Walk on the Wild Side is a song by Lou Reed from his second solo album, Transformer (1972). It was produced by David Bowie. The song received wide radio coverage, despite its touching on taboo topics such as transsexuality, drugs, male prostitution and oral sex. In the United States, RCA released the single using an edited version of the song without the reference to oral sex.
The lyrics, describing a series of individuals and their journeys to New York City, refer to several of the regular “superstars” at Andy Warhol’s New York studio, the Factory, namely Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, Joe Dallesandro, Jackie Curtis and Joe Campbell (referred to in the song by his nickname Sugar Plum Fairy). Candy Darling was also the subject of Reed’s earlier song for The Velvet Underground, “Candy Says”.
Like many of Reed’s songs, “Walk On The Wild Side” is based on a plagal cadence, alternating from C to F. The F is played as a sixth chord. The pre-chorus introduces the major second, D Major, although in some live performances this was changed to D minor, resulting in a completely diatonic song.
The song is also noted for its twin interlocking bass lines played by Herbie Flowers on double bass and overdubbed on a 1960, stacked knob Fender Jazz Bass. In an interview on BBC Radio 4 (Playing Second Fiddle, aired July 2005), Flowers claimed that the reason he came up with the twin bass line was that as a session musician he would be paid double for playing two instruments on the same track.
In the 2001 documentary Classic Albums: Lou Reed: Transformer, Reed says that it was Nelson Algren‘s 1956 novel, A Walk on the Wild Side, that was the launching point for the song, even though, as it grew, the song became inhabited by characters from his own life. As with several other Reed songs from the 1970s, the title may also be an allusion to an earlier song, in this case Mack David and Elmer Bernstein‘s song of the same name, the Academy Award-nominated title song of the 1962 film based on Algren’s novel. During his performance of the song on his 1978 Live: Take No Prisoners album, Reed humorously explains the song’s development from a request that he write the music for the never-completed musical version of Algren’s novel.
Each verse refers to one of the “superstars” at Andy Warhol’s New York studio, The Factory.
“Holly” is based on Holly Woodlawn, a transgender actress who lived in Miami Beach, Florida as a child. In 1962, after being bullied by transphobes, the fifteen-year-old ran away from home; and, as in the lyrics, learned how to pluck her eyebrows while hitchhiking to New York.
“Candy” is based on Candy Darling, a transgender actress and the subject of an earlier song by Lou Reed, “Candy Says”. She grew up on Long Island (“the island”) and was a regular at “the back room” of Max’s Kansas City.
“Little Joe” was the nickname of Joe Dallesandro, an actor who starred in Flesh, a 1968 film about a teenage hustler. Dallesandro said in 2014 that he had never met Reed when the song was written, and that the lyrics were based on the film character, not himself personally.
“Sugar Plum Fairy” was a reference to actor Joe Campbell, who played a character by that name in Warhol’s 1965 film, My Hustler. The term was a euphemism for “drug dealer”.
“Jackie” is based on Jackie Curtis, another Warhol actor. “Speeding” and “crashing” are drug references. Curtis at one time hoped to play the role of James Dean in a movie; Dean was killed in a car crash.
The baritone saxophone solo played over the fadeout of the song is performed by Ronnie Ross, who had taught David Bowie to play the saxophone during Bowie’s childhood.
The backing vocals are sung by Thunderthighs, a girl group that included Dari Lalou, Karen Friedman, and Casey Synge.
The upright bass and bass guitar are both played by Herbie Flowers who was paid a £17 flat fee.
The lyrics were groundbreaking and risqué for their time, telling stories not usually told in rock songs up to then, and containing references to prostitution, transsexuals, and oral sex. “I always thought it would be kinda fun to introduce people to characters they maybe hadn’t met before, or hadn’t wanted to meet,” Reed said.
In the United States, RCA released the single using an edited version of the song without the reference to oral sex. In the UK, the reference slipped past the censors, who were apparently unfamiliar with the term “giving head”. The term “colored girls” was also an issue in the US; RCA provided radio stations with a version in which it was edited out.
The single peaked at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts in early 1973. After the announcement of Reed’s death in October 2013, both the song and the Transformer album re-charted via iTunes.