INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Pitchfork NOVEMBER 24, 2014 - by Stuart Berman
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND: THE VELVET UNDERGROUND - 45TH ANNIVERSARY SUPER DELUXE EDITION
Many recording artists release a self-titled debut album, while some opt to release a self-titled album later in their career, and others even go on to release multiple self-titled albums. But The Velvet Underground are the only band to have released multiple self-titled debuts.
Technically, their first album was 1967's The Velvet Underground & Nico, a bracing collision of Brill Building pop classicism and avant-garde noise terrorism that, by the time White Light/White Heat was released in 1968, had progressed to all-out warfare. The tension at the heart of these two records has often been attributed to the oppositional approaches of its principal songwriters - professional popsmith Lou Reed and viola-scraping iconoclast John Cale - though this reading has always been reductive. After all, Cale delivered one of White Light/White Heat's few moments of serenity (Lady Godiva's Operation), while Reed unleashed the album's most brutalising shock fifty-three seconds into I Heard Her Call My Name. But for Reed, the only logical response to White Light/White Heat's anti-pop extremism was to ricochet back in the other direction, a move that would force Cale out of the Velvets and present Reed with the opportunity to lead a different kind of band.
The romantic myth about the Velvets - the commercially ignored, ahead-of-their-time proto-punk innovators proudly out of step with the peace'n'lovey-dovey pop of the day - often overlooks a crucial quality about the band: they actually wanted to be popular. And in light of disappointing sales for their first two albums on niche jazz imprint Verve, they traded up to parent company MGM in 1969 with the intention of being a proper rock band that makes records for big labels in Hollywood and stays at the Chateau Marmont.
From the very first second of The Velvet Underground, everything about the group had changed from where they left off with the epochal squall of White Light/White Heat's Sister Ray. Reed and Sterling Morrison's amp settings were dialed down from 11 to 1; Maureen "Moe" Tucker's thundering thump was softened into a breezy brushed-snare sway; and Reed's ding-dong-sucking snarl was replaced by the melancholic whisper of Cale's successor Doug Yule. It's like returning from a holiday only to find your rat-infested apartment building had burned down and been replaced with a white-picket-fenced bungalow. And even though the song Yule was crooning, Candy Says, marked Reed's first explicit character reference to the Warhol Factory scene that birthed his band, it ultimately underscored The Velvets' increasing remove from its hazy decadence: A devastatingly intimate portrait of then-transitioning Factory regular Candy Darling, Candy Says is the sobering soundtrack for that inevitable moment when all tomorrow's parties turn to morning-after, makeup-smeared, self-loathing introspection. (The album cover reinforces the reflective mood: though shot at the Factory, The Velvets look more like they're hosting a small gathering friends in their living room, their '67-era striped tees and fuck-you wraparound shades replaced by comfortable sweaters and sensible collared shirts.)
If The Velvet Underground dialled down the aggression and abrasion of its predecessors, it undercuts the mellow approach with some of the rawest songwriting of Reed's career, and a plainspoken candor as startling as his past meditations on smack and S&M. His blunt language drives a spike into the album's gentle jangle to unleash a maelstrom of emotions, where ecstatic moments of spiritual reawakening (Beginning To See The Light) are answered by cruel reality checks ("I'm set free / To find a new illusion"), where the love of his life becomes someone else's (Pale Blue Eyes), where a Jewish guy feels so fucked up, he starts praying to Jesus. Even the seemingly easy-going choogle of What Goes On is routinely upset by Reed's admissions of anxiety ("One minute born / One minute doomed"). By that token, the simultaneous-poetry experiment The Murder Mystery feels less like an anomalous WTF throwback to The Velvets' avant-garde roots than the sound of the album's slow-stewing inner turmoil coming to a boil.
This interiority complex was crucial to Reed, to the point of him taking the original recordings engineered by MGM house producer Val Valentin and remixing the entire album to bring the already unguarded vocals to the fore. This so-called "Closet Mix" - featuring an entirely different, more cerebral take on the blues soliloquy Some Kinda Love - initially appeared only on the album's first U.S. run; it would later resurface on the 1995 career-spanning box set Peel Slowly & See. This forty-fifth-anniversary package not only revives Reed's Closet Mix alongside a new crystalline mix by Valentin, but also a third mono version that could very well be dubbed the Armoire Mix, thus making the transition out of White Light/White Heat feel a little less abrupt. (For one, the once-blissful fade-out organ drone on What Goes On now sounds like a ray-gun burrowing into your skull.) Which mix you prefer depends on just how cozy you want to get with The Velvets: would you rather they engage you in a private, face-to-face conversation (Valentin's mix), whisper in your ear (Closet Mix), or take up residency inside your brain (the mono mix)?
But The Velvet Underground's six-disc deluxe edition has a purpose beyond just encouraging audiophiles to A/B different versions of the same songs. Rather, it's a complete portrait of a period when The Velvets' populist ambitions were being matched by their exceedingly prolific output, and the notion of what we now consider to be the archetypal Lou Reed song - be it a tough, streetwise rocker or tender, empathetic ballad - was being more clearly defined. Shortly after The Velvet Underground's March 1969 release, the band had recorded enough new material at New York's Record Plant for a fourth album; souring relations with MGM, however, resulted in those sessions being shelved. This material has, of course, surfaced in various iterations over the years (be it on mid-'80s compilations VU and Another View, the Peel Slowly & See box, or in revised form on various Reed solo albums), and has proven as canonical as the band's officially released work. But this set is the first to present it as a proper, logically sequenced, stand-alone album, kicking off with the locomotive charge of Foggy Notion and ending with an instrumental version of Ride Into The Sun that, here, feels less like an unfinished demo than a strategically placed closing-credits theme.
It's no coincidence that these songs count as the most upbeat and playful The Velvets produced; as Yule observes in David Fricke's liner notes, "There was a type of song that Lou wrote that was not thematically important to him, but was fun to put together, that had a lot of rhythm - a good tune when you needed something to open up an audience." The last two discs of this set - pulled from two November '69 shows at San Francisco club The Matrix - present a glorious opportunity to experience this engagement process in action. This period of the band's onstage evolution has been documented on the 1974 double-album 1969: The Velvet Underground Live and the no-fi bootleg comp The Quine Tapes, but never with such cohesion and clarity. (The Matrix - owned by Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin - boasted a professional four-track console at its mixing desk.)
While San Francisco's hippie haven may have seemed like enemy turf for The Velvets, the city was essentially the band's home away from home for much of '69, The Matrix their Factory West. And the rollicking performances betray their desire to out-jam the jam bands, and expose the rock 'n' roll heart beating through even The Velvets' most transgressive songs. The cornerstone is a Sister Ray to end all Sister Rays, though its thirty-seven(!)-minute roller coaster journey from a molasses-slow blues to heart-racing rave-up is hitched to a relaxed West Coast groove that ventures far away from the original's distortion holocaust. And The Velvets take such liberties in stretching out and reshaping their most concise songs (Waiting For The Man, Lisa Says, There She Goes Again), that the faithful rendition of first-album freak-out Heroin practically sounds formalist in comparison. (That said, even when in crowd-pleasing mode, Reed was already plotting future provocations: Prior to kicking into a distended early version of Rock & Roll, Reed strums a droning warm-up chord, and marvels, "imagine a hundred guitars doing that at once!")
Alas, the obvious joy with which the band whip through the Matrix setlist obscures the sad truth about The Velvet Underground: that The Velvets' concerted "pop" album turned out to be the biggest commercial flop of their career up to that point, not even able to scrape the bottom reaches of the Billboard 200, as its two more caustic predecessors barely managed to do. When the band sing in unison, "How does it feel to be loved?" at the end of the Matrix take on Beginning To See the Light, Lou ad libs, "somebody tell me, PLEASE!" with an amplified sense of desperation that indicates he never thought he'd know the answer. But just as The Velvet Underground's hushed tones and tempered tempos demanded a greater sense of patience from listeners, its acceptance proved to be a protracted, gradual process that took decades.
The band's first two albums prefigured punk, goth, and contemporary noise, but The Velvet Underground anticipated the sound of popular indie rock from the late-'80s onward, through the barb-wired chime of Galaxie 500, Pavement, Yo La Tengo, and countless others; the entire Stereolab discography can be heard in the outro of What Goes On alone, while even the Moe Tucker-sung confection After Hours (and its '69-session counterpart I'm Sticking With You) single-handedly spawned all things twee. Brian Eno famously quipped that everyone who bought The Velvet Underground & Nico started a band, but The Velvet Underground's stunning simplicity and unflinching honesty presented an even more accessible model of DIY aspiration, free of Warholian conceptualism and Cale's classically schooled chaos. The album remains both an open invitation and a dare - to face Reed's hard truths or, better yet, to reveal your own.