4 Songs You Didn’t Know Lou Reed Wrote for Other Artists

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Shortly after graduating from Syracuse University in 1964, and a year before forming The Velvet Underground, a young Lou Reed worked as a songwriter and in-house performer for the low-budget label Pickwick Records in New York City.

“There were four of us locked into a room and they would say, ‘write 10 California songs, 10 Detroit songs,'” remembered Reed of the label, which mostly specialized in sound-alike recordings and bargain-bin reissues.

At Pickwick, Reed even recorded a number of songs for himself, including “The Ostrich,” under the moniker The Primitives. Initially written as a parody of the 1960 Chubby Checker hit “The Twist,” the song would be pivotal in forming The Velvet Underground after a little attention around the song forced Reed, John Cale, drummer Walter DeMaria, and Tony Conrad — who was indirectly responsible for the Velvet Underground band name — to play a few gigs as The Primitives.

After The Primitives’ short-lived run, Reed and Cale went on to form the earliest iteration of The Velvet Underground along with Sterling Morrison and Angus MacLise.

Long after his time writing for the low-budget record co., Reed went on to write a majority of The Velvet Underground’s iconic catalog of music and his own solo material, along with outside projects, including his 2011 collaborative album (Lulu) with Metallica, his many creative unions with wife Laurie Anderson, and other artists before his death in 2013.

Pre-Velvet Underground and years after their demise in ’73, Reed also had a number of songs written for other artists.

Here are four of those songs Reed wrote in the 1960s and ’80s

1. “Why Do You Smile Now?” The All Night Workers (1965)
Written by Lou Reed, John Cale, Terry Philips, Jerry Vance

The first-ever songwriting collaboration between Velvet Underground bandmates Lou Reed and John Cale, the two co-wrote the song “Why Do You Smile Now?” for Cale’s band, The All Night Workers, in the early ’60s. Another Pickwick recording, “Why Do You Smile Now?” gives a first peek into the more hypnotic guitar drones of The Velvet Underground.

You didn’t care when I begged you to stay
why don’t you smile now
You laughed at me and walked away
You laughed at me and walked away

Fancy talk, Cadillac car
but your love didn’t get you far
but your love didn’t get you far

2. “Soul City,” Hi-Lifes (1965)
Written by Lou Reed, Terry Philips, Jerry Vance, Jimmie Sims

Written along with his regular crew of Pickwick songwriters, “Soul City” was a Righteous Brothers-slanted ballad, which was recorded by the group The Hi-Lifes. The song was also released as a single for the 1960s girl group The Foxes in 1965, along with their B-Side “Those Days Are Gone Forever,” which was also penned by Reed’s writing partners Vance, Sims, and Philips.

In 1999, “Soul City” was covered by NYC garage rockers The Fleshtones on the band’s album, Hitsville Revisited, their third release in a trilogy of covers albums.

People uptown
People downtown
Listen close still what I am
Puttin’ down

We’re going where the girls are hip
And the girls are sweet
Everybody’s dancin’ out in the streets
So come on, come on, come on

3. “A World Without Heroes,” KISS (1981)
Written by Lou Reed, Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons and Bob Ezrin

A departure from their harder rocker and directed toward more instrumental pieces, KISS’ ninth album Music from “The Elder” also features three songs co-written by Lou Reed, including “Dark Light,” “Mr. Blackwell” and the slower ballad “A World Without Heroes.” On the more pensive single, Reed contributed the lyric A world without heroes, is like a world without sun.

A world without heroes
Is like a world without sun
You can’t look up to anyone
Without heroes
And a world without heroes
Is like a never-ending race
Is like a time without a place
A pointless thing, devoid of grace

4. “The Calm Before the Storm,” Rubén Blades (1988)
Written by Lou Reed and Rubén Blades

Grammy award-winning Panamanian musician Rubén Blades collaborated with Sting, Elvis Costello, and a number of other artists for his 1988 English-language album, Nothing But the Truth.

Lou Reed also contributed the reflective “The Calm Before the Storm,” noting the power of music in the darkest times of war—While the orchestra plays / They build barricades to help close the doors / While the musician sings / The holocaust rings the cymbals of war. The track was also arranged and mixed by Reed, who plays guitar on the song.

There was a time when ignorance made our innocence strong
There was a time when we all thought we could do no wrong
There was a time, so long ago
But here we are, in the calm before the storm

There was a time when we had an idea whose time hadn’t come
They kept changing its name so we could still pretend
It was not really gone
We heard our screams turn into songs and back into screams again
And here we are again
In the calm before the storm

Also an actor, activist, and politician, Rubén Blades ran for president of Panama in 1994 and was later appointed minister of tourism in the country in 2004. In 2015, Blades’ album, Tangos, won a Grammy award for Best Latin Pop Album. Blades was also a scholar-in-residence at New York University in 2018 and was honored as the Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year in 2021 for his contributions to Latin music and activism.

Photo: Photo: Julian Schnabel / Pitch Perfect PR

Leave a Reply

Fantastic Negrito

Exclusive Premiere: Fantastic Negrito Shares Single, “Highest Bidder”(Reimagined Acoustic Version) Along with New Music Video

American Songwriter Readers Vote Greatest Female Songwriters of All Time