The Velvet Underground marked a turning point in rock history. After the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico, knowing the power of which it was capable, the music could never be as innocent, as unselfconscious as before. The band’s first album may have come on a bit cute with its Andy Warhol-designed banana cover — indeed, patron Warhol’s name (he also “produced”) was splashed around like a talisman — but singer/guitarist Lou Reed’s tough songs and the band’s equally tough playing owed nothing to nobody. In perverse subject matter (“Heroin,” “Venus in Furs”), deceptively simple musical forms and anarchic jamming, the Velvets displayed the rebellious traits new wave bands would pick up on ten years later. Singer Nico’s four vocals provide textural context and breathing space between Reed’s darker visions.
With Nico gone, White Light/White Heat is almost unbearably intense. John Cale recites a gruesome little story (“The Gift”) over steamy accompaniment, and Reed sings the praises of methamphetamines (the title track) — and that’s the light entertainment. The second side consists of extended, feedback-wailing guitar solos (“I Heard Her Call My Name”) and graphic porno-junkie tales (seventeen minutes of “Sister Ray”). The album is as morally black as its cover.
Something had to change, and when the Velvet Underground next surfaced, it sounded like a different band. Cale’s departure (replaced by multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule) might have played a part, but Reed has since shown himself capable of wide mood swings. The music on The Velvet Underground is quiet, melodic, gentle even when it turns up the juice (“What Goes On,” “Beginning to See the Light”) and — who would have believed it? — moving (“Jesus,” “I’m Set Free”). Only “The Murder Mystery,” with its double-tracked chatter, is guilty of self-indulgence.
Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground is a bargain-bin compilation of the first three LPs. The group started on a fourth, unreleased album before switching record companies. Sixteen years later, songs from those sessions finally surfaced officially on VU. They show the Velvet Underground stoking the rock’n’roll fire that blazed forth on Loaded: “Foggy Notion” is a timeless raveup of classical simplicity (though typically kinky subject matter). Reed recycled half of VU‘s material on his early solo albums, but it’s charming to hear them played forcefully by a functioning band.
By 1970, the Velvet Underground was into a wholesome overdrive. Loaded may have seemed superficial in comparison to the preceding albums, but it does include Reed’s twin anthems, “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll.” Personality conflicts, however, resulted in his leaving the group before the record’s release; Yule took some of the vocals and most of the credit. Loaded‘s sweetness-and-light music was the Velvets’ death throes.
With its creative force gone, the band shuffled along for two more years and even released a British album, Squeeze, with no original members. For new doses of the real thing, fans had to be content with live recordings of past glories. Live at Max’s Kansas City is a low-fi document of the Velvets’ last hurrah in the Big Apple. The band — Reed, Sterling Morrison and two Yules — is tight but mellow; three of the four songs taken from the first album were originally sung by Nico.
The two-record 1969 (from assorted late-’69 shows in Texas and San Francisco) is more interesting in its extended view of the group and choice of material. As on the Max’s LP, the post-Cale band is generally relaxed — a far cry from the musical entropy of the first two albums. The Velvet Underground got its groundbreaking out of the way early. (When it arrived on CD in 1988, the album had inexplicably been separated into two individual volumes. Take your pick.)
In 1986, British Polydor released Velvet Underground, a five-album boxed set of the first three original LPs, VU and a bonus record of nine previously unavailable tracks, including an early “Rock and Roll,” an instrumental “Guess I’m Falling in Love,” a studio take of “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together” and two versions of “Hey Mr. Rain.”
Having issued the three original albums and VU on CD in 1985, PolyGram assembled a chronological one-disc studio career summation, The Best of the Velvet Underground (subtitled Words and Music of Lou Reed). What you get is half the first LP, the title track of the second, three each from the third and VU, and Loaded‘s obvious pair. A neat introduction, but a skimpy one.
Leaving well enough alone not being a dependable feature of human nature, it came to pass that one of rock’s most sacred — and safely refrigerated — cows should defy all expectations and tamper with fate in 1993. As the sex-drugs-noise-literature-decadence-obsession template responsible for more offbeat groups than any institution other than art college, the Velvet Underground — which ended its five original years of seismic activity in 1970 — remained frozen in history until the mid-’80s, when reissue producers in the process of putting three of the band’s records on CD stumbled on to a bunch of “uncatalogued” tapes from a scrapped 1969 album and assembled two new albums of outtakes: the stupendous VU and Another View. After all those years in which its alumni had to grapple with the weight and onus of its legend, the band was suddenly in play again; the vivid memory of timeless records gained a modern aura as generations first jacking up the Velvets’ dark, anarchic spume were greeted with present-tense releases providing stark contrast to the latest mature solo endeavors from primary architects Lou Reed and John Cale.
Those aftershocks seemed to likely to be as far as the resurgence would go — after all, it’s not as if Lou Reed, one of rock’s most churlish and self-conscious enigmas, would ever deign to traffic in nostalgia or put the band’s untarnished reputation at risk. But events conspired to push history down its inexorable path. Andy Warhol, a pivotal figure in the group’s launch, died in 1987; Nico, the featured singer on its first album, died in 1988. Warhol’s passing prompted Reed and Cale to join forces for the first time in years; they wrote and recorded a tribute album, 1990’s Songs for Drella. That same year, safely out of view at a French Warhol event, Reed, Cale, drummer Maureen Tucker and original rhythm guitarist Sterling Morrison spent ten minutes doing “Heroin” together for old time’s sake. The foursome subsequently recorded a track for Tucker’s I Spent a Week There One Night (1991) and returned to their neutral corners. But momentum was gathering…
Then came the shocking announcement that the band would reunite for a short European tour in 1993. Despite the enormous odds against the quartet’s ability to put the genie back in the bottle — or, more to the point, drop their adult defenses and whip themselves into the same massively fucked-up incompetent abandon engendered by decadent youthfulness in the psychotic environment of Warhol’s ’60s New York whirl — the live album extracted, without overdubs, from three Paris shows in June is fantastic. Released both as two discs and as a “hits”-oriented one-disc version, Live MCMXCIII completely upholds any illusions, no matter how outlandishly exaggerated by time and ignorance they may be, of how the Velvet Underground was supposed to sound.
Discarding the stiff-backed propriety that has come to characterize his solo projects, Cale throws himself into manic viola scraping (always the secret ingredient in the band’s cacophony), driving the sonic asylum insurrection on “Heroin,” “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and “Hey Mr. Rain.” He also makes able work of the vocals for such Nico-tunes as “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Femme Fatale.” (However, Reed’s “I’m Waiting for the Man” has been sung far better by those who sound a shade less unlikely to have ever scored, or imagined scoring, smack in Harlem.) Cale even gives an enthusiastic recitation to his vicious shaggy-dog saga (“The Gift”) — as if the O’Henry ending might still come as a surprise to listeners.
For his part, Reed tries singing again for a change. He makes a fine showing on “White Light/White Heat,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “Beginning to See the Light” and “Pale Blue Eyes,” among others, but he trashes “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and cruelly disrespects the folk-melody details of “Venus in Furs.” He also plays guitar with the neck-wringing intensity and contemporary flair of any crazed young woollyburgher in a Velvets-cushioned noise band. (See “I Heard Her Call My Name” for a hair-raising example of feedback-riddled furiosity.) On rhythm guitar and bass, Morrison (who died of lymphoma in August ’95) slashes away with the sturdy 4/4 downstroke that was one of the band’s less noted but essential signatures. Meanwhile, Tucker maintains the economical tomtom backbeat for which she’s always been treasured and sings “Afterhours” and, with Reed, an over-optimistic “I’m Sticking With You” set to tinkly Cale piano as light relief. Good for much more than a deep sigh of relief at a memory aired and unsullied, Live MCMXCIII (and don’t stint by getting the half-pint issue — you’d miss Reed’s shamelessly hysterical “Velvet Nursery Rhyme” — even in the plush plastic folder with peelable bananas) is an amazing triumph over nature.
The decade’s other blast from the Velvets’ past is Peel Slowly and See, a five-CD chronological retrospective containing the band’s four studio albums (The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground and Loaded, rightly ignoring Squeeze, a sham involving no founding members) in their entirety, half of VU, previously unissued demos, six concert recordings (only one of them from the three official live albums), alternate versions and outtakes from Loaded plus a pair of Velvets-written-and-played tunes from Nico’s first solo album.
The live artifacts are well-chosen and blindingly good, but — commendable though their excavation and exhibition may be — some of the archive discoveries are the wrong kind of revelatory. One entire disc is devoted to an excruciating six-song 1965 home demo session by Cale, Morrison and a short-tempered Reed. For 80 humiliating minutes, the three would-be folk-rockers repeatedly attempt to shape their new conception into something presentable; hearing it now sucks most of the mystery and some of the thrill out of what they finally came up with. The stirring campfire harmonies of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” are amusing enough in light of the Teutonic sheen Nico later froze the song in, but when Cale sings “Venus in Furs” as a solemn Welsh ballad over acoustic guitar, what would become stylishly droning debauchery succumbs to laughably ponderous S&M coffeehouse chic. Reed’s nasal delusions of channeling Jimmie Rodgers by way of a wizened Delta bluesman on a jugband arrangement of “Waiting for the Man” are equally off-the-mark ludicrous, embarrassing evidence that he was taking someone else’s walk on the wild side — and being awfully condescending about it. “Heroin,” though, approached in much the same way, yields more credible results. But then there’s “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” an egregious (and wisely discarded) Reed composition that forces Cale to sing such pseudo-poetic howlers as “Excrement filters through the brain/Hatred bends the spine/Filth covers the body pores/To be cleansed by dying time” — so that’s where Trent Reznor learned to read.
No matter how good the songs or bizarre the performances (“Countess From Hong Kong”?), the later demos are easier to swallow in the sense that they come out of the group’s aesthetic, not the other way around. Six hours of the Velvet Underground may be more than anyone need hear, but it’s undeniable that decades of profound rock greatness and influence are inscribed in Peel Slowly and See‘s grooves.
The two volumes of Heaven and Hell, both on England’s since-evaporated Imaginary label, ignore all of the contemporary bands whose careers are essentially tributes to the Velvet Underground and instead assemble cover versions of a generally better cut than the usual let’s-have-a-bash dross. The transoceanic Volume One includes Nirvana doing “Here She Comes Now,” the Wedding Present, Ride, Screaming Trees, Telescopes and Buffalo Tom. The inferior all-British-Isles Volume Two features Echo and the Bunnymen doing the obscure “Foggy Notion,” Fatima Mansions, Revenge, the Reegs and Bill Nelson.