'Perfect Day' by Lou Reed: the making of rock's most earnest and enduring ballad

31 August 2023, 08:21

'Perfect Day' is Lou Reed's most enduring song, and came to fruition with the help of David Bowie.
'Perfect Day' is Lou Reed's most enduring song, and came to fruition with the help of David Bowie. Picture: Getty/RCA

By Thomas Curtis-Horsfall

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"Oh it's such a perfect day, I'm glad I spent it with you."

Lou Reed's low-key, optimistic, and earnest ballad about spending a casual, but perfect day with his partner is arguably his most enduring.

Given the nature of rock 'n' roll artists at the time, and his previous outlandish experimentalism with The Velvet Underground, 'Perfect Day' was a bit of an anomaly for Reed.

With the media, Reed was notoriously obnoxious, obtuse, and twisted journalists in circles as to not reveal the true meaning behind his words.

Even though 'Perfect Day' in on the surface a tender portrayal of a lovely day out, the song has been opened up to debate about its real meaning still to this day.

Featuring on his David Bowie-produced 1972 album Transformer, 'Perfect Day' is no doubt the first song that springs to mind when people mention Lou Reed.

But who wrote it? What is its real meaning? Has anyone else covered the song? Here's all you need to know about 'Perfect Day':

Who wrote 'Perfect Day'?

Lou Reed - Perfect Day (Official Audio)

Lou Reed wrote the lyrics to 'Perfect Day', the slow, piano-based balled which details a typically amorous day out with his partner.

Drinking sangria in the park, feeding animals in the zoo, cosying up to a movie at the cinema later that night - they're all sweet moments that sounds like the plot to a romantic movie in itself.

Reed penned the lyrics after spending a lovely day together in New York City's Central Park with his then fiancée (and later wife) Bettye Kronstad.

The songs lyrics flit between seemingly simple, conventional devotion to his partner in "Oh, it's such a perfect day, I'm glad I spent it with you," to Reed's true feelings about himself in "You made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else, someone good."

Towards the end of 'Perfect Day', Reed sings - in his sombre, pensive tone in which he sings throughout - the lyrics "You're gonna reap just what you sow," which he repeats on several occasions.

This line alludes to St. Paul's letter to the Galatians 6:7 in the New Testament, which reads: "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."

Biographer Victor Bockri wrote that the lyrics to 'Perfect Day', whilst romantic and uncomplicated also hint at Reed's own conflicts with his sexuality, heavy drug use, and impenetrable ego.

Was 'Perfect Day' about Lou Reed’s relationship with drug abuse?

Lou Reed in 1972. (Photo Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)
Lou Reed in 1972. (Photo Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns). Picture: Getty

Many people in the years since the song's release believe that 'Perfect Day' is not about his partner, but instead about his own love affair with heroin.

Asked by the NME in 1973 about the song's true meaning, Reed replied: "That's a lovely song. A description of a very straightforward affair."

Once the earnest ballad was included on the soundtrack to 1996 film Trainspotting, these questions arose once again as the song's popularity was rejuvenated.

The song's historic misinterpretation meant that Danny Boyle chose 'Perfect Day' to play whilst the film's central character Renton - played by Ewan MacGregor - overdoses on heroin.

In 2000, Reed again suggested that interpretation was "laughable", stating: "No. You're talking to the writer, the person who wrote it. No that's not true. I don't object to that, particularly...whatever you think is perfect."

"But this guy's vision of a perfect day was the girl, sangria in the park, and then you go home; a perfect day, real simple. I meant just what I said."

How did David Bowie come to produce the record?

David Bowie first met Lou Reed in 1971, and the pair remained great friends throughout their lives. (Photo by Gus Stewart/Redferns)
David Bowie first met Lou Reed in 1971, and the pair remained great friends throughout their lives. (Photo by Gus Stewart/Redferns). Picture: Getty

David Bowie was a huge fan of The Velvet Underground - their visionary songwriting, their relationship to Andy Warhol, and how they occupied the space between rock music and contemporary art.

Regularly covering 'White Light/White Heat' and 'I'm Waiting for the Man' in concerts, Bowie insisted he the band were a major influence on him and how he became Ziggy Stardust.

After befriending Lou Reed in 1971, after a show at London's Royal Festival Hall, the pair immediately hit it off and reportedly started a sexual relationship.

Tony Zanetta, the producer of Bowie's 'Diamond Dogs Tour' in 1974 introduced him to Reed that year and said: "They, I think, got along pretty well."

"Lou was the really smart-alecky, sarcastic New York guy. But I think he and David were pretty cautious of each other. It was almost like the beginning of a romance. They were kind of sizing each other up."

In awe of Lou Reed and his previous work with The Velvet Underground, Bowie wanted to make him a solo star so took on producing duties.

Bowie's guitarist in The Spiders From Mars, Mick Ronson, co-produced, worked as a session musician on the album Transformer, and wrote the accompanying string arrangements.

Klaus Voorman, the life-long friend of The Beatles and frequent John Lennon session player also played bass on Transformer.

Was 'Perfect Day' a success when it was released?

Perfect Day - Children in Need 1997 - Charity Single

'Perfect Day' was not in fact released as a stand-alone single, instead it was the B-Side to the album's biggest hit at the time, 'Walk On The Wild Side'.

Of course, since its inclusion on cult phenomenon Trainspotting in 1996, it helped rejuvenate Lou Reed's mainstream popularity.

Off the back of its renewed success, 'Perfect Day' was picked to be a benefit single for UK charity Children In Need the following year.

In 1997, an illustrious roster of artists contributed to the re-recording, including Tom Jones, Elton John, Bono, Emmylou Harris, opera singer Lesley Garrett, The Lemonheads' Evan Dando, The Pogues' Shane MacGowan, Dr. John, M People's Heather Smalls, Joan Armatrading, and even both Bowie and Reed who were behind the original.

The charity single went to number one in the UK charts for three weeks, and raised over two million pounds for Children In Need.

Has anyone else covered 'Perfect Day'?

Duran Duran - "Perfect Day" (Official Music Video)

Because of its touching sentiment to a casual, intimate day out with a partner, 'Perfect Day' has been interpreted by a handful of artists since its initial release.

The former First Lady of France, Carla Bruni, has covered 'Perfect Day', along with Kirsty MacColl and Evan Dando together, soul legend Al Green has recently offered his spin, and even Susan Boyle has recorded a rendition.

But it was New Romantic pop rockers Duran Duran whose cover appealed to Lou Reed the most, who even admitted their version was better than his, sort of.

Talking about their cover in a later interview, Reed explained: "They'd been very cooperative with me. They sent me the tape and I thought it was great. I don't dislike pop stuff, I love pop stuff, I just don't particularly do it."

"So when I said it's better than mine, it's better than mine as pop. Mine isn't, I guess what you would call you pop. But I thought they really trying to do a nice thing with it from their point of view."