|The Velvet Underground & Nico||1967||3.01/pi|
|White Light/White Heat||1967||2.84/pi|
|The Velvet Underground||1969||3.00/pi|
Once upon a time, there was a band called the Velvet Underground. They were founded by a wacky wannabe avant-garde composer guy (Jonathanopoulos Cale), a zany drug- and S&M-addled beatnik (Lou Reed), a loopy mallet-wielding gender-hiding drummer chick (Mooooo Tucker), and some other guy (Merlin Storrisong). One day, the four of them sold their soul (they only had one left between them) to Andy Warhol in exchange for a nutty German actress/chanteuse (Nico (Christa Päffgen)). Together, the six of them embarked on a journey that would change them forever.
It changed them into delicious marshmallows. Laced with heroin.
Main lineup: Lou Reed: guitar, vocals. Sterling Morrison: guitar. Maureen Tucker: drums, vocals. John Cale: bass, viola, organ, until 1968.
Other personnel: Nico: creepy vocals on the debut. Doug Yule: bass, keyboards, vocals, smarm after 1968. Billy Yule: drums, filling in for the pregnant Tucker on Loaded.
It is said that everyone over the age of 40 knows exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that this album had just been released. Who says that? Owls. Ignorant motherfucking owls.
Boy, that “Heroin” sure is a good song, ain’t it? There had been songs about drugs before, there had even been songs about lots of drugs, but this was something else. This was (list of adjectives stolen from allmusic.com) atmospheric detached gentle uncompromising melancholy rebellious wry reckless witty nihilistic calm/peaceful playful volatile eerie druggy cerebral literate acerbic brash poignant bittersweet! And then there was that crazyass viola soloing from John Cale. Who the hell does that guy think he is?
I guess what I’m getting at here is: this is a pretty important album. It was ahead of its time when it was recorded in the spring of 1966, it was still ahead of its time when it was belatedly released a year later, and it remained ahead of its time until exactly 3:47 PM on February 8th, 1983, when President Reagan signed the Velvet Underground Rediscovery Act, which authorized the CIA to kill anyone who doesn’t own this album.
Since then, a lot of people have whined about this album not being as good as it&rquo;s supposed to be, and the whiners are sort of right. Sort of. I mean, the band spends a bit too much time throwin’ shit at the wall to see what sticks, not really caring if they blunder around on one idea for too long (“All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “European Son”) or just never had much of an idea in the first place (“The Black Angel’s Death Song”).
On the other hand, they also had a very solid core of honest-to-goodness songs. Even if you cut out all of the experimental shit, the sheer songwriting talent would be enough to make this an excellent album. I promise! “Sunday Morning”? That shit is a hell of a pop ballad! An incredible piece of production, too. It really sounds like waking up on a beautiful Sunday morning after brutally raping a dozen pre-op transsexuals in a druggy haze the night before, or however it is that Lou Reed spends his Saturday nights. “I’m Waiting for the Man”? Rock ’n’ roll with all the brown M&Ms removed! I’m going to use a whopping cliché here by invoking the word “primal”, but that’s what it is. And even seemingly trivial Nico-sung pop songs like “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” turn out to be fantastic. In short, this is the real thing.
They kicked out Nico. I barely even talked about Nico’s contributions to the last album. But she was sort of wallpaper anyway, although I admit her voice is pretty cool (as in, icy.) They kicked out Warhol too, and he was less than wallpaper. Whatever their association with the man, the Velvets never really had much in common with his aesthetics (now, Metal Machine Music, on the other hand…) So this album isn’t particularly different than the last one.
Actually, they did change a bit. For one thing, they’ve mostly set aside their pop balladeering side in favor of pure gooey oozing experimental rock. Unfortunately, they’re still poor judges of their own material. Does anyone really need to hear macabre 8-minute shaggy dog story “The Gift” more than once? I suspect it was exactly that sort of shit that got him kicked out of the band—ah, but Im getting ahead of myself.
The album immediately opens in a cloud of disorientation, with the title track bursting in out of nowhere, right in the middle of a measure, a supersonic fuzzed-out “I’m Waiting for the Man”. “Lady Godiva’s Operation” is maybe the most nightmarish (and, like most nightmares, rather goofy) thing in the band’s catalogue—a song which cops the “Mbube/Wimoweh/Lion Sleeps Tonight” melody like a terrorist holding it for ransom. And let’s not forget “Sister Ray”, which is just a bottomless pit of beautiful filth’not just underproduced, but unproduced (and unengineered). “White Light/White Heat” burns out in a couple minutes, but “Sister Ray” slows down (and speeds up, and slows down…) that beat into an epic 18-minute travelogue of a single tiny scene in some dirty apartment—or maybe many very similar scenes, happening over and over. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever heard to the aural equivalent of Hell (an oldschool sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll Hell that is, not any of that newfangled infomercial shit.) More importantly, “Sister Ray” is just a blast to listen to, and it exposes just about every future rock band’s attempt at “jamming” for the piffle it is.
The Velvets go quiet. Deathly quiet. I dunno how much of that is due to Lou Reed’s natural songwriting evolution, and how much is due to John Cale being replaced by Doug Yule. Yule, who croons the practically inaudible opener, dispenses with Cale’s freakish viola and organ soloing, but in theory, that just leaves more room for Reed and Morrison’s guitar antics. I’m a believer in songwriting creationism, so I’ll go with option C, sunspots.
Whatever it was that changed between 1967 and 1969, it got Reed back to writing songs again, not just piles and piles of weird (though exciting) crap. He also seems to have gotten himself a quality control mechanism (and despite appearances, Doug Yule is definitely not that mechanism.) The result was a warm, soft, intimate bunch of flawless songs, with a huge-ass meteorite punched through the second half. Yeah, just when you’re thinking that the band’s warped side has gone forever, the track thingy clicks over to number 9, number 9, number 9, and we have an epic experimental monster with multiple spoken and sung vocal lines criss-crossing each other for 8 minutes, ending in a creepy, hypnotic piano coda. Even then, it doesn’t exactly rock like “Sister Ray”, but it is a weirdly compelling anomaly.
The rest of the album, however, is quite tuneful and sedate—even rockers like “What Goes On” and “Beginning to See the Light” are more concerned with being pop songs than with trying to smash your doors down and rape your pets. And that goes double for beautiful ditties like “Pale Blue Eyes”, and the campfire singalong closer, “After Hours”, handled perfectly and with barely competent gusto by Mo Tucker.
Reed hasn’t entirely left behind the ol’ sex, drugs, and rock & roll schtick, but the focus here is on quiet introspection, spirituality and mortality. “Jesus / help me find my proper place”, he sings with disarming directness on (you guessed it) “Jesus”. A couple tracks down, “I’m Set Free” take a more ambiguous tack with the refrain “I’m Set Free / to find a new illusion.” The song features a pure, gorgeous guitar solo that may be my favorite ever laid to tape, though it’s miles away from the group’s customary chaotic noise. It’s the centerpiece of arguably the Velvets’ most consistently enjoyable album.
Okay, this is boring city. The Velvets wound up on a new label after a few aborted sessions for their fourth album, and Lou was asked to provide a platter “loaded with hits.” What’s a Lou Reed to do in such a situation? Well, being the cynic he is, our little buddy gave it to ’em, ten tracks of generic classic rock, without even the barest hint of the atmosphere that animated the previous records. And Mr Yule helps out, not only singing lead on four of the ten tracks, but bringing in his brother Billy to handle the drums while Ms Tucker was on maternity leave.
But wait, I don’t hear you cry, what about “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll”? Yeah, let’s talk about them shits. I mean, this is good stuff. Really good. The Velvet Underground songs that even the stoned fratboys of the world can groove to. They’re good songs. Damn good. I’d buy ’em a drink if I got the chance.
So how the hell do you evaluate an album with two glorious rock classics, surrounded by filler for miles around? I’ll leave you to ponder that question.
For those of you who’re keeping score, there was one more album released under the Velvet Underground moniker, featuring Dougl-ass Yule and no other past member of the group. Basically, the manager of the group was trying to keep their name alive and poor Yuley got roped into it. The move earned him a lot of hatred and very few record sales. I haven’t heard the thing, and I’m not really in a hurry to dig it out.
This posthumous collection is a misshapen patched-together blob of unreleased tracks recorded by the band at various sessions in 1968 and ’69. Two songs, “Temptation Inside of Your Heart” and “Stephanie Says”, were recorded with John Cale before he left the group, presumably for a never-to-be-released followup to White Light/White Heat. Fast forward to mid-1969 and you’ll find the group (now with Mr Doug Yule manning the bass) recording another abortion, this time laying down eight songs for a lost followup to The Velvet Underground, discarded in the record company shuffle.
Several of these songs would later appear in more polished versions on Lou’s solo albums. You may or may not like the original takes better, but you can’t deny that it makes for an enjoyable listen on its own terms. “Stephanie Says” is arguably their prettiest ballad ever. “I Can’t Stand It” is an infectious rocker. And “I’m Sticking with You” rivals the Beatles’ “Good Night” for the title of “Perfect Schlocky Album Closer”.
Filling in the gaps in their evolution, this album makes clear the band’s trajectory from experimental madness to rocksy rootsy floppy pop. (In fact you could say they were removing the opiates from their sound in favor of something more poppy [if you had no sense of humor].) The ’69 material isn’t quite as commercial as the stuff on Loaded, but it cuts away most of the remaining craziness even from the rather subdued Velvet Underground. The two ’68 songs ain’t much to go on, but they do show Reed drawing back from the precipice of WL/WH, revisiting the more accessible moments on the debut. I wouldn’t mind having some real rip-roaring throat-slashing stuff on here, but I can deal. You will no doubt be sorely tempted to boycott this album for daring to steal its cover concept from King Crimson, but if you can find it in your heart to forgive the designer, do so.