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

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


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The first overdub was the trademark bass line. Flowers laid a Fender bass on top of the acoustic one, with perfectly matched glissandos on each. Then came Reed's vocals. He stood in front of a U67, and it may have been more like an actor delivering his lines than a singer doing a vocal. With Bowie and Ronson rehearsing during the evenings for a forthcoming live show at the Rainbow Theatre in London, Transformer's session hours were curtailed to the daytime (not exactly Reed's best milieu) and Scott was concentrating on getting the tracks done. He found it best not to intrude into Reed's odd, uncommunicative state of mind and simply let him perform. “It was a strange time,” Scott recalls. “David wasn't around much, he was off with Rono rehearsing for the show, and I had no idea where Lou was. I mean, his body was there, but I'm not sure about the rest of him.” (Two weeks after the project wrapped, Scott was in a Chinese restaurant in SoHo when several RCA Records executives came in with Reed in tow. “He had no idea who I was,” Scott says.) Reed's vocal required a touch of one or the other of the compressors and a little EQ, and little else other than the occasional punch.

Next came the background vocals, the famous “Doo, doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo, doo” performed by Karen Friedman, Dari Lalou and Casey Synge — who had become sought-after backup singers in the London studio scene and would go on to chart singles as Thunder Thighs with titles such as “Central Park Arrest” and “Dracula's Daughter.” “David said we need some girls on this track, and I put in a call to them,” says Scott, who had used them on a previous project. He grouped them around the U67 and “Doo, doo doo” went into the history books quickly.

“Wild Side” also has a string section, the kind of contrast that Bowie thrived on and Ronson was perfect to execute. Transformer has strings on some of its other songs, too, but when the string session came around to this one, for some reason the violas and cellos were nowhere to be found. Thus, there are only violins doubling up on Ronson's simple, single-note lines, forlorn and almost Celtic, the antithesis of lush, into the U67s Scott had set up. It was emblematic of how Bowie and Ronson approached the production of the record: Bowie's visionary conceptions made manifest by Ronson's visceral touch, though there was a more prosaic side to the equation, too. “Lou found it hard to understand Rono's northern English accent and David would have to translate for him,” says Scott.

The last bit of the song is the saxophone solo, performed by Ronnie Ross, which plays the song out to its fade. Scott set up two U67s, one on the bell and the other facing the upper valves of the sax, both less than a foot back. “So much of the sound comes from the upper microphone,” he says. “That's where the breathiness is.”

Scott had developed his own unique method of mixing, born out of a lack of extra hands to make moves in the pre-automation days. He would break the song into sections, mix them individually on the Studer 2-track, splicing the ¼-inch tape sections together as he went from one section to the next. “There wasn't even a second [engineer] with me in the studio,” he recalls. “David was on the Queen Elizabeth sailing to New York. He had to leave early because he refused to fly after a near accident. So I'd break it into short sections and mix them bit by bit.”

The song's mix is hardly radical — the electric and acoustic guitars are split left and right, and the rest of the track seems right down the middle — but the reverb on the background vocals is notable. The women are introduced surrounded by a dense halo of reverb, from which they emerge, the sound morphing into an intimate breath in your ear. “I had to do something — how many times can you hear ‘doo, doo, doo’ without getting bored?” Scott asks. He set the background vocal track echo send pre-fader (it was going to an EMT plate), so as he brought the background vocal track up progressively, the reverb return stayed at the same level. The effect is three-dimensional, adding depth and motion as a counterpoint to Reed's deadpan delivery.

All of Transformer took little more than three weeks to make, start to finish. Scott says that's part of what made it such a good record. “You got to the point quickly recording that way,” he says. The song became the only charting single of Reed's career, making it as high as Number 16 in the winter of 1973. Big things were ahead, however. In 1974, his dynamic Rock 'n' Roll Animal live album (with extended versions of Velvet Underground classics written by Reed such as “Sweet Jane,” “Heroin” and “Rock 'n' Roll”) went Gold and brought in a new generation of fans for the idiosyncratic artist. But it's “Walk on the Wild Side” that has survived the decades and is acknowledged as one of rock's greatest tunes.

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