Classic Tracks: Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side"

Dec 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Dan Daley


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If all Lou Reed's groundbreaking single “Walk on the Wild Side” had ever done was put oral sex explicitly onto the radio and into the pop-culture lexicon, that would have been enough. But the track, from the 1972 Transformer LP, was seditious in a number of other ways. It was a portal into the mysterious pharmaceutically powered and androgynous scene that swirled around Andy Warhol and the New York art world, featuring references to drag queens Holly Woodlawn (“Holly came from Miami F L A…Shaved her leg, then he was a she”) and Candy Darling (the aforementioned fellatial reference), as well as Jack Kerouac-by-way-of-William Burroughs hustlers like Joe Dallesandro (“Little Joe never once gave it away/Everybody had to pay and pay”). But it wasn't just proto-snarky cultural references that made “Wild Side” so archly fun. Bassist Herbie Flowers' haunting bass line, which is spread between an acoustic double bass and a Fender electric bass, is instantly recognizable and has been sampled hundreds of genre-crossing times; and the nonsense refrain of “Doo, doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo doo,” sung by “the colored girls” — actually three white English girls collectively and professionally known as Thunder Thighs — is the slouching Greek chorus of rock 'n' roll.

Engineer Ken Scott — who cut his teeth on Beatles recordings at Abbey Road in the 1960s and would go on to engineer and produce records for Jeff Beck, Elton John and Duran Duran — had already finished The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars with David Bowie, who would produce this record for Reed. Scott was an adventurous but well-grounded record maker who meshed well with the innovative but calculating Bowie, an anchor of practicality as glam-rock moved from its salad days into its own business sector clad in $1,000 snakeskin boots and make-up. Scott was comfortable at Trident Studios, in London's SoHo district, in a five-story former printing factory. The single main studio reminded him of Abbey Road's Studio Two — The Beatles' room — with its control room looking down on the studio from a floor above. Trident's founders, brothers Norman and Barry Sheffield, were yet to develop the Trident brand into one of the classic marquees of the console business with the sublime A-Range and the workhorse Series 80. Scott says it was likely a 20-input/16-output Sound Techniques console in the control room in 1972 for Transformer, sideloaded into the room and underneath a pair of large Tannoy speakers in Lockwood Audio cabinets. There were two each Universal Audio LA-2As and UREI 1176 compressors in the rack next to the console. An EMT plate was the sole reverb.

The recording studio was sizable enough to hold a 45-piece orchestra, with a drum booth recessed into a cubby underneath the control room. “Wild Side” was one of 11 songs on Reed's Transformer album, and Scott approached the recording of it like any other project. “I make it a point to never listen to the lyrics, so I wasn't shocked by anything,” he says. “I was listening to the melodies and the sound. I mean, we were doing this right in between Ziggy and Aladdin Sane, so Lou didn't seem that out-there by comparison.”

On the drum kit, played on this track by Ritchie Dharma, Scott placed an AKG D-12 dynamic on the kick; a Sony C-38 on the snare, angled in at about 45 degrees; and either a Beyer M160 or an STC 4038 overhead. Scott says that by this time, he had started recording drums in stereo, and on this song likely put the kick on its own track and mixed the snare and overhead microphones in stereo to the 3M 16-track deck running at 15 ips with Dolby NR. (Trident was the first UK studio to use Dolby.)

Herbie Flowers was playing a stand-up double bass in the room, on which Scott likely experimented with a Neumann KM 56 wrapped in sponge material and stuffed into the bridge, a technique he had used successfully recording Stanley Clarke. An acoustic guitar, played by the late Mick Ronson, Bowie's collaborator and co-producer on Transformer, was recorded with two AKG C-12As. The microphones were placed at an angle of 45 degrees down from the front of the instrument and facing 45 degrees to its rear. A second mellow-sounding electric guitar is also on the track, with a U67 on the amplifier.

As regular readers of “Classic Tracks” are aware, basic tracks in the early multitrack era were not drawn-out affairs, and “Wild Side” was no exception; Scott figures the band nailed it within three or four passes. But a lot went on during the run-up — the band learned the song and rehearsed it, and Scott tweaked the sounds, though neither party was restricted to one side of the glass or the other. Initially, Dharma started running the song down with drumsticks. “I heard it and it sounded like he was playing a march, so I ran down and suggested he try it with a pair of brushes,” Scott recalls.

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