The Velvet Underground
VELVET UNDERGROUND REVIEWS:
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
Album Score: 13
The Velvet Underground knew how to write melodies. I'm saying that now for anyone who refuses to listen to this band because they're worried about inaccessibility. More than that, these melodies are potent; they have the uncanny ability to stick with me. They're quite catchy, too. That goes even for a song as seemingly bizarro as the thick and Indian-influenced “Venus in Furs.” I could easily close my eyes and imagine Frank Sinatra turning it into a song for his repertoire. Not that I would have wanted him to!
Surely, everyone knows the history of this album. Famed artist Andy Warhol produced it and created that iconic album cover. Nico, a German actress, model, and non-singer, was brought in on Warhol's insistence to sing lead vocals on a few of these songs. Her voice was deep and had a thick German accent, but she sounded so chilling and so dark that she fit the haunting moods of these songs perfectly. She ended up only singing lead on three of these tracks, which was three too many according to some fans. I don't understand the hatred for Nico, however. I would say that she was one of the more interesting additions to the songs that she sings; her voice was spooky as hell. Lou Reed's vocals were also cold, but his vocal styling seemed slightly more casual and talky. That, of course, is how Lou Reed always sings!
This album is so accessible that, on one occasion, they borrow a riff directly from Marvin Gaye's “Hitch Hike.” It's in a song called “There She Goes Again.” I'm not too sure why they had to do it; it's a good riff, but not a great riff. It pales in comparison with The Rolling Stones' use of it on Out of Our Heads. I'll also add that I wouldn't have trouble picturing “Femme Fatale” in a Henry Mancini soundtrack from the era. Thus, people who criticize The Velvet Underground for being derivative have a point.
But not really. If occasionally their song structure and melodies weren't original, then you have to give them those points back as well as extra credit for their wholly unique attitude. They seem like they don't care whether you like them or not. That's not a contradiction to what I said about them earlier. They might have laden these songs with tons of hooks, but I get the impression that the only reason they did that was because they felt like it. Their atmospheres were also absolutely revolutionary, and we have John Cale to thank mostly for that; his droning viola sound is one of this album's signatures. Also, I doubt songs with such scary, pounding pianos such as “All Tomorrow's Parties” and “I'm Waiting For the Man” was ever done before in rock 'n' roll. They're great songs, too. Two of my all-time favorites.
The lyrics dealt seriously with controversial subjects such as drugs and sexual deviancy. They probably wouldn't have gotten away with such things if they didn't have such a powerful figure as Warhol as the producer! (Reed would later say Warhol's main strength as a producer was that he just let them do whatever they wanted! But, naturally, they did heed his requests... Not only allowing Nico to take lead vocals on some of the best songs, but Warhol asked them to write “Femme Fatale,” a song about Edie Sedgwick.)
There are three songs that are the most “experimental” and they're easily going to be the most difficult for casual listeners to swallow. “Heroin” is a monotonous two-chord song with a tempo that speeds up and slows down at will. There's the droning and dissonant “The Black Angel's Death Song,” which is characterized by John Cale's viola playing two notes back and forth. And finally, there's the extremely cluttery closer “European Son,” which is difficult to listen to after two minutes... much less eight minutes! While these three songs are hardly my favorite moments of this album, they're interesting enough for me to hang onto them throughout their sometimes epic running lengths quite well.
For better or worse, this album will leave an impression on you. It's also one of rock 'n' roll's most important landmarks, so no respectable record collection would be without it. There are people who love this record to death and then there are others who abhor it; this album must be in your collection no matter who you are! While this isn't my favorite album of all time, I do actively enjoy listening to it. However, I only rarely find the occasion to bring it out. This thing sounds horrible on my car stereo and I also find it grossly unsuitable for taking on walks and studying. Is that a criticism? Not at all. This is an album that I find I can only listen to when I'm sitting alone in a room and paying direct attention to it, and it takes quite a lot for me to break my concentration on it.
Read the track reviews:
White Light/White Heat (1967)
Album Score: 11
Without a doubt, this is The Velvet Underground's most difficult album to swallow. Unless you're very into ugly, distortion-heavy rock, I'd exercise caution before approaching this sucker; it's liable to drive you insane. As I said in my previous Velvet Underground review, this band didn't seem give a damn if their music was entertaining. That applies much more here than it did there. What they wanted to do was to take basic concepts in rock 'n' roll and turn it on its ear. And it worked; countless punk-rock bands cite this album as one of their principal influences.
Nico was gone and so was Andy Warhol. Believe it or not, those two strung-out freaks helped keep The Velvet Underground & Nico from getting too weird. There's no pop music in here whatsoever. John Cale was still there but sans his viola, which was one of that album's signature sounds. Most of these songs consist of heavy and distorted guitars that chug along sloppily while either Lou Reed or John Cale sings over it off key.
The song that most people are familiar with is the title track, which also happens to sound the most like their debut. Its groove is based entirely on a rapidly played piano, similar to “I'm Waiting For the Man,” except it's played a little faster. Also, the song is much sloppier, filled to the brim with deafening feedback screeches. At its core, it's not much different than an ordinary boogie-rocker; its bluesy chord progression is quite common. However, Lou Reed's conversational lead vocals were quite bizarre. I'd imagine most singers would automatically think to scream their heads off to such music. But not old Lou Reed.
The place where Reed really lets it loose is “I Heard Her Call My Name.” He is carrying on all over the place—screaming, talking, yelping—and he's never ever on-key. The guitars are also flailing about in a remarkably insane manner with its squeaky distorted noises, and it is mixed very loudly over the vocals. It's not for the weak of heart. Speaking for myself, I find it to be a mild chore to sit through, but at least they keep it from growing too tedious with Maureen Tucker's dependable and rapidly paced drumbeat. Brain-shattering songs definitely need their beats.
“The Gift” is also made by its chuggy, mid-tempo groove. Thank goodness it's a good groove, because it goes on for eight minutes. Instead of singing, John Cale reads a short story over it in a straitlaced manner. Cale had a decent talking voice, but he only had a layman's singing voice, which you get to hear in “Lady Godiva's Operation.” Apart from the lyrics, that song is the closest thing this album has to pop. It has a catchy riff, mesmerizing rhythm, and a simple though hooky melody. As with everything else here, it's played messily; the guitars generally keep the riff, but if they miss a note or two, they don't figure it's a big deal.
It might be hard to believe, but I haven't yet gotten to the album's most contentious track: “Sister [Bloody] Ray.” It's a 17-and-a-half-minute epic consisting of a chuggy groove and some of the most earsplitting distortion noises I've ever heard. The eternally wise Lou Reed spends most of the time singing about his ding-dong. Occasionally, that chuggy groove evolves into a texture that I find rather fascinating, but some of the time, I just want to put my fingers over my ears! John Cale noodles around with his organ for awhile, which might typically be a good thing, except he fed it through a guitar amplifier, so that's just as headache inducing as the guitars if not more so. With all that said, I used to hate that song. Now I've come to appreciate it. It's a very tough listen that I'm almost never in the mood for, but it all comes down to that chuggy, evolving groove.
This album was groundbreaking at the time for sure, but is it entertaining? Yes and no. Yes, because most of these songs are based on a dependable groove, and no because it's sloppily played and rife with ugly distortion sounds. I've grown to appreciate this album more since the first time I listened it, but I'm still not a huge fan of it. I doubt I'll ever be. They might have turned rock 'n' roll on its ear and inspired countless punk-rock bands, but that doesn't mean I'm going to pull this album out every day and give it a spin. As a matter of fact, I don't expect I'll listen to this again until I decide to rewrite this review. And who knows when that's going to be?
Read the track reviews:
The Velvet Underground (1969)
Album Score: 12
Oh my oh my. If you're listing to the Velvet Underground discography in order for the first time, you might be wondering if this was even the same band. ...That is, apart from Lou Reed's deadpan vocals, which are indistinguishable from any other rock vocalist's around the world. The stylistic leap is bound to strike anyone as odd; after they ended their previous album intentionally trying to drive anyone who listened to it crazy with the messy and raucous “Sister Ray,” they begin this album with the slowest and sleepiest pop song imaginable, “Candy Says.”
Naturally, The Velvet Underground were no strangers to pop music—their debut album was full of that. But they had never done anything that straightforward before. The only instruments they use are some jangle-ish guitars and a very subdued drum beat. These songs are so cramped and closed in that it sounds like it was done on somebody's deathbed. This so-called “closeted” quality of these songs is something these guys did intentionally, apparently. I'm not such a fan of this sound, and truth be told I don't really see the benefit of it.
Most importantly, this is where Velvet Underground started to really get interesting and introspective with their lyrics. (I'm not going to go much into detail about the lyrics, since that's something that people should try to interpret for themselves. Also, I'm quite lazy and don't feel much like writing out my detailed interpretations!) Specifically, this is where Lou Reed really started to blossom as a lyricist. It's for that very reason, I'd imagine, that many fans cite this as the best Velvet Underground album, and they have a good point.
Just because the album starts with a slow number it doesn't mean they had forgotten how to do rock 'n' roll! In fact, you'll get a hearty dose of rock 'n' roll as a reward for bearing through that opening number. (Not that the opening number isn't excellent... it is, of course, among the finest slow rock songs ever composed.) “What Goes On” is a terrific, virtually straitforward rock 'n' roll number with a catchy, crunchy and almost funky riff and a vocal melody that will get stuck in your head. The exact same thing can be said for “Beginning to See the Light,” which shows that these guys were very consistent.
“Jesus” is an effective piece for religious people who like to pray or meditate. But of course, many people who do that probably wouldn't listen to this album in the first place because it opens with a song about a transexual. Nonetheless, it's quite a genuine piece with simple lyrics that repeat “Jesus, help me find my proper place / help me in my weakness, because I've fallen out of grace.” Somehow, these words sound more believable coming out of Lou Reed than it would ever coming out of Garth Brooks! Go figure.
I've also always had a soft spot for the album's experimental piece, “The Murder Mystery,” which I'd imagine non-music-geeks would consider an overlong jumble. It goes back and forth between a somewhat disjointed pop-tune and an unintelligible spoken word portion in which two people speak over each other. It's nine minutes long, and it's weird. I like it, and the exact reason for that escapes me. All I can say is I can listen to the whole thing and keep an amused disposition. Perhaps I'm getting weird subliminal messages from it? At any rate, those nine minutes entertain me.
While this album unquestionably earns its place in Velvet Underground's list of achievements and I understand why many people list this as their favorite of them (in particular people who love lyrics more than anything in pop music), it doesn't quite move me as much as their debut did. That album seemed to have more moments that hit me over the head than this one does by comparison. Nonetheless, any good rock album collection ought to have this gem in it nonetheless. Both because this is the place where Lou Reed started to blossom as a lyricist, and these melodies are mostly great. I'll also reiterate (because this is important!!) that if you found White Light / White Head off-putting, don't let that keep you from picking up their follow-up. They're entirely different beasts.
Read the track reviews:
Album Score: 12
The Velvet Underground were in the middle of recording their fourth album for MGM records when all of the sudden, they got news that they were being dropped from the label. (Egads, what do record companies have against rock 'n' roll bands that don't make money?) They soon signed on the Atlantic label, but they couldn't use any of that material. Rather, the record company wanted them to record an album loaded with hits! (That “lost” album would be released in the '80s as VU.)
Of course none of these songs turned out to be “hits” ... at least right away. Good thing they didn't, because that would have been terribly damaging to their legendary cult status. However, these guys sure did give it a try. They took a stab at Turtles-esque sunshine-pop in the album opener, “Who Loves the Sun,” which features jangly guitars, upbeat drumming, catchy melody, and shiny back-up singing. Doug Yule, taking over its lead vocals, has taken a lot of flack over the years as a singer, but I don't mind him; he has a laid-back and friendly voice that at least hits all the right notes. “Sweet Jane” is one of the more recognizable songs here thanks partly to a popular cover version by glam rockers Mott the Hoople. The Hoople cover might be faster and more danceable, but I still prefer this version handily entirely due to Lou Reed's stylish and flamboyant vocal performance, which ends up perfectly complimenting its tight, toe-tapping, and catchy riff. Just listening to Reed sing shows me why Doug Yule gets flack as a singer—he's not Lou Reed!
“Rock & Roll” is easily the best song of the album and probably the best song ever about rock 'n' roll itself. The riff is tight and danceable, and Lou Reed outdoes himself in the flamboyant vocals department. I'm guessing he was trying to sound like Mick Jagger with all those yelps, gasps and growls he makes, and it's extremely entertaining hearing him do that. It's not very true to the original style of The Velvet Underground, but I don't give a crap. I call it one of my top 100 favorite songs of all time.
I only talked about the first three songs of the album so far, and it's pretty clear that those are the highlights. However, most of the other songs make great listens as well. I especially like “Cool it Down” for some reason. There's nothing special about that chugging mid-tempo piano rhythm, but Reed's flagrant over-singing cracks the hell out of me. He even had the gall to over-sing the song twice, and lets us hear both takes at the same time. Make sure you're wearing headphones when listening to it. I'm also amused by his overly growling singing in “Head Held High,” which is nearly as strong as the average Rolling Stones song of the era.
I love that droning, chugging rhythm they come up with for “Train Round the Bend,” but unfortunately other than that and the vocals, it isn't especially distinguishable. They close the album with “Oh! Sweet Nuthin',” an attempt at an epic “Hey Jude” style song in which the closing chorus repeats forever. It's a fine listen, but it doesn't quite move me and thus I don't find it particularly memorable.
“Lonesome Cowboy Bill” was a strange attempt at country-rock. A lot of people hate it, but I actually have a lot of fun with it; I like listening to the sloppy and fast-paced instrumentals, and it has a catchy melody. What more could I want? (...Well I guess I would have enjoyed hearing Lou Reed sing it instead of Doug Yule... but I already said I wasn't going to engage in any Doug Yule bashing.) “New Age” is downbeat and slowly paced, and it's the only thing here that reminds me of the style of their previous album. It's quite good, but unfortunately I find myself bored with it.
The only song I actually dislike in this album is their '50s-style slow romance ballad “I Found a Reason,” which is just boring and all-around awful. It gets even worse in the final third when Reed engages in a spoken-word interlude. But other than that, I give a hearty thumbs up to everything else. Loaded is not as interesting or as “revolutionary” as any of their previous albums, but it has its fair share of great tunes on it, and that's good enough for me. Due to its accessibility, this might even be a good entry point for anyone looking to get into their discography but are too afraid to go head-first into their artsier previous albums.
Read the track reviews:
Live at Max's Kansas City (1972)
Album Score: 8
You almost wouldn't know it talking to Velvet Underground fans these days, but Live at Max's Kansas City was the very first live album released by these guys in 1972. However, it's easily one of their least-loved releases, second to Squeeze. Why? Because the recording quality is atrocious. It was recorded by someone sitting in an audience with a handheld recorder, and not a terribly high-tech one at that. Because of that, it sounds like the band is verrrrry far away. Furthermore, from my experience using handheld tape-recorders, I'm willing to bet that this person was recording over something else. Every once in awhile, I hear it sort of spaz out, getting a bit distorted. That tape seemed well-worn.
I said multiple times before that The Velvet Underground don't necessarily sound bad when the recording quality is crude... but here, it's a huge distraction. Lou Reed's vocals are frequently drowned out by the other instruments. That includes even, on more than one occasion, quite clearly hearing people's conversations. (I'm mildly amused that I can hear one guy talk about how he saw Patton recently. ...At another time, apparently you can hear author Jim Carroll asking about where to find drugs. However, I haven't been able to pick up exactly where that happens.) It sounds like it was recorded at a very small venue, and I'd imagine many people in the audience were just there for the drinks. At the end of “Lonesome Cowboy Bill (Version 1),” I hear one person clapping. Haha!
Even worse than that, the band itself was not in top form. The Velvet Underground had a very high live reputation, but you would never guess that here. The principle problem is that Maureen Tucker was not present at this recording; she was havin' a baby! (I guess that's what happens to females of our species sometimes...) Instead, bassist Doug Yule recruited his brother Billy to play the drums, and he—for the lack of a better term—sucks. That's mostly due to these clunky fills he likes inserting in pretty much all these songs. Furthermore, since the recording quality is so awful, his drumming is easily the loudest thing in the mix. It comes off way louder than Reed's voice. If the quality of these songs weren't so high, then I would have completely given up on this; the drumming would've driven me completely crazy instead of just mildly crazy.
Yet another problem with this album came with the CD re-release of it. The original vinyl release was severely edited. Here, they pretty much include EVERYTHING including the silence in between songs. I suppose you could argue that doing that sort of recreates the feeling that you're there, but … er … I was mostly just bored by it. Sometimes you can hear Lou Reed talk to the audience, but I usually have a hard time making out what he says. When I can, there aren't exactly any laugh-out-loud moments. However, I'm amused at the beginning where Reed informs the audience in his signature deadpan manner: “You're allowed to dance in case you didn't know.” ...Given how I hear the audience's lukewarm reception to the band throughout the performances, I don't think anybody there took him up on that offer.
The song selection is generally good. My obligatory pick for best song is “White Light / White Heat,” which is unfortunately marred by Billy Yule's drumming. (At the end of that song, I can quietly hear Reed telling Yule how to play the next song. ...Well, it sounds like he was at least polite.) They also perform a number of songs that I never cared for even in their polished studio forms, such as “New Age” and “I'm Set Free,” which are verrrrrrrrrrry tiring for me to sit through. I'm also not sure why, but there are two versions each of “Sweet Jane” and “Lonesome Cowboy Bill.” In both those occasions, once was enough.
With all this in mind, I have no trouble calling Live at Max's Kansas City a strictly for-fans-only release. And the vast majority of fans I'm aware of don't think much of it. The Velvet Underground were a great live band, but this recording didn't show them in top-form. It was also recorded at a time just previously to Lou Reed exiting the band, and he does seem awfully worn out. Really, it's no wonder whatsoever that the 1974 release of 1969: The Velvet Underground Live greatly eclipses this release in popularity. Not only does that album have much better sound quality (as crude as it is), but it shows the band in tip-top form. I mean, some of the songs on 1969: The Velvet Underground Live are even better than the studio versions, in my opinion. So, skip this one, and get that one!
Read the track reviews:
Album Score: 10
This seems to be the rock album that the world would most like to forget about; it's even more notorious than those albums The Doors released after Jim Morrison's death. Lou Reed left the band in 1970 to pursue a solo career, and Sterling Morrison followed in 1971. That left Doug Yule and Maurice Tucker as the remaining members of The Velvet Underground who continued to tour with some new recruits. Around that time, word had finally gotten out to the general public that The Velvet Underground were awesome, and people started buying their records. It was the moment the record company executives had been waiting for all along, and they pressured Yule into “squeezing” out a new album to capitalize on this new found attention.
But isn't a Velvet Underground album without Lou Reed like blasphemy or something? See on the album cover how God is squeezing the crap out of a building? That building is smitten! And so is Doug Yule for even attempting such a thing. Doug Yule wasn't a founding member. He only joined in 1969 for their third studio album. Who does this little lackey think he is? ...But I suppose at least Tucker was touring with them at the time. She was a founding member. So I guess that's fine, then. Carry on.
...Er wait a second! Wikipedia tells us that Tucker was excluded from the recording sessions in a measure to reduce cost. In her place, they brought in Deep Purple's drummer Ian Paice. (Not to sound rude or anything, but what sort of parallel universe is this that Maurice Tucker would be more expensive than Ian Paice?) Excluding Tucker from this album ended up robbing it completely of its Velvet Underground pedigree. So I guess it's no wonder so many people consider this album a bastard child. However, just because there aren't any founding members involved, it doesn't mean that we automatically have to dismiss it. After all, I have yet to address the actual music of the album.
Well, it might be easily the worst studio album The Velvet Underground ever made, but I've got to say it is pretty darn good for what's supposed to be the worst album in the universe. Doug Yule might have been no Lou Reed, but he proved to be a capable and even above average songwriter. You'll hear it right away with the album opener, “Little Jack.” The riff is good, the melody is nice, they get a good toe-tapping rhythm going, it's sung pretty well... I mean, doesn't blow my mind away, but it's fun! A song like that surely doesn't add anything to the Velvet Underground legacy, but it also doesn't subtract anything from it. How could anything? “Mean Old Man” and “Dopey Joe” are glam songs of the Slade variety that are characterized by dumb riffs, ultra clean drum beats, and catchy melodies. Yule's average-man vocals are wrong for them—notably in “Dopey Joe,” he tries to belt out a few falsetto “Woooos!” in a Lou Reed sort of way, but his voice can't handle it and cracks. But I actually kind of like them.
“Friends” is a very pretty ballad that, melodically and harmonically, sounds like it might have made a good fit on their debut album. Instrumentally, however, not so much. I guess they had a very small budget for this album, and they couldn't afford anything other than ordinary drums, guitars, and pianos. And the occasional chugging sax. I also like “She'll Make You Cry,” which has another toe-tapping rhythm and some very nice guitar parts. Yule apparently had been itching to play some lead guitar, and this was finally his chance to shine. That and the fact that he wrote all these songs is why some people would prefer to call Squeeze Doug Yule's first solo album. Yule was also apparently a Beatles fan since the piano ballads “Crash” and “Louise” strike me uncannily as being Beatles-esque. I also like that he channels The Beach Boys' vocal harmonies in the enjoyable glam tune “Caroline.”
Don't even bother trying to find this album since it has never been issued on CD, and vinyl copies of it are nearly impossible to come by. The universe hates it so much that it exiled it to St. Helena where only Napoleon Bonaparte is allowed to groove with it. The only reason I've had the opportunity to listen to it is because I visited that island, and I got on Napoleon's good side by bringing him a submarine sandwich. Napoleon wanted me to tell you all that thinks this album is not great but decent, and he doesn't think it deserved to be exiled. I mean, say what you want about Squeeze, but at least it never tried to conquer Europe.
Read the track reviews:
1969: The Velvet Underground Live, Vol. 1 (1974)
Album Score: 12
I like this Velvet Underground live album series even before the music begins; the stage banter Lou Reed engages with the audience is priceless. “Do you people have a curfew or anything like that?” he asks. “Does it matter what time you go home tonight? Do you have school tomorrow? … Because we can do either one long set or two short sets, whichever makes it easier for you.”
They did do one long set in the vinyl age; Live 1969 was originally released as a double album. But, in the CD age they made it two short sets; both discs are sold separately. Who knows why they did that, because they're both taken from the same shows: two were in Dallas (of all places) and one was in San Francisco. So when you buy this album, you'll have to remember to get both of them. And believe me, if you're a Velvet Underground fan, you're going to want it all. They're phenomenal.
It is bizarre that most of this was recorded in Dallas. I would have thought The Velvet Underground would have had a better chance finding an audience of field mice in the middle of a wheat field. ...But they were there. It sounds like they were playing in front of about 15 people. As the story goes, one of them had fancy recording equipment and had gotten permission to record the concert. The portions of this that were recorded in San Francisco, because they happened to play at a venue with recording equipment built into it.
For what are basically amateur recordings, these are very good, especially compared to the other commercially available live albums I'm aware of. Those would be Live at Max's Kansas City and The Quine Tapes. So in a big way, this is the definitive Velvet Underground album to own, if you only own one. (Unfortunately, no live album I'm aware of are from the John Cale years... I guess they were too underground then.)
However, Doug Yule is a fine bassist. And, we shouldn't complain too much about calling a 1969 recording definitive since they were in the position of covering songs that were included on all four of their classic albums even though one of them, Loaded hadn't been released yet. Those lucky few in the audience were being treated to previews, I guess! “Rock and Roll” is here, and it's a blast and a half. If I were in the audience, hearing that song for the first time ever, it would have blown my mind. Although it doesn't compare that well to the later studio cut; Reed is much more keyed-up and glamorous there. Nonetheless, I'll eagerly lap up any version of it that anyone throws at me. “Sweet Jane” is slower and more laid back than the studio cut, but again, it's such a good song that they really can't go wrong with it.
There are some songs here that I actually prefer to the studio version. In “Beginning to See the Light,” Lou Reed is delivering a more boisterous performance, and the energy that the band creates is undeniably powerful. They create a fantastically tight groove in “What Goes On,” another song I like better here than the studio cut. It's extended almost to nine minutes long, but that groove is a powerhouse. What I like hearing the most is Doug Yule's constantly evolving electric organ noodles. Man. Why do people complain about him, again? There are also songs here that would never have officially released studio counter parts until posthumous Velvet Underground records released in the mid-'80s. “We're Gonna Have a Good Time Together” is one of them, and it's brief, tight, and rocking. It's not one of their better songs, but it's a fun experience. There's also one song on this half that would later appear on Lou Reed's solo debut, “Lisa Says.” The melody is good, and it's fun to hear. What else is there to say about it?
“Femme Fatale” is especially great, because we're treated to Lou Reed's more bubbly vocal interpretation, which is starkly different than Nico's cold and humorless original rendition. ...The only song on Vol. 1 of Live 1969 I don't particularly care for is “Heroin.” And that's probably because I never cared for the original—it strikes me as lumbering and tedious, and I feel uncomfortable listening to it. ...But I'm sure there are true-blue Velvet Underground fans who are shaking their heads in disgust with me for saying that. ...Well, I could shake my head at you for things, too!... Anyway, definitely get Vol. 1. ...Next, I shall tell you why you should get Vol. 2...
Read the track reviews:
1969: The Velvet Underground Live, Vol. 2 (1974)
Album Score: 12
If they really had to split 1969: The Velvet Underground Live into two and sell each half separately, couldn't they have at least made a new cover for Vol. 2? I mean, I have nothing against the female bottom, knee-high boots, and leopard-skin panties, but I've been listening to and reviewing these albums on my laptop at my university library. Every time I hear somebody walking around behind me and I have this cover art displayed prominently on my screen, I have to frantically click off it. ...I don't want people to think I'm into Japanese porn! Thankfully, at least, I'm not reviewing Blind Faith. Someone would be liable to call the cops on me, then! ...So what am I supposed to be talking about? Oh yes, this album.
This is the second part of the live album series by The Velvet Underground. Splitting up the album and selling the halves separately might have given people the option of forgoing the purchase of a half that sucked. However, both halves rule so much that you're going to want both equally. Like Vol. 1, Vol. 2 has just about everything you could ever want out of these guys. Many of the Velvet Underground songs you know by heart from their 1967-1970 studio output are here and very overextended to make way for hypnotic and rather crazed rock 'n' roll grooves. We're also treated to a few songs that wouldn't appear in studio form until the '80s or Lou Reed's solo career, which commenced in 1972.
For an extra bonus, there are two songs here that would actually never appear in studio form, and as far as I know, this live album is the only place to hear them. The best of these has got to be “Sweet Bonnie Brown / It's Too Much.” As the title would suggest, it's two songs melded together, but both of them sound like Velvet Underground's special twist on '50s rock. In the previous volume, we were consistently treated to some extended organ noodles from Doug Yule, but in this volume, lead guitarist Sterling Morrison has most of the soloing action. Yule seemed to keep with the groove perfectly well in his solos, but Morrison took more chances, frequently playing some of the wildest, unpredictable notes imaginable. Some might say he was too wild, but I actually find him entertaining. ...I'm also guessing that his guitar noodles were where David Bowie and Mike Garson got the idea for those crazy piano soloing throughout Aladdin Sane. ...And you know how awesome those are... (You know, right?)
Without a doubt, the highlight of this half of the album is “White Light / White Heat.” It's of course one of their all-time greatest studio songs, and it's equally as enjoyable live. Maybe I even like this live version better. It's highly energetic, the grooving capabilities of this band are out of this world, and Sterling Morrison's extended guitar solo kicks up a storm of Dust Bowl proportions. I also like this version of “Some Kinda Love” better than in the studio cut, because they play the groove much more powerfully. I hear some vinyl pops on it, which means that was probably one of the songs that they lost the mastertapes to! But poor recording quality isn't actually a deterrent to these guys' sound.
Easily the biggest surprise of this is album is “Heroin.” ...I know, I said I hated the version that appeared on Vol. 1, but after hearing this one, I finally got a chance to hear how awesome that song can be. Without a doubt, this is the definitive version. The main thing they did right was to create a really captivating and druggy atmosphere as well as keeping its main groove subdued. As they did in the studio cut, they madly pick up the tempo in places, but here it seems to progress more naturally and thus doesn't give me nausea. Hallelujah!
I split this album review in two, just like the record company split the album into two, and I'm still running out of space! But before I go, I'll mention that the only song I don't care for is “Ocean,” which would also appear on Lou Reed's solo debut. It's not terrible at all, but it's 11 minutes long and I can never really get into it. I'm also not a huge fan of “I Can't Stand It,” which starts out great, but as it goes on, I get tired of its blocky groove. As a whole, I'd say I like Vol. 1 better than Vol. 2., but I'm nonetheless giving them the same rating, because THEY'RE THE SAME ALBUM. But I'd say it still deserves that 12 in its own right. If for no other reason, it proved to me, for once, that “Heroin” can be good for me.
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Album Score: 11
It must've been a magical day for some geek working in the vaults of MGM Records when he discovered the tapes of a “lost” Velvet Underground album from 1969. Since that time, the band of course had gone from virtual unknowns to one of the most revered rock groups of all time, and such a find was excessively valuable. I'm sure the record company executives didn't even skip a breath before deciding to give the material its long awaited release. And why shouldn't they have? I very much appreciate the opportunity to get to hear these songs. Never mind that we'd already gotten to hear most of them in Lou Reed's solo albums and also in the 1974 archival release of 1969: The Velvet Underground Live. Because here, you see, they exist in their earliest forms. You can call them “primitive” forms if you wish, because truth be told I wouldn't call many of these versions definitive.
Since this album was not finished when they were unceremoniously let go from the record label, you can expect these songs to have an unfinished feeling to them. This album is also surprisingly poppy. It was said many times that Atlantic Records had coaxed the band into writing pop music for Loaded, but if this album is any indication, they were thinking about going in that direction anyway. This is a very easy listening album.
But then again, the listenability aspect might be explained by the fact that there was significant post-production work done to it. Sound technology was getting pretty advanced in the '80s, and they had the ability to remix it in such a manner that its sounds are strikingly clear. The first thing I notice is that the drumming in the album opener, “I Can't Stand It,” is way too loud and clear for it to have ever been mixed in the '60s. It's still a great song, of course, but there's reason to believe that's not really the way The Velvets would have presented it. “Stephanie Says,” a beautiful and breezy ballad recorded in the John Cale era, also has a crystal clear quality to that beautiful xylophone and that viola. It's one of Lou Reed's finest ballads, and it's much prettier than the rewritten version of it that appeared on Berlin as “Caroline Says II.”
Those who like it best when these guys rock out, will almost certainly like “Foggy Notion.” Finished or not, it's one of the most enjoyable cuts these guys have ever done. Doug Yule's bass-line is catchy and goes steadily with Maureen Tucker's drum beat (which is still quite loud and clear!), but what I like listening to most is Sterling Morrison's tightly chugging guitar. Yes indeed, I like that song. ...I like all these songs, as a matter of fact. However, the song I like least is “Ocean,” which for some reason I can never seem to get into. It makes a good listen and has an OK melody—it's certainly played well. But it's too slow-paced for my taste... I understand that it's recreating the sound of the ocean, but it never seems to sweep me away.
I've listened to Lou Reed a few times, but I've listened to Transformer about a billion times, and I was mightily excited when I came across an early version of “Andy's Chest” here. Of course Reed improved it greatly on Transformer (it's all about the swagger and the back-up singers, baby!!), but I still like hearing an alternate version of it. Here, it's more fast paced and Morrison takes a moment for a brief though interesting guitar passage. I'm also glad to hear Maureen Tucker and her charmingly amateurish vocals take the spotlight in the lovely theatrical piano ballad “I'm Sticking With You.” Her rather shaky vocals are what makes the song so sweet and makes it seem like she actually believe the juvenile and starry eyed lyrics she sings. As icing on its cake, there's an unexpected orchestral build-up at the end, which makes it all seem rather grand.
The music press heaped lavish praise upon this album when it was release. They didn't want to get mobbed by Velvet Underground fanatics by saying it was bad or something (or worse—they didn't want people to cancel their magazine subscriptions). But then again, maybe they really did love this album as much as they said they did. These are good songs, after all. Would this album have been even better if the record company let them finish it? Probably. But unless we figure out how to travel between parallel universes, we'll never know for sure. However, there's one thing's for certain; the '80s post-production doesn't make this sound completely like a real Velvet Underground record. One of their specialties was their song mixing abilities, which gave their music a sort of hazy feeling to them. This ultra-clear and straightforward production, on the other hand, makes these songs seem a bit plain. That's why I'm perplexed to find that most music magazines have awarded VU a perfect score.
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Another View (1986)
Album Score: 10
There were 19 unreleased Velvet Underground tracks discovered in the MGM Record vaults that fateful fay in the mid-'80s, and the best 10 of them were singled out and released in 1985 on the much celebrated VU. The nine rejects were dumped onto Another View. Now, I bet you're asking yourself: How could a compilation of rejects possibly be any good? Well, this is The Velvet Underground, and they've never released a bad album. So of course it's good. This was originally released as a bonus disc, which came with MGM reissues of The Velvet's first three albums on vinyl and CD. Today, this compilation can be bought separately.
It opens with the strikingly clean and fun, however generic rocker “We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together.” You can hurl insults at it like catchy and dumb. You can also say that a better version of it can be heard on 1969: The Velvet Underground Live. But that doesn't matter; get up off yer chair, and wiggle your booty. It might be generic, but it's unapologetic about it. (There's also a version of it on Reed's 1978 solo album, Street Hassle. I'm not sure I'd call it better, though.)
Boringly enough, my pick for best song of the album is an early cut of “Rock and Roll.” It's the only song The Velvet Underground had already written that Atlantic would allow them to record for Loaded. ...And why did they let them record that song? Because it's friggin' awesome, that's why. There's no doubt that its final cut is by far its definitive version—if for no other reason it's that Reed perfected those flashy intonations in his vocals. But anyway, “Rock and Roll” is one of my favorite songs ever, and it's novel to be able to hear it at an early stage of its evolution.
There are two version of “Hey Mr. Rain,” a song from the John Cale era. You can hear Cale play his trademark droning viola through both of these tracks. However, just as I am about to say “Ain't it nice to hear that viola again?” I realize that his sound is completely overpowering everything. It's a bit too much. I do like the second version of it better than the first version, mostly because I hear Sterling Morrison (or someone?) come in with these HUGE fuzz guitar hits, which is really cool to hear! Also, Reed's vocals don't seem quite as warbly and off-putting as it does in the second version even though I still hear him doing these rather insane vocal bends throughout it. A lot of people like to call the song some sort of lost masterpiece, and I won't deny that it had strong potential. However, it's clear to me they had a lot of kinks to work out before it could ever come close to resembling one of their great songs.
There are an enormous amount of jammy instrumentals here. One of them, “Ride Into the Sun,” would later have vocals attached to it and be included on Reed's solo debut. It's an OK track as an instrumental, but without the vocals it's just boring. “I'm Gonna Move Right In” is six and a half minutes long, and is a perfectly standard jam-rock instrumental. I don't hear Morrison taking many chances with his lead guitar, but it can be quite entertaining listening to him jam along with that steady beat all the same. ...However, I do get tired of it after about three minutes of it. They ramped up that fuzz guitar just about as high as it could go for “Guess I'm Falling in Love.” Maureen Tucker follows suit with some HUGE drumming. ...Woah boy. It might not be one of the “substantial” Velvet Underground tracks, but it sure gets the blood flowing.
Two of the lesser pop songs here are “Coney Island Steeplechase” and “Ferryboat Bill.” The former actually has a pretty catchy old-timey melody, but it needed a lot of work. Tucker's drumming is mixed waaaay too loudly. “Ferryboat Bill” might not be terribly great, but at least it earns distinction as being one of the most bizarre songs to ever have the Velvet Underground name attached to it; it consists of a very tight and repetitive guitar-groove. It's so repetitive, in fact, that it drives me insane. And not in the good way. (Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there is a good way to drive me insane. Take me to a Terry Gilliam or Michel Gondry film.)
Obviously, this outtakes/rarities album is fit only for their die-hard fans. Nonetheless, I'd imagine many die-hard fans put this on from time to time and get a kick out of it. As a collection of outtakes that were left off of the previous collection of outtakes, the material on here can be expected to be spotty. Nevertheless, it's still quite good. This shows that there was creativity flowing out of these guys such that even their throwaway tracks are more or less worth hearing.
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