The Velvet Underground albums
I have often said that I hate comparing people’s personal lives when talking about the music. True, music is the most important thing, but every once in a while the band will fuse the two where the style of living becomes the music, then the combination rebels against everything style and music had stood for in its time. My point is, compare The Velvet Underground’s albums to anything else of the time, and you will see what I mean.
Maybe through the production and a couple of ditties, you can tell the band came from the 1960’s, but everything else is completely timeless and unique. They were beyond doing their own thing, they are the only band I have heard from the sixties that were completely removed from rock n’ roll traditions. Lou Reed and John Cale were an amazing songwriting team, and it is too bad they only made two albums together, but what albums they were! The band simply had no equals in terms of originality. Everything else can be said below; but the “alternative” to pop/rock music started here.
Lou Reed – Vocals, Guitar
Sterling Morrison – Bass, Guitar
Maureen Tucker – Drums
John Cale – Viola (first two albums)
Nico – Vocals (on VU & Nico)
Doug Yule – Bass (last two albums)
Best Album: The Velvet Underground and Nico
Biggest Influences: Bob Dylan, John Cage, Chuck Berry, LaMonte Young, The Fugs
1967 – (5 / 5)+- The Velvet Underground and Nico
1967 – (5 / 5) – White Light White Heat
1969 – (4.5 / 5) – The Velvet Underground
1970 – (3 / 5) – Loaded
1972 – (1.5 / 5) – Squeeze
The Velvet Underground & Nico – (5 / 5)+
The debut album of the Velvet Underground was a cataclysmic shift in the rock music, like an asteroid slamming into Earth and clearing out all the life that was present before. The album was a sublime mix of the positive and the negative, the melodic and the dissonant, the beautiful and the ugly. The song writing of Lou Reed and John Cale was based in rhythm and blues for sure, but also in the styles of the minimalists of the time such as Lamont Young and Terry Riley. Reed spoke/sang like Bob Dylan, connecting him to folk rock of the time, but also bellowed from the depths of his soul like the best soul singers around. Andy Warhol, the bands manager and idea man at the time, brought the German born singer Nico into the group and she sings three of them: “Femme Fatale”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”. The latter of the three is the sweetest and one of the most sincere pop ballads of all time, but each brings a certain fragile quality to the record.
These songs along with “Sunday Morning” and “There She Goes Again” represent 60’s pop music in all of its normality. The other six songs which constitute the remainder of the record form an opposition to pop: by incorporating middle-eastern sounds in “Venus in Furs”, strung out orchestral instruments on “Black Angel’s Death Song” which features Cale’s abrasive Viola stylings, and long dirges about drug addiction such as “I’m Waiting for My Man”, “Run Run Run” and “Heroin”, the latter being perhaps the crown jewel of the album in terms of lyrical honestly (“When I stick a needle in my vein, and I know that things just aren’t the same, and I guess that I just don’t know”).
The album uses these songs as gateways to a future not yet seen, where they create their own cool, hip world. Something about this album makes it fun to experience over and over again, maybe because it was providing us with rock music in a way that was never possible before. Instead of just trying to be “psychedelic”, The Velvet Underground were something else: a living, breathing musical entity that could go in any direction they wanted to musically in a split second. They lived that kind of life it too: it contemporaries like The Rolling Stones were gritty, urban street youths, the Velvets were abstract, nocturnal artists. The album’s closer “European’s son” is a messy, disorganized freak out of punk music frenzy that proves an album that is as experimental and original in style could not end any other way than all out chaos. While only the final song constitutes the vivacious sound the Velvets are famous for, all of the songs are fantastic examples of music done originally without borders or boundaries. It is perhaps the greatest rock music debut of all time.
Greatest Tracks: I’ll Be Your Mirror, Venus in Furs, Sunday Morning, Heroin
Sidenote: The album was recorded in the Spring of 1966, but not released on a record label until almost a year later (gee, I wonder why?)
White Light/White Heat – (5 / 5)
WLWH is a long, confusing sonic journey. The same concessions made on the debut to appeal to a mass audience are almost completely gone on the follow up album, instead you get rambling poetry (“the Gift” and “Lady Godiva) as well as ear-splitting rock distortion (closing tracks “Heard her Call My Name” and “Sister Ray”). It is more experimental than their debut but it does expand on many of its adventurous qualities. There are some gems- opener “White Light/White Heat”, “Lady Godiva’s Operation” and the mellow “Here She Comes Now” are classic songs for the Velvets, and tell stories of simplicity just like the best rock music of their time. Reed does “wow” us with many two or three chord songs that prove he was blessed with the gift to make it all look very easy; to make it sound simple is quite the trick.
The remaining three songs of the record are harder to swallow but no less entertaining: “The Gift” and “I heard her call my name” are these long journeys of notes with words thrown in; there is not a lot of structure to there songs. “The Gift” does not work as a composition- it is a tale of sex and perversion that is extremely boring and nearly impossible to follow, and it is eight minutes long at that. “I Heard Her Call My Name” fares better, though its abrasive guitar squeal can be hard to take if you are not in the mood for it. It is at least original, and sounded like little else of the time.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the last song of the record, “Sister Ray”. Simply put, they laid the groundwork for thousands of artists in future years with this tune; any band who is considered “alternative rock” or uses “noise” in their music. A one of a kind song to say the least, a rock jam before jam bands were even a thing, but far from jazz, minimalism or rhythm and blues. Seventeen minutes of solid backbeat by the fabulous Maureen Tucker, ramblings by Reed about “hitting it sideways” and “sucking on a ding song”, and solid noise and feedback by the guitars and organ in the background. Somehow it is all always interesting and ever changing though all the song length, quickly forming and reforming its mantra while never catering to any one verse, chorus, or style. To say that has to be heard is an understatement; “Sister Ray” is one of the best rock songs ever and required listening for any fan of adventurous music. The band took a year break after this onslaught of music, they are only human after all. I think.
Greatest Tracks: Sister Ray, Here She Comes Now, White Light/White Heat
The Velvet Underground – (4.5 / 5)
I really do wonder why this, the third album from the VU, is self-titled. They had already done that with their first record, though it had Nico in the lineup. This one has neither Nico nor John Cale, and the latter’s presence is missed. Oh, I love this album and all, it is consistent enough, but there is no doubt in my mind it would have been more daring and challenging if Cale was still in the group. They were obviously trying to get more noticed and perhaps make some money with this record; the poppier sound is present throughout the album. Throughout is the key word though because a song like “Candy Says” is not too far removed from “Sunday Morning” on the debut album, but there are more songs like that throughout the length of the record. All ten songs are standard pop/rock or almost folk, which is fine as long as they are good songs. Maybe Lou Reed thought this album would be a new beginning for the band, hence the self-title? Possible, seeing as how new band member Doug Yule sings that opening track.
The album is very somber and sad sounding so that when there is an upbeat rocker, such as “What Goes On” or “Beginning to See the Light”, it JUMPS OUT AT YA! The ballads that make up the majority of the record are of genius quality: “Pale Blue Eyes” is five minutes of serenade, and one of the most beautiful love songs ever written; “I’m Set Free” has a great, cascading chorus; and “Jesus” is one of the more uplifting, religious songs Reed has ever written. Minor inconsistencies are found in two songs which are not as good as the rest: “Some Kinda Love” just lacks energy and “Murder Mystery” like White Light/White Heat’s “The Gift” is just a failed idea at spoken word nonsense that goes on for NINE minutes. Would have been nice to have Cale mess with these tunes and beef them up, but alas, it was not meant to be. Closer “After Hours” and “That’s the Story of MY Life” are hardly innovative songs, but enjoyable enough for the harmless kind of aura of the album. Reed makes a small masterpiece of an album here on his own (songwriting wise), and if you are found of the quieter side of The Velvets, this could be your favorite VU record. It is miles away from the wild carefree attitude of the debut, but it’s a great night time album I listen too quite often. Blazing rocker “Beginning to See the Light”, a prelude to Reed’s solo career, always does wake me up if I doze off.
Greatest Songs: I’m Set Free, What Goes On, Pale Blue Eyes, Beginning to See The Light
Loaded – (3 / 5)
Loaded is the epitome of a band selling out, and Reed’s ultimate kiss off to the band’s record label pressure of making a hit record. It is not that the now SUPER accessible sound of the band is bad, all band’s progress in different ways, it is that when you make a record that is supposedly loaded (sic) with hits, it tends to be top heavy and inconsistent. Lo and behold, the band’s fourth album is those two things to the extreme!
The first three songs “prove” the band could have radio hits/ singles, whatever. I doubt that was their original idea, know what I mean? Yes, the first three songs are great mid-tempo rockers, but that is all. There is no real emotion on the album, and the once beating heart of the band is gone- in fact most of the band is gone, the only original member is Reed and he didn’t stay around for long after the album came out. The spirit of the band disappeared on the remainder of Loaded….
The rest of Loaded pales in comparison to the first three tracks (which on their own, pale in comparison to the band’s first two or three records). “Oh Sweet Nothin” is a decent album closer, though again it plays like a parody of soul music Reed just kind of tossed off. “Cool it Down” is a goofy, stupid piece of garage rock, but nowhere near as horrid as the next three. Can anyone honestly listen to “New Age”, “Head Held High”, and “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” without breaking out into laughter? What the hell where they thinking? These songs are awful, like being stuck at a concert where your favorite band plays some “new tracks” and they are the worst shit you ever heard in your life, and you can’t escape!!! Ahhhh! The band even parodies of itself- with its “time time” lyrics in “Cool it Down”, and “New Age” is like album closer “Oh! Sweet Nothin’” with a lower I.Q.
“I Found a Reason” flirts with Beach Boys harmonies and “Train Around the Bend” has a sort of country groove to it, but neither song is that exceptional. In all, a bad way for the band to call it a day, but of course it was The Velvets best-selling record to date which should tell you all you need to know about the majority of the record buying public. After this album, Lou Reed left the band to start a solo career and remained an awe-inspiring songwriter until his death in 2007. The Velvet Underground evolved like any band, and showed the world they could master just about any style. There are VU fans that I am sure will say this is their favorite VU record, which just attests to what a great band the VU were for their four album career.
Greatest Songs: Rock n Roll, Sweet Jane, Who Loves the Sun, Oh Sweet Nothin’
Squeeze – (1 / 5)
Squeeze is not a Velvet Underground album. It has their name on it, but none of the original members, so don’t be fooled by this awful, mainstream, folk/country album with a great band’s name on it. Doug Yule has a band, the label wanted to keep making money off the name, this album is awful! And not even awfully funny. Without his link to Lou Reed, Yule never could have gotten this collection of lame songs any attention.
Greatest Tracks: none, they are all lame
(b-sides, EP’s, Live albums, etc)
VU – (4.5 / 5)
It is nice to have this collection of lost Velvet songs around, though it is surprisingly short. Don’t expect any lost experiments though; the album is purely pop music. A lot of it works: “Stephanie Says” and “Lisa Says” are powerful ballads; “Foggy Notion” (a miniature “sister ray”) and “I Can’t Stand It” are great rockers in the traditional VU way, and “She’s My Best Friend” actually sounds like The Beatles! That is ok, The Beatles tried to sound like VU on many accounts also (“I’ve Got a Feeling” or “Revolution 9” anyone?).
“Temptation Inside Your Heart” recalls the original band members having fun in the studio, and it is nice to hear them laugh and mess up some. Those are the great songs, and while “Ocean” is often covered by many bands (the best version of this song is on the VU Live album) and “Andy’s Chest” turns up on Transformer, the other four songs are not nearly as good as the ones mentioned before. But hey, at least this compilation is available, because it shows more insight to an awesome band that was far too shot lived. Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, and John Cale really could write great songs, being experimental or just plain accessible, or mixing them both like no one before them. One of the better B-sides available for any band.