Did Lou Reed’s Honda Ad Make Him Rock’s First Sellout?
The Velvet Underground veteran had a solid rep as one of the hippest bad boy rockers to ever don a leather jacket. So what was he doing in the 80s shilling for a Honda scooter?
Lou Reed is well known for annihilating all limitations on the subject matter rock & roll could address. Such songs of his as “Heroin,” “Street Hassle,” “Rock Minuet” and “Coney Island Baby” explored addiction, transgressive sexuality, and violence, and, on the strength of such coruscating work, he has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame both as a founding member of the Velvet Underground and as a solo artist. As a songwriter and guitarist, he was a connoisseur of abrasion, outrage, and subversion. Shortly before his death in October 2013 at the age of 71, he declared, “I believe in the power of punk. To this day, I want to blow it up.”
Fewer people know that Reed also helped break the stigma against using rock songs in advertisements, forever changing the rules about what it means to “sell out.” The 1985 Honda television commercial that featured Reed’s biggest and most indelible hit, “Walk on the Wild Side,” was a watershed moment in that regard. Fearful of being accused of “selling out,” rockers had often avoided allowing their songs to be licensed for ads and associated with consumer products. But once Reed, an artist of impeccable credibility, did it, that prohibition shattered, never to be restored.
In the mid ’80s, Reed became seriously interested in expanding his audience. MTV had become a significant force, and finding ways to represent your music in visual terms had become essential. Reed himself had conquered the addictions that had hung his life in the balance, and he believed he was doing the best work of his career. He no longer wanted to be a niche artist. “I really think I have it more together than I ever have,” he said. “I personally would love to have commercial success because I know what I’m doing is good … I don’t make these records just to sit at home and listen to them by myself.”
Consequently, when the possibility of doing an ad for Honda scooters presented itself—accompanied by a sizable check—Reed took the leap. It was the beginning of a new age for rock stars and corporate sponsors. Through the ’70s, the notion that a company looking for anything remotely like mainstream acceptance would use rock music—let alone a song associated with someone as controversial as Lou Reed—to promote its products was ludicrous. But by the ’80s, the generation that had grown up with rock & roll was suddenly successful and affluent. The election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in November 1980 had ushered in a more settled time after the upheavals of the ’60s and the sexual outrageousness of the ’70s. Business and commercialism were no longer bad words to the generation that had previously regarded itself as a counterculture. Indeed, rock & roll increasingly came to be viewed as a business, and quite a lucrative one at that. In a milestone for marketing, the Rolling Stones’ blockbuster 1981 tour of America was underwritten by the fragrance company Jovan to the tune of a million dollars, a substantial amount of money at the time. That the Stones, whose reputation for rebellion rivaled Reed’s own, could be regarded as a safe bet for a perfume company broke the floodgates for corporate sponsorship. The rock press energetically debated the issue of whether or not this was a fatal compromise, and many artists, including Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M., refused to play along. But the advertising community and the vast majority of fans simply regarded it as good business.
In the Honda ad, Reed characteristically pushed the boundary further than other artists had done. Rather than simply license his song, Reed actually appeared in the ad himself. As the music (but, notably, not the lyrics; Reed primarily regarded himself as a writer) for “Walk on the Wild Side” played, images of Reed in a black leather jacket and shades appeared, interspersed with raw depictions of New York street life—hookers, graffiti, squeegee men, buskers—that made the city look noirish, edgy, and glamorous. At the end of the spot, Reed, seated insouciantly on a red scooter outside a downtown club, removes his sunglasses and states in his best New York accent, “Hey, don’t settle for walkin’.”
The spot represented a dramatic break from the clichéd formulas that governed advertising—and, particularly, television advertising—at the time. For one thing, the product was not seen or mentioned until the final seconds, a radical gesture at the time. Postmodernism had come to advertising. “I had to do the metacommercial to hide the fact that I was doing a commercial,” Larry Bridges, the editor of the spot, drolly explained.
That Reed, a serious motorcycle aficionado, would not have been caught dead riding a scooter in real life seemed beside the point. At times, he could be defensive about the ad—“Who else could make a scooter hip?” he challenged one journalist. But he also cited more pragmatic reasons for his decision, and mentioned Andy Warhol, an early mentor of the Velvet Underground, as a model for his thinking. “I can’t live in an ivory tower like people would like me to,” Reed said. “I used to watch Andy do something for TV Guide or Absolut Vodka … When our equipment broke, that’s how it got replaced. We didn’t turn around and tell Andy we can’t touch that money because it came from doing a commercial. I don’t think that occurred to anybody.” At shows Reed would wryly introduce “Walk on the Wild Side” as the “Honda commercial.”
Ultimately, however, Reed was stung by the criticism he received—much as he dismissed it, the notion that he had in any way “sold out” wounded him when he felt that he had made every conceivable effort never to do that. He was much more cautious about commercials for many years, though he always would gratefully believe that, as he told a group of advertisers not long before he died, “In a world of downloading, the only people who will pay you for what you do is you guys. Ad people play fair with you.”
Excerpted from LOU REED Copyright © 2017 by Anthony DeCurtis. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.