Overlooked Albums #25: The Velvet Underground - VU
The seventies saw The Velvet Underground grow in stature as hipster stalwarts, no small feat for a group who sold just a trickle of records in their creative prime. Those records lay outside the sixties pop spectrum, confounding the love generation with their tonal explorations, unsavory characters, and sheer noise. The Velvets were way ahead of their time, punk avatars before the world came around. It took a new generation of malcontents to discover them, who were hip to the poetry and the musical innovation on those albums. In our eyes, they were the real revolution; not the hippie commonplace nirvana, but a revolution that was won one convert at a time.
What we knew about the Velvets was the stuff of legend: Andy Warhol’s Factory, the Max’s Kansas City gigs, the drugs, the strange sexual scenes. Their studio albums magnified that odd glamour, and what was left unsung was a trigger for our imagination. The Velvets’ story had ended with Loaded (1970) and that was that, notwithstanding Doug Yule’s efforts to carry a death corpse. Each note was final, captured in time like a fly in amber. When VU came out in late 1984, it presented a new chapter to the story we thought we knew, demanding a shift in our thinking.
Nineteen tracks were discovered in April 1984 while Verve/MGM was preparing a re-release of the group’s first three albums. These tracks had been recorded between 1968 and 1969, a transitional period for the group. John Cale, tired of bickering with Lou Reed, left the band and was replaced by Doug Yule. The band moved from Verve to MGM, its parent company, but it had no effect on record sales, which remained dismal. MGM dropped the Velvets and kept their unreleased material, all lost in the shuffle, for fifteen years. These tracks now appear on the VU and Another View compilations. The prime of this material is contained on VU, which ranks alongside their official releases.
Six of VU’s songs are familiar to Reed fans, which appear on four of his studio albums. What makes VU special is the musicianship. Take for instance the version of I Can’t Stand It on Lou Reed (1972). It’s a good song, but Reed sounds self-absorbed and it lacks group dynamics. The version on VU bristles with excitement. Reed sounds confident here, and the Velvets work in complicity to serve the song. Moe Tucker lays down a driving groove, and the guitars circle around it like lightning spires, swinging and building.
These tracks remind us that the Velvets were a self-contained unit. They didn’t belong to any musical scene, and they avoided the then-prevalent blues jams, psychedelic sound effects, and rootsy Americana. From John Cage and La Monte Young, they learned to be confrontational, but they did it in a rock n’ roll context. Only the New York art scene could embrace them. For fellow hipsters, the Velvets’ music was as subversive to mainstream ideals of beauty as a Warhol soup can. It was fine in the beginning, but that niche was confining, and the Velvets wanted to sell records and make a living.
White Light/White Heat (1968) was an uncompromising album, a hard-edged statement that was meant to provoke and shock. This wasn’t the way to build commercial momentum, so a new musical strategy was pursued. The Velvet Underground (1969) revealed a quieter, often acoustic side to the group. The VU songs straddle the second and third albums. On a song like Foggy Notion, the spikes and edges are still there, but it’s the tight rock n’ roll band which moves to the foreground.
John Cale is heard on two songs here: Stephanie Says and Temptation Inside Your Heart. The former features a baroque viola line, the latter bongos and funny banter between Reed and Cale. There was room for levity and whimsy in the Velvets universe, so maybe those stories of tension in the studio are greatly exaggerated. There’s no attempt on VU to hold back emotion for the benefit of image. If Reed’s vocals on She’s My Best Friend are effusive, Tucker’s singing on I’m Sticking With You is downright gushing. Except for the brooding Ocean, VU offers less introspection when compared to the official releases. If the Velvets ever came close to a party album, this is it.
VU presents us a robust group that could have lasted for years, but the end was nigh. Tucker became pregnant with her first child, Reed left before Loaded was finished, and Sterling Morrison abandoned what was left of the group in mid-tour in August 1971.
The VU compilation raises some questions about Morrison. He’s been underrated as a guitar player, perhaps because lead and rhythm duties were exchanged with Reed. But the hard rockers here showcase his nimble-fingered prowess, and they leave you with a hunger to get every single live recording out there. Morrison seemed to be the glue holding the group together, yet his tenure was only a brief detour before returning to his English studies. When he left the group in Texas, he wasn’t looking back. From scholar, he went on to become a tugboat captain, a strange twist of fate that can’t be explored here. Yet music never abandoned him, as much as he wanted to dodge his past. He still kept a profile in the Austin music scene and rejoined the Velvets for their ill-starred reunion in 1992. Sadly, this window of fame and acclaim would be brief for him. He died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995, and is dearly missed.
The Velvets’ appeal remains undiminished. Their influence over generations of indie musicians goes on, and their recordings have opened new musical paths that are still explored. VU ranks with their best. Just listen.20 August, 2012 - 20:05 — Angel Aguilar