Throughout music producer Hal Willner's fascinating career, he's worked on projects with an astonishing group of artists, including expert British song stylist Marianne Faithfull, cosmic jazz composer Sun Ra, songwriter and actor Tom Waits, writers Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs and dozens of others.
As a kind of in-studio conductor, he’s produced recorded tributes to jazz composers Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk, Italian film score composer Nino Rota, the music of classic Walt Disney films and others. A longtime music coordinator for “Saturday Night Live,” Willner more recently has worked on oddball projects such as IFC’s parody TV miniseries “The Spoils of Babylon” and “The Spoils Before Dying.”
And then there's the longtime work with his friend Lou Reed.
Willner collaborated on what would become the late Velvet Underground co-founder's final project before his 2013 death: The newly issued box set "Lou Reed: The RCA & Arista Album Collection” gathers in one package the 14 studio and two live albums he released on the two labels after dissolution of the Velvet Underground.
Included are classics and unsung records such as his under-appreciated self-titled solo debut, the melancholy concept album “Berlin,” his breakthrough hit “Walk on the Wild Side,” his genre-busting noise album “Metal Machine Music” and “The Blue Mask,” his hardened return to form after a string critically maligned albums including “Sally Can’t Dance” and “The Bells.”
“We all know what happens when artists pass, but I’ve never seen a certain kind of turnaround as with Lou,” Willner said recently, acknowledging over lunch at Bar Ama in downtown Los Angeles the critical drubbing Reed received when some of his albums were released. The producer spends most of his life on the East Coast, but owns a Venice bungalow for when the mood strikes him.
“All the sudden, no one is saying that,” Willner said of Reed’s musical reputation. “The people who wrote him off? Nope. And this is why it’s cool for this to come out now.”
The trove was remastered by Willner and Reed while Reed was enduring a ferocious battle with liver disease. The two had been friends for years, and worked together on Reed’s final four albums, ending with Reed’s last album, “Lulu,” his collaboration with Metallica.
They were also listening buddies who teamed for a 90-episode SiriusXM radio show that continues to be broadcast on Saturday nights.
Because of their working relationship, Willner said he knew that Reed had been sick, but Reed plowed forth on the boxed set with determination after deciding to remaster his albums.
“He didn’t believe he was going to die, and we didn’t believe it, because he was so infectious,” said Willner. “For someone who’s so known for the dark side and all that, boy, he wanted to live. Any option. Any option. He clung to life.”
Willner was approached by co-producer Rob Santos about a boxed set after the labels RCA and Arista were united under the Sony Music banner in the mid ’00s. Willner spoke with Reed about the idea, and the two committed to the project.
Said Willner, “They were never really remastered properly, and Lou was a sound freak.” The team made the decision to focus solely on the albums as they were released rather than tack on bonus tracks. The rationale? “Let’s get these records out the best way they were meant to be heard. Down the line, Sony can do a bootleg series or whatever, but let’s not fill this up,” said Willner.
They got to work in New York, but Reed’s health was declining, Willner recalled with a tone of wonder at Reed’s enthusiasm during the sessions. “Lou was starting to go. He’s hearing these tapes on a full blast system. A lot of artists, when you do that, they start hearing the mistakes again. It was the opposite.”
Citing the session remastering the David Bowie-co-produced album “Transformer,” Willner said Reed perked up as Bowie’s voice arrived singing background vocals. “ ‘Oh, listen to that background vocal. That’s David singing! Can we EQ that a little so it’s clearer?’ He’s hearing all these little things that you never heard because you lost them on the CD reissues or early vinyl.”
For casual Reed fans, committing to the entirety of his output is no easy task. An endless musical explorer, the artist moved through the 1970s and ’80s with little regard for expectations or appeasement. Reed valued musical effort as much as the so-called craft of writing. Willner recalled a conversation while playing records with Reed in which he said, “Hal, you’ve got to listen to this! They’re really trying!” To Reed, that was a compliment of the highest order.
“That’s what he did every record,” said Willner. “He didn’t just fall back. He was trying. ‘Let me try to do this and go for it.’ ”
Reed’s solo recordings have long been eclipsed by his seminal work with the Velvet Underground, the band born in the mid-’60s in Andy Warhol’s Factory that helped changed the direction of experimental rock. Willner argues that without the solo work, the Velvet Underground’s reputation might never have risen as it did.
“It was through Lou playing these songs live that brought more attention to the Velvet Underground,” said Willner. “I don’t know if it would have if Lou wasn’t doing a solo career and getting those songs done. That’s where people first heard ‘Sweet Jane.’ That’s where people first heard ‘Rock & Roll,’ all that stuff.”
Reed’s later work, including his successful 1989 album “New York,” isn’t featured in the new box. After his 1986 album “Mistrial,” the artist left RCA for Sire Records, part of the Warner Bros. family of labels. Except for his independently released 2007 album of meditation music, “Hudson River Wind Meditations,” his last records were issued through Warner Bros.
That includes Reed’s last album, “Lulu,” as imposing a work as Reed ever made. Bafflingly, the album remains unavailable on streaming services. Like much of Reed’s music, it was a polarizing release, to say the least.
Willner, however, stressed that “Lulu” has its defenders who believe it’s one of Reed’s great works, and recalled one notable fan raving about it during a series of weekly gatherings hosted by Reed’s widow, artist Laurie Anderson, after he died.
“Bowie came to one of them,” said Willner. “He pulled Laurie aside and went, ‘When history gets written, “Lulu” is going to be one of his masterpieces.’ Then he started quoting the lyrics by heart.”
If history is any guide, such opinions on Reed’s late-period oeuvre will, like the work represented on “The Lou Reed Collection,” continue to evolve for decades to come.
There’s a lot of terrible music out there. For tips on the stuff that’s not, follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit
3:27 p.m.: This article was updated to add mention of two live albums included in the boxed set in addition to the 14 studio albums.