Unlike its predecessor, Lou Reed, eight songs of which were written during his Velvet Underground days, Transformer contains mainly new material. However, there are four songs that date from his VU days: “Andy’s Chest” and “Satellite of Love” (Velvet Underground demos of which surfaced in 1985 and 1995, respectively), “Goodnight Ladies” had been played by the Velvets live in 1970, and “New York Telephone Conversation” had been played in rehearsals during the band’s summer 1970 residency at Max’s Kansas City.
Transformer was produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, both of whom had been strongly influenced by Reed’s work with the Velvet Underground. Bowie had obliquely referenced the Velvet Underground in the cover notes for his album Hunky Dory and regularly performed both “White Light/White Heat” and “Waiting for the Man” in concerts and on the BBC during 1971–1973. He even began recording “White Light/White Heat” for inclusion on Pin-Ups, but it was never completed; Ronson ended up using the backing track for his solo album Play Don’t Worry in 1974.
Mick Ronson who was at the time the lead guitarist with Bowie’s band, The Spiders from Mars, played a major role in the recording of the album, serving as the co-producer and primary session musician (contributing guitar, piano, recorder and backing vocals) and arranger, notably the lush string arrangement for “Perfect Day”. Reed lauded Ronson’s contribution in the Transformer episode of the documentary series Classic Albums, praising the beauty of his work and fading out the vocal to highlight the strings. The songs on the LP are now among Reed’s best-known works, including “Walk on the Wild Side”, “Perfect Day” and “Satellite of Love”, and the album’s commercial success elevated him from cult status to become an international star.
“Andy’s Chest” had been recorded in 1969 for The Velvet Underground’s “lost fourth album” and demos of “Satellite of Love” had been produced for the band’s 1970 album Loaded, but neither had been used. For Transformer, the up-tempo pace of these songs was slowed down. Although all songs on the album were credited to Reed, it has long been rumored that “Wagon Wheel” is actually a David Bowie composition. Although there are no known performances of “Vicious” by the Velvet Underground, the song apparently dates from Reed’s time in the band and its association with Andy Warhol. According to Reed, Warhol told Reed he should write a song about someone vicious. When Reed asked what he meant by that, Warhol replied, “Oh, you know, vicious, like I hit you with a flower.”
In 1997, Transformer was named the 44th greatest album of all time in a Music of the Millennium poll conducted in the United Kingdom by HMV Group, Channel 4, The Guardian and Classic FM. Transformer is also ranked number 55 on NME ‘s list of “Greatest Albums of All Time.” In 2003, the album was ranked number 194 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It is also on Q Magazine’s list of “100 Greatest Albums Ever”.