The bedrock of alternative rock. From the dreamy lullaby of “Sunday Morning” through the propulsively strummed drug anthem “I’m Waiting For The Man,” and onto the evocative “Femme Fatale,” sung by the Andy Warhol lent chanteuse Nico (aside from the doo-woppy chorus), this brilliant debut album showcased every aspect of one of the most influential bands of all-time. Since so many bands have taken their cue from the Velvet blueprint over the years, it’s easy to forget how startlingly original their confrontational music was during the Summer Of Love. Come to think of it, even though they've spawned legions of imitators, to this day nobody actually sounds quite like this singular entity. Initially despised but now revered by musicians, critics, and knowledgeable music fans, the band possessed the vision and guts to go against the grain, with John Cale’s skewed viola cries lending an otherworldly ambiance to tracks like the sadomachoistic “Venus In Furs” and the elongated classic “Heroin,” where gutter poet Lou Reed vividly talk-sings about shooting up. A ‘60s garage band at heart, The Velvet Underground were led by Reed, a great songwriter who was also capable of more straightforward fare such as the Bob Dylan-influenced “Run Run Run” (also about scoring drugs) and the poppier “There She Goes Again.” The band is long remembered for their association with Warhol, who supplied the famous banana cover but who in reality had little to do with the band’s musical direction, despite being credited as the album’s producer (among the guys who did the actual work behind the desk board was Tom Wilson, famous for his work with Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel). Where Warhol actually did influence the band was by creating the Plastic Exploding Inevitable (EPI) multi-media extravaganza, which incorporated art forms such as dancers, Warhol's films, and a light show (later popularized by Bill Graham at his Fillmore venues) along with the band's live music. Back to this album; Warhol's discovery, Nico, is to many an acquired taste, but I think the three songs this icy goddess sings are among the most riveting things here, including the lonely dirge “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and the hauntingly spare “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” Say what you will, but nobody, and I mean nobody, sounds quite like Nico, and her ghostly presence adds an interesting gothic element that they would soon lose without her. For their part, Reed and lead guitarist Sterling Morrison experimented with strange guitar tunings and droning noises that would be copied by countless future followers, and bands as different as Sonic Youth, Pavement, Can, Television, The Dream Syndicate, The Fall, R.E.M., Stereolab, Galaxie 500, Luna, and Yo La Tengo are all mightily indebted to the band. Another major innovation was Maureen Tucker’s (a female drummer was pretty revolutionary in of itself, actually) uniquely thumping drumming style, which launched the beat of alternative rock and would later dominate the sound of offspring such as The Feelies and The Clean. The Velvet Underground & Nico contains some deliberately “difficult” material that many prospective listeners will find unlistenable (“Black Angel’s Death Song,” which I’ve grown to grudgingly respect, and “European Son,” which I tend to skip, but both at least appear at the very end of the album), as well as deliberately decadent and controversial subject matter that can still raise eyebrows. Reed’s “singing” is also to many an acquired taste, making this an album that’s definitely not for everyone. However, all of their revolutionary moves can be found right here, though they would further showcase particular styles on later albums (extreme-ism on White Light/White Heat, melodicism on The Velvet Underground, and pure rock n' pop on Loaded). Still, it’s The Velvet Underground & Nico that I find the most fascinating, as it has a great mix of innovative sounds and superlative songs, several of which are surprisingly pretty given how uncompromising and radical this album was at the time (and even today it still sounds pretty "out there"). Simply put, no rock music library is complete without this groundbreaking album, which offers nothing less than a complete course in Alternative Rock 101.
White Light/White Heat (Verve ‘68) Rating: A-
After parting ways with Warhol, the band released White Light/White Heat, which was recorded quickly, mostly live, with Tom Wilson. Known for its wild distortion, white noise, and copious amounts of feedback, this album polarizes listeners more than any other VU album. Fellow musicians and critics love it - Rolling Stone called it the "coolest album ever" in 2002 - but when I put this on the other day my wife looked at me like she wanted to strangle me, so it's certainly not for everyone. It sure wasn’t well received when it was released, alienating the few fans that their debut had managed to score. Defiantly harsh and decidedly uncommercial, heavy on the feedback and droning noises, this album's most memorable songs are often as menacing as its plain black cover. Reed starts things off with the short title track, a primitive yet poppy garage rocker that effectively uses piano, heavy bass, and doo-woppy backing vocals over a Reed rap about amphetamines. The 8+ minute “The Gift” is a spoken word piece narrated by Cale (though the lyrics were written by Reed) that features some cutting guitar and Cale's inimitable droning viola in the background. It’s really fun the first few times you hear it, especially the ghoulish O Henry ending, but it's decidedly less impressive once you know the story. Still, the details in the lyrics and the mayhem in the music makes it interesting even though it's something of a novelty song. Cale also primarily sings “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” (aside from occasional ill-fittingly loud interjections from Reed), and his sweet singing along with a melodic (if predictably distorted) guitar melody presents a nice change of pace, while the ultra-concise (1:58) “Here She Comes Now” is also a surprisingly pretty and low-key pop song. Still, those are mere respites; there's a reason that this album has such a legendary reputation for being edgy and abrasive, after all, and “I Heard Her Call My Name” delivers raging rock 'n' roll, led by Tucker's brisk, relentless beats and some seriously overdriven guitars. In fact, Reed remixed the song to elevate his guitar parts, infuriating his bandmates, but I must say that his crazy solos, though extremely sloppy, are damn exciting just the same. I mean, he practically assaults his guitar on this track, but the song still manages a poppy chorus, and the album on the whole really isn't that hard to embrace once you get to know it. Ultimately, what you think of this album largely depends on what you think of the 17+ minute “Sister Ray.” The centerpiece of the bands legendarily confrontational live shows, the band just plugged in and played (and played, and played...), with the volume turned up to 10 throughout (or 11, if you will). The song has its faults, which I'll get to in a minute, but its crunching chords and foot stomping groove make it just about the quintessential garage stomper just the same. Reed and Morrison's fierce guitars grapple with Cale's bright organ embellishments as Moe wails throughout; add lyrics about sailors, drag queens, and even a murder, and what more could you want? Well, for one thing, the largely improvised song is way too long and repetitive for its own good (it could've been an amazing seven minute track), and the sexually explicit “sucking on my ding dong” lyrics sound silly more than anything. Question to critics: why is ok for The Velvet Underground to be overly indulgent but not Yes? Anyway, large chunks of “Sister Ray” are awesome, and it's incredibly influential; you could call it an early heavy metal song, plus "noise" bands such as Sonic Youth are immensely indebted to it. Still, the song and the overall album from which it originates are both quite flawed, though they're still very deserving of "cult classic” status. That said, please be forewarned that much of White Light/White Heat will probably be too extreme for all but the most adventurous of ears.
The Velvet Underground (Verve ‘69) Rating: A
With the departure of sonic innovator John Cale, the most adventurous force in the band and the primary architect behind their ugliest and most extravagant noises, The Velvet Underground were now completely Lou Reed’s band. Reed saw to that, issuing a "he goes or I go" ultimatum to the rest of the band, who were none too happy about it but agreed to Cale's ouster, realizing that Reed's departure likely meant the end of the band, what with him being the main singer-songwriter and all. It's not surprising that Reed and Cale butted heads, as Reed's songwriting went in an entirely different direction (a direction that Cale disagreed with) on this album, which is often damn-near the polar opposite of White Light/White Heat. Rather than aggressively revel in sonic anarchy, Reed was now writing gentle, straightforward love songs, presumably to his then-girlfriend Shelley Albin, but though the band would never sound quite as dangerous or flat-out original without Cale, they were still a terrific rock 'n' roll band. You may not agree with his methods, Tucker and especially Morrison sure didn't, but there's no denying that on this album Reed was up to the task from a songwriting perspective, and that the album showed the band to be an surprisingly versatile unit, coming as it did on the heels of such a dissimilar previous effort. Lovely ballads such as “Candy Says” and “Pale Blue Eyes” form the heart of the album, the quiet, lullaby-like former song being sung by versatile new bassist/organist Doug Yule, who sings elsewhere as well, his softer voice providing a nice complement to Reed's edgier but somewhat similar sounding voice, which is also at its gentlest on most of these songs. That said, Reed did manage to deliver a pair of classic groove rockers in the chugging “What Goes On,” on which the guitars drone a bit but melodically so, unlike Cale's crazy voila outbursts (Yule's organ is also a major presence both here and elsewhere), and “Beginning To See The Light.” This song not only shows what a strong bass player Yule was but features some powerful guitar strumming and propulsive beats, as well as pretty mellower bridges and that wonderfully poppy "how does it feel to be loved?" section on the outro. Just a great song all around, and I'd use that same adjective to describe "Jesus," a rare religious hymn and a pretty duet with Yule that features affecting, prayerful lyrics, and "I'm Set Free," a big ballad that reaches several crescendos where the ringing guitars and Moe's pounding beats kick it up a notch as the dramatic harmonies take off. The rest of the album is less impressive but still enjoyable for the most part, including the pretty good but kinda plain "Some Kinda Love," which at least has some good lead guitar, plus it provided Reed with the title to his solo retrospective and his book of selected lyrics, Between Thought and Expression. Towards the end of the album are a pair of 2-minute tracks; the enjoyably light and catchy "That's The Story Of My Life" and the dare I say it cute finale "After Hours," a barroom salute sung in a charmingly innocent manner by Tucker, who along with the rest of the band also helps out vocally on the ambitious 9-minute “The Murder Mystery.” By far the album's most experimental track, this one doesn't quite work, mostly because the dual vocals are too muddled, though its angular riffs and drum patterns are quite cool at times. Still, this is the only song where the band bit off more than they could chew, as The Velvet Underground was easily the band’s most accessible and listenable album to date. True, there are times when I miss the go for broke, flying without a net sense of adventure that Cale brought to the band, but Yule was something of an unsung hero within the band in his own right, and the album's languidly strummed guitar sound would also prove to be highly influential (just ask Galaxie 500, Luna, or Yo La Tengo). Alas, despite the commercial potential the album would've seemed to have had, these unfussy, at times demo-like songs still didn’t sell squat, though history would ultimately validate its modest greatness, as the album now belatedly enjoys an enviable reputation. Note: There are actually two versions of the album, the most popular one (the cd reissue) produced by Val Valentine, the other one (available on the original U.S. vinyl edition and the Peel Slowly and See box set) produced by Reed, the latter condescendingly called the "closet mix" by Sterling Morrison (i.e. it sounds like it was recorded in a closet).
Loaded (Atlantic ’70, Rhino '97) Rating: A
In late '69 the band recorded the material that would later surface on VU and Another View before moving onto Atlantic and recording brand new songs for this album. Although Maureen Tucker was pregnant and didn’t play on the album (she was replaced by Doug Yule's younger brother Billy and likely some session dudes as well), and Lou Reed left the band in a huff and was then furious when the album was mixed and edited without his input, Loaded is still more than "alright." Although it’s primarily remembered for the much-covered anthems “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll,” both of which are joyous celebrations of the power of rock 'n' roll, there’s much more here than just those two great songs. The tone of the album is similar to their third album but is more rocking and commercial overall (for all of Reed's complaints this is the band's best produced album), with a heretofore unprecedented optimism. With Reed's voice shattered by live performances, Doug Yule again sings several stellar songs, including the charming “Who Loves The Sun,” whose gentle psychedelic pop was about as far away from White Light/White Heat as you could get. Other underrated Yule sung gems include the oddly poignant and soulful ballad "New Age" - when the celestial organ kicks in with the "it's the beginning of a new age" mantra, it's a great rock 'n' roll moment - and the even better 7-minute epic “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” which begins as an affecting country/gospel-influenced ballad before a great extended guitar solo caps off the album in exemplary fashion. Elsewhere, “Cool It Down” has a smoky, atmospheric late night vibe and a rap-like vocal that I bet Beck appreciated (is there any so-called "alternative" artist that The Velvet Underground didn't influence?), while “I Found A Reason” (i.e. “and the reason is you”) is an extremely pretty if somewhat sappy love ballad that shows off the band's effective (and rarely remarked upon) vocal harmonies; both this song and “Who Loves The Sun” are undeniably influenced by doo wop. Granted, the guitars are disappointingly tepid on these versions of “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll,” but the greatness of those songs still shines through, in part due to Reed's super cool vocal intonations ("a suitcase in her haaaand"), easy to relate to lyrics ("she was saved by rock 'n' roll"), raucous shout along harmonies, and some "fine fine music." Alas, the second half of the album has some filler in the form of “Head Held High” and “Train Round The Bend,” two repetitive, generic rockers that at least have Reed's energized vocals going for them, and the Yule-sung “Lonesome Cowboy Bill,” whose hillbilly rock is probably beyond the boundaries of what the band should have attempted. Fortunately, what is good on Loaded is really good, making it yet another classic studio album. This accomplishment is all the more remarkable given that this band originally made their name based on their confrontational sound and a truly combustible chemistry, and this far more straightforward band bears little resemblance to that groundbreaking unit. That they delivered such a great out-of-character album anyway was in many ways as definitive a stamp of their greatness as The Velvet Underground & Nico, though Loaded offers none of the innovations of that classic album but instead simply delivers memorable songs and strong performances. Note: In 1997 Rhino Records released Loaded: Fully Loaded Edition, an expanded 2-cd reissue that includes the unedited versions of "Sweet Jane," "Rock & Roll," and "New Age," tons of alternate versions of the original ten songs, and quite a bit of previously unreleased other material as well. Note #2: After Reed left the band, Yule briefly continued The Velvet Underground, but that version of the band is about as valid as the Jim Morrison-less Doors (i.e. like most people I prefer to pretend that that version of the band never existed).
1969: The Velvet Underground Live (Mercury ’74) Rating: A
Strip away the myth and stop focusing on the band's immense influence, and what you're left with is simply a great rock 'n' roll band. 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, the best of the band's several live albums, is proof of that, as the Yule-era band rip through 20 well-selected tracks spread out over two discs (unfortunately sold as separate discs rather than as a single double cd). The biggest omission of course is "Sister Ray," but if you really miss it you can splurge for the later released 3-cd Bootleg Series Volume One: The Quine Tapes, which makes a nice companion piece but is more for the true VU fanatic; anyway, it includes over 90 minutes of "Sister Ray" spread out over three versions! Me, I don't miss it much since I can get my fix on The Quine Tapes and besides there's so much other good stuff here, even though the album covers are awful and the sound quality often leaves a lot to be desired (but it's worlds better than the earlier released Live at Max's Kansas City). The album was recorded in front of a small audience and the performances are suitably intimate, with several songs arguably being the definitive interpretations. "Waiting For My Man" and "Sweet Jane" are considerably more leisurely paced and laid-back than their studio counterparts but are excellent nevertheless (this is the version of “Sweet Jane” that inspired the Cowboy Junkies well-known later version), and how can you not love that "why am I so shy" section in this sterling rendition of "Lisa Says," which is one of several songs here that had yet to appear on any Velvet Underground album (though this song, "Ocean," and "I Can't Stand It" had previously appeared on Lou Reed's first solo album). Among the extended epics is a terrific "What Goes On," which features Yule's organ prominently and shows off what a great groove band they were. Still, most of the longer jams are on Vol. 2, including "Ocean," which does indeed ebb and flow (sometimes spectacularly so) and is here extended past 10 minutes, as well as "White Light/White Heat" (8:35) and "I Can't Stand It" (7:51), on which the guitars are really unleashed, albeit sloppily so at times. The latter song is a cd-only bonus track that didn't appear on the original vinyl version of the album, and another bonus track is "Heroin," which closes Vol. 1, even though a better, more subdued version (but boy is it great when it finally picks up towards the end) also appears on Vol. 2. Also of note is that Reed sings "Femme Fatale" and "I'll Be Your Mirror" and does a fine job of it (though that may be Yule singing lead on the latter song), and Reed also sings "New Age," which features superior lyrics than on the version that would soon appear on Loaded. Elsewhere, "We're Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together," "Over You," and "Sweet Bonnie Brown/It's Too Much" were previously unreleased songs, and though I wouldn't call any of them highlights, I'm still glad that they're around. Really, my main quibble about this album is simply its "hissy" sound quality, as Reed sounds relaxed, confident, and surprisingly amiable, the rest of the band is in fine form, and hearing these loose, expansive readings of Reed's songs shows what an excellent songwriter he was, and how The Velvet Underground were just about the perfect band to realize his creative vision, with or without John Cale.
VU (Verve ’85) Rating: A-
The tapes for this "lost" Velvet Underground album were discovered in the Verve vaults when the label was reissuing the band's first three albums, and amazingly the resulting album is another excellent release that further enhanced the band's legacy, much like the posthumously released 1969: The Velvet Underground Live had done previously. Three of these songs ("I Can't Stand It," "Lisa Says," "Ocean") appeared on that live album in superior expanded versions and on Lou Reed's first solo album (in inferior versions), so not all of these songs were exactly new, especially since "Andy's Chest" had also appeared on Reed's second album, Transformer. Still, aside from the last song these are the best studio versions of those songs, and there's much else here besides. "I Can't Stand It" begins the album with a strong straightforward riff rocker whose chorus ("I can't stand it any more more") again makes me wonder if Reed is related to Jimmy Two Times. "Stephanie Says," one of two songs here (the other being "Temptation Inside Your Heart") actually recorded in 1968 with John Cale, completes Reed's trio of "she says" songs, and it's another good one, this being a pretty ballad that's enhanced by Cale's sympathetic viola accompaniment, airy backing vocals, and some tinkly keyboards. "She's My Best Friend" delivers catchy pop before "Lisa Says" commences with a slow, singable version that exudes a late-night ambiance. Granted, "Ocean" never quite takes off like on the live album, but it's still a worthy inclusion, and "Foggy Notion" is one of the band's best rockers, period. Like many of their best such efforts, this epic addition to the band's catalogue hits on a great groove and hammers it home, with guitars, guitars, and still more guitars leading the way. "Temptation Inside Your Heart" presents another good poppy melody along with some cute backing harmonies, and "One Of These Days," though less impressive, is still quite tuneful, plus this country flavored ditty contains a great guitar outro (I wish it lasted longer). Anyway, as previously alluded to, I prefer the version of "Andy's Chest" on Transformer to this forgettable Warhol tribute, but "I'm Sticking With You" ends the album on a memorable note, even if this Tucker sung (Reed chimes in too) finale is more a cute novelty number than any kind of major effort. All in all, despite containing some already familiar songs, albeit different versions of said songs, VU can hold its own with the original four studio albums, with Loaded being the most obvious comparison due to its fairly straightforward songwriting and slick commercial sheen (needless to say these tapes were cleaned up and remixed before being released to the public). In fact, you could make a case that this is the most filler-free album the band ever did, and it's certainly among the best "clearing of the vaults" albums ever released.
Another View (Verve ’86) Rating: B
Containing more songs rescued from the "lost" album, plus some earlier discards recorded with John Cale, Another View is a far less cohesive and necessary album than VU, though it's still worth getting if you're a big fan of the band. Certainly "Ride Into The Sun" is a gorgeous instrumental (one of three instrumentals here) that I'd argue is one of the best things that the band ever did, and there are other worthwhile offerings too, even if none of the other songs approaches classic status. "We're Gonna Have A Good Time Together" should already be familiar to those who heard 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, and it remains a simple but catchy rock 'n' roll song, replete with decorative hand claps and singable "na na na" vocals. "I'm Gonna Move Right In," another instrumental, is a long, low-key, bluesy guitar jam that has a good groove but isn't anything special, and "Hey Mr. Rain (Version 1)," one of the Cale leftovers, also establishes an interesting mood but isn't much of a tune. Cale's viola lends the song an exotic, haunting ambiance, but again that only goes so far in the absence of a memorable melody, and to make matters worse the song is reprised later on in a livelier but less mysterious version (I prefer the former, though again neither are anything special despite Cale's participation in both). A less produced and frankly less good version of "Rock & Roll" than the one that appeared on Loaded also strikes me as redundant padding, though of course it's still a good tune, and instrumental #3, "Guess I'm Falling In Love," also with Cale, is a garage stomper that hits hard enough but doesn't do much to warrant multiple listens. The other two songs - yes there are only nine in all, including two repeats from previous albums and a reprise from this album; not much bang for your buck I agree - are extremely short, but "Coney Island Steeplechase" is a catchy, propulsive piece of pop fluff that's rather enjoyable, whereas the rather lo-fi, fast-paced "Ferryboat Bill" is forgettable, despite the best efforts of Yule on organ and Tucker who pounds away. Anyway, whereas VU was flat-out a really good album, Another View strikes me more as a vault clearing cash grab. Although it too is enjoyable to listen to for the most part, I rarely get the urge to listen to it, and the album seemed a rather anti-climactic finish to this legendary band's recording career. Of course, the band weren't completely done yet, as the Reed–Cale–Morrison–Tucker lineup reunited in 1992 for a European tour that yielded the Live MCMXCIII album. However, old tensions soon resurfaced, and a proposed American tour was scrapped; Morrison died of lymphoma in 1995, thereby ending The Velvet Underground for good I would think.
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