Lou Reed’s ‘Sally Can’t Dance’ revisited

Sally Can’t Dance remains a hidden gem – you can feel the venom leap from the record.

“I slept through Sally Can’t Dance. I did the vocals in one take, in twenty minutes, and then it was goodbye. They’d make a suggestion and I’d say, ‘Oh, all right.’ I just can’t write songs you can dance to. I sound terrible, but I was singing about the worst shit in the world.”

Ever the contrarian, Lou Reed treated his 1974 album Sally Can’t Dance – his biggest commercial success – with utter disdain.

His reputation as a control freak preceding him, Reed took a surprisingly passive role in the creation of Sally Can’t Dance. According to producer Steve Katz, Lou spent the majority of his time in the studio in the bathroom, injecting methedrone: “As an artist, Lou was not totally there. He had to be propped up like a baby with things done for him and around him.”

Even having peaked at #10 on the Billboard album chart in October 1974 and enjoying a fourteen-week stay in the top 100, Reed took umbrage with the recording, production and overall flavour of the album.

“I slept through Sally Can’t Dance. I did the vocals in one take, in twenty minutes, and then it was goodbye. They’d make a suggestion and I’d say, ‘Oh, all right.’ I just can’t write songs you can dance to. I sound terrible, but I was singing about the worst shit in the world.”

Its success only served to embitter him further to the industry, his audience and pretty much every other facet of existence.

“I hate that album. Sally Can’t Dance is tedious. Could you imagine putting out Sally Can’t Dance with your name on it? Dyeing my hair and all that shit? That’s what they wanted, that’s what they got. Sally Can’t Dance went into the top ten without a single, and I said, ‘Ah, what a piece of shit.’”

With a veritable bevy of session musicians on hand – including former Velvets bassist Doug Yule, Alice Cooper sidemen Dick Wagner and Richard Hunter, and members of Average White Band – and Steve Katz doing most of the work at the mixing desk, Reed felt the record’s success was more of an insult from his audience than the vindication he had been seeking all the while.

“This is fantastic – the worse I am, the more it sells,” he said, through gritted teeth. “If I wasn’t on the record at all next time around, it would probably go to number one…”

Despite Reed’s misgivings and par-for-the-course cynicism, Sally Can’t Dance remains a hidden gem largely forgotten when others wax lyrical over the more worthy aspects of his career and legacy. It is at once playful, tragic, boisterous, depressive and a snide, savage “fuck you” to all and sundry.

Evidence of these wild mood swings and modes of expression are plastered across the entirety of the album’s eight tracks. Reed’s savage opinions and caustic words are woven between music that benefited from the phalanx of hired guns littered throughout.

So who or what was on Reed’s radar this time? Well, where to begin…

Sick to the back teeth of sycophants – at least in public – and those set on copying him to the point of rendering him useless and unoriginal, Reed used N.Y. Stars to throw a load of flak back in their faces. It was with typical self-effacing style that he confronted his ethereal enemies – “fourth rate imit-at-ors” in his own impeccably enunciated words – chiding “the faggot mimic machine” that “never had ideas”; his sweeping statement of a city Reed felt forever attracted to and repulsed by. By the mid ‘70s he saw it as a battleground of identical, flavourless out-of-tunesmiths. “It’s really getting too crowded here” he deadpans toward the end of the song.

Sarcasm was always one of Reed’s strong points, and here we find one of his most underrated examples. “They say I’m so empty. No surface, no depth. Oh please, can’t I be you? Your personality’s so great”. You can feel the venom leap from the record.

It was venom that was also dispensed in large amounts toward his parents in the raging, proto-heavy metal death waltz that was Kill Your Sons. A matter of public knowledge for some time, Reed was sent to a psychiatric hospital aged 15 and subjected to brutal and barbaric electro-shock treatment in an attempt to ‘cure’ his homosexual tendencies. The effect on Reed’s life, work and outlook was – unsurprisingly – pivotal, and his howl of anguish in Kill Your Sons is palpable.

“But every time you tried to read a book you couldn’t get to page 17, ‘cause you forgot where you were so you couldn’t even read” he mutters over bare, thudding bass and the constant crash-bang of cymbals. Inadvertently or otherwise, the music replicates the crash, bang, white light and white heat that electro-shock therapy brings to your brain.

He was quoted on the subject of the therapy in Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (1996):

“They put the thing down your throat so you don’t swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. That’s what was recommended in Rockland State Hospital to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. You can’t read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again.”

But Sally Can’t Dance isn’t simply about pain and disgust, and at times we find the erstwhile Velvet Underground founder in playful and introspective form.

The country-fried, honky tonk jangle of Animal Language is one of the record’s most memorable moments. Replete with Reed loudly “woof woof” and “meow”-ing at the beginning – one can only wonder how much it made him shrivel up inside – it tells the odd tale of a cat and a dog who meet devilish fates. The dog has a gun shoved in its mouth, while the cat dies of a blood clot. Later, seemingly resurrected, they tie themselves together back to back with a board between them and shoot up the bodily fluids of an unnamed “sweaty dude”. What could it all mean?

“Animal Language isn’t obvious. Who do you think the animals are? You think it’s a cat and a dog? Who’s the dog, who’s the cat, who are the animals that are so fucked up they gotta shoot up somebody’s sweat to get off?”

There are no such questions for Baby Face, arguably the album’s highlight. The slow, centred, hazy music brings such clarity of image it’s hard to ignore. In Baby Face you can see, feel, hear, even smell the languid streets of a New York City night.

Detailing the end of a relationship – friendship, sexual and everything in between – Reed’s projection of sadness, desperation and simple exhaustion is laid out for all to see.

“You don’t have the looks, you’re not the person you used to be, and there are people on the street that would go for me” he whispers, before later adding another layer of threat: “Now you’re making a mistake and someone else will take your place”.

The final kiss off is a subtle danger, like a snake eyeing its rodent pray; poised, silent, efficient. “Lately it’s been getting so hard, the way you talk, the way you walk…and I’m not sure exactly what it’s all about”.

And so it isn’t difficult to gauge how important Sally Can’t Dance is to Lou Reed’s oeuvre. It’s all too easy – particularly for the casual and/or unknowledgeable listener – to go for the easy marks; Perfect Day, Satellite Of Love and the like. But that’s par for the course for any artist. Shut up and play the hits.

“I ducked behind the image for so long that after a while there was a real danger of it becoming a parody thing, where even if I was trying to be serious you didn’t know whether to take it seriously or not. There’d been so much posturing that there was a real confusion between that life and real life. I was doing a tightrope act that was pretty scary, no matter where you were viewing it.”

Reed’s passing nearly four years ago brought back into focus an artist with a depth unmatched now or then by his few contemporaries and many imitators. For an album regarded with disdain by its creator, Sally Can’t Dance is one hell of a floor filler.

❉ To find out what Lou Reed got up to next, why not revisit Noise alloys: The gory story of Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’  by James Gent. 

❉ ‘Sally Can’t Dance’ was originally released by RCA Victor in August 1974 (US: CPL1-0611/UK: APL1-0611). It was first released on CD by RCA in 1983 (ND90308), before being reissued on CD as a digital remaster with two bonus tracks by BMG in 2001 (RCA 07863 69383 2) and then in a new remaster supervised by Lou Reed as part of The RCA & Arista Album Collection on 7 October 2016 by Sony Music.

❉  Recommended reading: ‘Lou Reed: Between The Lines’ by Mike Wrenn (Omnibus Books, 1993), ‘Waiting for the Man: A Biography and Critical Study of Lou Reed‘ by Jeremy Reed (Picador, 1994), ‘Lou Reed: The Biography’ by Victor Bockris (Hutchinson, London, 1995), ‘Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk’ by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain (Abacus Books, 1997), ‘Lou Reed: The Life’ by Mick Wall (Orion Books, 2013).

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