even more relevant than his unabashed anti-establishment mindset, however, is the man’s legacy in contemporary music. This past August—months before Reed’s death—Beck outdid all other tributes and covered the entire Velvet Underground & Nico album. Beck told The Wall Street Journal, “I grew up listening to the Velvet Underground… by doing the whole album you get to do some of the lesser-known songs you would’ve never chosen to perform. You end up learning things.” The ’90s post-punk revival that Beck emerged from certainly wouldn’t have prospered the way it did without Lou Reed (the simple and limited chord progressions, in particular). The V.U. founder famously said, “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”

Inspired by this unconventional, fringe mindset, Sonic Youth guitarist, Thurston Moore, decided to move to New York City and fully immerse himself in the post-punk scene. According to Moore, “He exemplified a specific aesthetic of New York. It was really smart, really biting, really funny, and literate. And it was in love with rock ‘n’ roll.”  Even popular, mainstream artists like the Arctic Monkeys have cited Reed and the Velvet Underground as major influences in their music (the 5th and most recent album, AM, in particular).

While analyzing Lou Reed’s true legacy, though, we must look beyond the hundreds of celebrity Tweets expressing gratitude and sympathy. Lou Reed was one of the few significant driving forces in the 1960s and ’70s that turned counterculture into pop culture; he made eccentric cool, and despite his passing, Reed’s influence lives on.

Article by Josh Cranin

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