Walk on the wild side: The legacy of Lou Reed for innovators

Individual Creativity

Lou Reed was a formative part of my teenage life and it was a real shock when I heard the news of his death. Reed was an innovator in music throughout his career and I’ve attempted to summarize some of his contributions here, with parallel lessons for innovators in other fields. But first, let’s sample some of the man’s work:

THE VELVET UNDERGROUNDLesson 1 – Keep it Simple

“One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz” – Lou Reed

Perhaps a slight exaggeration – after all, he wrote many songs that had more than three chords! Nevertheless, his point is correct. Too many people produce new things that are complex and then ignored. The skill is in making the complex compellingly simple. This is as true in music as it is in most other walks of life.

One of the best examples of Reed’s use of an ‘ostinato’ is that of the song “Street Hassle” – 12 minutes of a single thematic melody, held together by a gripping theme of life in Brooklyn.

Lesson 2 – Get the right words and words right

Above all, Lou Reed was a great poet. His words are direct and his delivery speaks directly to the person, almost as if he is sitting next to you in a room. It is perhaps this aspect of his writing that has set him apart from others. So many times, the quality of an idea is judged by the way it is expressed and delivered. Lou Reed did not have a great vocal range but he really knew how to convey a message within that range.

Lesson 3 – Be unafraid of the dark

Lou Reed was not afraid to write songs that dealt with difficult themes such as addiction, depression, terminal illness, poverty, politics to name but a few. Some will of course say that music is meant to be bouncy and happy. Lou Reed gave music an ability to deal with subjects well beyond sugary pop, which has had a legacy for more than 40 years in artists such as Suzanne Vega, Morrissey, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and many more.

challenge assumptionsLesson 4 – Challenge everything

Perhaps the most extreme statement from this ‘rock’n’roll animal’ came from his album “Metal Machine Music”, which consists of 64 minutes of unstructured feedback. This record, following on the heels of commercial success, tested his audience’s patience to destruction. On the sleeve notes Reed remarked:

“My day beats your week”

This uncompromising approach to artistry may be hard to copy, but most innovators challenge assumptions and break through boundaries.

Lesson 5 – Influence to innovate

Brian Eno remarked:

“The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

As a true innovator whose music spoke to so many, Reed gave people the creative confidence that they too could start a band and do something different.  As creative confidence is essential to innovation, we can learn from his example to be authentic, challenge assumptions, and come up with innovations that are simple and genuine enough to connect with people and meet a real need.

In terms of Lou’s influence, check out the interview I did with my good friend Richard Strange, founder of The Doctors of Madness, who said of Reed’s influence:

“You changed my life when I was 15. The rest is my history.”

lou-reed-05Lou Reed, 1942 – 2013 R.I.P


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