Brian Eno once said that even though hardly anyone bought Velvet Underground recordings at the time they first appeared, almost everyone who did formed their own bands. This is apparently the only way to explain the immense influence this group has had, despite its almost entire lack of commercial success.
Although the Velvets were apparently similar to other late-sixties rock groups, in that their subject matter included sex and drugs, these similarities were only superficial. While other, mostly West-coast or London based bands, snuck in sly references to marijuana or LSD, and sang wryly about straight, extra-marital intercourse, the New York based VU trod an entirely different path: they sang, without apparent moral judgment, about addiction to harder drugs, such as heroin, with music that simulated the experiences accompanying such drug use. In the sexual realm, they sang about sado-masochism and other alternatives, again focusing on the immediate feelings of the participants, and not on the attitudes of the surrounding society, or on the larger consequences of such behavior.
The sounds the group produced were equally unique. Again, whereas other groups used feedback and borrowed avant-garde techniques from other musicians, these touches were mostly ornamental and carefully woven into the fabric of traditional pop and rock. In some of the Velvet Underground’s work, however, these effects were the centerpiece of the group’s sound. So whereas The Beatles used a bit of guitar feedback to introduce the otherwise traditional song, “I Feel Fine,” VU used feedback much more pervasively, and as a way of painting an urban landscape that was as foreign to normal sensibilities as was the music they were playing.
Unlike many groups that followed, however, the Velvet Underground defined itself neither by its extreme subject matter nor by its noise levels. The group recorded many songs that would qualify as soft- or folk-rock, and with much more conventional topics. In fact, the stylistic diversity captured on the group’s four originally released albums was broader than that of any of its contemporaries.
Amidst all these other characteristics, what is often ignored as an explanation for this band’s immense influence is its conscious approach to rock music as an art form. Singer, songwriter and guitarist Lou Reed studied avant-garde jazz, film and contemporary poetry while getting his degree at Syracuse University. He worked as a staff songwriter at Pickwick records for some time before founding the Velvets, so he had a taste of the commercial side of rock and pop, and made a conscious decision to pursue a different path. The group’s initial patron, producer and manager was Andy Warhol, a successful modern visual artist. John Cale, who played bass, viola and organ on the first two albums, was a classically trained musician who had come to the US from Wales in order to play serious, avant-garde music. Sterling Morrison, guitarist, eventually earned a Ph.D. in medieval literature.
The group was so focused on artistic goals that their original drummer, Angus MacLise, quit the band because he thought that any sort of commercial payment for their work violated the spirit of the band. The event that provoked this response was a gig playing at a high school in New Jersey — long before the release of their first album. Sterling Morrison recalls the decision. “Angus thought we were in it for art. We said, ‘Angus, we’re dying, we have no money, and we’re talking about $75!’ It was no sellout.” (Fricke 1995)
It is clear that this was a band intent on aesthetic, and not commercial, goals. According to Sterling Morrison, the group “never had an agenda for success.” John Cale describes the members of the group as “anarchists — but anarchists with heart.” And Lou Reed recalls advice from Warhol: “Andy said to me, ‘Whatever you do, keep all the dirty words.’ Essentially he was saying, ‘Don’t make it slick. Don’t make it smooth and ruin it.’ And we didn’t.” (Fricke 1995) It was only their fourth and final original album, Loaded, that was influenced at all by any commercial considerations, and by this time their artistic vision was well enough established that it was able to successfully weather such influences.
As with other sixties rock groups, the power of collaboration has also been neglected when considering the reasons for the Velvets’ artistic success. Sterling Morrison later said of the group, “With Cale and I, we were a real creative band. Lou really did want to have a whole lot of credit for the songs. So on nearly all the albums we gave it to him. It kept him happy. He got the rights to all the songs on Loaded, so now he’s credited with being the absolute and singular genius of the Underground, which is not true.” (Morrison 1980) In truth, all the members of the band deserve credit for helping to create the rich, unique sounds of the Velvet Underground.
A number of elements make the Velvets unique and worthwhile. First, their lyrics were like short stories, populated by fascinating characters from the Warhol coterie and from their circle of friends and acquaintances in New York City. Second, as they matured, their lyrics increasingly reflected a distinct worldview that valued beauty over functionality, art over convention, feelings over form. Third, their music reflected these values, using vocal harmonies, 12-string acoustic guitars, electronic feedback, and whatever else was at hand to craft hauntingly beautiful music. Fourth, they were masters at bending the music and instrumentation to the service of their words, always fashioning cohesive wholes in which the sound and the lyrics worked together seamlessly to create a unified artistic experience. As Lou Reed said in an interview, “...the music matched the words. If the words were scary, the music would get scary. If the words were sad, the music would get very sad.” (Fricke 1995) Fifth, although all the members of the group sang lead from time to time, Lou Reed ultimately emerged as a unique and important singer. In this capacity, Reed continued paths laid down by others such as Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger, further extending the expressive envelope of the rock vocal as he left strict adherence to melody and rhythm behind.
The group was a dynamic live act as well as a recording unit. Unfortunately, there were no professional recordings done of the band, since the group achieved little commercial or critical success while they were still together. Many live recordings are now available on CD, partly because the group’s legend has far outgrown the size of its initial recorded catalog. For the same reason, many additional albums of out-takes and long-lost recordings from record companies’ vaults have appeared since the group’s demise. As with many such ventures, ardent fans of the group will want to own everything that’s available. There is no doubt, however, that the band’s original four albums stand as finished works of accomplished artists, whereas the previously unreleased material generally had various good reasons for getting lost in the vaults in the first place.
Original Release Date: 1995
Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)
A comprehensive 5-CD collection that includes essentially all of the band’s originally released music, plus a generous collection of demos, live recordings, and studio recordings not released on any of the original four albums. Four of the five CDs contain the original VU albums in their original running orders, so that this collection almost renders the separate albums unnecessary. I say “almost” because there are a few differences: the self-titled third album is represented by the so-called “closet mix” of this album, and the classic “Sweet Jane” is included in its original, longer version. In the case of the VU album, I think the owner of this compilation gets the better deal. One of the best songs on the album, “Some Kinda Love,” is actually a completely different — and much better — recording than the one on the currently available stand-alone CD. In general, the closet mix has the vocals featured more prominently, which makes for a more intimate feel that seems closer to the spirit of many of the songs. Also, the closet mix is the collection that was originally released on vinyl. Some listeners have criticized these versions for sounding muffled (as if recorded in a closet), but this doesn’t seem much of an issue to me.
“Sweet Jane” is a different story. At the time Loaded was being prepared for its original release, record company officials decided to edit out a portion of the song. Twenty-five years later, the full original version was released on this compilation. There are two problems with the longer version: 1) after so many years of hearing the shorter version, the longer version just sounds wrong; 2) rock musicians sometimes need good editors as much as novelists, and this seems to be one of those cases — to my ears, the song works better without the omitted portion, which seems to do nothing except slow the pace of the song just when it is reaching its climax on the shorter version. There is recorded evidence that the song evolved radically for some period before being captured in the studio, so there is little justification for viewing the edited segment as an essential missing piece.
Bottom line: this boxed set is well worth the investment, and in one package will get you all the Velvet Underground music most of us will ever need.
Original Release Date: 2000
Rating: 3 Stars (Worthy)
It’s hard to imagine any rational basis for picking this particular selection of recordings as being the group’s best. Two of the group’s most popular songs, “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll,” are included only in live versions, presumably because the studio versions were issued by a different record company. Even if you are somehow firmly convinced you will never buy more than one VU album, you would be better off buying any one of their original releases rather than this collection.
Original Release Date: 1967
Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)
All of the Velvet Underground albums have their particular charms. Their debut has a broader stylistic range than any of the others and — for that matter — any other rock album I can think of. Where else can you get finely honed pop gems like “Femme Fatale,” a cinema verité look at heroin use, a serious song on sado-masochism, electronic feedback and screeching violas — all on the same album? Warhol’s ice-maiden Nico sings three of the songs on the album, giving the album an even broader sound. This is probably the most ground-breaking and promising debut album ever made by a rock group.
To my ears, however, this first album doesn’t stand up over time as well as the later ones. One of the progressions you can see on the four Velvet albums is a continuing revelation of the songwriter as a distinct presence in the songs. On this album, Reed is so intent on accurate and unflinching portrayal of his subjects that he paints himself completely out of the picture. The virtue of this approach is that the he achieves a sort of journalistic objectivity, with no trace of moral sermonizing obscuring our view of his characters. The problem is that there is no sense of the songwriter as a unifying and sympathetic presence. The characters are interesting, but ultimately they should be a lens to let us view the artist himself, and this function is never fulfilled.
Original Release Date: 1967
Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)
The sheer intensity of the noise on this album inspired no end of seventies groups, but the Velvets probably did it better, using feedback and intentional distortion as artistic devices, and not as ends in themselves. If you like this approach, then this album will earn a relic-like place in your collection. If you prefer more approachable and conventional music, then this is the last album to explore.
Original Release Date: 1969
Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)
Let me begin by admitting that the longest song on this album, “Murder Mystery” clocking in at 8:53, is at best an interesting but failed experiment. The song contains two different narratives set to verse that are read simultaneously by Reed and Morrison, with each getting its own stereo channel. This is one case where the lyrics prove truly unintelligible and ultimately irrelevant. The best you can say about this track is that is at least listenable, but it doesn’t really add any value to the album.
With this single exception, however, this is truly one of the best collections of tracks in the entire rock canon. In a complete about-face from their prior album, the music on this album is quiet and understated. There are various interesting explanations for this: John Cale had left the group by this time, taking his screechy viola and avant-garde musical tendencies with him; Morrison and Reed had just bought twelve-string guitars, with which they were enamored; their electric instruments were all stolen just before the beginning of the recording sessions — and some of these explanations are undoubtedly actually true. Whatever the causes, though, the results are haunting and timeless.
Reed has said of the Velvets’ music that “... we were always writing on a one-to-one level. So if you listen to the record, it’s like somebody sitting across from you.” (Fricke 1995) Nowhere is this description more apt than with this album. The characters on this collection are as interesting as on earlier efforts, but now there is a lens through which we view them. “Some Kinda Love” includes lines like “Put jelly on your shoulder, baby, lie down upon the carpet.” But these are now combined with other lines that make some sort of perspective on all this clear: “Between thought and expression, lies a lifetime,” and “No kinds of love are better than others.” This same song includes a sinuous guitar riff that, like sex itself, is endlessly repeated, but with infinite variations and shadings.
Another masterpiece is “Beginning to See the Light,” which alternates serious lines about a relationship like “Here we go again, thought that you were my friend,” with others like “There are problems in these times: oooh, but none of them are mine.” What’s great about this song is that the music for both subjects is entirely appropriate, and that these different subjects are contained and embraced within a single song. “Pale Blue Eyes” is another great one, with lines like “If I could make the world as pure / and strange as what I see / I’d put you in the mirror / I put in front of me / ...linger on / your pale blue eyes.” Again, the music perfectly echoes the lyrics, with the word “on” stretching out while guitars play beautifully in the background, perfectly conveying the image of this timeless, transcendent moment. Lou Reed once recalled that Syracuse University’s resident poet, Delmore Schwartz, advised him that he could do worse with his life than to devote it to reading James Joyce. (Fricke 1995) Like Joyce, the Velvets created a world so full of its own strange beauty that at moments like this it seems inhabitable: an alternate universe available at the touch of a button.
Original Release Date: 1970
Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)
This is probably the group’s most approachable and conventional record. They had signed with a new record company, and were actually being urged to write songs that could conceivably be played on a radio station. While the band had broken up by the time the album was released, the attempt was ultimately successful. Two of the tracks on here, “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll,” achieved considerable FM airplay in the seventies, and became staples in album rock radio programming. At the same time, the group still maintained its individuality and uniquely artistic stance. While The Rolling Stones were singing “I know / It’s only rock and roll / But I like it” — hardly a compelling argument, in my book — Lou Reed was singing “Despite all the amputations / you know you just could go out and dance to the Rock & Roll station” — expressing a much more interesting, idiosyncratic and meaningful viewpoint.
The music on this album is also the closest of all the original four to conventional, late-sixties rock. Maureen Tucker, the group’s drummer since the departure of MacLise, was out on maternity leave, and was replaced by a more conventional artisan, Billy Yule. Electric guitars were favored over acoustic 12-strings, although with little feedback or distortion. Yet at the same time there are lovely, unique instrumental touches on the album, and experimental sounds, such as the odd instrumental break that punctuates the otherwise wholesome musical question, “Who Loves the Sun?” The electric guitar parts on “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll” are also beautiful and interesting.
Although I’ve only mentioned three songs so far, the other seven on the album are all good as well. There is another long song, “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” but this one works, and is in fact another of the album’s highlights. The other material is all interesting and worthwhile.
Original Release Date: 1985
Rating: 3 Stars (Worthy)
This is the first of several albums assembled from bits and pieces found in the vaults after the band had gone on to achieve some degree of fame and respect. This first collection is the best of the lot, although it is still not up to standards set by the four original album releases. There are some good songs here, along with some that are merely interesting, but few if any of the recordings sound like finished versions. Some of these same songs are included on the boxed set as well.
Next: Sweet Jane