The Story Behind Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side"

The following is a snippet from The Boy in the Song: The True Stories Behind 50 Rock Classics

In the early years of the 1970s, Lou Reed was far more influential a figure than he was a commercial success. Steve Harlye, Mott the Hoople (who covered his "Sweet Jane"), Jonathan Richman, and especially David Bowie were among those who had lent an ear and recycled what they heard. But this was clearly of little value to record label RCA, who were understandably more interested in selling records. So they teamed him with Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson, put the trio in Trident Studios, London, and waited expectantly for the results. Even they, however, must have been impressed at the performance of LP Transformer on its releas in November 1972. It made #29 in the US and #13 in the glam-obsessed UK. It was propelled there by the single "Walk on the Wild Side."

Reed had been playing with "Wild Side" over a year before he recorded it; he had been asked to score a stage show of the 1956 novel by Nelson Algren of the same name. The play never happened, but Reed rewrote the original lyrics and came up with the song for which he is most likely to be remembered.

The fact that the song received radio airplay at all was, in retrospect, surprising. The notoriously conservative BBC clearly did not understand phrases like "giving head," so when Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn made the song his Record of the Week, its ascent to #10 was hampered by no censorship whatsoever. In the US, RCA took the precaution of issuing radio stations with a cleaned-up version of the song that also replaced the phrase "And the colored girls say" with "And the girls all say." Depending on the regional US market, the song was considered slightly politically incorrect, but DJs tended to play the unexpurgated version regardless.

Candy Darling from Beautiful Darling documentary via IMDB

Unlike Reed's underperforming solo debut, it contained mostly new material that post-dated the Velvet Underground. "Wild Side" was a story song with a cast of characters that all came from the Andy Warhol Factory scene. "Little Joe" refers to Joe Dallesandro, who was in several films by Warhol. "Sugar Plum Fairy" is the nickname of actor Joe Campbell, while "Holly," "Candy," and "Jackie" are based on Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, and Jackie Curtis, all real-life drag queens who appeared in Warhol's 1972 movie Women in Revolt.

Reed discussed the subjects' proclivities in a matter-of-fact monotone: Candy "in the back room ... was everybody's darling," Holly "shaved her legs and then he was a she," Little Joe "never once gave it away," Jackie "thought she was James Dean," and the Sugar Plum Fairy was "looking for soul food and a place to eat." He also refers to speed and valium, drug references that escaped the censor.

But it was the reaction of the characters involved that he feared. "I thought they would all claw my eyes out when I got back to New York," the singer later admitted. "Instead, Candy Darling told me he'd memorized all the songs and wanted to make a 'Candy Darling Sings Lou Reed' album. It probably wouldn't sell more than a hundred copies!"

It was not the first time Reed had written a song mentioning Darling. "Candy Says" opened the third Velvet Underground album but did not attract anything like the attention "Wild Side" got. (It's also rumored that the Kinks' "Lola" was inspired by Darling.)

The musical hook "Wild Side," audible from the outset, was a sliding bass line devised and played by session musician Herbie Flowers on an upright double-bass doubled by an electric bass. Flowers was modest about his contribution to the album. He once told Mojo writer Phil Sutcliffe, "You do the job and get your arse away. You take a £12 fee, you can't play a load of bollocks. Wouldn't it be awful if someone came up to me on the street and congratulated me for Transformer?" In fact, he was paid £17 for his work doubling instruments on the same track, apparently his motivation for suggesting the arrangement.

The saxophone solo was not played by Bowie, as many assumed, but by jazz musician Ronnie Ross, who had tutored a 12-year-old Bowie. Bowie booked Ross for the session but didn't tell him he'd be there. After Ross nailed the solo in one take, Bowie showed up to surprise his former sax teacher. Mick Ronson credits his production and arrangement teaming with Bowie as "pretty sharp," and this was reflected in the speed at which the project was completed. "Records were done very quickly back then. I mean, when David and I produced Lou Reed's Transformer, we recorded the whole thing in 10 days, six hours a day. We recorded the whole thing in 60 hours and it was mixed and that was it."

Reed, for his part, admitted that he could very rarely understand a word Ronson said. "He had a thick Hull accent, and he'd have to repeat things five times! But he was a real sweet guy, and a great guitar player."

A public argument between Bowie and Reed ended their working relationship though the pair reconciled years later. But the song has continued to enjoy a life of its own. U2's Bono took it to a new worldwide audience in 1985 when he ad-libbed parts of the lyrics at Live Aid.

How well do you really know your rock history? The Boy in the Song focuses on the boyfriends, husbands, bandmates, exes, heroes, celebrities, fathers, sons, and even complete strangers who inspired 50 of rock’s greatest songs. Readers will learn that a surprising number of performers have revealed their band’s inner struggles through their music. Stevie Nicks’s “Silver Spring,” about her breakup with bandmate Lindsey Buckingham, was left off Rumours, which contributed to her decision to leave Fleetwood Mac. Bruce Springsteen’s “Bobby Jean” was written as a farewell to Steve Van Zandt, who was leaving the E Street Band, and Boy George asked drummer Jon Moss “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” in a classic case of requited love.

Authors Michael Heatley and Frank Hopkinson explain how each boy or man inspired the song written about him, when the song was released, and the impact it had on the charts, the performer, and the subject himself. Music buffs will also appreciate information on the performers as well as trivia from recording history. It’s the perfect book for anyone who’s ever wondered, “Who was that song about?”

The Boy in the Song: The True Stories Behind 50 Rock Classics by Michael Heatley and Frank Hopkinson is available at bookstores near you and from Amazon.

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