If New York City had a poet laureate, it would have been Lou Reed. He spent most of his life in the city. Many of his songs, with and without the Velvet Underground, reflect the weirdness and wonder of New York, but also resonated with people from all over the world. Many fine musicians recognized his genius and did own versions of his songs. Here are the 10 best covers of Lou Reed songs.
# 10 – British Humanist Choir: Perfect Day
If you’re going to cover a song, why not give it an entirely new arrangement? This rare song of joy from Lou Reed is given just that with a choir and piano in a performance from 2013. Turns out, Lou Reed sounds just fine when done by a choir. The British Humanist Choir’s arrangement was done by Bernard Hughes. The choir is non-religious, which would have suited Lou Reed just fine, as he was fond of saying that his only god was rock ‘n’ roll. Lou Reed’s original version came out on his David Bowie-produced classic 1972 album Transformer.
# 9 – Suzanne Vega: Walk on the Wild Side
Many Lou Reed songs sound great when sung by a woman. Suzanne Vega (of “Luka” fame) tackled this best known of Lou Reed songs with a mostly faithful cover and a particularly strong piano part. This cover was done in tribute to Lou Reed, a friend of Suzanne Vega’s. During one visit, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson’s dog ate Suzanne Vega’s sunglasses and was none the worse for wear. This cover version can be found on the 2020 live album An Evening of New York Songs and Stories. The original tune can be found on Lou Reed’s 1972 album Transformer.
# 8 – REM: Pale Blue Eyes
Although a Velvet Underground song of their 1969 self-titled album, Lou Reed was the songwriter. It’s about a man in love with a woman he is really annoyed at. Lou Reed often had a dagger up the sleeve of any soft sounding song. According to Wikipedia, “Pale Blue Eyes” has been covered no less than 19 times. One of the most listenable is the country-flavored version done by REM in 1984 as the B-side to their single “So. Central Rain.” It can also be heard on their 1987 album Dead Letter Office and was often performed live.
# 7 – Billy Idol: Heroin
“Heroin” was one of the highlights of the Velvet Underground live shows, where the band would go crazy to simulate the rush of a hit. Lou Reed battled drugs for years, and sometimes said in interviews that he regretted writing, “Heroin.” Billy Idol clearly didn’t regret it and did his own completely revamped version, shortening it, making it danceable and adding a Patti Smith line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” It’s a very daring and drastic cover, although it did not go over well with critics. This cover version can be found on Idol’s 1993 album Cyberpunk.
# 6 – Peter Gabriel: The Power of the Heart
Peter Gabriel reportedly introduced his friend Lou Reed to another friend, Laurie Anderson in 1992. The two fell in love and finally married in 2008. Although not known for tender love songs, Lou Reed was certainly capable of delivering one, like this song he used to propose to Laurie Anderson. Unsurprisingly, this is Laurie Anderson’s favorite Lou Reed song. Peter Gabriel covered this song in part to show a different side of Lou Reed’s songwriting abilities. Peter Gabriel chose to be backed by a full orchestra as opposed to the usual rock arrangement. His studio version appeared on his 2010 covers album Scratch My Back.
# 5 – U2: Satellite of Love
One of those Lou Reed songs beloved by songwriters, U2 just had to do their version during the sessions for their classic album Achtung Baby. This version would appear on the B-side of their hit single, “One” and would be included on Disc 5 of the Super Deluxe edition of their classic album Achtung Baby. Lou Reed himself would join the Edge and Bono via video during their critically acclaimed and commercially successful Zoo TV tour, such as this performance on August 29, 1992 in Houston. This is yet another classic Lou Reed tune from Transformer.
# 4 – Joseph Arthur: Coney Island Baby
Singer, songwriter and painter Joseph Arthur did a moving live performance for radio station KEXP of the title track from Lou Reed’s 1975 album. Lou Reed’s version seemed a little disjointed, but Joseph Arthur’s version smoothed out the hard edges without changing any of the lyrics. A gentle female backing vocal helped, too. “The glory of love” did, somehow, come through. Joseph Arthur, friend and fan of Lou Reed, did an entire tribute album called (what else?) Lou in 2013. Joseph Arthur has stated that “Coney Island Baby” is his favorite Lou Reed song, and it shows, arguably improving on the original.
# 3 – David Bowie: Waiting for the Man
David Bowie was not only a great songwriter, but a hard-core Lou Reed fan. He was partly responsible for bringing the Velvet Underground to the attention of a larger audience in the UK, since he did some songs during the Ziggy Stardust tours. David Bowie would continue to do Lou Reed songs for all of his tours. He even produced Transformer. In 1996, Lou Reed himself joined David Bowie onstage (and struggled a little to keep up) for David Bowie’s 50th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden.
# 2 – Suede and Siouxsie Sioux: Caroline Says, II
On July 12, 1993, Suede’s lead vocalist took a break and his substitute was none other than Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees. They ripped into a powerfully chilling version of Lou Reed’s song of an abused woman. It works particularly well in a woman’s voice, as if Caroline herself is telling her story and telling how cold it is in Alaska. This performance was not part of any album, but was caught on a fan’s video and, years later, placed on YouTube for all to enjoy. The original version of “Caroline Says, II” can be found on Lou Reed’s 1973 album, Berlin.
# 1 – David Bowie: White Light/White Heat
Nobody could do Lou Reed like David Bowie. Even Lou Reed couldn’t do Lou Reed like David Bowie. Bowie had a perfect insight into how to bring the best out in any song he loved, and he loved Lou Reed’s in particular. This song about Lou Reed’s time getting shock therapy as a teenager was a staple of David Bowie’s live shows since the 1970s, is given sinister overtones during David Bowie’s 1996 tour. No one could use a cigarette as a stage prop quite like David Bowie. There’s a killer guitar solo from the ever-reliable Reeves Gabrels. Lou Reed’s original version appeared on the Velvet Underground’s 1968 album White Light/White Heat.
10 Best Covers of Lou Reed Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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