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Sunday, May 15, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: The Velvet Underground
It is nearly impossible in a discussion of alternative, indie, or punk music to avoid invoking the name of the Velvet Underground. In their short heyday, 1967-1970 they cut four brilliant studio albums that consistently broke new musical ground. They did so without being virtuosos, although John Cale was an accomplished musician, and Lou Reed was a decent guitarist. They also did so without selling many records; their debut was their biggest seller, peaking at #171. Their music seemed indifferent to the trends of the day; they weren't hippies, they weren't blues, they weren't folk, they weren't country, they weren't heavy metal.
The Velvet Underground operated on the fringes of the rock underground, which abutted the avant-garde, and their music was both challenging art and rudimentary rock 'n' roll. They introduced a new type of lyric; seamy, seedy, tawdry reports from the underbelly of society, teeming with kinky sex, hard drugs, S&M, gender bending. Their audience were generally outsiders, loners, and freaks; they weren't a band suburbia took to beyond a handful of stoners and slumming intellectuals.
They weren't even universally praised by the music press in their day; while they certainly had their champions, they also had a sizable number of detractors. Image-wise, they were pretty ugly and weird; they didn't inspire many teen crushes.
Yet their music, nearly four decades after it was recorded, has only grown in legend; its influence has been enormous. The Velvets represent the first real break from mainstream rock that survived (and thrived in some ways) as strictly an underground phenomenon. At their rawest, they were the first band to show that anybody could have a band; it wasn't dependent on having a pretty voice, good looks, or even being an especially talented player. They've also proven that there is more to rock 'n' roll than topping the charts, or selling a lot of records.
It's easy to cite the band's influence on punk music; at times nihilistic and primitive, they get credit for being forefathers of the genre, and Reed even retained street cred among the punks in the 70's, just about the only 60's figure to do so.
However, they were more than proto-punks; also capable of primitive art-rock and avant-garde experimentalism, incorporating violin, white noise, a husky voiced chanteuse, feedback, and basic rock 'n' roll, their influences can be heard in bands as diverse as Blue Oyster Cult, Television, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Pavement, Violent Femmes, Mazzy Star, Mercury Rev, Yo La Tengo, The Strokes, and countless others.
Although fellow member John Cale would object, perhaps rightfully so, the true focus of the Velvet Underground story is Lou Reed, who was equal parts street poet, rocker, and hustler. Surly, clad in leather and sunglasses, seldom seen without a cigarette, and owner of a tough-guy New York accent, he represented a new sort of rock anti-hero.
Born March 2, 1942 in Brooklyn, NY, Reed discovered rock 'n' roll as a young teen in the 50's. Also popular at the time, particularly in New York, was doo-wop, and the young Reed first graced an acetate in the late 50's as a member of the Shades, a local doo-wop outfit.
He attended Syracuse University where he read the beat literature of the late 50's as well as authors Raymond Chandler and Delmore Schwartz, who had an influence on him. He took an interest in avant-garde jazz, and dabbled in poetry. However, his primary interest kept returning to rock 'n' roll, and upon graduation in 1964, he headed down to New York City to try to make things happen.
He landed steady, if not glamorous, work as in-house songwriter and sessionman for Pickwick records, which specialized in cheap-o product; there, he gained an apprenticeship in the business of churning out records, engineering, and even producing.
It was a fortuitous gig for another reason, for it was through Pickwick that Reed met John Cale, a Welsh classically-trained musician, in New York to study and perform classical music. Cale had previously met and worked with avant-garde pioneers John Cage and LaMonte Young, but was drawn by the emotional immediacy of rock music. He and Reed both kept up an interest in the avant-garde, Cale approaching it from the viewpoint of a classical musician, Reed from the viewpoint of rough-hewn rocker.
Once they realized the convergence of interests, they naturally became interested in creating a fusion of them; bringing avant-garde concepts to rock music, and exploiting rock music for avant-garde purposes. This meeting of the minds was the germination of the Velvet Underground, and it was a radical concept; rock music at that time was still considered cheesy teenage noise, and the avant garde world was far removed from it.
Reed played a servicable-and-improving guitar, and Cale was proficient at bass, viola, and organ, which gave them a versatile nucleus for a band. They began performing together as The Primitives, the lineup fleshed out by avant garde artist friends. In 1965, Reed brought in an old friend, Sterling Morrison, as guitarist, and the drummer's seat went to Angus MacLise. This quartet was the first to use The Velvet Underground moniker.
The band hit a snag just prior to their first paying gig, when drummer MacLise refused to play, claiming that accepting money for art was a sellout; Sterling Morrison then suggested Maureen Tucker, the sister of one of his friends, to play drums.
Their lineup stabilized, the Velvets played throughout 1965 and into 1966, and gathered a repertoire of particularly good songs, mostly written by Reed. Even in the early days, his obsessions were sleazy, from the rationalizations of "Heroin" to the dope despair of "I'm Waiting For The Man" to the transgender "Venus In Furs". The playing was a loud, primitive hard rock; Morrison and Reed ran roughshod on guitar, sometimes given unconventional tunings, while Tucker played a minimalist drum and Cale scratched and scraped his viola. It was music that was profoundly intelligent, despite its degenerate leanings, and it gained some reknown in the clubs of Manhattan. However, it was also music that didn't stand much chance of ever being released; the mainstream marketplace was far too square and uptight in 1966 for a band like the Velvets.
It was another chance encounter that changed the band's fortunes, and rock history, forever. In late 1965, pop-art icon Andy Warhol, a frequent club goer, caught the Velvet's live act. He offered to manage the band and became a patron of sorts, featuring them in a new mixed-media performance art happening, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. In the spring of 1966 the band entered the studios to record what would become their first album, with Warhol listed as titular producer.
Having Andy Warhol running things was a mixed blessing for the band, in that they often had to acquiesce to his artistic vision. One of his ideas was to install a femme fatale lead singer, the German-born Nico. This was an idea the band wasn't happy with, but Nico was dutifully brought in. As it turns out, Warhol made a shrewd decision.
The Velvet Underground and Nico is a stunning debut from the very first notes to the very last. Opening with Reed's hazy morning-after "Sunday Morning" which sounds like a lullaby on 'ludes, and working its way through classic after classic, the album encapsulates almost everything both the band and Warhol hoped to capture. Nico turned out to be a real asset, singing some of the album's best songs, including "Femme Fatale" and the epic, roiling, "All Tomorrow's Parties". "Heroin" is stretched out and made even more harrowing, with feedback and Cale's viola mimicing a drug rush through the body as Reed justifies over the din. "I'm Waiting For My Man" becomes an ordeal, "Run Run Run" has an underground Dylan appeal to it. Even the Warhol-designed packaging was something special, featuring a banana with a sticker label you could actually peel.
Due to record company fears, this daring album languished for nearly a year before it was finally released. None of the music on it was radio-friendly, and while it was a freaky recording, it wasn't really psychedelic, which is where all the rage was at the time. Gaining release in early 1967 it made it no higher than #171, the band's best ever chart action. However, those few who bought the album were inspired; many bands were formed in the wake of its release by these listeners.
Internally, there was trouble in the band right from the start. After the album finally got its release, and was met with lukewarm reception from the press and at the register, they turned on Nico, who was fired. She subsequently launched a solo career of her own. The band and Warhol stopped getting along as well, as Warhol's interests turned to other things. They embarked on a tour of America during the summer of 1967, while working on what would become their sophomore album, White Light/White Heat.
White Light/White Heat bears little relation to its predecessor. Nico and Warhol are gone, but not missed. The band focuses on the noise on this album, playing hper-amped, angular and abrasive rock, letting white noise and static and feedback drench the songs. The leadoff title track is a noisy recommendation of speed, while "The Gift" is a bizarre R&B romp in one stereo channel, while John Cale recites a shaggy dog tale in the other channel. "Sister Ray" is one of the band's signature songs, clocking in at 17:27, it is a tightly controlled exercise in tension and release, as Reed mumbles through one of his most brutal and violent lyrics while the band builds and recedes before exploding in a freakout at the end. A blueprint for much noise-pop produced in th 80's and 90's, this was an album far ahead of its time. As for sales, it reached a token #199 on the charts.
In the summer of 1968, Reed and Cale's growing disagreements about band direction and other issues came to the forefront. This led to a bad "him or me" situation, in which Reed and Cale called for the other's dismissal; in the end, Tucker and Morrison sided with Reed, and John Cale, whose vision matched Reed's in its importance to the band, was sacked. Doug Yule was brought in as a replacement.
Thier first post-Cale album was Velvet Underground, released in 1969. Losing Cale had the effect of lowering the band's volume; where White Light/White Heat was all about noise, Velvet Underground is a collection of spare, traditionally structured rock 'n' roll songs. This formalism shocked the few fans the band had at the time, some of whom blamed Reed for ruining the band. However, this album also represented Reed's maturation into an excellent songwriter, and contains some of his best and most personal songs, "Candy Says" and "Pale Blue Eyes" among them. "What Goes On" and "Beginning To See The Light" are excellent rockers, unadorned and homely, but tuneful, gritty, and propulsive. Whatever the reason for this shift in sound, Cale's departure, a desire for some airplay, the recent theft of the band's amplifiers, Velvet Underground remains just as indispensible as the first two albums; its influence is heard in the more melodic indie bands, from the early R.E.M. to Yo La Tengo. This new sound did nothing to alter the sales trajectory of the band, however, and the album peaked at #197.
In 1969, the band played some of their best shows; in the absence of Cale, they were forced to tighten things up. A document from this tour, 1969: Velvet Underground Live, was eventually released on Mercury records in 1974, and it is a revelation. Reed and Morrison contribute some amazing dueling guitars, proving that the post-Cale VU was not a Reed solo vehicle. Maureen Tucker and Doug Yule had turned into a crack rhythm section by this time. While the tone of the recordings is similar to the one established on Velvet Underground, this live document shows that the band hadn't given up their noise experiments altogether.
Toward the end of the year, the band returned to the studio and recorded a sizable chunk of material that wasn't released (a lot of it turned up in the 1980's). The label, MGM, was busy purging itself of acts that seemed to have a pro-drug stance, and given the band's modest sales record, they were among the first dropped. However, they rebounded in 1970, by signing with Atlantic.
What seemed to be a new lease on life with a new label in a new decade didn't turn out that way. As the band commenced recording what would become their fourth album, Loaded, Tucker was forced to sit out the sessions due to pregnancy. Doug Yule brought in his brother Billy to drum. The sessions apparantly were marred by infighting, this time between Reed and Doug Yule, who was seeking more power in the band. In the summer of 1970, just weeks before Loaded was to hit the stores, Reed quit the group. He chilled out for a few months at his parents' house before settling into what has become an extremely prolific, wildly uneven solo career. An interesting document of the band's last days before Reed's exit is Live at Max's Kansas City, released in 1972.
Loaded follows the same direction Velvet Underground pointed to; accessible, solid rock 'n' roll. Its twin triumphs are the anthemic "Rock 'n' Roll" and "Sweet Jane", two of Reed's best songs, ever. Indeed, the whole album is chock full of pleasant, almost radio-friendly sounding rock songs, as if Reed wanted to prove he had it in him all the time. Lyrically, there's still some good old raunch and sleaze, but for the most part, it's toned down. While the album is an easy listen to digest, it's not a representative one. Tucker is missed on the drums, and Yule takes lead vocals on four of the ten songs; with Reed already out of the band and not coming back, the album wasn't given a push by its new label, and became the first Velvets album to miss the charts entirely.
Despite the loss of Reed, Yule attempted to keep the Velvet Underground alive, although Morrison and Tucker left him not long afterwards. Undaunted, Yule recruited replacements, toured Europe, and recorded a studio album, released as Squeeze under the Velvet Underground name in 1973. Featuring Willie Alexander on vocals, the disc is a pedestrian collection of pop/rock tunes, with no connection to or continuity with the Velvet Underground's earlier albums. The album was savaged by those who bothered to review it, and Yule, chastened, broke up the band.
Reed and Cale have both led fruitful and important solo careers. Nico also recorded a number of cult albums (often with notable musicians) after leaving the group; she died in 1988.
In 1993, the original lineup of Reed, Cale, Morrison, and Tucker reunited for a European tour, from which an album, Live MCMXCIII, was released. While they did create some magic, the reviews for both tour and album were lukewarm. A tour of the United States was also planned, but Reed and Cale had another falling out, and further Velvet Underground activity ceased. Sterling Morrison died in 1995, essentially closing the book on the band, although the survivors appeared at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
The Velvet Underground's legacy grew in the 1980's as their albums were re-issued, including VU, comprised mainly of the material they recorded in 1969 between Velvet Underground and Loaded. VU, far from being an odds-and-sods collection, actually stands up well among their original albums, featuring such Reed classics as "Stephanie Says" and "Lisa Says" in their original versions. Ironically, VU charted better than any other Velvet Underground album, reaching #87. By the time the alternative rock era had begun, the Velvet Underground's ascendency to Most Influential American Band was complete.
For beginners, The Velvet Underground and Nico is a fine place to start, although some listeners may prefer The Velvet Underground. While compilations aren't the best way to hear this group, The Best of the Velvet Underground on Verve collects all their best tunes.
Weekly Artist Overview appears every Sunday night/Monday AM
Listen to The Velvet Underground & Nico: All Tomorrow's Parties (1967)
A slightly modified version of this article appears at Blogcritics.org