This song is about cross-dressers who come to New York City and become prostitutes. "Take a walk on the wild side" is what they say to potential customers. Each verse introduces a new character. There is Holly, Candy, Little Joe, Sugar Plum Fairy, and Jackie. The characters are all cronies of the infamous Andy Warhol Factory, as was Lou.
Reed had an empathy for these characters that comes through in the song, as he struggled with his sexuality for most of his life. His parents even tried to "cure" his homosexuality when he was young.
"Little Joe" refers to Joe Dallesandero, who was also one of Andy's kids in the factory. He was in several films by Warhol. Sugar Plum Fairy is the nickname of actor Joe Campbell.
"Holly," "Candy," and "Jackie" are based on Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, and Jackie Curtis. They are all real drag queens who appeared in Warhol's 1972 movie Women In Revolt. Woodlawn also appeared in Warhol's 1970 movie Trash, and Curtis was in Warhol's 1968 movie Flesh.
Said Reed: "I always thought it would be kind of fun to introduce people to characters they maybe hadn't met before, or hadn't wanted to meet."
In an interview with The Guardian published December 13, 2008, Holly Woodlawn said: "My father got a job at a hotel, so we moved from New York to Miami Beach. I was going to school, getting stones thrown at me and being beaten up by homophobic rednecks. I felt I deserved better, and I hated football and baseball. So, aged 15, I decided to get the hell out of there and ran away from home. I had $27, so hitchhiked across the USA. I did pluck my eyebrows in Georgia. It hurt! My friend Georgette was plucking them and I was screaming, but all of a sudden I had these gorgeous eyebrows and she put mascara on my eyes. We ran into some marines in Lafayette in South Carolina. They tried to attack me. I was 15 and not used to this stuff. I was sitting in a car with this marine, terrified that he was going to rape me and kill me. I said, 'I've never done this before.' He said, 'You don't wanna have sex with me?' I said it wasn't that I didn't find him attractive, I just didn't want to do it. But he was wonderful. He protected me. While Georgette was in a motel screaming and yelling with 18 marines but having a good time, he said, 'When you're with me, nothing will happen to you.' And they drove us all the way to New Jersey.
In New York I was living on the street. Then I met Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling, and they'd watch Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo movies at 1am. There was this club called Max's Kansas City. Jackie and Candy had just done this movie called Flesh, and they said, 'You have to meet Andy [Warhol]. He's gonna make you a superstar.'
I didn't want to be a superstar. My wig looked like yak hair. One day Jackie put on a show and I was in the chorus. I saw this bag of glitter and a jar of Vaseline, and smeared myself with it and got this boyfriend to throw the glitter on me. [Director] Paul Morrissey said, 'I don't know who she is but she's a star.' Next thing Paul's calling me up to star in a movie called Trash, and the rest is history.
One day a friend called me and said, 'Turn on the radio!' They were playing 'Walk On The Wild Side.' The funny thing is that, while I knew the Velvet Underground's music, I'd never met Lou Reed. I called him up and said, 'How do you know this stuff about me?' He said, 'Holly, you have the biggest mouth in town.' We met and we've been friends ever since."
In a 1972 interview with Disc and Music Echo, Reed described this as an "outright gay song," saying it was "from me to them, but they're carefully worded so the straights can miss out on the implications and enjoy them without being offended. I suppose though the album is going to offend some people."
This was not banned by the notoriously conservative BBC or by many US radio stations because censors did not understand phrases like "giving head." Depending on the regional US market, the song was, however, edited for what we now call political correctness. Reed leads into the female vocalists' "Doo, doo-doo" hook with the words, "And the colored girls say," but some stations played a version that replaced the phrase with, "And the girls all say."
Reed recorded this two years after leaving The Velvet Underground, a band that was very influential, but not commercially successful. Transformer was Reed's second solo album. His first album flopped, and for a while it looked like his music career was over.
David Bowie and Mick Ronson produced this track. They were big fans of Reed.
The sax solo at the end was played by Ronnie Ross, a Jazz musician who lived near Bowie in England. When Bowie was 12 years old, he wanted to learn the saxophone and begged Ross to give him lessons, which he eventually did. When they needed a sax player for this, Bowie made sure Ross was booked for the session, but didn't tell him he'd be there. Ross nailed the solo in one take and Bowie showed up to surprise his old friend.
The album version of this song runs 4:12. The single, which reached its US peak position of #16 on April 28, 1973, was edited down to 3:37 for radio play.
This came out at a time when audiences were intrigued by cross-dressing and homosexuality in music. "Glam Rock," where the performers wore feminine clothes, was big, and artists like David Bowie and Elton John were attracting fans both gay and straight.
This was a rare venture to the pop charts for Reed, who was not known for hit singles. This song provided his biggest hit, and it was his only Top 40 in the US.
The famous bass line was played by a session musician named Herbie Flowers. He was paid 17 Pounds for his work. Flowers was modest about his contribution to this and other songs. He once told Mojo writer Phil Sutcliffe about his role as a session musician, "You do the job and get your arse away. You take a £12 fee, you can't play a load of bol--cks. Wouldn't it be awful if someone came up to me on the street and congratulated me for Transformer."
Three songs on Transformer
were commissioned by Andy Warhol for a Broadway musical he was planning based on Nelson Algren's novel A Walk On The Wild Side
. The show was never materialized, but Reed kept the title and applied it to characters he knew from Andy Warhol's Factory to create this song. .
The female vocalists singing backup on this track were Karen Friedman, Dari Lalou and Casey Synge. In 1974, they recorded as "Thunderthighs" and had a UK hit with "Central Park Arrest
Rap and Hip-Hop artists frequently sample this track. The most famous appropriation is by A Tribe Called Quest on their 1990 song "Can I Kick It?
Marky Mark's second single, after "Good Vibrations
," was a remake of this called "Wildside." He is now known as Mark Wahlberg and famous for movies like Boogie Nights
and Rock Star
At Live Aid in 1985 at Wembley Stadium, while U2 was playing their song "Bad
," Bono improvised 2 Rolling Stones' songs and then this song into the end, changing the lyrics of "Walk On The Wild Side" to: "Holly came from Miami F.L.A., hitchhiked all the way across the USA, she could feel the satellite coming down, pretty soon she was in London town... Wembley Stadium, and all the people went, Doo-Doo-Doo-Doo-Doo." He then had the audience sing this line while he walked offstage and the band finished playing.
Reed's musical influence extends to Third Eye Blind: they got the idea for the doot doot doot hook on their hit "Semi-Charmed Life
" from this song.