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. With this song, Reed presented a completely different view of gender roles in rock
"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.
Jamie - New Orleans, LA; Laura - New York, NY
"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. Both were big Lou Reed fans and part of the vibrant and transgressive artistic scene in London that included photographer Mick Rock, who shot the Transformer
album cover. Rock took the photo at one of Reed's shows at Kings Cross Cinema in London, which was transformed into a concert venue on Friday and Saturday nights. "I remember David and I going backstage just to see him before he went on," Rock told Songfacts
. "He was sitting in a corner like a bat – very quiet. He mumbled something at us, and David did a bit of his charm thing, and then he went on."
The sax solo at the end was played by Ronnie Ross, a jazz musician who lived near Bowie in England. When David 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.
In 1985, Reed appeared in a Honda scooter commercial
that used this song. At the end of the ad, Reed takes off his sunglasses and says, "Hey, don't settle for walking."
It seemed strange that someone with such artistic integrity
would debase himself in a commercial, but Reed was very good at separating commerce from art, and he expected his fans to know the difference.
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 chart for Reed, who was not known for hit singles. Thanks to the "doo dodoo" hook, it's his most accessible song, but it's not out of character in terms of subject matter, with Reed once again venturing into the dark corners of city life. His next single, "Satellite Of Love
," was also from the Transformer
album and charted at #119. His next album, Berlin
, is a chilling concept piece about a drug-addled couple whose children are taken from them because they are unfit parents. It horrified many critics and listeners, but was one of Reed's proudest achievements. Reed only troubled the pop chart once more, when "Sally Can't Dance" went to #103 in 1974.
The famous bass line was played by a session musician named Herbie Flowers. He was paid £17 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. .
Bertrand - Paris, France
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
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?
In an interview with Bruce Pollock
, Reed explained that he would wait until the end of the songwriting process to write the lyrics, and when he did, they would come out in clumps. "I write very fast," he said. "Just take each song and put a lyric to it, put it away. Take the next song, put a lyric to it, put it away. Do the next song. And just not even look at them. I look at them later to check, because I know the basic thing is perfect, for me. Sometimes one or two words have to be changed."
Reed said there was a danger in this approach: sometimes he wrote so quickly he couldn't read his own handwriting.
Marky Mark's second single, after "Good Vibrations
," was a remake of this song called "Wildside," released in 1991. He is now known as Mark Wahlberg and famous for movies like Boogie Nights
and Rock Star
This song appeared in three episodes of The Simpsons:
"Lisa with an S" (2015)
"Any Given Sundance" (2008)
"Selma's Choice" (1993)
It was also used in the TV series:
Master of None ("The Other Man" - 2015)
Medium ("Lady Killer" - 2008)
Beverly Hills, 90210 ("The Game Is Chicken" - 1993)
And in the following movies:
The Confessions (2016)
The Salton Sea (2002)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Without Limits (1998)
Beautiful Girls (1996)
Opportunity Knocks (1990)
At Live Aid in 1985 at Wembley Stadium, while U2 was playing their song "Bad
," Bono improvised two 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.
Albert Pla recorded a Spanish-language version of this song called "El Lado Más Bestia de la Vida" that appeared on his 1995 album Supone Fonollosa His version was used in the 2016 movie The Shallows.