Lou Reed Turns Rock Critic, Sizing Up Everyone from the “Amazingly Talented” Beatles to the “Two Bit, Pretentious” Frank Zappa

A signal characteristic of powerful criticism is that it keeps people talking years after the death of the critic himself. Think, for example, of Lester Bangs, who despite having been gone for nearly 40 years left behind judgments that still resonate through the halls of rock and roll. The vitality of his work wasn’t hurt by a tendency to get unusually close to some of his subjects, especially Lou Reed. “The things he wrote and sang and played in the Velvet Underground were for me part of the beginning of a real revolution in the whole scheme between men and women, men and men, women and women, humans and humans,” Bangs wrote in 1980.

Five years earlier, Bangs had called Reed “a completely depraved pervert and pathetic death dwarf,” as well as “a liar, a wasted talent, an artist continually in flux, and a huckster selling pounds of his own flesh. A panderer living off the dumbbell nihilism of a seventies generation that doesn’t have the energy to commit suicide.”

All this he meant, of course, in praise. Reed, for his part, displayed such elaborate disdain for Bangs that it could only have been motivated by respect. “What other rock artist would put up with an interview by the author of this article,” Bangs rhetorically asked, “read the resultant vicious vitriol-spew with approval, and then invite me back for a second round because of course he’s such a masochist he loved the hatchet in his back?”

A magazine page now circulating on Twitter collects Reed’s own opinions on a variety of other rock acts and countercultural figures of the 1960s and 70s. The Beatles, who’d just broken up? “The most incredible songwriters ever” (though Reed’s judgment of the Fab Four would change with time). The Rolling Stones? “If I had to pick my top ten, they’ve got at least five songs.” Creedence Clearwater Revival? “I like them a lot.” David Bowie? “The kid’s got everything… everything.” Fellow Velvets Doug Yule (“so cute”), Nico (“the kind of person that you meet, and you’re not quite the same afterwards”), and John Cale (“the next Beethoven or something”) get compliments; as for Andy Warhol, out of whose “factory” the band emerged, “I really love him.” (“Lou learned a lot from Andy,” wrote Bangs, “mainly about becoming a successful public personality by selling your own private quirks to an audience greedy for more and more geeks.”)

But as a connoisseur of the hatchet, Reed also plants a few himself. Of “California bands” like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, he said “they can’t play and they certainly can’t write.” Nor, evidently, could the Who’s Pete Townshend: “as a lyricist he’s so profoundly untalented and, you know, philosophically boring to say the least.” Reed does “get off” on the Kinks, “then I just get bored after a while.” Alice Cooper represents “the worst, most disgusting aspect of rock music”; Roxy Music “don’t know what they’re talking about.” Frank Zappa is “the single most untalented person I’ve heard in my life. He’s two-bit, pretentious, academic, and he can’t play his way out of anything.” Yet at Zappa’s posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, the laudatory speech was delivered by none other than… Lou Reed. In rock, as in the other arts, resentment can become the seed of admiration.

Related Content:

Lou Reed Creates a List of the 10 Best Records of All Time

An Animated Lou Reed Explains The Velvet Underground’s Artistic Goals, and Why The Beatles Were “Garbage”

Hear Ornette Coleman Collaborate with Lou Reed, Which Lou Called “One of My Greatest Moments”

The Outsiders: Lou Reed, Hunter S. Thompson, and Frank Zappa Reveal Themselves in Captivatingly Animated Interviews

Lou Reed Curates an Eclectic Playlist of His Favorite Songs During His Final Days: Stream 27 Tracks Lou Was Listening To

Ingmar Bergman Evaluates His Fellow Filmmakers — The “Affected” Godard, “Infantile” Hitchcock & Sublime Tarkovsky

Andy Warhol Hosts Frank Zappa on His Cable TV Show, and Later Recalls, “I Hated Him More Than Ever” After the Show

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Comments (9)
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  • Michael McBrearty says:

    In 1960s 1970s New York there was the Dylan gang and the Warhol gang. Lou Reed was part of Andy’s gang.

  • Brearty McMichael says:

    Why couldn’t they just get together and be one big, happy Dylhol gang?

  • PW says:

    So, if you knew Lou personally you were an inspired genius. If you didn’t, you were a talentless charlatan — except CCR who, for the record, were also a “California band,” I love the Velvet Underground and some of Lou’s solo work, but in interviews he was so far up his own arse it’s embarrassing.

  • Nigel Trevena says:

    I compiled this material and published it in the first book(let) on Lou and the VU, 1973. The quotes are all serious – they have been dismissed elsewhere as tongue in cheek – and cut from various U.K. and U.S. music papers. Lou was just breaking as an artist with ‘Wild Side, after years of being ignored while producing work of sheer genius in the VU, and was getting his own back.

  • Michael says:

    Frank Zappa competed with the velvet underground for a signing on a record label and even after giving the speech for his rock and roll hall of fame induction he still chooses to be a petulant child. I love the velvet underground and also some of lou solo stuff, but his head is so far up his own ass here it’s embarrassing.

  • Gregg says:

    Warhol was not an artist, but a persona. Lou Reed was not much better. His criticisms lack insight.

  • Nick Sodano says:

    I could never find my way into his music – just like jazz, it’s cool reputation just left me unmoved. Now I don’t like his opinions much either.

  • Dental Floss Tycoon says:

    WTH Lou Reed… Did you have a f*ing stroke?!?

    The two bit, pretentious – Frank Zappa. Nah, FZ and the team are legendary. This guy needs an Ensure and a nap.

  • FZ says:

    Lou’s been physically dead for a decade already…what’s the point of pulling out his inane quotes?

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