velvet underground: what goes on (1993)
Having been involved in the 1980 bootleg album The Velvet Undergound etc., which became fabled among that nutty breed of which I suppose I’m one – Velvet Underground obsessives – Raven Records asked me to write the liner notes for their 1993 Velvets box-set What Goes On. When I read them now, they seem like a garbled mess, especially in light of the ever-expanding scholarship on this seminal band. But they're reproduced here because the album is now out of print - and it was a great collection and lavish presentation that Raven really only got away with putting out through the back door of remote Australian licensing rights - and I think they do make a small contribution to Velvetalia. The 3 CDs were actually compiled by Dom Molomby, who of course knew way more about it than I did. We can only wonder what grumpy old Uncle Lou thought of it
At a time in the late Sixties when the hippies were preaching peace and love - as they would have it, in short, a whole new way of life - these very flower children set-up a value-system which in its own way was every bit as rigid and inflexible as the straight establishment they rejected so vociferously, and which spurned the one of the few rock'n'roll bands of the era which was truly liberating: The Velvet Underground.
The hippies were, of course, a generation so spoiled and self-indulgent they couldn't see the reality staring them in the face. It was part of the Velvet Underground’s crime, as far as their contemporaries were concerned - yet, ultimately, greatness, of course - that they confronted this reality, were, in fact, as real as a rock'n'roll band might ever get. The Velvet Underground were determinedly hard and urban, like the real world around most of us all, at a time when hippies revelled in all things soft and dippy, California back-to-the-country.
Few people had heard of the Velvet Undergound in the Sixties, and most of them were hostile. But with retrospect, it's obvious the Velvets are much more important than most of the rock icons usually lauded in the textbooks. Certainly, their impact - as it can be guaged now - has been immesurably greater. The difference was just that in their time, the Velvets weren’t a big band.
The Velvets broke all the rules even before they were written. Basically, they opened-up rock’n’roll. They stand like a link between the way rock sounds now, and its roots sources, as fundamental as the Everly Brothers or Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. The Velvets were a band out of time, yet at the same time, even without making specific references, as emphatically emblematic of the Sixties as anyone.
They say Dave Davies invented heavy metal, for what it’s worth, with “You Really Got Me” in 1964, but that was an aberration in the Kinks’ katalogue. The Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, the Kinks, they were all breaking off from similar strains to the Beatles. The Velvets were something altogether different again, on a par perhaps only with Bob Dylan - and it might have been them that invented heavy metal too!
Nobody liked the Velvet Underground when they were going, between 1965 and 1970, during which time they cut four studio albums, The Velvet Underground & Nico (commonly referred to as 'the banana album', due to its sensational cover art by Andy Warhol), White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground (more commonly called, simply, the third album) and Loaded ; two authorised live albums were also posthomously released, Live At Max's Kansas City, and 1969: Velvet Underground Live.
People have only slowly come to appreciate the Velvets as rock music itself has gradually caught-up with them. So many bands nowadays cite them, echo them, draw from them. No present-day songwriter can afford not to heed Lou Reed’s work. The same can’t be said of most every other act in rock history bar Bob Dylan.
But the Velvets are still more than merely academically important, some arcane curio rock scholars can dissect. The Velvets still sound as fresh and exciting, to me, as they did when I first heard them as a teenager in Australia in the early Seventies - and this is why generation after generation keeps discovering the Velvet Underground for itself. Their vitality and barbed beauty is timeless.
To discover the Velvets is to have a whole other world open-up. Their records don’t sound like anyone's else’s, their songs go places no-one else dared to...
What the Velvets had was cocky. It was raw. It was dry, and it was passionate. It was brutal and it was tender. It was abrasive. It was luscious. It was hurt and it was nasty. It was loud, motherfucking rock’n’roll which kicked like little ever before or since.
It's become a cliche to describe the Velvets’ context something like this: At a time when the Beatles were still chirping away about holding hands, the Velvets were performing material like “Heroin” and “Venus In Furs.” It was always one of Lou Reed’s strengths as a songwriter, that he spoke in straighforward language, as opposed to the riddles of Bob Dylan.
At the height of the Summer Of Love in 1967, the Velvets released their second album, White Light/White Heat, which could never be surpassed as the ultimate riposte to, the antithesis of this spoilt, self-indulgent era. At a time when bland peace-and-love platitudes were wafting everywhere, the Velvets came out with “Sister Ray,” a bludgeoning, 17-minute-long sonic squall which told some sort of sick tale of sailors, drag-queens and shooting-up. Maybe it was a Vietnam song.
It’s rock legend how Jerry Lee Lewis, after setting fire to his piano, walked off stage and said to Chuck Berry, the next act waiting in the wings, “Follow that, nigger!” The racism aside, herein lies some of the greatness of rock’n’roll. Certainly, Berry was worthy of following the Killer, whether he was able to on the occasion on not. But nothing could follow the Velvets.
The Velvets were educated middle-class white kids who were hip enough to tap into a stream, a way of doing music which was entirely new.
They had precious little, if any, of the blues, as such, about them, which, of course, was one of the major bases for Sixties rock'n'roll bands. At the same time, even while there was something of a folky basis in their more lyrical moments, they were far from a folk-rock outfit. The Velvets were a meeting, largely, of the sensibilities of Lou Reed and John Cale: Reed, who had grown-up on New York's suburban Long Island, immersed in classical rock'n'roll and R&B, but who also had literary aspirations as well as a Catholic taste in music which led him to extremities like Ornette Coleman's free-form jazz; Cale, a Welshman who had come from the classical avant-garde. The band’s front-line was completed when Nico joined, thus providing Reed, further, with a chanteuse’s voice to work with.
Each one of the Velvets' four studio albums and two live albums is a classic in its own right, but where even a quicksilver, yet now-revered Sixties band like Love, for instance, could at least have scored a minor hit with its one indisputable classic, the album Forever Changes, the Velvets never came close. They were fated to play out their life on the road, a bar band, effectively, like so many others of so much less talent. And though they imploded just when they were on the verge of a breakthrough, their end was inevitable, and it wasn't widely mourned.
It was largely thanks to the generation that engendered the ill-fated punk/new wave movement of the late Seventies that the Velvets and their achievements were finally put into proper perspective. If punk did nothing else, it was to finally acknowledge the Velvet Underground, the same way the Stones advertised Muddy Waters.
Contemporary conventional wisdom, informed by punk's revisionism, tells us that rock'n'roll had gotten well off-track by the early Seventies. Alternatives to wimpy, California-style singer-songwriter soft-rock and pompous English art-rock were barely tantalizing. Primal metal was starting to ooze forth, but even then you knew it was pretty much a put-on. Most hard rock was just bluesy and faceless. Glam rock emerged as the only alternative to a lot of kids, and it was endowed with an entirely different, more sophisticated aesthetic.
But even if David Bowie was an unmitigated superstar, there were still a lot of people who had never heard of acts like the New York Dolls, Roxy Music, or indeed, Lou Reed. A lot of the kids, like myself, who grew-up with glam rock found their way back to the Velvet Underground, not just because David Bowie had produced 1972’s Transformer, the third solo Lou album, but because the Velvets were a common source in glam rock.
By the mid-Seventies though, glam seemed all played-out, and so the kids who felt left with nothing started picking-up guitars and, in my case, a pen, to spark punk in its original Sex Pistols/Ramones/Saints-form. The Velvet Underground, along with perhaps only the Stooges and the New York Dolls, were, again, one of the few common, basic inspirations and influences.
I remember, generally, first hearing the Velvet Underground, in the early Seventies, and feeling like it was a revelation. It made so much sense, explained so much. Heroes I had had like Jim Morrison and John Lennon immediately faded.
The effect of punk would eventually filter-down to touch almost everyone in music. Now everyone has heard of the Velvet Undergound. But it’s testament to the band’s enduring power that it still has the ability to divide opinion. There are still detractors who will speak out against the Velvets in a way they would never dare challenge other orthodox readings of rock history.
I remember first getting into the Velvets, and thinking how far away it all seemed. But the band was then, in the early Seventies, only a couple of years defunct, it was really quite close. Now, it is a long way away - but it's also still so close, to us all, in different ways, and it always will be, whether we know it or not, just like Elvis and Hank Williams and Howlin' Wolf.
It's a measure of the Velvets' inevitably, if slowly ascending status in rock history that some fifteen years ago, when I was asked to write liner-notes for what was one the first collections of Velvets-and-related recordings, I had almost no information to draw on. A few scant entries in encyclopaedias maybe, a couple of magazine articles. In tackling this project, however - which pulls together all the highlights of the Velvets' authorised output, plus various oddities and rarities - the problem was not a lack of information but rather the opposite. Velvet Underground scholarship now almost equals that of any of the other, more traditional rock icons. Books abound, and new articles and essays are continually being published. The problem was rather to wade through all this information and try to decipher the facts, just the facts, and put them into some kind of concise, coherant narrative.
These, then, are my findings:
The Velvets were introduced to the world by Andy Warhol, who hired them to play his apocalyptic multi-media roadshow, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which was premiered in nascent form at the FilmMakers' Cinemateque in New York in February, 1966, as 'Andy Warhol, Up-Tight'. Warhol, who at the time was just beginning to revel in celebrity, had been looking for a rock'n'roll band to incorporate into his scheme of art things. In December 1965, he was taken down to see the Velvets at the Cafe Bizarre by Paul Morrisey and Gerard Melanga (who had impressed the band earlier when he got up with them to do a whip-dance).
Playing a residency at the Cafe Bizarre, the Velvets, by then settled on the line-up which would stand as their definitive one - Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison (guitar/bass) and drummer Maureen Tucker - were honing a sound and vision which even then would largely only confound and alienate people. Warhol, of course, was immediately impressed. As was the band, by him.
Born to a middle-class Long Island Jewish family in 1942, Lou Reed had always wanted to do rock'n'roll - even if his parents never approved. (His relationship with his parents, in fact, was a very volatile one - they had had him undergo electro-shock-therapy when he was younger - and it was a cloud that always hung over the Velvets, the threat that Reed's parents would show-up and haul him off to the nuthouse.)
Reed was playing in his first band by the time he started high school, and in 1957, at age 14, he cut his first single - "So Blue" - with the Jades (this track has subsequently appeared on legitimate and bootleg re-releases). In 1960, he left home to go to Syracuse University to study journalism, and it was there he first met, and played with Sterling Morrison. His tenure at Syracuse was otherwise noteworthy for the fact that it was there that he fell under the spell of doomed poet Delmore Schwartz.
After graduating, he scored a job as a production-line songwriter for Pickwick Records, a quickie label specializing in soundalike sort of records which cashed-in on popular trends. Reed remembers being locked in a room and ordered to write "ten California songs, ten Detroit songs." It was here that he met John Cale.
Born in Wales in 1940, Cale went to London University's Goldsmith College between 1960-63, where he got involved with avant-garde classical music and performance art, completely oblivious to the revolution in pop taking place on his doorstep. He was awarded, by Aaron Copland, a Leonard Berstein scholarship to study at Lennox College in Massachusetts, but when his work, heavily under the influence of John Cage, was adjudged 'too destructive', he sought out LaMonte Young in New York, and formed a group called the Dream Syndicate, which explored Young's discipline in 'drone'-scapes. One of the members of this group, Tony Conrad, introduced Cale to rock'n'roll, and in turn, Lou Reed.
Reed had written a novelty dance song called "The Ostrich" which Pickwick felt could be a hit in its own right if it had a band behind it to promote it. A Pickwick employee who knew Conrad invited him to meet Reed with a view to forming the band; Conrad roped-in Cale and drummer Walter DeMaria. Reed was amenable, and the Primitives were born.
Clearly this outfit was ill-fated, but out of it, Reed and Cale struck-up a rapport. Cale was particularly impressed by some of the songs Reed was writing which Pickwick wouldn't publish, like "Heroin," and the pair seemed to hear music similarly. They started hanging out together.
(Along with "The Ostrich" and its B-Side "Sneaky Pete," other material Reed recorded at Pickwick, like "Cycle Annie," as the Beachnuts, and "You're Driving Me Insane," as the Roughnecks, has also been re-released in various bootleg forms.)
It was after the Pickwick liason had fallen through, when Reed bumped into his old friend Sterling Morrison again and the three of them, including Cale, started playing together, that the first real seeds of the Velvet Underground were sown. Because they knew they wouldn't fit-in anywhere in New York anyway - neither uptown, among lounge acts like Joey Dee and the Starlighters, nor in the Village folk club scene, which was still thriving in the wake of Dylan - they decided to not even try to compete, and just play what they liked.
With Angus MacLise replacing Walter DeMaria, the group flirted with names like the Warlocks and the Falling Spikes. Anonymously, they provided improvised accompaniment for experimental movies at the Cinemateque. Demos they made in mid-1965 seemed to arouse more interest in England than New York, and for a time the band considered actually moving to London. A name was finally agreed-on when Tony Conrad found a copy of a trashy paperback in the street called The Velvet Underground , which puported to be an expose of 'the sexual corruption of our age' - it was perfect.
Music journalist Al Aronowitz, who had attended 'happenings' at the Cinemateque, offered the band its first gig as the Velvet Underground as such, at the Summit High School in New Jersey, on December 11, 1965. Angus MacLise had left fro India in September, so he was replaced by Maureen Tucker, the sister of a friend from Reed and Morrison's Syracuse days, who had a rudimentary set of drums and a style to match.
The presence of a woman in the band's rhythm-section only added to the mystique. Female musicians are only now, belatedly, being accepted, but in 1965, the phenomenon was virtually without precedent. Rock & roll was boy's business. Of course, the fact that the diminutive figure of Tucker, with her close-cropped hair, was hard to distinguish as a either a boy or girl, added even more to the mystique!
Further impressing Aronowitz on their debut - if shocking the students with material like "Venus In Furs" and "Heroin" - he scored the Velvets the Cafe Bizarre residency.
The band was eventually sacked for playing "The Black Angel's Death Song" - but not before Warhol dropped-in. The band readily accepted his open invitation to join the Factory clique. Track One here is an excerpt from NY Public TV station WNET programme USA Artists, where Warhol announces he is "sponsoring a new band." But so magnetic, and influencial, was Warhol, that even despite the egos of Reed and Cale, he also persauded them, as the Velvets were installed as his virtual house band, to take on an adjunct member in the form of Nico. The Warhol crew felt that the Velvets needed something more of a front-person, a focus, and Nico, who had just breezed into town from London, was tailor-made for the job.
Born of Spanish and Yugoslavian descent in Hungary in the early Forties, Nico was herself a legendary femme fatale. Educated in France and Italy, she had worked as a model and had played a bit part in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, in the process leaving a trail of broken hearts. She arrived in New York with a copy of her first single under her arm, "The Last Mile," written and produced by Jimmy Page and Rolling Stones mentor Andrew Loog Oldham. Bob Dylan had given her one of his songs to sing, "I'll Keep It With Mine." She and Reed hit it off, and so the band agreed to her sitting-in to sing the songs Reed would write for her, like "All Tomorrow's Parties," and "Femme Fatale" (which itself was not so much about her as fellow Factory face, Edie Sedgwick).
The Velvet Underground and Nico, then - as the act was now billed - became an integral part of Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which for most of 1966 was on the road throughout America
The Velvets repertoire at the time consisted of songs which would appear on their first album, plus longer, open-ended workouts along the lines of those they performed originally at the Cinemateque. It's ironic and frustrating, then, that in a scene so narcissistcally obsessed with documentation, of itself, that apart from Jonas Mekas film of the EPI at January, '66 Psychiatrists Convention in New York, no recordings of reasonable fidelity of the legendary EPI performances seem to exist.
Mekas's film only hints at the sensory assault that was the EPI. Contemporary reports had it leaving audiences shattered and drained. Films - early experiments in the medium by Warhol and Paul Morrisey - were projected all over, in tandem with the lightshow, while the band, accompanied by the whip-dancing Gerard Malanga at the very least, carreened at a fever-pitch of volume and instensity. This sort of all-enveloping 'environment' may not sound so extraordinary today, but in 1966, it had never been done before, and it was unsettling, to say the least. Reporters themselves were bedazzled and bemused, able to compare it only to the decadent 30's Berlin cabarets.
Tapes were made at the Cinemateque in 1965, but these haven't yet surfaced either. At this point in time, then, the closest we're going to get is Track Two on Disc One, the nominally-titled "Melody Laughter," which was captured for verite posterity on a primtive portable cassette player at the EPI performance at the Valleydale Ballroom, Colombus Ohio, November 1966. This extended track is an insight into the side of the Velvets, influenced probably equally by the classical avant-garde and free jazz, which would manifest on official release only some years later in the form of the White Light, White Heat album's opus, "Sister Ray."
It was in April, 1966 that the Velvets went into a cheap New York studio, payed for by Warhol, to start work on their first album. Over three nights they would cut four tracks, "All Tomorrow's Parties," "There She Goes Again," "I'll Be Your Mirror" and "Waiting For The Man."
The album was finished in four days in May at TT&G Studios in Los Angeles. The band was in LA to play a four-week engagement with the EPI at the Trip. The Mothers Of Invention were the opening act. The gig, however, was blown-out after only three days when the Sherriff's Office closed the venue. So, with the band having both time and money on its hands - as the Musicians Union had insisted they were entitled to their fee for the gig if they stayed in the vicinity for the duration - they went into the studio again.
Lou Reed knew his way around a recording studio, and could work quickly, thanks to his experience at Pickwick, and although the first album bore the credit 'Produced by Andy Warhol', this was more of a marketing hook than anything else. Certainly, Warhol could be described as a 'facillitator', but it was the band, with Reed leading, who barely produced so much as engineered the album themselves.
The album was mixed in mono, or rather most consciensciously mixed in mono. The band spent most of the day allotted to mixing on the mono mix, and then rushed the stereo version. So the mono mix - in which form the eight tracks off the album on Disc One here are presented - is the most authentic way to hear it.
One of the most commonly-made claims for the Velvets is that they were always ten/100/1,000 times better live than on record, however fine their all their albums may seem.
Similarly, it's hard to think of a more auspicious, more beautifully- realised debut album than The Velvet Underground & Nico (perhaps only The Doors comes close). Well may it have been released around the same time as Revolver, Pet Sounds and Blonde On Blonde, but the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Dylan were all by then at least several albums down the track. Lou Reed had written most of the songs for the album by the time he was 22, and its sheer scope - as a debut especially - was breathtaking, easily the equal of its aforesaid contemporaries (and far the superior of The Doors ).
"I'll Be Your Mirror," "All Tomorrow's Parties" (Warhol's own favourite Velvets' tune) and "Femme Fatale" were all purpose-written for Nico, and they brought-out a more personal, introspective, melodic side in Reed. At the same time, for all their georgeous lyricism, the band weighs-in with a compellingly raw stridence. And Reed himself plays an equally impressive vocal hand on the like-minded "Sunday Morning," a song he wrote at Warhol's request about paranoia.
Other tracks on the album, the up-tempo "Waiting For The Man" and "Run, Run, Run," and the veritable epics "Heroin" and "Venus In Furs," reveal all the more dimension in the band itself.
Maureen Tucker's minimal, primitive style (she played standing up) provided the perfect bedrock. Reed has long been acknowledged as one the great rhythm guitar-players, and the interplay between him, as leader, and Tucker, Sterling Morrison, on either guitar or bass, and John Cale, who might have been on electric viola, piano or bass, was seemingly telepathic. "Heroin," the harrowingly realistic portrayal of the very effect of narcotics, is a supreme example of the band's empathy, its command of ebb and flow, light and shade - and all in one, supremely coherant song!
John Cale's viola-playing, in particular - screeching, as it characteristically does, all the way through the sado-masochistic epic "Venus In Furs" - was a highlight of the album, and became one of the band's trademarks.
The Velvets had recorded the album off their own bat out of, doubtlessly, impatience, and also for the sake of freedom, not wishing to have some A&R department breathing down their neck. They then shopped the album around, and after rejections from Atlantic and Electra, found a sympathetic ear in Tom Wilson, who was just about to leave Columbia, where he had made his name producing Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home, and join MGM Records. At MGM, Wilson would have license to do almost as he wished through its Verve subsidiary, which the parent company was trying to re-vamp to be in tune with the psychedelic times. Wilson signed the Velvet Underground and the Mothers Of Invention almost simultaneously.
Although the album was ready for release by August, 1966, it would be delayed until March, '67, chiefly due to Factory denizen Eric Emerson wanting money to sign a release to allow his photo to appear on the sleeve. Copies of the album actually hit the shelves in this original form, but had to be recalled, whilst the artwork was altered and the new sleeve printed.
The sort of atmosphere which existed at the Factory at the time is captured in the track that closes Disc One, a recording which was released as a flexi-disc inside Andy Warhol's Index book. With the freshly-completed first album blaring in the background, Nico wants to know how this disc itself would fit into the book. Self-refencialism goes wild.
The EPI had gone to California after its legendary season at the Dom in New York in April, and it was never the same again. With the Trip gig aborted, the band, in deference, reluctantly agreed to go to San Fancisco to put the show on at the Fillmore before returning to New York. It was an experience which was only symptomatic of the sort of antipathetic position the Velvets then occupied in the rock heirarchy. The Fillmore's booker, the legendary Bill Graham, hated them, Frank Zappa (whose Mothers were, again, also on the bill) expressed his distaste for them from the stage, and the Velvets were themselves in turn as comprehensively unimpressed by the Flower Children and everything else as they always professed to be by Bob Dylan. It was typical again of the sort of short-shrifting the Velvets got that while it was the EPI that introduced the idea of a 'light show' to the San Francisco scene, San Francisco itself has more commonly taken credit for inventing the rock light show.
When The Velvet Underground & Nico was finally released, it died. It didn't even crack the Billboard Top 100, peaking at #103. Blame is often put on MGM, as uncomprehending and unwilling to get behind the album (in favour, it has often been suggested, of Frank Zappa, who shared an LA-base with the label, and whose first album with the Mothers, Freak Out, was released in August, '66). Tom Wilson tried his hardest, culling two singles off the album - "All Tomorrow's Parties/I'll Be Your Mirror" and "Sunday Morning/Femme Fatale" (two of only five singles the band would ever release) - but it would have been naive for anyone to expect the Velvets would get a lot of radio airplay. This, after all, was a band that was too 'far out' even by the would-be 'far out' standards of the day. (And even then, the album still wasn't as 'far out' as the Velvets could get, as it boasted mainly their more concise, conventionally structured songs, as opposed to their extended, free-form workouts!)
After the West Coast fiasco, the EPI started to naturally wind-down. Warhol and Morrisey, after all, were directing more of their attention to film-making, as their "Chelsea Girls" was finding success. In April, '67, the EPI played its last New York engagement at 'the Gynasium', and in May, its last-ever show (without Nico, who was in Ibiza at the time).
The Velvets believed that the album would sell itself, but letting the momentum they'd gained through the EPI wane, as the album's release was continually delayed, was a mistake.
At least they were aware that perhaps one thing they did lack, which doubtlessly also contributed to the album's poor performance, was proper managment. The Mothers Of Invention had a manager in Herb Cohen who knew how to hustle in the rock biz; Warhol and Morrisey did not.
It was at this time that Reed in particular began to seriously entertain the overtures being made by Steve Sesnick, who would, in fact, become the band's manager, and would remain so for the rest of its life. Sesnick was hardly a big player in the music business, but he at least seemed to have a bit of front - prior to the EPI, he had brokered an ill-fated deal between Beatles' manager Brian Epstein and Warhol, to mount a project something very like the EPI. Sesnick had seen the band at the Trip in LA, and to his credit - because it was something of a brave thing to do - he liked what he saw.
In May, whilst Warhol and Morrisey were away at Cannes with Chelsea Girls, Sesnick offered the band a show at the Boston Tea Party, which they gratefully accepted (Boston would become one of the Velvets' strongholds). By June, Sesnick had signed-on as manager proper, although the band's split from Warhol was by no means acrimonious, and all concerned, in fact, remained on good terms, Warhol becoming directly involved again when he concieved the black-on-black cover-art for White Light/White Heat.
For the next three years, Sesnick would have the Velvet Underground out on the road, playing every corner of the United States. Indeed, it's a fact little remarked upon, but which surely helped shape the Velvets as the explosive sort of musical proposition they were, that after their early EPI days, they were more than anything else a road band, acutely attuned to performance.
Sesnick also immediately started hustling in higher places. The Velvets had earlier been offered the spot in Antonioni's Blow-Up which the Yardbirds would eventually fill, but couldn't afford to get to London for the shoot. Sesnick, however, did manage to to finally introduce the band to Brian Epstein, who was himself interested in managing them.
At the same time, Tom Wilson was encouraging Nico to go out on her own as a solo artist. This marked the beginning of the end of the role Nico played in the band, and highlighted the volatitlity of her relationship with both Reed and Cale which, however, would remain on-going (Cale going on to produce several of Nico's early solo albums, like Desertshore and Marble Index.).
Nico had played a series of seasons at the Dom from late '66 onwards, with guitar backing provided by an array of wastrels, among them Tim Buckley, Jackson Browne, Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Reed, Cale and Morrison themselves. Leonard Cohen was a regular audience-member.
Her first album Chelsea Girl was released on MGM in October, 1967. Produced by Tom Wilson, it was swathed in strings, and accented by sweet flute lines. But underneath that, five of its eleven tracks were written by Reed or Cale or both - one, "Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams," had been demoed as early as 1965 - and they were performed with their backing. In some ways, then, these tracks could be considered an extension of the Velvets. The track here, "It Was A Pleasure Then," is the one, as Reed later put it, they 'got away with'.
With Nico no longer involved, in September, '67, at the height of the Summer of Love, the band went into Mayfair Sound studios in New York to cut White Light/White Heat. Legend has it that the album was recorded in a single day, although it was probably closer to a couple.
White Light/White Heat actually credits Tom Wilson as 'producer', but more than any Velvets album, it sees the band running absolutely amock in the studio. A lot of it was improvised, and few albums in rock have its sense of urgency or mania. "I Heard Her Call My Name," a love ode to a corpse, evolved in the studio; Lou Reed may be a great rhythm-guitarist, but when he did drop-in for a solo, as he did on the "I Heard Her Call My Name," it was one of the greatest demented guitar solos ever recorded.
But of course, it was the ritualistic "Sister Ray" that really gained the album its notoriety. The band simply cranked everything up and played, played spontaneously until the music itself took them with it and then when the music had run its course - seventeen exhausting minutes later - they stopped playing. The result, in all its blazing glory, opens Disc Two.
Again, it seems unreasonable to accuse MGM of incompetence in promoting an album which flew in the face of even every freak ethic predominant at the time. The only two songs which met radio's three-minute time limit, after all, were "Here She Comes Now" and the title-track, and the former was alleged to have lewd connotations (!), while the latter, about shooting speed, was probably simply just too unrepentant for polite folks. These two tracks were nonetheless coupled as a promotional single, and it's in that original mono mix form that they appear here, along with the album's "Lady Godiva's Operation" as well as "Sister Ray."
Prior to the release of the album in January, '68, Brian Epstein approached the band again, with the offer of a European tour. Tragically, however, he died before anything came to fruition.
An interview Tom Wilson did with the band in February, 1968, for The Music Factory #3 (The Music Factory was a series of albums MGM released to radio and the industry to promote its acts) suggests just how far out the Velvets might have liked to have gone. Listen to Lou Reed's ideas on Track Twelve, Disc One, and weep.
White Light/White Heat sold even worse than its predecessor. It peaked in Billboard at #200, and there's no lower chart position than that. But there was at least a reluctant critical acceptance, and Sesnick's policy of constant touring was starting to attract a small but dedicated cult following.
The Velvets, however, were always pretty peverse themselves. As an instance, in July, '67, when Sesnick scored them a choice spot on a Cleveland TV music show called Upbeat, they chose not to take the opportunity to play something off their album, but rather a new song called "Guess I'm Falling In Love." This song survives to this day only as an instrumental backing-track, recorded in December, '67, yet is arresting still as perhaps one of the hardest-rocking cuts the Velvets never relased. It particularly bears out the compliments oft-paid Mo Tucker as one of the great, straight-ahead drummers, as she drives the track relentlessly.
By early 1968, with the band touring pretty persistantly, roadtesting new material, and occasionally going into the studio, tensions between Reed and Cale were starting to surface. The presence of Nico had perhaps diffused their battle of egos somewhat, but with her now gone, Reed had stepped indisputably into the spotlight as front-man, and Cale was left in the shadows.
The band was in LA playing and recording when news of Andy Warhol's being shot reached them on June 4. The incident signalled that perhaps the party really was over, and Cale and Reed, both with bitter tastes in their mouths, came to a real head. They were constantly at each other. By August, whether he jumped or was pushed, Cale was no longer a member of the band. Neither Morrison nor Tucker were terribly happy about the situation, but they stuck with Reed so as to keep the band alive. Cale played his farewell gig with the band at the Boston Tea Party in September.
The last Velvets recordings Cale was involved in took place early in 1968. Some of that material eventually surfaced when Polydor, which eventually absorbed MGM, cleaned-out its coffers to compile two albums of unreleased Velvets tracks, called VU and Another View. It's a typical irony that when these two albums of 'rejects' were released in the mid-Eighties, they sold better than all four 'official' Velvets albums did during the band's lifetime.
Both "Stephanie Says" and "Mister Rain," cut in February and May respectively, feature Cale's remarkable viola-work prominantly. It would be a Velvets trademark no longer.
Cale was promptly replaced by Doug Yule, himself a Bostonian, formerly a member of the Glass Menagerie, who had been friendly with the Velvets for a while. The band in turn immediately headed West and went into the sessions at the old TT&G studios, now renamed Sunset Sound, for three weeks in November, which would yeild their third album, The Velvet Underground.
Released in March '69, The Velvet Underground might have baffled even the band's ardent fans. Nothing could have be further from the all-out barrage of its predecessor; with the exception of one track, "The Murder Mystery," The Velvet Underground, complete with its enigmatic packaging, was entirely soft, intimate and lilting. As evidenced by Disc Two's Tracks Five-to-Ten, it contained some of the saddest, most beautiful songs Lou Reed has ever written. But it had to be more than merely the absence of John Cale, and Reed's consequently increasing individual control, that shaped the way the album sounded - and indeed, it turns out all the band's heavy-duty sonic equipment had been stolen from the airport when they arrived in LA! Listen, and you'll hear no bass guitar anywhere.
The Velvet Underground was Lou Reed's first fulfillment of his long-held ambition to craft an album as a song-cycle with the coherance, the internal logic and dynamics a novel, say, might have. Opening with "Candy Says," a song about the late, illustrious transvestite Candy Darling (who would later also appear in "Walk On The Wild Side"), the album was like an odyssey through the love's different guises - as in "Some Kinda Love" - or at least the search for it. "Pale Blue Eyes" is one of the single most cutting love songs ever written. But if love is a life-affirming force, as "Beginning To See The Light" suggests, Reed only concludes in "I'm Set Free," that he's free 'to find a new illusion'. In the end, like "The Murder Mystery," it's all just a conundrum.
The album, which bore no actual production-credit, was mixed for release by 'Director of Engineering' Val Valentin, but the band always preferred Lou Reed's own mixes, and it is those versions that appear here. And the version of "Some Kinda Love" is, in fact, an alternate take.
The Velvet Underground was recieved more generously than a Velvets album had ever been, but still it hardly sold. The band simply continued on its merry touring rounds. It was during this period that a number of reasonable-quality live recordings were made - at a club called The End of Cole Avenue, in Dallas, and the Matrix, in San Francisco - and these would surface a few years later as a legitimate double-album on Mercury called 1969: Velvet Underground Live.
When the parlour game turns to the greatest live albums, this one wins the contest a country mile ahead of next to no opposition. The album - from which Disc Three's Tracks Four to Eleven are lifted - caught the Velvets at a peak. The atmosphere is warm and intimate, even when the band sets into overdrive, and the empathy in their performance is sublime. Doug Yule sounds so good, in fact, playing John Cale's organ part in "What Goes On," for instance, that it was once commonly suggested that these recordings must have been made before Cale left, because it was just too good to be Doug Yule! Yule even looked curiously like Lou Reed, thus Reed's introduction of him as "my brother, Doug."
1969 seems also to have been a particularly fertile period for Reed as a composer, as he turned out new songs at such a rate of knots that some never made it to the studio - like "It's Just Too Much," and "Over You," which appear on the1969: Live album - and others, like "Oh Jim," "Sad Song," "Goodnight Ladies" and "Walk & Talk It," which would have to wait for his solo career to get an airing.
As well as the hitherto altogether unheard songs, 1969: Live also offered radically different, original versions of songs which would later be compromised on Loaded. The version of "Sweet Jane" - perhaps the Velvets' 'greatest hit', certainly their most covered song - is rendered the way Reed intended it (legend has it this recording was done the same day the song was written). Pretty much the same thing could be said of "New Age." "After Hours" and "Stickin' With You," Maureen Tucker's two only-ever vocal showcases with the Velvets, were culled from the Texas tapes as well, although they were ommitted from the Mercury album, even if they capture all her unique charm. The striking difference in sound quality between these two tracks and the others here is due to the fact that Mercury made acetates of the Texas tapes and from these cut the album! "After Hours" and "Stickin' With You" come directly from the original tapes.
Before the band was let go by MGM, to sign with Atlantic, it had begun work on a fourth album. Sessions were held between May and October of 1969, producing material which for all the band knew, was intended for release. As it happened, it wouldn't see the light of day until 1987 as the VU/Another View albums. It became known as the 'great lost Velvets album'. The tracks here from those sessions - "Foggy Notion," "Can't Stand It," "Ocean," "Rock & Roll," "Ride Into The Sun" and "One Of These Days" - are as essential as any of the Velvets legitimate recordings. Many of these songs would turn up later: "Rock & Roll," which may even have been Reed's own autobiography, on Loaded ; and "Can't Stand It" and "Ocean," an epic of broader sweep than perhaps anything Reed has ever attempted, on the first Lou Reed solo album of 1972.
By now, also, the band's gripe that the record company wasn't doing its job was starting to sound credible. The Velvets might not have been able to steal a record, but they consistantly drew crowds, significantly-sized crowds, all over the country, and the standard response was ecstatic. That much is evident on 1969: Live. Why, then, they figured, wouldn't their records work on radio? Especially since, as the lost album recordings suggest, the band was hitting, at least at the moment, a straighter sort of stride, which was no less cracking that it had ever been.
Sesnick extricated the band from MGM, and having finally got through to Ahmet Ertegun, who had initially rejected the Velvets way back when, signed a two-album deal with Atlantic at the start of 1970.
The mood within the band at the time, however, wasn't uniformly good. After three great albums had gone nowhere, it might simply have been that the Velvets had missed the boat.
Either way, it was soon enough that relations between Reed and Sesnick, a strong bond for a long time which was really what steered the band, broke-down. At the same time, Maureen Tucker taking maternity leave, and Doug Yule suffering delusions of granduer, conspired to precipitate the band's eventual demise, when Reed himself walked out. All this was happening while the band was recording Loaded and playing the legendary Max's residency of the summer of 1970, which yeilded the live album that fulfilled the Velvets' obligation to Atlantic.
The Velvets' career had, indeed, been 'a series of amputations'. First Andy left, then Nico, then John. It might have continued had Reed, Morrison and Tucker - still an imposing combination - simply fired Sesnick and Yule, but Reed obviously preferred to cut his losses.
There had been some sort of recognition within the band that it had to measure its success differently to other bands - no-one was making much money out of it, but at least the band was playing and recording - but if the band was seeming to be naturally veering in a somewhat 'straighter' direction, it was perhaps in getting a mere whiff of this commercialism that the rot set in.
Steve Sesnick had apparently made a covert assurance to Atlantic that the Velvets would do the right thing, as it were. Ahmet Ertegun too felt that if the band would desist from 'drug songs', and just concentrate on rock & roll, it could break through. But if Lou Reed was going to be a bona fide rock & roll star - and by this time he was almost desparate for it - he was going to do it his own way.
The Velvets hadn't played in hometown New York, Manhattan, since the EPI's last gasp at the Gymnasium in April, 1967, when Sesnick booked them into the old haunt, Max's Kansas City. This didn't exactly delight Reed either, as Max's was inhabited by all sorts of ghosts from his past he didn't want to have to confront. But with Doug Yule's younger brother Billy, who was still in high school, sitting-in on drums, the band began a five-nights-a-week, ten-week residency in mid-June. At the same time, Loaded was being recorded at Atlantic's New York studios. This gruelling timetable would take its toll.
Sterling Morrison, who had always been inclined just to go with the flow, was less involved in Loaded than any previous Velvets album. The band's commitment was heavy enough as it was, but Morrison was also, at the time, completing his BA in English, and so he was concentrating on that, immersed in Victorian literature.
In the studio, Doug Yule stepped right up to the breach, full of all sorts of suggestions. He clearly wanted to captalize on the Velvets' belated opportunity to consolidate themselves commercially. Response to the Max's shows was good - even if Reed claimed to be uncomfortable with it - and the general feeling was that the Velvet Underground had finally come home to roost. The billboard out front of the club proclaimed 'Held over for the entire summer'.
And on the evidence of the Live At Max's Kansas City album at least - represented here by Disc Three's Track 17 - the band was in good form, all things considered. The album, which was recorded, in mono, on a hand-held cassette-player by Brigid Polk, an old friend of the band, was released by Atlantic when it became clear that the Velvets, as such, were going to be unable to fulfill their contract. Polk had recorded the last night at Max's, on August 23, which as it turned out, was the last gig the band would ever play as the Velvet Underground, with Lou Reed. And Lou Reed was the Velvet Underground.
As he says by way of introducing "Sunday Morning" on Live At Max's, it's "a song about, oh, when you've done something so sad, and you wake-up and you remember it - not to sound grim or anything, but just once in a while you have one of those days - I seem to have them nearly..." He trails off.
With the calming influence of Tucker absent, his relationship with Sesnick at an impasse and Doug Yule constantly in his face - not to mention any personal demons that may have also been present - Reed was feeling the strain. Under pressure to produce the goods, Reed later confessed, he was doing something he no longer believed in. He cracked. At the completion of the Max's season, he left the band. He was 28.
Loaded was pretty-much finished by this time too, but after Reed left, it was tampered with, much to his chagrin, and though the album, released in September, 1970, was easily the Velvets' most successful - certainly their most accessible - it is generally considered to be their least durable.
The problem with Loaded is not the songs, which are generally up to Reed's usual superlative standard, but their presentation. The band had been sapped of its idiosyncracies, flattened-out, into an homogenised, comparatively stiff and formal, classicist rock sound not a million miles from that which the Doors achieved around the same time on Morrison Hotel. To start with, even though Mo Tucker is credited with drums, it was actually Billy Yule who played on the album, and his style is totally conventional, and barely inspired at that.
This wasn't the only aberrant credit on the record. The songs were credited not to Lou Reed, their sole author, but 'the Velvet Underground', as a band. Reed would eventually wrest back sole credit through legal action.
Reed was also bitter about the way "Sweet Jane" and "New Age" had been edited, truncated, for release.
But none of this is to say there's not a lot about Loaded that's immensely likeable, and that the album isn't still a classic. Critics were actually highly enamoured of it at the time, and certainly it stands up well next to contemporaries like Morrison Hotel, Cry Of Love, Funhouse, Cosmo's Factory or Led Zeppelin III.
Opening the album, "Who Loves The Sun?" was a neat twist on the Beach Boys, which seagued seamlessly into "Sweet Jane," one of the all-time great rock anthems. One of the other all-time great rock anthems is the eponymously-titled "Rock & Roll" itself. The other two tracks from the album presented here perhaps both reflect Reed's growing unease with the Velvets. "Train Comin' Round The Bend" is a 'road song' of the exhausted variety, while "Held Held High" is vitriol reserved for people who would wish to 'tell you what to do'.
But Loaded came all too late. Doug Yule would press on, himself fronting the Velvet Underground, under that banner - hijacking the band, it could be said - and indeed, this incarnation of the band has rightfully been accorded barely any consideration, by Velvets fans, rock historians and the public alike. With various different new members, it toured Europe and even released an album, called Squeeze, in early 1973, but it died a welcome death soon after.
Lou Reed, meantime, after a period of recuperation back at his parents' place on Long Island, enthusiastically embarked on his solo career, and it has been him, unsurprisingly, who has met with the greatest success since the Velvets. He is now one of the foremost men of rock & roll letters. Sterling Morrison became a teacher, and then a tugboat captain, and Maureen Tucker a mother who occasionally dabbled on the drums, and has cut a number of well-received albums. John Cale pursued an erratic, yet fascinating solo career - producing at least a couple of classics - as did Nico, before her death in 1988.
For a long time, for Reed and Cale at least, the 'cult of the Velvet Underground' was something they obviously felt hung around their necks like an albatross. As Reed says in a 1986 interview done on the streets of New York with London Weekend Television's South Bank Show - Track 18, Disc Three - he's not interested in "high school reunions."
The band would, however, appear on stage together again one more time, in June 1990, at the Andy Warhol Exposition in Jouy-en-Joasas, France. Time, they say, heals all wounds, and Reed and Cale may well have been on the way to burying the hatchet anyway, but when Warhol died in 1989 they came together out of respect to produce Songs For Drella. But with all four of the former Velvets in Jouy-en-Joasas, they got up and played one song, "Heroin," after Reed and Cale had performed a few from Songs For Drella. Their reactions to playing together again are captured on the very last track here, which was originally issued as a flexidisc inside What Goes On, the Velvet Underground Appreciation Society's official fanzine.
Jouy-en-Joasas was a harmless, impromptu excercise in nostalgia which is unlikely to be repeated. And so it shouldn't be. The fans of the band who would wish that they reform have missed the point entirely. It is enough - an extraordinary legacy! - that we've been left with, and both Lou Reed and John Cale are still producing work as vital as any by the Velvets. It's different, but then 'those were different times' when the Velvets raged. Reed and Cale now are both artists who have grown apart, after different intents.
Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison are both happy the way they are. Why contrive to upset this balance? The great success of the Velvet Underground was perhaps only possible, after all, because the band was a confluence of elements which were drawn irresistably together and existed in a particular space and time in a perfect, symbiotic balance, which may never be repeated. It is more than enough that we have the Velvets' legacy as it is - and perhaps only barely enough that we cherish it for that.
1. *Andy Warhol Presents"
2. "Melody Laughter" (live fragment)
3. “Heroin” (mono mix)
4. “I’m Waiting for the Man” (mono mix)
5. "Sunday Morning" (mono mix)
6. "I'll Be Your Mirror" (mono mix)
7. "Run Run Run" (mono mix)
8. "All Tomorrow's Parties" (mono mix)
9. “Venus in Furs” (mono mix)
10. "Femme Fatale" (mono mix)
11. "It Was a Pleasure Then"
12. *"From the Music Factory"
13. “White Light/White Heat”
14. "Lady Godiva's Operation"
15. "I Heard Her Call My Name"
16. *"Untitled (Index)"
17. *"EPI Ad"
1. “Sister Ray”
2. "Here She Comes Now" "Guess I'm Falling in Love" (instrumental version)
3. "Stephanie Says"
4. "Hey Mr Rain" (version two)
5. "Candy Says"
6. "Some Kinda Love"
7. “Pale Blue Eyes”
8. "Beginning to See the Light"
9. "I'm Set Free"
10. "The Murder Mystery"
11. "Foggy Notion"
12. "I Can't Stand It"
13. *"Radio Ad"
2. "One of These Days"
4. "It's Just Too Much" (live)
5. “Sweet Jane” (live)
6. "New Age" (live)
7. "Over You" (live)
8. "What Goes On" (live)
9. "After Hours" (live)
10. "I'm Sticking with You" (live)
11. "Train Round the Bend"
12. "Head Held High"
13. "Who Loves the Sun"
14. "Rock and Roll"
15. "Ride into the Sun" (acetate transfer) (Reed, Cale, Morrison, Tucker)
16. "After Hours" (live)
17. *"No More Reunions"
18. *"Thanks, Andy Warhol"