Mojo OCTOBER 1995 - by Lenny Kaye


The brief, brilliant life of The Velvet Underground, from jug-band rags to hypercool chronicles - experiments, cast-offs, fights and all - on five CDs. Immortal, immoral. Take your pick.

The Velvets have survived All Tomorrow's Parties. Since the moment they broke up, a quarter of a century ago, they've shown no sign of fading, remaining the soundtrack-of-choice for those who undertake the full swan dive into that pool of primordial piss moating the fringe of society. Their themes of religious and sexual fetish, obliteration and release, slither and slide, are as attractive and lurid now as they were then.

I've been saying that The Velvet Underground was/is my favourite band for so long now that sometimes I forget what they really sound like. I remember the songs, not the performance subtleties; or wonder how they might texturize against their spiritual heirs (myself included) in the light of today's up-yours ante. Who isn't a more-than-casual Velvets fan? If the pleasures of this box are meant for obsessives, what else was The Velvet Underground about but obsession? A music that demanded attention, that disquieted even as it soothed (Pale Blue Eyes, to name the first-to-mind example), or had a strange unnerving calm even as it placed a jagged sonic needle into your skull (Sister Ray, believe it or else).

This set - a joint venture between Bill Levenson, who has been the guiding light of Velvets' explorations in recent years, and the V.U. themselves - is a wonderful opportunity for everyone to hear them again. It covers the five years from the earliest demos to the final directional signals of inevitable solo careers - kind of an optimum length for a band's lifeline, enough time for a few albums, some live mementos, ideas that never came to fruition and the usual saga of band "Fuck you"/"No, fuck you" interplay both on and off stage. The Velvets' shifting sound, personnel and hothouse growth are documented in a kind of surround-sound; the official releases enhanced and encircled by performances from the period that let you know where the songs' roots lay, and what it must have been like watching them grow.

The sound here is gorgeous; a clarity that sacrifices nothing in impact, the tones irridescent and frontal. It's hard to believe these recordings were made on the fly, in studios that would come in a pre-packaged four-track box now. But the fury, the belief, the sense that this is for real, Jim-Jim... it can't help but be heard, assimilated, spat out.

For those who know the albums intimately (make of that what you will), the bonus beats of this box lie in the 'unofficial material', the plethora of demo tapes, live ephemera, remixes and audio mementoes that add shading and documentary interest. You're watching some version of creation through a peephole. Lou and John get testy with each other, false-starting; they try on characters; they subtly alter the song's personality. In the summer of 1965, in a loft on Ludlow street, John sings 'Venus In Furs', and it sounds Elizabethan, courtly; hearing Lou perform it on the 'banana' album, complete with laugh and sneer, is more Tales From The Crypt. Heroin goes through several persona changes in its series of takes, Lou alighting on a twitchy, Alphabet City junkie that he moved away from when the chillingly flat, almost monotone narrator emerged a year later on the official release.

These early demos are priceless if you're trying to figure out where The Velvets came from. They were relatively sophisticated by the time they Exploded The Plastic Inevitable with Warhol as their mentor. Down on Ludlow Street, with Sterling Morrison giving them musical grounding, Lou could practise his twisted songcraft and John his spacecraft and have it ready when Andy came to visit at the Cafe Bizarre. The result, which actually made me laugh out loud as I was driving through the New Jersey night, started out as folk-rock: I'm Waiting For The Man done as a jug-band rag, All Tomorrow's Parties as a Beau Brummels' jangly twelve-stringer, an actual protest-song about Prominent Men describing how they "kiss the ass of good fortune".

When Maureen Tucker came aboard with her back-to-mono rhythm, anchoring John's avant-classical to Lou's high poetics and low verse and chorus, given grounding by Sterling's 'lead', The Velvets had the potential to be as many different bands as they liked, which makes their tale continually fascinating as it evolves. And Nico. Even the outtakes and song-pieces have an inner creative spark. Some previously unheard versions, like Ocean, which would have to wait for Lou's solo album, are like a cover version by the original artist, while others are just plain weird songs. Nobody writes a singalong like The Murder Mystery. It has to occur.

The 'closet mix' of The Velvet Underground; the return of the bridge in Sweet Jane. Maureen sings. The Yule Brothers arrive, like Grant and Phil on EastEnders. They are a dance-band with a summer residency upstairs at Max's, which is about as Exploding Plastic Inevitable as you can get. In superb liner notes, David Fricke tells The Velvets rise-and-fall punctuated by reminiscences from the band (it's illuminating to listen to Sister Ray knowing that The Velvets vowed before they started that this would be a one-take-only duel to the finish), and he tracks their mood-swings with style and grace, always with an eye to their considerable legacy. Linger on.

CD1 Venus In Furs (3 takes) / Prominent Men / Heroin (4 takes) / I'm Waiting For The Man (3 takes) / Wrap Your Troubles (4 takes) / All Tomorrow's Parties (9 takes)

CD2 All Tomorrow's Parties (single) / Sunday Morning / I'm Waiting For The Man / Femme Fatale / Venus In Furs / Run, Run, Run / All Tomorrow's Parties / Heroin / There She Goes Again / I'll Be Your Mirror / The Black Angels' Death Song / European Son / Melody Laughter (live) / It Was A Pleasure Then / Chelsea Girls

CD3 There Is No Reason / Sheltered Life / It's All Right (The Way That You Live) / I'm Not Too Sorry (Now That You've Gone) / Here She Comes Now / Guess I'm Falling In Love (live) / White Light White Heat / The Gift / Lady Godiva's Operation / Here She Comes Now / I Heard Her Call My Name / Sister Ray / Stephanie Says / Temptation Inside Your Heart / Hey Mr Rain (Version 1)

CD4 What Goes On (live) / Candy Says / What Goes On / Some Kinda Love / Pale Blue Eyes / Jesus / Beginning To See The Light / I'm Set Free / That's The Story Of My Life / The Murder Mystery / After Hours / Foggy Notion / I Can't Stand It / I'm Sticking With You / One Of These Days / Lisa Says / It's Just Too Much (live) / Countess From Hong Kong

CD5 Who Loves The Sun / Sweet Jane / Rock & Roll / Cool It Down / New Age / Head Held High / Lonesome Cowboy Bill / I Found A Reason / Train Round The Bend / Oh! Sweet Nothin' / Satellite Of Love (demo) / Walk & Talk (demo) / Oh Gin (demo) / Sad Song (demo) / Ocean / Ride Into The Sun / Some Kinda Love (live at Max's / I'll Be Your Mirror (live at Max's) / I Love You (demo)