[RCA/Legacy]

Long before new wave, punk, and glam, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground wrote songs about taboo topics and the dark side of rock ’n’ roll. Heroin, transvestites, sadism—no subject was off limits for Reed and his cronies, who released two groundbreaking records in 1967, The Velvet Underground & Nico (a.k.a. “the banana” album) and White Light/White Heat. This was at the height of Flower Power, and songs like “Sister Ray” and “Waiting for My Man” provided a stark, gritty contrast to the incense and beads of the day.

When Reed went solo in the early ’70s, he burrowed even deeper into rock’s seamy underbelly, writing about depression, suicide, and other harrowing aspects of big-city existence. Soon, his life began to resemble his more troubled lyrics, and by 1975, he was broke and facing crushing lawsuits. Universally panned, Reed’s album Metal Machine Music was pulled off the market merely three weeks after its release. He hadn’t paid his roadies, so they absconded with his guitars and gear. Reed had hit rock bottom, and lawyers, accountants, the IRS, and the musician’s union were circling for the kill.

Sensing Reed was a step away from the streets, Ken Glancy, the president of RCA and Reed’s friend, gave him one more chance. He put Reed up in New York’s storied Gramercy Park Hotel and asked him to pick a studio and go make a rock album. The result was 1976’s Coney Island Baby, which has now been remastered and released in an expanded edition with three previously unreleased album outtakes, a single, and two songs from Reed’s box-set anthology.

Coney Island Baby has none of the super-dense production of Reed’s 1973 Berlin or the dueling, arena-rock guitars (played by Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner) of 1974’s live Rock N Roll Animal. Instead, the musical mood is laid back, even reflective. “Nobody’s Business” is reminiscent of grooves on the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72, and Bob Kulick’s singing guitar in the title tune is jazzy and sweet—providing a surprising foretaste of Mark Knopfler’s soulful picking in 1978’s Dire Straits. Lyrically, Reed still walks on the wild side, but the band plays with a light, relaxed touch. The one break in the album’s mellow vibe is “Kicks,” a chilling sing-speak tale of lust and murder set to a background of party chatter and “Riders on the Storm”-era, Doors-inspired jamming.

The newly added bonus tracks dramatically expand the original album’s sonic textures. With its snarling guitars, “Nowhere at All” and “Leave Me Alone” recalls Rock N Roll Animal and its classic Hunter/Wagner tones. “Downtown Dirt” simmers like a menacing blues boogie.

Of the three outtakes, “Crazy Feeling” and “Coney Island Baby” are basically stripped-down, acoustic-leaning demo versions of the originals. “She’s My Best Friend,” however, is a rockier rendition, complete with blaring electric rhythm and a more muscular delivery.

The expanded Coney Island Baby is certain to please Lou Reed fans. But perhaps more importantly, its accessible melodies and relaxed energy offers the rest of the world an opportunity to discover this complex and visionary musician.