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.