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Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the BBC was a notoriously squeamish organisation, often banning records because of their “offensive” content. In 1972, for instance, Paul McCartney’s “Hi, Hi, Hi” was removed from playlists because of its references to sex and drugs. In the same year, however, something much stronger slipped past the BBC’s censors: Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”. Despite references to male prostitution, transvestism, oral sex and drugs, the song was not blacklisted. These were innocent times, and perhaps the BBC’s commissariat simply didn’t understand what Reed was referring to when he sang (albeit in a mumbly delivery) about “giving head” (though the line was cut for the US release).
The song was a worldwide hit (helped by the fact that “Perfect Day” was on the B-side) and the subsequent album Transformer transformed Reed’s profile, leading to a resurgence of interest in his old band the Velvet Underground, and in their patron Andy Warhol and his Factory. “Walk on the Wild Side” is Reed’s memoir of his years at the Factory, with its cast of characters from Warhol’s “superstars” who appeared in his films Trash (1970), Flesh (1968) and Heat (1972). “Candy”, for instance, was transgender actress Candy Darling, who had made an earlier appearance in Reed’s Velvet Underground song “Candy Says” (“Candy says . . . I’ve come to hate my body”). “Little Joe” was Joe Dallesandro, the athletic, oft-naked star of Warhol’s Flesh. The “Sugar Plum Fairy” was an amalgamation of characters who were essentially drug delivery men.
Before Transfomer, Reed had been at a low ebb. He had left the Velvet Underground in 1970 and released a solo album (featuring Rick Wakeman on keyboards) which sold poorly. Meanwhile in 1972, David Bowie’s career was taking off and everything he touched seemed to turn to platinum. Bowie had long been an admirer of the Velvet Underground — he played their song “White Light/White Heat” in his shows, and had referenced them on the sleeve notes to his Hunky Dory album. Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson were hired to produce Reed’s Transformer at Trident Studios in London.
The session for “Walk on the Wild Side” began at 10am on a Monday, and among the musicians was veteran session bassist Herbie Flowers (also, incidentally, the co-writer of Clive Dunn’s 1970 novelty hit “Grandad”). Flowers came from a jazz background and was accustomed to improvising; he came up with the unforgettable bassline on his double bass, then overdubbed it on his Fender fretless electric 10 notes higher to achieve the sweet, slinky sound, accentuated by the way the two basslines move in opposite directions. The session fee was £12 but Flowers got £17 because of the overdub. It took about 20 minutes.
These days no musician would talk about “coloured girls” (“And the coloured girls go . . . ”) but in 1972 this was acceptable parlance. Curiously, however, the three singers who provided the backing vocals were three white English women who went under the name of the Thunderthighs; the following year they sang “Sha-na-na-na-push-push” on Mott the Hoople’s hit, “Roll Away the Stone”.
“Walk on the Wild Side” has been covered or sampled by a handful of artists. In 2012 the British-Canadian collective the Flowers of Hell released an atmospheric version which, intriguingly, featured Reed’s earlier — and less lubricious — lyrics from a demo recording. In 2014 the funk-metal-rap band Tackhead recorded a muscular rendition. Most famously, it was sampled in 1991 by A Tribe Called Quest; their track “Can I Kick It?” casts the bassline in a deliciously slinky groove over which they deliver a rap that, with lines such as “Come and spread your arms if you really need a hug”, can, in rap terms, be best described as a Walk on the Mild Side.
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