The John Lennon song Lou Reed called the greatest he ever heard: “On another level”

Meta Description: Explore Lou Reed’s candid opinion on The Beatles and his admiration for John Lennon’s song ‘Mother’. Delve into Reed’s views on Lennon’s solo career and his appreciation for the track’s authenticity.

It’s no secret that Lou Reed wasn’t a huge fan of The Beatles. But there’s good reason to say that Reed wasn’t a fan of any pop music when he was making his own forays onto the airwaves. As an artist, he always represented the left of pop’s centre, trialling experimental, droning techniques while his counterparts mastered four-part harmonies. It was a facet of Reed’s nature that left him at odds with the rest of the music world.

In countless conversations, Reed can be heard pulling down the latest pop hero placed on a pedestal. Although his flippant interview iconoclasm meant that you couldn’t put a great deal of faith in anything he said for fear that it had some performative agenda, you can certify that he definitely wasn’t a fan of the Liverpudlians. In fact, he even said: “The Beatles? I never liked The Beatles, I thought they were garbage,” in an interview with Joe Smith in 1987.

Interestingly, however, this is a viewpoint that has often proved infectious when it comes to Reed’s most ardent songwriting disciples. For instance, Julian Casablancas also agreed with his Fab Four defaming, stating: “I have that maybe advantage that I didn’t like or listen to the Beatles,” he said, adding” “I feel like that’s almost like the branch of, like, 98% of stuff you hear. But then there’s the Velvet Underground. I know Lou Reed hated the Beatles.”

That being said, there was one track that turned the late former Velvet Underground frontman’s head despite his less-than-glowing set-up. Reed may not have been a fan of the mop-topped Brits, but he did appreciate some of their solo careers. “I don’t think Lennon did anything until he went solo,” Reed bemoaned.

“But then, too he was like trying to play catch up,” Reed said of Lennon’s career, not entirely satisfied with his work. “He was getting involved in choruses and everything.” Later, he clarified: “I don’t want to come off as being snide, because I’m not being snide, what I’m doing is giving you a really frank answer, I have no respect for those people at all, I don’t listen to it at all, it’s absolute shit.”

If anything, this caustic condemnation, however, makes it all the more noteworthy that there was one song he did actually hold in rarefied acclaim. His condemnation clarifies that his approval is one given with the purest and most sincere intentions. Lennon’s attitude had changed since leaving the band, and it offered up a moment or two of brilliance.

When the bespectacled Beatle broke away from the band and moved out of the shadow of Paul McCartney’s village hall music, Lennon became a far more experimental artist. Not only in his techniques in the studio but the subject matter he aimed at. For Reed, this was a far more enticing product than what he’d previously heard from the musician on the radio.

As Reed uncharacteristically eulogized: “But [Lennon] wrote one song that I admire tremendously, I think it was one of the greatest songs I ever heard, called ‘Mother’. Now, with that, and he was capable of great pop stuff, which is nothing to sneeze at, but the question you asked me was ‘on another level’.” And while he continues to state that, in his view, Lennon and The Beatles usually missed that gilded next step, he was happy to place ‘Mother’ on a high pedestal in comparison.

In a later interview with Bruce Pollock, Reed remarked that the track was so good he didn’t connect the dots between it and its creator: “That was a song that had realism. When I first heard it, I didn’t even know it was him. I just said, ‘Who the fuck is that? I don’t believe that.’ Because the lyrics to that are real. You see, he wasn’t kidding around. He got right down to it, as down as you can get. I like that in a song.”

Interestingly, the impetus behind the effort is also something that you might expect Lou Reed to not only love but write his own tracks about. The tune was spawned from a cult therapy that became fashionable with Lennon and the rock elite known as primal scream. As Yoko Ono described the therapy in an interview with Uncut: “It’s just a matter of breaking the wall that’s there in yourself and come out and let it all hang out to the point that you start crying. He was going back to the days when he wanted to scream, ‘Mother’. He was able to go back to that childhood, that memory.”

In the end, the stirring composition is a touching cathartic release of Lennon lamenting the loss of his mother when she was struck by a drink driving off-duty policeman when he was only young and the fact his father continued a life at sea thereafter, leaving him in the care of his aunt. All of this was wrought out in a song that saw Lennon go back to his roots in more ways than one. As he told Rolling Stone in an interview upon its release: “I’ve always liked simple rock. I was influenced by acid and got psychedelic, like the whole generation, but really, I like rock and roll, and I express myself best in rock.”

Adding: “I had a few ideas to do this with ‘Mother’ and that with ‘Mother’ but when you just hear, the piano does it all for you, your mind can do the rest. I think the backings on mine are as complicated as the backings on any record you’ve ever heard if you’ve got an ear. Anybody knows that. Any musician will tell you, just play a note on a piano, it’s got harmonics in it. It got to that. What the hell, I didn’t need anything else.”

For Lennon, ‘Mother’ represented a creative fork in the road, admitting, “Many, many people will not like ‘Mother’; it hurts them.” But it was a part of the process of divorcing himself form his pop image, making deliberately uncomfortable music. In truth, like Reed, Lennon seemed to revel in such a notion: “The first thing that happens to you when you get the album is you can’t take it. Everybody reacted exactly the same. They think, ‘fuck!’ That’s how everybody is. And the second time, they start saying, ‘Oh, well, there’s a little…’ so I can’t lay ‘Mother’ on them. It confirms the suspicions that something nasty’s going on with that John Lennon and his broad again.”

Whether Reed connected with the lyrics, the music or simply the sentiment of Lennon laying down tracks that no longer massaged the ear but battered the mind is up for debate. But one thing’s for sure: he preferred Lennon to go solo.

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