Guest contributor Henry Scott-Irvine shares his experience working with Lou Reed on the Classic Albums - Lou Reed: Transformer documentary:
In the summer of 2000 Series 3 of the Classic Albums documentary brand cranked into pre-production with a roster of some twelve shows. Four of these would air on ITV during the 2002 FIFA World Cup, including most notably “Transformer.” The TV schedules signaled that if the England game was delayed or moved Classic Albums’ Transformer would feature before or after an important game. With the play-offs split between South Korea and Japan, the “Transformer” transmission had a potentially vast audience during late night soccer primetime. I recall sitting in a room filled with friends at midnight on a Saturday in June 2002 when ten million Brits watched this marvelous ‘making of’ documentary. Oh how Lou must have smiled.
The road to this TV success was not altogether smooth. Lou had a reputation for being notoriously difficult and was rumored to hate both journalists and film makers. This was evidenced by tales of his kicking over cameras during his UK performances in 1973. “So who writes these things about you, if they’re not true?” said an Australian journalist in 1974. “Journalists,” replied Lou dryly. Flying on to New Zealand, Lou found himself amid a televised press conference at the airport. “Why do you write songs about transsexuals? Are you a homosexual or a transsexual?” Lou mumbled, “Sometimes” and shrugged. He curtailed his first Australasian tour by flying straight back out of New Zealand without performing there.
As Classic Albums series 3 Archive Producer, I set about seeing if footage survived from the original studio sessions of December 1972 and from the Transformer world tour of 1973. Nothing transpired from the recording sessions, apart from the original 16 track 2 inch master tapes. However, wonderful hitherto unseen footage of “Walk On The Wild Side” survived from Paris in 1973. Filmed with only one camera from a balcony, Lou was wearing white Japanese Kabuki-style face paint with black eye shadow and a black leather suit. Lou feigned a shuffle-step dance, appearing to be slightly out of it, before stumbling to sit down in order to conclude the song. It sounds potentially disastrous, but it was mesmeric. We had to have it!
The Institute of National Archives, France, quoted an ‘all media non exclusive license deal’ of ‘10,000 Euros per minute’, immediately scuppering our plans. Instead we opted for three ten second bursts of this footage. Belgian and American footage of the 1974 tour only contained below par audio and just one song from Transformer, as a consequence, Lou was informed of this before agreeing to give Classic Albums up to six one minute acoustic solo performances of his choice from the album. These would be performed live and filmed in New York in the early spring of 2001 when director Bob Smeaton flew out with a film crew to undertake the proceedings.
Photographer Mick Rock provided a whole bunch of his magnificent period pictures for an agreed fee, enabling some truly wonderful montage sequences, which brought the ‘making of’ Transformer to life when intercut with Lou and engineer Ken Scott listening to all of the original album parts. It seemed at that particular juncture that the film was on a win-win footing. But on the first day of interview filming in New York, Lou brought along the writer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders for moral support, and suggested that he be included in the film, which he was. There was a tension in the air at this point and Lou was quick to point out that Timothy was “an award winner.” Bob Smeaton quickly responded, “I’ve got two Grammy’s. One for The Beatles Anthology and one for Jimi Hendrix Live At Fillmore East.” This “impressed Lou,” alleged Bob. A further day of interviewing took place as a result of this newly found mutual respect, during which time Lou recalled how people threw their handkerchiefs at The Beatles and their knickers at Tom Jones, “Whereas with me they threw syringes and joints”. This quote made it into the final cut, as did Lou’s concluding phrase, “Bob. It’s been a pure pleasure!”
Additional archive footage from the 1980’s was added to the documentary, and in late May 2001 Lou Reed was sent an ‘approval copy’ to assess. We waited several days without a response. On May 30th 2001 I was alone in the production office at lunchtime when the production company telephone rang. A New York accent asked if this was “The Classic Albums people?” I was convinced that this was my friend John Brett, who can do a mean New York accent. “Is that you John?” I said. “Do I sound like a John?” said the voice at the other end. “This is Lou Reed. To whom do I have the pleasure?” I quickly explained that I was the Archive Producer. When Lou asked about the lack of archive in the rough cut, I explained about the ludicrous costs, and then cheekily recalled how he had often kicked over cameras when crews had filmed him back in 1973. “You’ve got a Noo Yawk attitude, old boy!” he said. I told him I’d never been there. He laughed dryly and quietly said, “Take a compliment, why don’t you?” adding, “D’you like your employers?” “No”, I replied, “Me neither”, he said. “So that makes two of us. See. I told you you’d got a New York attitude.” He laughed huskily and seemed genuinely amused at my insouciance. He told me he would be reporting to the “executives” later that day, “Or perhaps they could do me the courtesy?” he concluded.
The following day at the same time, 1pm sharp, Lou phoned the production offices once again and asked for “Henry.” Luckily I had picked up the phone. We chatted some more and laughed a lot. Lou was a little unhappy that the film crew had under lit his face, making him look like a cross between Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and Vincent Price’s Dr Phibes (my description not his). He was also concerned about the sequence featuring a transvestite putting on makeup. “In the song “Make Up” somebody filmed a rather tepid and plain drag putting on makeup. Why not be the sports that you are and use someone beautiful? After all, the female on the back of Transformer really is a man, or didn’t you guys know? So let’s have a little glamor, eh! Tell that to Bob, old bean.” I wrote everything down and handed the notes to the director. The drag sequence was removed and replaced with a newly shot sequence. More of Lou’s “devastating wit” was included, and Lou’s magnificent craggy face remained as it was. Lou later wrote in to say, “I am impressed by how good and interesting the show is!” The film went on to receive worldwide praise, transmitting globally with DVD availability, too.
Some three years later I was producing the Fremantle documentary Punk Attittude and wanted to use some Lou Reed performances. In this instance I was meant to ask Lou Reed’s manager. But instead I wrote directly to Lou reminding him of the two conversations we had had in May 2001. Expecting no reply, he wrote back with, “Henry. How could I forget you old boy? Consider it done. Send me the license deal and I’ll write ‘Waiver. No fee applicable’.” Some weeks later, true to his word, the agreement was returned as promised. I kept these emails and my notes of the conversations we had had all those years ago tucked away in my DVD of Classic Albums’ Transformer.
I think Lou was really decent. He had a great dead pan sense of humor and he’d shared some of that with one of the production team when he didn’t have to. “How about that?” as he often said, how about that indeed!
The “Perfect Day” sequence from the Classic Albums: Transformer includes an interview with co-producer Mick Ronson which was an outtake from the BBC TV series Dancing In The Streets, a history of Rock Music from 1996. This was the last interview that Mick Ronson ever gave to camera and it was filmed inside the former Hammersmith Odeon, the venue where David Bowie (and Ronno) had done the final Ziggy Stardust performance in 1973. Aware of the fact that it was Ronson’s final interview, and quite clearly touched by the beauty of the raw track separation, Lou was close to tears (this appears at the 43 minute mark of the documentary). Avoiding being mawkish, director Bob Smeaton trimmed that particular moment. But you can still see how affected Lou was. It is a window into the soul of the great man, and the finest sequence in a documentary that deserved to win a Grammy.
Producer/researcher Henry Scott-Irvine is the author of Procol Harum: The Ghosts Of A Whiter Shade of Pale published by Omnibus Press in the UK, America, and Canada.
“Walk On The Wild Side” - Paris, 1973.