Editor’s note: Rock ‘n’ Roll Editor, Peter Cook, files an insightful and personal report on Lou Reed and his legacy for innovators. We’ve included a brief intro to Peter’s tribute to Lou Reed, musician and innovator (courtesy Wikipedia).
Lewis Allan “Lou” Reed (March 2, 1942 – October 27, 2013) was an American musician, singer and songwriter. After serving as guitarist, vocalist, and principal songwriter of the Velvet Underground, his solo career spanned several decades. The Velvet Underground were a commercial failure in the late 1960s, but the group has gained a considerable cult following in the years since its demise and has gone on to become one of the most widely cited and influential bands of the era– hence Brian Eno’s famous quote that while the Velvet Underground’s debut album only sold 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
After his departure from the group, Reed began a solo career in 1972. He had a hit the following year with “Walk on the Wild Side”, but subsequently lacked the mainstream commercial success its chart status seemed to indicate. Reed was known for his distinctive deadpan voice, poetic lyrics and for pioneering and coining the term ostrich guitar tuning.
Lou Reed was a formative part of my teenage life and it was a real shock when I heard the news of his death. Reed was an innovator in music throughout his career and I’ve attempted to summarise some of his contributions here, with parallel lessons for innovators in other fields. But first, let’s sample some of the man’s work:
Lesson 1 – Keep it Simple
“One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz” – Lou Reed
Perhaps a slight exaggeration Mr Reed – after all, he wrote many songs that had more than three chords! Nevertheless, his point is correct. Too many people produce new things that are complex and then ignored. The skill is in making the complex compellingly simple. This is as true in music as it is in most other walks of life.
One of the best examples of Reed’s use of an ‘ostinato’ is that of the song “Street Hassle” – 12 minutes of a single thematic melody, held together by a gripping theme of life in Brooklyn.
Lesson 2 – Get the right words and words right
Above all, Lou Reed was a great poet. His words are direct and his delivery speaks directly to the person, almost as if he is sitting next to you in a room. It is perhaps this aspect of his writing that has set him apart from others. So many times, the quality of an idea is judged by the way it is expressed and delivered. Lou Reed did not have a great vocal range but he really knew how to convey a message within that range.
Lesson 3 – Be unafraid of the dark
Lou Reed was not afraid to write songs that dealt with difficult themes such as addiction, depression, terminal illness, poverty, politics to name but a few. Some will of course say that music is meant to be bouncy and happy. Lou Reed gave music an ability to deal with subjects well beyond sugary pop, which has had a legacy for more than 40 years in artists such as Suzanne Vega, Morrissey, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and many more.
Lesson 4 – Challenge everything
Perhaps the most extreme statement from this ‘rock’n’roll animal’ came from his album “Metal Machine Music”, which consists of 64 minutes of unstructured feedback. This record, following on the heels of commercial success, tested his audience’s patience to destruction. On the sleeve notes Reed remarked:
“My week beats your year”
This uncompromising approach to artistry may be hard to copy, but most innovators break through boundaries.
Lesson 5 – Influence to innovate
Brian Eno remarked:
“The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
Here’s a performance of Reed’s song “Pale Blue Eyes” by my good friend Richard Strange, founder of The Doctors of Madness, who spoke of Reed’s influence:
“You changed my life when I was 15. The rest is my history.”
Lou Reed, 1942 – 2013 R.I.P
image credit: spin.com
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Peter Cook is a business academic, author, consultant and musician. He leads Human Dynamics and The Academy of Rock, and provides Keynote speaking, Organisational Development and Business Coaching. You can follow him on twitter @Academyofrock. Peter is Rock ‘n’ Roll Innovation Editor at Innovation Excellence.