Record Collection: The Velvet Underground

Born out of the remnants of a short-lived garage rock band in 1964, The Velvet Underground would achieve limited commercial success during their short time together. However, despite being largely ignored their impact on music would grow with each passing year. Today they’re viewed as being one of the most influential bands of all time, inspiring countless numbers artists from a wide range of genres including punk, noise, goth, new wave, glam and grunge.

Founded in New York by singer-songwriter Lou Reed and the Welsh-born multi-instrumentalist John Cale, who played bass, viola and keys, these two extremely talented individuals would also be joined by Sterling Morrison on guitar and Maureen Tucker on drums. This core line-up would only last two albums together, gradually breaking apart after 1968’s White Light/White Heat, but each member brought something unique to the table which would help change the face of music forever.

Reed. with his journalistic eye, dark lyrics and incredible songwriting ability, would eventually clash with Cale and his avant garde leanings as he tried to move the band in a more pop orientated direction. But for a short time, those two operating alongside Morrison with his blend of blues, country and R&B guitar work and Tucker’s unique style of drumming which largely eschewed the use of cymbals, The Velvet Underground created some of the most brilliant, intriguing and influential music ever recorded.

Though their association with artist Andy Warhol didn’t last very long, his influence on the band during its earliest days was huge. Despite not actually producing their debut album even though he was credited with doing so, it does feature his iconic artwork on the front cover. As well as serving as their manager for a time, it was also Warhol who introduced the band to German model, actress and singer Nico, without whom their debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico just wouldn’t be the same.

As Cale celebrates the 50th anniversary of his former band’s revolutionary debut with an exclusive performance featuring a host of special guests in Liverpool this weekend, we thought we’d take a look back at The Velvet Underground’s studio albums, along with a couple of later archival releases.

The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

Their debut struck a near perfect balance between softer and more discordant sounds, creating an album that challenged the definition of rock music at that time. It was not just with its original blend of styles that it was revolutionary, but also with its lyrics involving tales of hard drug use, sexual exploits and other debauchery that were still considered taboo.

Combining the quite plain deliveries of Reed and Nico who shared vocal duties, with Morrison’s blues, country, R&B-influenced guitar work, Tucker’s pounding percussion, and the avant-garde influences of Cale, particularly through his viola playing, their debut remains one of the most powerful and intriguing albums of all time. Not only that, it’s packed full of great songs.

‘Sunday Morning’ is a dreamy and delicate opener which was actually a last-minute addition to the album. The driving garage rock of ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ finds Reed describing the purchase of hard drugs and is among the band’s most recognisable tracks. ‘Femme Fatale’ is a short and sleepy number which introduces the dual singing styles of Nico to the listener. ‘Venus In Furs’ changes the tone of the album thanks to Cale’s cutting viola which operates alongside Tucker’s slow beat and tambourine combo.

The fact that ‘Run Run Run’ was thrown together very quickly makes it all the more impressive with its lo-fi production and lyrics about purchasing drugs. ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is another one of the more iconic songs on the album, featuring the tragic yet beautiful Nico on vocals. The narcotics theme pops up again on ‘Heroin’, which at over 7-minutes is arguably the finest moment of the whole album, particularly the way the pace quickens and slows down again.

‘There She Goes Again’ is another short pop rock number with its stripped back jangly guitar style and high pitched backing vocals. Nico makes her final appearance on the understated and unsentimental love ballad ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ before the album closes with perhaps its two most challenging tracks. ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ is an certainly interesting piece but a difficult one to love, featuring 3-minutes of Cale’s viola alongside Reed’s babbling lyrics. Even more challenging is the experimental ‘European Son’ which features discordant noise for close to 8-minutes.

Even with Warhol at their side, The Velvet Underground & Nico only sold around 30,000 copies in the first five years. This may have been partly due to a lawsuit which causing the album to be pulled from distribution by MGM. However, the impact the album had in subsequent decades was perhaps best summed up by Brian Eno who once famously said that despite not many people buying their debut, those that did would go off and form bands of their own.

White Light/White Heat (1968)

Frustrated by the lack of commercial success which followed their debut, The Velvet Underground went into the studio to record their second album with plenty of energy to unleash. Nico and Warhol had since departed, leaving the core group of Reed, Cale, Morrison and Tucker. Depending on who you ask, the sessions were wrapped up in anything from between a few days to a fortnight, with the decision to record it quickly being very much a deliberate one.

They went into the studio wanting re-create their live sound, with plenty of distortion, feedback and general chaos being their main aim. The attempts of engineer Gary Kellgren to restrain them failed, and despite having a producer in the form of Tom Wilson, he might as well not have been there at all given that, according to Tucker, he was too busy chasing women around the studio.

Easily their least accessible album, the amphetamine themed opener and title track kicks things off with a blend of distortion and Cale’s lively piano. ‘The Gift’ was very experimental for the time, featuring Cale’s deadpan recital of one of Reed’s short stories over an R&B style instrumental taken from their live shows. Cale also performs lead vocals on the psychedelic and strange ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’, while the soft ‘Here She Comes Now’ is by far the most pleasant track on the album and would have been more at home on any other album besides this one.

The garage blues of ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ is an absolute mess and features one of the worst guitar solos you’re ever likely to hear. The song actually caused Morrison to quit the band temporarily after Reed turned his part up in the mix, thus drowning out everyone else’s. Album closer ‘Sister Ray’ caused another walk out, this time it was engineer Kellgren after the band turned all their equipment up to 11 and jammed for 17-minutes while Reed detailed tales of debauchery.

Tucker would later admit that “we didn’t know what we were doing”, with the chaos and excess which was a part of their daily lives towards the end of 1967 being very much reflected on White Heat/White Light. Despite their troubles though, The Velvet Underground had created another album which sounded like nothing else around at that time and would also go on to inspire a wide range of experimental and noise rock bands in the decades to come.

The Velvet Underground (1969)

Self-titling your third album after your debut was also essentially a self-titled release was certainly a questionable decision. Wanting to avoid making another album like White Heat/White Light, the conflicting visions of Reed and Cale forced the Welshman and his experimental leanings from the band in late 1968, being replaced by the more pop-focused Doug Yule. It saw Reed taking their sound in a softer, more personal direction and folk-influenced direction, which may or may not have been related to the theft of amps from his New York flat.

Known as “The Gray Album” among fans in order to distinguish from their debut, it was their first album with MGM after their previous two were released via its Verve subsidiary. Confusingly, there are actually two different versions of the album available, with Reed’s mix being released as the initial vinyl pressing in 1969, while the mix done by engineer Val Valentin was later used on the mid-80’s CD reissue.

Yule played a bigger role than perhaps was initially intended, stepping up to support Reed’s vocals on several tracks after he’d strained his voice performing live. Given that their voices are quite similar it doesn’t affect the album’s very cohesive feel all that much and detecting who’s actually singing can be difficult at first. Tucker also sung lead on ‘After Hours’ at the insistence of Reed who believed the track was better suited to her vocals.

That this is a different Velvet Underground is evident from the sweet and gentle opener ‘Candy Says’ which features Yule on backing vocals. The album contains some of their most straightforward pop tunes, with the organ featuring ‘What Goes On’ and the country blues ‘Some Kinda Love’ early examples of this new radio friendly approach. ‘Pale Blues Eyes’ is a warm and powerful ode to Reed’s then girlfriend Shelley Albin, who was the cause of some frustration for other band members during the making of the album given Reed’s infatuation with her

When he’s not singing about his lover, Reed is opening his heart in other ways on the prayer-like ‘Jesus’. The born again Reed continues on in more upbeat fashion on ‘Beginning to See the Light’, while the beautiful ballad ‘I’m Set Free’ finds him singing about about resignation and loss. ‘That’s the Story of My Life’ is quite forgettable but thankfully short, and ‘The Murder Mystery’ shows that they hadn’t completely abandoned their more experimental side. Acoustic closer ‘After Hours’ explores alcoholism with Tucker’s innocent, child-like vocals perfectly being suited to the song, thus proving Reed right.

Loaded (1970)

Changes at the top in late 1969 led to the firing all “hippie related bands” from their label. The Velvet Underground were soon picked up by Atlantic Records offshoot Cotillion, and after a failed attempt to secure to the rights to the album they were working on at their old label the band got to work on some new material, which, at the insistence of their new label boss would eschew topics such as sex and drugs.

For the recording sessions Yule’s brother Billy replaced the pregnant Tucker on drums, leaving only Reed and Morrison remaining from the line-up on their debut. Reed was still suffering from strained vocals so it was Yule who once again took over on some of the singing duties. Reed’s mental state was also quite fragile at this time, which added to the problems which beset the album’s creation.

Reed would later express his displeasure at how the album turned out after quitting the band prior to its release. Regardless of Reed’s criticisms and the issues surrounding its making though, Loaded turned out really well. The aim was to create an album which was “loaded with hits”, and while it doesn’t quite achieve its goal, it does contain plenty of radio friendly material thanks to its pop rock approach, fairly clean production and Reed’s song writing ability.

Loaded starts strongly, opening with the country pop of The Beatles-esque ‘Who Loves The Sun’, before moving on to a pair of classic rock tunes in the form of ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘Rock & Roll’ which are arguably among the finest songs Reed ever wrote. ‘New Age’ is a contemplative and moving ballad which features Yule on vocals and is one of several contributions Reed later attacked because he believed Yule didn’t get the lyrics. There are a couple of bluesy numbers like ‘Cool It Down’ and ‘Train Round The Bend’, as well as a couple of forgettable ones too  such as ‘Head Held High’ and ‘Lonesome Cowboy Bill’, but the album ends strongly with ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’, another thoughtful ballad this time with hints of gospel.

While some fans see Loaded as Reed giving in to the pressures from their new label and its insistence on creating a commercially viable record, others, including Morrison himself, have argued that it showed they always had it in them to make a full pop rock album. Give or take a couple of tracks, it’s pretty hard to deny the quality of the music on their fourth album. Despite critics giving it the thumbs up, it again failed get much airplay on commercial radio. It would also prove to be their final official release.

Squeeze (1973)

Written and played almost entirely by Doug Yule after the band’s manager Steve Sesnick had fired everyone else (although he did have some assistance on drums from Ian Paice of Deep Purple), Squeeze features no original members and is The Velvet Underground in name only. Shunned by the majority of fans, it was later revealed that Sesnick not only came up with the title and designed the sleeve (deliberately copying the art deco style of Loaded in an effort to give it some credibility), but he also wrote the lyrics for both ‘She’ll Make You Cry’ and ‘Mean Old Man’. While it may not be the worst album ever made, compared to official Velvet Underground releases it’s a pretty lifeless listen with no stand out moments to speak of. Only pressed in England, it was quickly deleted from the label’s catalogue and has never been reissued, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the album.

VU (1985)

Largely made up of material intended for their “lost” fourth album before they were let go by Verve, it was close enough to completion that it even had catalogue number with a track list. The recordings were discovered while Verve were working on reissuing their first three albums on CD. Although some tracks were available via bootlegs, VU allowed fans to hear more polished versions of the nearly two decade old recordings. Clocking in at just over 30-minutes, it’s a short but very sweet collection of songs, showing The Velvet Underground’s more accessible side. Highlights include fun rockers like ‘I Can’t Stand It’ and ‘Foggy Notion’, while on the softer side there’s ‘Stephanie Says’, one of a handful of older tracks which features Cale on viola.

Another View (1986)

Following the success of VU, Verve went digging around in their vaults looking for more unreleased material. However, given that the best stuff had been used on the previous year’s collection, what you get on Another View are largely the dregs, consisting of rough demos, instrumentals and throwaway tracks. Highlights include the two versions of ‘Hey Mr. Rain’ featuring Cale on viola, the brilliant instrumental ‘Ride Into The Sun’, and the thunderous White Light/White Heat instrumental outtake ‘Guess I’m Falling in Love’. Aside from these three pieces, there isn’t really enough to make Another View as essential as VU. Verve would have been much better combining both collections into one release.

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