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The Velvet Underground – It Began Here

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One of the greatest rock albums of the ’60s and the very first alternative rock album ever, The Velvet Underground and Nico has finally been given the Deluxe treatment it so richly deserves on a new two-CD set that includes the original album in both stereo and mono, the singles, and five tracks from the first Nico solo album, Chelsea Girl.

After bravely jousting the twin enemies of indifference and open hostility in its sad lifetime – followed by a few decades of neglect – the world appears finally ready to embrace the Velvet Underground as one of the most important bands in rock history.

Recording a mere four studio albums (only two with the original lineup) in the late-’60s, the group established an aesthetic so extreme and alien that it has taken three decades for the world to catch up. The essence of that aesthetic is an unapologetic embrace of the opposite poles of the musical, emotional, and thematic spectrum: naked power on the one end and exquisite beauty on the other – squalid Saturday night nihilism followed by pristine Sunday morning reverence, yin and yang at their widest reach conjured from the urban essence of New York.

Brian Eno has famously said that hardly anyone bought the Velvet’s albums when they were originally released, but everyone who did formed a band. Bands as diverse as the Patti Smith Group, Talking Heads, Sex Pistols, R.E.M., U2, and Sonic Youth have claimed the Velvets as their most important influence, not to mention obvious soundalikes like Yo La Tengo, Luna, and the Strokes.

The Velvets have received the star treatment of late with an exhaustive five-CD box set, Peel Slowly and See, released in ’95; induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in ’96; a vastly expanded version of the Loaded album re-released in ’97; a single-CD collection in Universal’s 20th Century Masters series (2000); a three-CD set of live tapes recorded by famed guitarist Robert Quine (2001), and now The Velvet Underground and Nico: Deluxe Edition.

There is fitting irony in the release of every scrap the Velvets ever committed to tape, considering even the band’s greatest material was barely heard while it actually existed. The Velvet Underground formed in 1964 when singer/guitarist/songwriter Lou Reed (Louis Firbank) and Welsh multi-instrumentalist John Cale met and decided to form a rock band (eventually with Sterling Morrison on bass and guitar, and Maureen “Mo” Tucker on percussion), drawing upon their mutual interest in R&B, the free-form jazz of Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman, and the avant-garde minimalism of John Cage and La Monte Young.

Prior to his date with rock ‘n’ roll destiny, John Cale had studied composition at London University’s Goldsmith College from 1960-63, where he was drawn to contemporary experimental music and met Aaron Copland, who induced Leonard Bernstein to grant Cale a scholarship to study in the United States. Cale played viola in Young’s experimental combo (the Theater of Eternal Music, then the Dream Syndicate) from ’63-’65, concentrating on the sonic and metaphysical implications of the drone.

Reed grew up on Long Island where his rebellious impulses led him to rock ‘n’ roll, as well as sexual and drug experimentation. By the early-’60s he was also attracted to the wildness of avant-garde jazz and the intellectual and emotional stimulation of poetry. Reed was also strongly influenced by troubled poet/educator Delmore Schwartz while studying at Syracuse University. After graduating, Reed lurched in another direction, writing and producing hack pop and rock tunes for Pickwick Records in NYC.

After Reed and Cale met, they performed briefly as the Primitives – even recording a dance spoof single called “The Ostrich” – then mutated into the Velvet Underground, named after a particularly virulent S&M novel. They sought not just to entertain, but to challenge: to prove that rock ‘n’ roll could be dangerous again. They gravitated toward Andy Warhol - who brought Austrian actress/model/chanteuse Nico into the fold – and became fixtures in Warhol’s multimedia organization, the Factory, and in the Village bohemian art scene.

Live, the Velvets were a bizarre amalgam of vigorous R&B, pretty pop songs, extended experimental noise jams (often grounded in Cale’s drones), and the performance art of Warhol’s touring Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The original band lasted just two albums, The Velvet Underground and Nico, and White Light, White Heat (both ’67).

In an interview, Cale told me, “It seemed to work even when we were playing in the exact opposite corners of the musical spectrum on the same piece. We were capable of anything. The dichotomy was given as great a value as the ability to unify on something. That was something that Andy believed in as well. It just angers me that there wasn’t more work done because we were so good at it.”

In an interesting juxtaposition, pioneering producer Tom Wilson (Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, the Animals, John Coltrane, Sun Ra) was supervising the first albums of both the Velvets and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention at the same time. Both “art” bands, they shared a surface freakiness that masked the underlying gulf between them. The Velvets reveled in the sensory-based hedonism that the puritanical Zappa railed against. The fact that both bands performed in Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Trip club in Los Angeles is a great Warholian irony.

The Velvet Underground and Nico, with Warhol’s infamous banana record-jacket art, was originally recorded in ’66 at the Cameo-Parkway Studios on Broadway with money from a shoe salesman under the vague guidance of Andy Warhol who seemed as interested in the blinking lights on the mixing board as in the music. The floors were ripped up and the walls were gone and only four mikes worked, but somehow the record was made. Then when Verve signed the Velvets, the band was given ten hours at an L.A. studio to re-record four songs with Wilson.

“Waiting For the Man,” with a breezy rock groove, follows a Reed character into the black section of town where he deferentially explains to one and all that he isn’t there for the women, but for his “man,” his drug dealer. Reed is almost giddy with self-contempt as his need for drugs drags his social status below that of ghetto dwellers. That defiant self-contempt defines the Velvet’s status as the first post-modern band and the progenitor of the entire punk/new wave movement.

“Heroin” takes the external adventure of obtaining drugs into the internal realm and captures the seduction of addiction with a power, beauty and grace that makes it all the more frightening. To this day the song is equally horrifying and compelling, its structure of intense build and release literally mirroring the drug experience, an experience that the singer makes clear will inevitably end in death.

“Venus In Furs,” an unblinking examination of an S&M relationship, captures both the power of the drone and harnesses its ability to convey an ennui of almost black hole density. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is Nico’s finest moment: a towering aural monument to ephemeral glamour with the pulse of dread, Cale’s supportive rolling piano, and Reed’s destabilizing frantic guitar.

Also on the record are two more pretty Reed-penned, Nico sung jewels, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Femme Fatale” (which is surely Nico’s theme song), and the loveliest song of Reed’s career, the preternatural “Sunday Morning,” which opens the album. Wistfulness is a very difficult emotion to convey: it has the evanescence of a soap bubble and when one tries to capture it, one is likely to destroy it. Reed captures both the hope and regret of a dawning Sunday with a delicacy that encases the bubble and preserves it for all time. Neither the Velvets, nor Reed, nor very few others have created such an original, complete and satisfying musical statement as The Velvet Underground and Nico in the ensuing years.

It is perhaps inevitable that after recording a collection of truly great songs, the Velvets would lurch in the direction of noise, so integral a part of their live sound and aesthetic. After the first album, the band parted company with Warhol and Nico and recorded White Light/White Heat, a cacophonous, relentless assault on the ears and taste. In the recording process, crack engineer Gary Kellgran repeatedly threw up his arms in disgust as the vicious white noise and fuzz kept frying out the tracks, creating a steamroller of distortion. Only the title track escaped the self-defeating assault and remains part of the group’s essential body of work. “Sister Ray,” 17-minutes of noise and fellatio, is perhaps the group’s most notorious and relentless piece. Reed recoiled from the excesses of White Light, which Cale and Morrison were perfectly content with, and began writing “commercial” songs.

With artistic and personal differences exacerbated by lack of commercial success, Cale left the group and was replaced by Doug Yule. The group became Reed’s alone, and while it still produced some great music, it never reached the levels of grandeur and balance that the original group obtained. The Velvet Underground, released in ’69, contains three great songs: the stripped down rock ‘n’ roll of “What Goes On” and “Beginning to See the Light,” and the limpid, wan beauty of “Pale Blue Eyes” (which was redone by R.E.M. on their Dead Letter Office collection).

After barely denting the charts on their first three Verve albums, the Velvets switched to Atlantic for their fourth and final studio album, Loaded. Due to pregnancy Tucker couldn’t participate and was replaced on drums by Doug Yule’s brother Billy. The album was named somewhat sarcastically after a remark made by Atlantic leader Ahmet Ertegun that he wanted a VU album “loaded with hits and not sex and drugs.” He got their most conventional album by far, and though not full of hits, it did produce the group’s most famous songs: the buoyant and timeless “Sweet Jane,” and perhaps the most pure assessment of the genre since Chuck Berry, “Rock and Roll,” where “despite all the amputations, you could listen to the rock and roll station, and it was all right.” It was, and is.

After Loaded, Reed was drained: he had acceded to the demands of commercialization, yet not become a commercial success. He viewed the Velvets as a dead end, and after a lackluster ’70 residency at Max’s Kansas City in New York, he left the band. The second best Velvets album, 1969: Velvet Underground Live - which has some truly stunning moments – was released in the ’74, and proves what a powerful, cohesive unit the band still was a year before its demise.

First Nico, then Cale, Reed, and even Mo Tucker embarked upon solo careers. Nico’s career was interesting if minor – a continuation of her doomed-romantic Velvets persona with steadily diminishing returns as her dramatic Germanic contralto deteriorated into a croak. She died in ’88 following a bicycle accident on the island of Ibiza.

Cale’s career has been important and varied as a solo artist (best represented by the Seducing Down the Door double-CD collection and the smoking live album Sabotage) and producer (working with Nico, Patti Smith, the Modern Lovers, the Stooges, and Siouxsie and the Banshees), his own internal struggle between classicism and the avant-garde driving him ever onward.

Reed’s solo career has been the most prolific and commercially successful, if bewilderingly uneven. Though he has reached many moments of greatness (including Transformer, Berlin, Rock and Roll Animal, New Sensations, individual songs scattered throughout his 30-year career), his best and most commercially successful work is bunched suspiciously close to his career with the Velvets.

Though he is still recording well, the greatest Lou Reed album is, and will continue to be, The Velvet Underground and Nico, recorded 35 long years ago – hear it anew.

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About Eric Olsen

  • http://www.nerichardson.co.uk Nigel E. Richardson

    Yes, TVUAN is probably the most important album in rock history….. but why did it need to be re-issued in this “deluxe” format? Do the two mixes add anything or is it just exploiting the rocknerd need to own everything? Call me an old curmudgeon, but this release (along with the “rock and roll hall of fame” malarky) just seems to say that the VU has now been declared safe enough for the “star” treatment, cosily set in aspic as a historical artifact in rock’s rich tapestry.

    You also say that Mo Tucker played “percussion”. No, no, no. Tucker played DRUMS, there was nothing tinkly about her work. She either clobbered all hell out of her kit or sat back and watched – no middle ground. I’ve always thought it was her drumming (and lack of it during those pretty songs that lesser mortals would have messed up) that defines the pure Velvet Underground sound.

    A great album, but buy the original version and spend the rest of the money on something you haven’t already got twice…

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Two of the eleven songs on the most important album in rock history — “Black Angel’s Death Song” and “European Son” — are among the most unlistenable the band ever recorded; they look forward to the noisy experimentation of White Light/White Heat
    with little or none of the interest of the songs on that album, even at their most sonic. This does not undercut the importance of the Nico album — but it should serve to remind us that great doesn’t mean perfect. Great can also mean “wildly uneven.” Then again, the other nine songs are classics.

    I’m in my 40s, and when I was coming along, the standard opinion for greatest album among the hipoisie was Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, which I contend makes a much more compelling case for the title, and it’s influence was at least as monumental as the Nico record. On Blonde, you can really see someone song for song pushing the form as far as he can lyrically and musically, and every great band of the 1960s was listening. Dylan’s mid-1960s output was truly the high tide that would raise all boats.

    I’ll probably wind up buying the deluxe Nico set, but I echo Nigel’s comments on its necessity. I bought the deluxe Loaded; it was interesting, but I can’t really say it was super-revelatory, except maybe to a complete audiophile — the same kind of people who would spend a hundred bucks on one of those Charlie Parker box sets so they could compare five or so versions of “In the Still of the Night.”

  • http://www.ans.com.au/~jgwr/blog/ James Russell

    Given that the band intended for the album to be in mono and not stereo (just listen to how bad the stereo mix is in many places), I’d argue that having the mono mix back in circulation does add something, yes.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Raising the question as to which is the “real” record? Reed also had a beef with the mixing of the third LP, The Velvet Underground, yet that’s the record people know. Which is the real Beatles record — the one released in Britain or in the US? Which is the real movie — the one the studio approved or the director’s cut? Which is the real Look Homeward, Angel — the one Max Perkins edited the bejesus out of decades ago or the restored version that Wolfe wrote and was only released last year?