Saturday, 9 February 2019

The Velvet Underground



"The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band" - Brian Eno

The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)


Sunday Morning/I'm Waiting For The Man/Femme Fatale/Venus In Furs/Run Run Run/All Tomorrow's Parties/Heroin/There She Goes Again/I'll Be Your Mirror/The Black Angel's Death Song/European Son               

1967 saw some great albums released - The Doors debut album and Strange Days; Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced; Big Brother And The Holding Company; oh, and Sgt Pepper, of course. Then there was this one - The Velvet Underground - Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker abetted on three tracks by the mysterious German chanteuseNico. It is never mentioned as much as other albums of the time. Yes, it had critical acclaim and certainly has done in retrospect. However, in many ways, its influence has been greater, maybe, than the album itself. David Bowie, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Roxy Music, Mott The Hoople, Magazine, Oasis, U2 and so many punk and post-punk bands owe this album so much. It is also probably one of the most drug-addled albums of all time.
                          
It starts strangely, with the wistful, reflective and melodic Sunday Morning featuring Reed’s gentle, unthreatening vocal. He almost sounds like a college boy next door. Come the next track, though, and we get the real stuff - the insistent, drug-inspired anthem, I'm Waiting For The Man. Its repetitive piano coda adds to the somewhat frantic ambience and the riff is a killer. Femme Fatale features Nico for the first time. Her German accent is a bit bizarre at times, but her voice is haunting and beguiling. The sound, however, even on this 45th Anniversary remaster, is awful, with some real distortion in places in the music. The same applies to Sunday Morning. No amount of remasterings seem to make any difference, which is a shame. There is a mono version of the album available on the “deluxe edition” and it does have some of the attributes that mono recordings have - a definite raw, visceral edginess - but, unfortunately those same distortions are still there.


Venus in Furs is a masterpiece of menacing, drug-addled paranoia put to music. A cutting guitar riff cuts right through the song with no change of pace as Reed’s vocal remains deadpan and relentless. A very atmospheric, evocative track. Run Run Run is a frenetic, punky number which owes more than a little to Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, and The Rolling Stones’ Aftermath album. Again, the sound is dodgy but somehow it adds to the decadent feeling of the album. The guitar solo at the end is discordant and scratchy. I wish it could be remastered better, but I guess it is not possible. It is what it is. All Tomorrow's Parties is Nico’s finest moment on the album. A tambourine heralds a wonderful, spine tingling keyboard riff and then she arrives - floating in with her haughty, sonorous voice like that weird German guest at someone’s party that you can’t really remember. Just that voice, and that guitar, man. A memorable, captivating guitar joins in, sounding like U2 would do thirty years later, underpinning the whole thing. Magnificent.

Is one demi-monde classic enough for one album? Hell no. Next up is Lou Reed’s masterpiece - Heroin. It betters Parties, unbelievably, in many ways. Another sparse, iconic intro - lone guitar, some isolated drum sounds and Reed’s enigmatic vocal about injecting himself with heroin. Sombre stuff, indeed, but it is an incredibly hard-hitting creation. It is a difficult listen but no less mesmeric for it. Maureen Tucker keeps a slightly clumsy drum rhythm going throughout, and the guitar burns and slices while Reed’s trip gets worse. Nobody could possibly say that this track would encourage anyone to take heroin. Reed and the band make it sound like the nightmare it clearly is. From the chilled out relaxed beginning, the “high” soon becomes a sweating, hallucinating, paranoid trip from hell, both vocally and musically, as the guitar starts screeching out of control. A bad heroin trip set to music. Some achievement.



There She Goes Again lifts the mood with a bit of sixties Byrds-style jangly pop, albeit against some world-weary cynical lyrics. I'll Be Your Mirror is Nico’s third song and a brief, tuneful little one it is - nice bass line and tambourine and vocal delivery. A breath of fresh air in amongst all the comparative misery. The Black Angel's Death Song tried to out-Dylan early Dylan but fails, to be honest. This is a discordant and irritating song, if I am totally honest. European Son is very much a Lou Reed track, at least for the first minute or two, and if you added some Mick Ronson guitar to it and cleaned it up a bit you could imagine it would fit quite well on to 1972’s Transformer. It has some madcap guitar and drums and threatens to get completely out of control, however, with all that feedback, cascading bass lines and hyperactive drumming. An archetypal piece of 1967 instrumental indulgence. At times unlistenable, at the same times, though, completely captivating. Like taking drugs I suppose. Thankfully, I wouldn’t know.

White Light/White Heat (1968)


White Light/White Heat/The Gift/Lady Godiva's Operation/Here She Comes Now/I Heard Her Call My Name/Sister Ray

This was The Velvet Underground's second album, and and absolute masterpiece of demi-mode, drugged-up, psychedelic proto-punk, proto post-punk paranoid white noise. It is one of rock's most influential albums of all time, but, strangely, is never really mentioned in the list of true classics. The sound quality is "rough", to say the least, but seemingly intentionally so. It was meant to hit your nerve endings. It was recorded in only two days.

White Light/White Heat suffers from appallingly tinny, scratchy sound, despite numerous remasters. I guess it is always going to be like that. In many ways it doesn't matter - it's grainy, raw, edgy sound contains is massive, insistent, electric drill-like appeal. It is an iconic slice of late sixties adventurous sub-culture. The Gift is eight minutes of buzzy, "industrial" guitar long before Joy Division and features John Cale speaking the disturbing vocals in his appealing Welsh accent. Cale turns his hand to singing is a haunting, sonorous fashion on the oddly catchy Lady Godiva's Operation. The track once again features some absolutely killer guitar riffs and lyrics that just take your breath away in their avant-garde experimental, just plain weirdness. Lou Reed joins in near the end of this fetching bonkers composition. Was any one else doing stuff like this in 1968? Sure, I Am The Walrus had been decidedly odd, and The Doors would have their moment later in the same year, but this was genuinely ground-breaking stuff. Way, way, way ahead of its time.

Here She Comes Now sees Reed back on vocals on a perfect piece of late sixties psychedelic pop, with its intense drum sound and intoxicating slowed-down Byrds-esque guitar. Put this on and let it swim around your head and you are at one heck of a late sixties party. Just when you think your trip couldn't get any worse, man, you are assaulted by the gloriously feedback-drenched racket of I Heard Her Call My Name. Don't listen to this with a migraine. Its searing guitar drills into your head and Reed's vocals get more crazed as it careers along its beautifully bonkers path.


The final track is the epic seventeen minute Sister Ray based around a three chord riff that never lets up. I am sure this is what Jonathan Richman used as his inspiration for his 1978 Roadrunner. Apparently the chords are different, but Richman acknowledges that he based the song on this. The Buzzcocks founder members, Howard Devoto (later of Magazine) and Pete Shelley initially bonded over a love for this track. The lyrics are about a drag queens' orgy, apparently, although at many points they are pretty incomprehensible. About half way through some stonking lead guitar augments the beat, while the organ has swirled around all over the place from the beginning. The Stranglers must have listened to this too. At ten minutes in, the beat finally slows up and quietens down ever so slightly, but the feedback grows in intensity, so there is no relaxation, anywhere. There are brief hints of Blondie's Rip Her To Shreds for a few brief seconds. The keyboard noises around twelve and a half minutes in are very Brian Eno. The list of those who must have been influenced by this piece of glorious insanity grows by the second. The track's last two minutes are a breakneck roller-coaster ride of mad guitars and ranting vocals.

You can't listen to this album over and over every day. It needs to be experienced every now and again. Listen, you don't need no drugs, man, just give yourself half an hour of this.



The Velvet Underground (1969)


Candy Says/What Goes On/Some Kinda Love/Pale Blue Eyes/Jesus/Beginning To See The Light/I'm Set Free/That's The Story Of My Life/The Murder Mystery/After Hours  

After the avant-garde art rock of 1967's The Velvet Underground & Nico and the pre-post punk feedback-soaked intensity of 1968's White Light/White Heat, this third VU album showed a surprising change in direction. The band's most innovative, experimental member had left in John Cale and was replaced by multi-instrumentalist Doug YuleLou Reed has always liked a contemplative, melodic song and this album had a few of those. It was, to a certain extent, the relatively subdued "come down" morning after the debauchery of the night before. If the first album was mid-evening, the second one was the dark, paranoid early hours and this one was the more peaceful quiet of morning. There was still an essential darkness to it all, though, that would never leave. It has a certain cohesiveness to it and is clearly far less of an all-out assault than its predecessor.

Lou Reed does look very "square" on the cover, however, more like a Harvard student than a ground-breaking member of the demi-monde.

                                
The album begins on a really low-key feel with the sad, reflective and mournful Candy Says. It features Yule singing quietly (requested to sing by Reed) and plaintively against a sparse but melodic backing. In case you were thinking that VU had forgotten how to rock, however, we are reminded that they certainly could on the comparatively powerful and riffy, Stonesy What Goes On. A notable thing on this album, is that although the sound is still decidedly ropey in places, it is better than the deliberately rough "lo-fi" sound of the second album. There is some killer guitar in the middle of this track. Some Kinda Love is a corker, too, featuring some excellent guitar/bass/cowbell interplay and a menacing-ish vocal from Reed. "Like a dirty French novel, combines the absurd with the vulgar..." is a great line. There was always a bit of wry, observational humour about Reed's lyrics.

Pale Blue Eyes goes all pious and self-analytical. Stuff like this really is nothing like the previous album.

Beginning To See The Light sees the rock return with some trademark VU riffage, such as utilised on I'm Waiting For The Man. It also has some fetching, harmonious vocal parts in between the intense guitar. I'm Set Free has a bit of a feel of Heroin about it in its stark guitar backing, but the song has none of the despair of it. Exactly the opposite, as it tries to have a liberated, optimistic message. There is a nice guitar and drum passage a couple of minutes in. Musically, the band are becoming more melodic, more subtle and clever, less one-dimensionally hard-hitting. That's The Story Of My Life is almost carefree and poppy in its singalong refrain. It could be a country rock number.

The Murder Mystery is an experimental number featuring all the band's members on vocals, often spoken. It doesn't quite work for me, if I'm honest. At nearly nine minutes it goes on far too long and Maureen "Moe" Tucker's voice is petty awful. After three or four minutes I've had enough. Unfortunately, good old Moe is back on lead vocals on After Hours, a song described by Reed as "so innocent and pure" that he couldn't possibly sing it himself. So, for me, the album finishes on a couple of comparative low points, but don't let that put you off. The previous eight tracks are all well worth checking out.



Loaded (1970)


Who Loves the Sun/Sweet Jane/Rock And Roll/Cool It Down/New Age/Head Held High/Lonesome Cowboy Bill/I Found A Reason/Train Round The Bend/Oh! Sweet Nuthin'    

This was the final album, to all intents and purposes, from The Velvet Underground (yes I know there was the Doug Yule-led album in 1973) and the last to feature Lou Reed, who was about to embark on a solo career. Despite that 1973 album, it surely really ends here for VU. Doug Yule is highly prominent on the album, however, John Cale had left and Maureen Tucker was away giving birth. Sterling Morrison was still there, though. It does have a bit of a feel of a Lou Reed solo album, you have to say.

It was far more commercial in its feel, leaving behind the avant-garde, experimental art-rock of their three earlier albums. It is not full of lyrics about drugs and sex anymore. They wanted, here, to produce a more radio-friendly, poppier album. Record label head Ahmet Ertegun had apparently asked for an album "loaded with hits". To a certain extent they achieved that, but they were still The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed was still the lyricist. It wasn't going to be a "I really love you, baby" type of album, was it?

                 
The album begins with the gentle, rhythmic and almost country rock strains of Who Loves The Sun, with its already throwback hippy-ish "ba-ba-ba" backing vocals. There are hints of The Beatles circa 1964 in this. It really is rather delightful. Sweet Jane has that iconic riff and catchy melody, together with its perplexing lyrics. David Bowie surely borrowed the "just watch me now" line, too. Similarly infectious is Rock And Roll, with another insistent riff and some great guitar. Both songs are done with far more rock power on Lou Reed's 1974 Rock And Roll Animal live album, it has to be said. Also, Mott The Hoople's 1972 cover of  Sweet Jane isn't half bad, either. Still, this was 1970, and these two tracks were pretty ground-breaking at the time, being a pop type of rock, but also thoughtful and mysterious. They managed to merge riffiness with a lyrical poetic appeal. The Doors had done so earlier in slightly different ways but there was something quite unique about this material. There is no doubt that this album paved the way for artists/bands like David Bowie, Mott The Hoople, Roxy Music and even T. Rex to do their thing a few years later.

Cool It Down is a track that I am sure influenced The Rolling Stones' output from 1971-74. Again, it is infectiously riffy. After three solid, rocking songs, it was time for some Lou Reed laid-back quirkiness. We get it in the beguiling, contemplative New Age. It is full of cynically observational lyrics. It ends with some heavier, rock passages, despite the quiet beginning. Head Held High surely was a blueprint for the New York Dolls in its frantic, glammy rock sound. Lonesome Cowboy Bill was a wild, upbeat Velvet Underground meets country rock romp. These songs were really bringing out the "fun" side of Reed and a personality that was sensitive and wryly humorous as opposed to depressed and angst-ridden over sex and drugs issues and the demi-monde.

I Found A Reason is a sixties-ish Beatles-influenced number, with some Doors-esque guitar. Train Round The Bend has echoes of White Light/White Heat in its underpinning beat. There is still a grainy edginess to it that leaves you in no doubt that this is The Velvet Underground. Oh! Sweet Nuthin' is an understated but gloriously soulful and atmospheric Reed song. It is a true classic on which to end the original album. Check out the guitar after Reed sings "let me hear ya...". There is something special about this track. Great stuff indeed.

This was, overall, a commercial-sounding record that the band had only just discovered they had in them, but they didn't sell out their musical personality and uniqueness in producing it, either. It still has lots of Lou Reed/Velvet Underground hallmarks. What was so great about The Velvet Underground was that they pretty much changed their style for every album the released. Quite an achievement.



The Very Best Of The Velvet Underground


Sweet Jane/I'm Sticking With You/I'm Waiting For The Man/What Goes On/White Light/White Heat/All Tomorrow's Parties/Pale Blue Eyes/Femme Fatale/Heroin/Here She Comes Now/Stephanie Says/Venus In Furs/Beginning To See The Light/I Heard Her Call My Name/Some Kinda Love/I Can't Stand It/Sunday Morning/Rock & Roll

The Velvet Underground were an odd group - part sweet melodic sixties pop, part visceral, nihilistic no future drugged-up psychedelia. Even under the "poppy" numbers lay a bleak darkness, however. Although critically acclaimed, I have always felt that it was their influence that has been talked about more than the actual music itself, which I have to say is often tinny, distorted and of very poor sound quality, no matter how many remasters it undergoes. Maybe therein lies its raw, edgy, unsettling appeal.

Whatever, David Bowie, Mott The Hoople, The New York Dolls, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Roxy Music, The Buzzcocks, The Stranglers, U2, Magazine, Joy Division, Gang Of Four and many more punk and especially post-punk bands owe this disparate original foursome - Lou ReedJohn CaleSterling Morrison and Maureen "Moe" Tucker a serious debt of gratitude.

Sweet Jane has a sort of false beginning of melodic background noises before that trademark riff kicks in. Personally, I prefer the cover of it Mott The Hoople did and Lou Reed's own guitar-drenched live version on Rock And Roll Animal, but the original still has its good points. For me, though, the horribly twee I'm Sticking With You doesn't really do it. Time to get down to some serious business. We get it with the iconic drug song, I'm Waiting For The Man. While it has a huge, insistent riffy groove, this original recording is infuriatingly tinny and scratchy. Therein lies my big problem with a lot of VU material - the awful sound. As I said earlier, though, it perversely adds to its  grainy, dirty appeal.

What Goes On sees the group rocking as hard as they ever did, again featuring a killer riff and great vocal. White Light/White Heat is another copper-bottomed VU rocker, blighted by poor sound, but what the heck. The pace never lets up, it is full of furious punky energy, almost ten years ahead of its time. All Tomorrow's Parties is marvellously atmospheric, featuring the beguiling heavily accented vocals of guest vocalist, German chanteuse Nico. It is one of my favourite tracks of all from them. "Oll tomorross partiss" indeed. It really is very appealing in its essential sadness.

The plaintive Pale Blue Eyes is a typical Lou Reed ballad. There is a good sound on this one, funnily enough, with crystal clear percussion and melodic guitar. Despite the whole drugged up feel of pretty much every The Velvet Underground did, they also put out some serious good love songs. Femme Fatale has Nico returning on a haunting number - even more Teutonic this time, singing "what a clonn" instead of "clown", which, while slightly off-putting, is certainly unique and has such a quirky attractiveness to it.



Next up is Lou Reed’s masterpiece - Heroin. It betters Parties, unbelievably, in many ways. Another sparse, iconic intro - lone guitar, some isolated drum sounds and Reed’s enigmatic vocal about injecting himself with heroin. Sombre stuff, indeed, but it is an incredibly hard-hitting creation. It is a difficult listen but no less mesmeric for it. Maureen Tucker keeps a slightly clumsy drum rhythm going throughout, and the guitar burns and slices while Reed’s trip gets worse. Nobody could possibly say that this track would encourage anyone to take heroin. Reed and the band make it sound like the nightmare it clearly is. From the chilled out relaxed beginning, the “high” soon becomes a sweating, hallucinating, paranoid trip from hell, vocally and musically as the guitar starts screeching out of control. A bad heroin trip set to music. Some achievement.

Here She Comes Now is a psychedelic slice of late sixties pop/rock, full of frantic riffs and intense drum sounds backing a mysterious vocal, while Stephanie Says is the unnerving, but strangely tuneful precursor to Lou Reed's Caroline Says II which featured on his 1973 Berlin album. It has a disturbing beauty to it that is irresistible. The track is full of hiss, but otherwise the backing is sumptuous.

Venus In Furs is a masterpiece of menacing, drug-addled paranoia put to music. A cutting guitar riff cuts right through the song with no change of pace as Reed’s vocal remains deadpan and relentless. A very atmospheric, evocative track. Beginning To See The Light is a masterpiece of VU riffage, with that trademark guitar sound, such as utilised on I'm Waiting For The Man. It also has some fetching harmonic vocal parts in between the intense guitar. Talking of guitar, I Heard Her Call My Name is a glorious, feedback-drenched dollop of pre-punk viscerality. This was superbly noisy, discordant, ground-breaking stuff. Some Kinda Love has a captivating guitar/bass/cowbell interplay and another peerless, menacing vocal from Reed. I Can't Stand It is a track that didn't make it on to any of the band's albums. It is once more superbly riffy, with a great bass line and bags of grubby, subterranean atmosphere. Sunday Morning is Reed's oddly fetching number, with its nursery-style intro and Reed sounding like a harmless boy next door. It was a bit of a forerunner to Perfect Day. This excellent compilation ends with a slice of sheer classic VU in the upbeat, "fine, fine music" of the totally infectious Rock 'n' Roll. The beat is addictively insistent, Reed's vocals get increasingly madcap, and the guitar throughout is sublime. Fine, fine music it was. Great band. Huge influence. The "Gold" compilation gives you even more, but if you want to dip into the music of this seminal band, then these eighteen tracks will do you right.

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