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Listening Report: Lou Reed’s 1971 RCA Demos

Mark Smotroff likes hearing the gritty sounds of Lou’s early New York unplugged…

One of the most fascinating and enlightening releases on Record Store Day last month was an archival collection of first demos by legendary and influential composer, performer and all around cultural icon, Lou Reed. Featuring high quality acoustic guitar-and-vocal recordings made at the beginning of his solo career after he left The Velvet underground, these tapes offer remarkable insight into what I would like to think of as the “real” Lou Reed…

“I do Lou Reed better than anybody…”

             (Lou Reed, Take No Prisoners, 1978) 

Here Lou puts his early cards on the table and unexpectedly reveals his essence as an artist… free of Andy Warhol… free of the cult-hero legacy surrounding The Velvets (well, he’d never be quite “free” of that)… pre-Bowie, pre-Rock & Roll Animal…  pre-everything really.  This is about as stripped back and pure Lou Reed as we might ever get to experience…

It is refreshing to hear Lou singing in an impassioned coffeehouse manner before he applied his somewhat affected downtown New York street artist flavor to the songs. It is an attitude, really, which sometimes makes his music impenetrable for those who aren’t quite tuned in to the vibe. I mean this in the best possible way but listening to I’m So Free: The 1971 RCA Demos is almost like if someone like Jackson Browne or Harry Chapin was playing them at an Open Mic night, not the amphetamine phantom of the opera Rock & Roll Animal Lou Reed. 

Sounding at times like a clearer throated Bob Dylan (especially on the verses to “Lisa Says”) it is often stunning to hear Lou run through so many of his classic songs — many of which ended up on his under-rated first solo album — played simply, on solo acoustic guitar.  I’m So Free: The 1971 RCA Demos underscores just how strong his tunes were right out of the gate, even in that raw form. 

The album opens with one of Lou’s greatest compositions, “Perfect Day,” presented here in about as idyllic form as it gets. The song is fully formed and had it been issued like this first time out I suspect it would have resonated with the public, albeit in a different way than it did on Transformer. Other songs from that album show up here in early demo form including “I’m So Free” and “New York Conversation.”

The version of “Berlin” here on I’m So Free: The 1971 RCA Demos underscores the song’s underlying beautiful pop structure here. “Kill Your Sons” in its original incarnation as an unplugged anti-war protest folk song is a bit of a jaw dropper, especially given how Lou recast the tune (on 1974’s Sally Can’t Dance) into another dark and ultimately more personal corner… 

This album includes perhaps my favorite version of “I’m Sticking With You,” a sweet-hearted novelty which was originally tracked by The Velvet Underground (with Moe Tucker singing the lead). Other songs the Velvets tried which ended up on Lou’s first solo album — and demo’d here — include “Ride Into The Sun” and “Ocean.”

Sonics wise, Lou Reed’s I’m So Free: The 1971 RCA Demos sounds great all things considered. These are demos but they were recorded to analog tape in RCA’s studios so the fidelity is excellent. They are simple and un-produced recordings, but that is central to their charm.

The pressing quality on I’m So Free: The 1971 RCA Demos is great as well, manufactured on standard weight black vinyl that is quiet and well centered. Kudos to whomever drove the design aesthetics here as this album feels like a 1971 release right down to the period-accurate bright orange RCA Records labels. 

This all new material (save for one track which appeared on as a bonus track on an earlier edition of Transformer) is very much a time machine to another time and place.

I’m So Free: The 1971 RCA Demos is essential listening for the Lou Reed fan. Highly recommended.

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