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"I don't know just where I'm going but I'm gonna try for the kingdom, if I can"

Class C

Main Category: Punk/Grunge
Also applicable: Avantgarde, Art Rock, Mope Rock, Roots Rock
Starting Period: The Psychedelic Years
Also active in: The Artsy/Rootsy Years




Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Velvet Underground fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Velvet Underground fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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No other group in the history of rock music has probably caused as much controversy as the Velvets. You may love them, may hate them, may deem them original and groundbreaking, or derivative and talentless - at least, you gotta admit that they have an absolutely unique place in the musical archives. During their short, but quite prolific and event-filled career, they were virtually unknown: their albums didn't sell, lurking somewhere at the bottom of the charts, and they finally broke up just on the brink of commercial success. Later on, they became icons of punk and alternative, the greatest love of music critics worldwide and the supposed 'major influences' on hundreds and thousands of rock bands. Recently, there's been a backlash against them once more - as a new breed of independent web critics like Mark Prindle and Brian Burks appears and gains popularity, the Velvets are shoved back once again. Lots of people claim they love the Velvet Underground, but don't know shit about the band; other people say they hate the Velvet Underground, but end up admitting they had their value, too (just look at Prindle's page of VU reviews and tell me he didn't get messed up on there). What's to be done?

Well, the only thing to be done is to approach the band with an open mind. There is one myth, I think, in desperate need of rebuttal: for many, the Velvets are one of the greatest influences for punk rock, if not THE first punk rock band in existence. Velvet Underground have nothing to do with punk rock. Out of four studio albums they released, two had nothing to do with punk rock at all, and the other two did have their moments of 'white noise' and feedback and musical chaos, but so what? Feedback and musical chaos weren't invented by the Velvets - the Who did it earlier, and Hendrix did it better. It's obvious that the band is being treated as 'punkish' only because of its attitude - you know, dirty, protesting, nihilist, etc., etc. Musically, they aren't any more 'punkish' than, say, the Beatles, for instance.

So what did the Velvets' music represent? Errr... the Velvets. That's right. Their style was unique and still remains unique - some of the so-called 'alternative' bands have come close to recapturing that old Lou Reed magic, but not many and not completely. Lou took a lot of influences: some Eastern music, some German cabaret tunes, some garage-rock attitude, and, above all, Dylan's beat poetry and singing style, stirred them together and came out with a genre that I could only qualify as 'VU-style rock'. It ain't soft, it ain't hard; it ain't folk, it ain't acid. It's special.

And since it's special, that means that if you'd like to enjoy the music of the Underground, you have to prepare yourself for something special. Much too often, people rush out and buy their albums because they deem it wise to get acquainted with the 'band that got it all started' (it = punk, alternative, hardcore, etc., etc.), and are left completely disappointed. Like, I wanted to have a fast, rip-roarin' early punk record, like all the Stooges and the MC5 and stuff, and what's that? Slow, dreary, repetitive, boring, monotonous... yawn. Now I'll be the first to admit that the Velvets did have their fair share of stinkers. Songs like 'European Son' or 'Sister Ray', while still considered masterpieces by many a weirdo on this weird planet of ours, are misguided experiments - dated, unimpressive and musically unimaginative. But one has to distinguish between the style in general and the particular stinkers.

Therefore, if you haven't yet heard any VU records, but would like to do so, please read the following disclaimer. Yes, like I said, the Velvets write slow, dreary, repetitive, monotonous songs. They aren't good improvisationists, either: if they get a riff groove going, they'll bore you with this riff groove for hours on end. They don't have more than two or three energetic rockers in their entire catalog. Their lead singer has a hoarse, cold, emotionless voice that will bug you and annoy you and disturb you if you're not used to that paradigm of singing. They don't have any instrumental virtuosos in the band (yeah, John Cale deals with his viola in a novel manner, but that still doesn't mean he's really professional). In other words, they are very Dylanish in style, and, in fact, I consider Lou Reed to be the best Dylan imitator in history. No wonder he's written so many Dylan rip-offs in his life, 'Sweet Jane' being the best and the most obvious of these.

On the other hand, the Velvets have a peculiar way of getting under your skin just due to their weirdness and Lou's amazing multi-facedness: just as he finishes beating you up with another pulsating, robotic, stone-cold rocker, he suddenly turns around and woos you with a ballad that's oh so beautiful you're ready to cry - before leading you away into the world of some crazyass sexual perversion and distorted violins. The man's a mystery, and his companions are mysterious, too, and the band simply has got an aura which makes its music so enthralling and involving. If anything, the Velvets are great because they did things that no one else ever dreamt of doing before them - either because these things were too simple or because these things were too complicated. Simple, because whoever thought perfection could be achieved by just sticking to an 'annoying' monotonous beat and repeating the same primitive guitar riff over and over till you bleed ('Waiting For The Man)? Or recording an acoustic demo with help from a female band member who can't really sing ('After Hours')? Complicated, because who ever thought of finding such untrivial subjects for his lyrics as Lou when he was penning 'Heroin', 'Venus In Furs' and 'Some Kinda Love' (not to mention the weird black humour of 'The Gift', of course). Whatever. A most interesting band, these Velvets. Just because they used to be so overrated doesn't mean they were all that great. And I give them a rating of three - with not a hint at any remorse or anything.

Note that, since then, Lou Reed has had a prolific and most worthy solo recording career. None of his efforts are as valuable as the Velvets' best products together, but much of it is prime stuff in any case. Please see what few records of Lou's I have reviewed on his own solo page. As for the Velvets themselves, my collection is fairly limited - as of now, I've only got the standard 'classic four' of their original studio recordings and can say nothing of the endless stream of live albums or the VU outtake collections, not to mention the box set. Gimme time. Better still, gimme money.

Lineup: Lou Reed - guitar, vocals; John Cale - bass, viola, vocals (limited); Sterling Morrison - guitar, bass, vocals; Maureen Tucker - drums, vocals (yeah, right - the poor girl can't sing worth a tattered sestertius). The German singerine Nico who sang on the band's debut album courtesy of Mr Warhol was never an official band member, but is quite important as a forming part of the band's groundbreaking album's identity, and so might "conceptually" be considered a band member for a short time as well. In the early days, Cale was just as important a driving force for the band as Reed; his departure in 1968 really cost the band the loss of a whole dimension of sound. For better or worse - you decide. Cale was replaced by Doug Yule - bass, keyboards, lead vocals on some tracks, usually the more poppy ones. Aw, what the hell, their last two albums were all poppy.



Year Of Release: 1967

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Overrated as hell, but there are gorgeous moments of revelatory beauty on this album which I'd never dismiss, for one.

Best song: SUNDAY MORNING (yeah, yeah, not that s****y HEROIN bore)

Track listing: 1) Sunday Morning; 2) I'm Waiting For The Man; 3) Femme Fatale; 4) Venus In Furs; 5) Run Run Run; 6) All Tomorrow's Parties; 7) Heroin; 8) There She Goes Again; 9) I'll Be Your Mirror; 10) The Black Angel's Death Song; 11) European Son; [BONUS TRACK:] 12) All Tomorrow's Parties (alternate mix).

I dare say I'm pretty much eager to join the club of people who rave about the Velvet Underground being tremendously overrated even after listening to this record for almost half a year. And yet, it certainly has quite a lot of a charm of its own, not to mention a mood and a style unique to rock music, that still makes it stand out even among all the whoppers of 1967.

The picture is as follows: dirty bastards Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison (guitars) got together with a bohemian intelligent (John Cale, viola) and a soon-to-be pregnant female drummer (Mo Tucker), got Andy Warhol to manage them and proved to the world that rock'n'roll could not just be dirty - it could be mean and cruel as well. However, that's not my personal opinion about this record. This is merely what is usually said by people who refuse to dig deeper into the actual songs by Mr Lou Reed and prefer only to keep memories of him as a proto-punk rocker. The fact that this record also features 'Sunday Morning', which is, to my opinion, one of the most fantastic and intoxicating soft ballads ever written, usually escapes them...

Actually, I started this review in such a nonchalant mode because I'm pretty sure I needn't introduce you to this record. If, by any chance, you haven't heard it, just go ahead and buy it - doesn't matter if you like it or not, this is a landmark and a must in anybody's collection. But if you did, you'll know what I'm talking about.

To state the point more clearly, critics usually love this record because of the lyrics. For sure, nobody ever dared to go out and treat such matters as heroin addiction, sadomasochism or, well, homosexualism as openly and artistically as Lou Reed did on this record. But damn it, it has much, oh so much more than that! The Velvet Underground weren't just dirty punkers - no, they were an art band. (If they weren't, no way Andy would manage them). And in doing this record, Lou Reed and company put the most of their efforts into creating a distinct, self-sustained style that would incorporate lots of elements already assimilated by rock and yet sound totally different.

The addition of the German singerine Nico on some of the tracks certainly adds to the weird feel of the album, but that's not the main point. Here, suffice it to say that I would like to vehemently defend Nico from those who can't stand her: if you can't, don't. She's got a good German voice, and she sings in a traditional, maybe even slightly improved German manner - cold, proud and almost emotionless (yet check out 'Femme Fatale' to hear the very, very best). Maybe it does take some getting used to, but those who are used to enjoying old German movies will certainly understand me. She's not exceptional, but she's tolerable, anyway, her voice is far better than Lou Reed's (from a 'technical' point of view, at least). But enough about Nico. What I was going to say is that the style of the VU on this record is limited, but solid: creepy, drastically slow tunes with endlessly repeating riffs (monotony seems to be the main deity of these guys), over which are layered the creepy, drastically slow vocals with endlessly repeating intonations. Why punk rockers often claim to be influenced by this is way beyond me - this is as far removed from punk rock as, say, Joseph Haydn. Whether you'll like this style or will be lulled to sleep depends primarily on your constitution. I'll say here that Reed, Cale and Morrison were fine, but not exceptional songwriters: some of the pieces have beautifully constructed melodies (the above-mentioned ballads 'Sunday Morning' and 'Femme Fatale'; the solemn, bizarre 'All Tomorrow's Parties'). Some, however, are subconscious rip-offs: the 'rocker' 'Run Run Run' sounds like a cross between Dylan's 'Highway 61' and, sure enough, the Who's 'Run Run Run', while 'There She Goes Again' features the famous chord sequence off Marvin Gaye's 'Hitch Hike' (was it Marvin Gaye? Anyway, the Stones did it on Out Of Our Heads, so you check that out). And some do not feature any discernible melodies at all, sometimes for good effect (the mesmerizing 'I'm Waiting For The Man', with its bam-bam-bam-bam-bam beat going on and on and on until it gets you into a trance), sometimes for horrible (the closing 'European Son' with its lame and totally inept mess of guitar/viola feedback that probably sounded dated on the time of release - compared to Hendrix, this isn't even at school kid level). However, good or bad, the mood is nearly always the same: dreamworld mood. Personally, I like those variations of this mood when they charm me with their beauty ('Sunday Morning', ooh, that naive glockenspiel is so breathtaking), or when they get me into an almost masochistic groove ('I'm Waiting For The Man'), but dislike others - particularly dislike the very popular 'Heroin'. Yeah, I know it was revolutionary lyricswise, but it manages to drag on for seven bleeding minutes at a snail pace, and when it does quicken up in the chorus it does that in a very insecure and clumsy manner, so they might just as well leave it at the snail pace. Yawn. Oh, but I forgot to mention 'Venus In Furs'. Now this one is truly hypnotizing - the Eastern-flavoured viola line is tasteful and mystical, and...

...wait a minute, did I just say 'Eastern-flavoured'? Well, that's the very trick of the whole record! I mean, yes, there's quite a lot of Eastern (aka Indian) influence in the songs. But there's also quite a lot of German influence - and not necessarily due to Nico. That's where the key to this album's secret lies - it's a more or less successful marriage of German cabaret music to Indian spiritual chants, and it works in its own miraculous way. Come to think of it, Lou Reed's emotionless, gruff, strict baritone sounds even more German than Nico's, and the whole record has this feel - stern, unbended, uncompromised and, above all, impenetrable. This is an impenetrable record. If only the melodies were a little more tight and creative, and if only they'd got rid of that 'European Son' mess, this could have been a masterpiece. As it is, it isn't, but isn't it close? Well, guess it is...



Year Of Release: 1967
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Audacious excursions into the secret life of feedback, but not without its small charms.


Track listing: 1) White Light/White Heat; 2) The Gift; 3) Lady Godiva's Operation; 4) Here She Comes Now; 5) I Heard Her Call My Name; 6) Sister Ray.

Nearly every band or artist with an edge that approaches 'experimental' have a side that's acceptable to the main rock-loving public and a side that's only acceptable to 'initiates'. It's like a test, you know - whether you're able to apply for a diehard fan nomination or not. For instance, I know that I don't pass the 'diehard' nomination for Frank Zappa since I can't stand The Grand Wazoo, a cult album for fanatics. White Light, then, is the cult album for Velvet Underground fans. If you like it, you've passed the test; if you love it, you're really one of the few. I, myself, have mixed feelings towards it, just as towards any of these 'cult albums', for quite obvious reasons. Where there is major controversy in tastes, I usually prefer to steer clear. Is White Light a great classic, an unjustly lost gem, or is it just a collection of sloppy, pathetic, feedback-drenched 'jams'? I can almost predict that most of the comments that I'm bound to receive for this review will slam me from either side, because people rarely tend to be objective. But well, that's the unhappy fate of the reviewer...

Anyway, on their second album the Velvets undeniably go overboard with the whole 'noise' thing that they really didn't experiment that much with on the first album. Apart from that crappy 'European Son' stuff, it was all just dark and Eastern and German and viola-treated and all that. You won't find a lot of Cale's viola on here, in fact, you won't find anything that made Nico so stylish - Nico herself is gone, and apparently she's taken with her all the trendy gimmicks, like bells, glockenspiel, sitar, etc. This is a purely guitar-oriented album, and quite punkish at that: in fact, this is probably the only VU album that could be seriously taken as an influence on punk. To a certain extent, that's better: most of the songs have a rockin' feel to them, and I'd never agree with anyone who says the album doesn't rock - it does, but does so in a lazy, heroin-drenched, almost lethargic vein. The title track that opens the album with a terrific start is an instant classic: it might have been better done on live albums like Reed's Rock'n'Roll Animal, but in any case nothing can compare to the weird, distorted, totally stoned-out sound of this one: dirty, gritty and, well, funny - even if the song's lyrics do deal with drug addiction (amphetamines, to be precise). Musically, it's based on the same steady, 'white' beat that made 'Waiting For The Man' so hypnotizing, only here it's a bit faster and, well, dirtier.

The troubles, however, start immediately after the first song. 'The Gift', for instance, is a major point of controversy: an eight-minute bluesy shuffle a la early Stones, with Reed and Sterling Morrison exchanging all kinds of cliched blues-rock licks while Cale recites a lengthy story about Waldo mailing himself to his girlfriend in a box and what came out of it. On first listen, it's gripping; on second listen, it's fun to just listen to the guitars; on third listen, it's excruciating. The story itself is a good attempt at penning something horrible, but do you really need to learn it by heart? Guess not. Still, somebody on the Prindle site rightly pointed out that if you haven't heard this for a long time, it might jump out at you again as fresh as ever... good point, even if not quite convincing. Anyway, warning #1 given.

The next three songs are actually kinda cool, which is mostly why the album gets a fair enough rating (yeah, and for the title track, of course). 'Lady Godiva's Operation' has some more spooky lyrics, and have you noticed how they actually borrowed the melody of 'Sunday Morning' for the verses? Now that's creativity! John Cale starts to sing it, but later he's 'intercepted' by Lou who proceeds to rupture and distort the original clear melody, turning the song into pure chaos towards the end. Then there's the short and pretty 'Here She Comes Now', and, of course, the most energetic track on the album with some brilliant, first-class-distortion solos by Lou, showing he was a punk guitarist after all.

And then there's the major embarrassment: the seventeen-minute 'Sister Ray'. Of course, many regard this as Lou's masterpiece, while even more regard this as a piece of prime crap. Well, it starts out good enough for me - based on one more punkish beat and with ambivalent lyrics that include sucking on ding-dongs and other stuff. And, whatever be, it's a major improvement over 'European Son' because they actually play their instruments - not just engage in a series of ear-destructive guitar noises. But of course, seventeen minutes of this stuff is pure sadism (and masochism for those who enjoy it). Taken in small doses, this stuff is really good, because, to tell you the truth, I really like how the guitars and especially Cale's organ sound on here - dark, menacing, fast and distorted, just the little something you need to disturb your primal instincts. But even your primal instincts can get numbed if you keep disturbing them like that for what seems like ages. What pisses me off even more is the horrible production: the whole album sounds disgustingly underproduced, but it's most evident on 'Ray'. Whenever Lou starts to sing, it sounds like he's being recorded from the street through a studio window. Add to this the fact that for the last ten minutes he's mostly repeating the same verses over and over again, and there you go - paranoia guaranteed!

Of course, the album's wild, freaky nature is an intentional thing - they wanted the record to piss off everybody, so it should be all taken with a grain of salt. Whether or not this stuff is dated, though, is an entirely different matter. For me, at least, this works better than most of your average punk noise, because, believe it or not, it's still artsy (right), and it does have that wonderful Sixties' smell which makes it all the more interesting. But definitely not recommendable if you hate noise at all. Particularly white noise.



Year Of Release: 1969
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13

An amazing, confessional, straightforward, often beautiful collection of Assorted Love (And Kinky Sex) Songs.

Best song: CANDY SAYS

Track listing: 1) Candy Says; 2) What Goes On; 3) Some Kinda Love; 4) Pale Blue Eyes; 5) Jesus; 6) Beginning To See The Light; 7) I'm Set Free; 8) That's The Story Of My Life; 9) The Murder Mystery; 10) After Hours.

Cale quit right after White Heat followed the debut album into obscurity, and was replaced by popster Doug Yule, a nice-meanin' kinda guy who, unfortunately, earned a strange reputation among Velvetheads which I could only compare with the reputation of Patrick Moraz among Moody Blues fans. I do not think, though, that it was Yule's fault that the band moved away from feedback experiments and began rapidly advancing in the direction of becoming a 'normal' band; rather it was the lack of Cale, who was indeed the catalyst for all the weirdness. Anyway, this album is a perfect start for your VU collection - especially if you are, like me, upset about the likes of 'Sister Ray' or 'European Son'. I'd say that overall the songwriting level is a bit of a let down as compared to Nico: few of the songs managed to grapple me at once, but, once they did, they managed to convert me. So this one wins out as the best VU album simply because of its consistency (I mean, Loaded is also consistent, but it's a bit too un-Velvetish to get all the honours).

VU is actually quite different-sounding from the early stuff. If you ask me, the music perfectly matches the album cover - our heroes, dressed in perfectly normal and homely clothes, are sitting on a perfectly normal and homely sofa in what looks like a perfectly normal and homely living-room (okay, maybe it's a basement, it's dark in there; even so, it's a perfectly normal and homely basement). And the music, too, is inviting and homely, with the production stripped-down to an absolute minimum - most of the time, it's just a quiet guitar, soft percussion and an uninvolving bassline. And it's horrendously quiet - the guitars are either acoustic or, if they are electric, they're soft and inoffensive, the singing is inobtrusive and a bit muffled, and even when there are rockers ('What Goes On', 'Beginning To See The Light'), there's not an ounce of aggression or even energy about them. This is the kind of album that you are indeed able to make in your living room - just set up a recorder and a couple of guitars, and you can knock it off in two hours. Not that I actually imply that they did knock it off in two hours, mind you, because it's obvious that it took a long time to pen these terrific songs; but somehow I doubt that they really spent too much time in the studio. In any case, they probably didn't have much of a budget to experiment with sitars or phasing, what with their total lack of commercial success and all.

Of course, the main drawback of this approach is that for many a weak soul among us the record will serve as a great cure for insomnia - I myself sometimes feel like dozing off at the last minutes of 'Pale Blue Eyes' or even 'Candy Says', my favourite song on here. But that's not because the songs are boring, mind you, or bad, or poorly written. They're more like great lullabies, see - now you wouldn't want to call a lullaby 'boring' because it makes you go to sleep? That's what lullabies are for! If you really fall asleep to the sound of 'Candy Says' or 'Jesus' or 'Pale Blue Eyes', that's quite healthy. In fact, this is one excellent album to put on before turning off the lights (maybe even after turning them off) - so nice and soothing and calm and brilliant. Kinda like Dylan's Selfportrait, but don't kill me for saying that. Selfportrait is pretty underrated, by the way.

In any case, like I said, there are tons of great songwriting here. The only track that somehow connects it to the 'bizarreness' of old is the nine-minute 'Murder Mystery', a 'psycho' experiment where all the band members pronounce endless stream-of-conscience speeches all at once that they set to two alternating melodies. This can be mind-numbing at times, but both the melodies are cleverly constructed, and the piano coda is nice, too, so, if not a masterpiece, the number is at least much more tolerable than 'European Son' or even 'Heroin'. Plus, it's got Moe Tucker singing (see below)!

Elsewhere, you get just a couple buzzing rockers - 'What Goes On' is partially ripped-off from the same-titled Beatles song (for some strange reason, nobody notices that, even if Lou croaks the line 'What goes ooon in your mind?' exactly in the same way as Ringo does it), but only partially, and the chainsaw solo in the middle is by far the most rousing moment on the whole album; and 'Beginning To See The Light' has some subtle repetitive charm of its own, like in 'Waiting For The Man', only this time there's no real weirdness around, just a crazy simulation.

But the album's true bliss lies not in the rockers - Lou and company have striken upon a golden mine of balladry, alternating one minor chef-d'oeuvre with another. 'Candy Says' is a song that heralds a series of firsts: it has the first time Doug Yule is singing lead vocals (and he does it pretty well, too), it's the first song with the title constructed according to the formula '[female name]+says' (cf. 'Stephanie Says', 'Caroline Says', 'Lisa Says', ad infinitum), and it's also the first song in the Velvets' catalogue that could be called 'sappy' - but it's the wonderful kind of sap that makes you shed tears and not feel even a little guilty. The melody is so awesome, and Yule croons out the lyrics devoted to an Andy Warhol drag queen with such tenderness and devotion, and the little silly 'doo-doo-wah' chants at the end are so cute, that it's easily the best number on the album. 'Pale Blue Eyes' has been called one of the world's greatest love songs by the Rough Guide to Rock, and while I could hardly agree, it's certainly charming and extremely touching in its almost childish naivety. And, of course, the lines 'thought of you as my mountain top/thought of you as my peak' are sheer genius. And 'Jesus'? Why - that's almost a religious hymn, people, and they seem to take it seriously. 'Help me in my weakness 'cause I'm falling out of grace'. What the hell is that? And, most of all, why the hell is it so beautiful? If you listen hard, you'll understand that it's actually based on a blues pattern, but they twist the melody in such a dazzling way that you could never guess. I only guessed after looking at the lyrics sheet...

Just to remind you, though: this is the Velvet Underground. Dem Velvets ain't no sissy gospel revival schlock. Dem Velvets used to sing 'bout SEX, remember that? That's why they have 'Some Kinda Love' on here, too - you can actually hear Lou giggle as he grumbles out: 'the possibilities are endless/And for me to miss one/Would seem to be groundless'. Indeed; if it's possible to put this jolly ode to kinkiness on the same side with a humble religious prayer, then the possibilities are truly endless. Another possibility is croaking out a convincing 'soul' tune ('I'm Set Free'), and another possibility is to let Moe Tucker bring the album to a close with a short, acoustic-driven ditty about death. Actually, if 'After Hours' hadn't been undermined by the steady 'grunt - grunt - grunt - grunt' of Yule's bass holding up the acoustic guitar, it could have easily been mistaken for a 'live' recording of a 'homemade' tune sung by some camp girl taking a hike with her friends. Poor Moe, she can't sing at all - she's terribly off-key, but in a certain way, this only makes the song more charming and innocent. Just as 'Candy Says' is the perfect album opener, 'After Hours' is the perfect closer to the VU's most consistent, listenable and impressive forty-five minutes.

Why this record never sold much is a mystery to me; the only explanation I can offer is that the rock public was by then far more keen on bombastic, pretentious types of music - hard rock was in full bloom, and prog was just taking off. In that way, this album's initial failure to gain the public's eye can probably be compared only to the bombing of the Kinks' Village Green: both were quiet, humble, moderate records that never guaranteed much excitement but should be listened to in a relaxed, self-composed condition, with no drugs or stimulants in sight. Fortunately, time has corrected that mistake, and we should finally give both of these classics their due. So go out and buy it today, if your parents never bothered to buy it thirty years ago!


LIVE 1969

Year Of Release: 1969
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Raw and hideously recorded, but the record is FAR from being as smelly as the stupid cover suggests.

Best song: WHAT GOES ON

Track listing: CD I: 1) Waiting For My Man; 2) Lisa Says; 3) What Goes On; 4) Sweet Jane; 5) We're Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together; 6) Femme Fatale; 7) New Age; 8) Rock And Roll; 9) Beginning To See The Light; 10) Heroin;

CD II: 1) Ocean; 2) Pale Blue Eyes; 3) Heroin; 4) Some Kinda Love; 5) Over You; 6) Sweet Bonnie Brown/It's Just Too Much; 7) White Light/White Heat; 8) I Can't Stand It; 9) I'll Be Your Mirror.

The Velvets had a good live reputation - among the couple hundred people that actually saw their shows. This record, in particular, certainly wasn't heard in its original form by too many people. Recorded somewhere on campus in Texas (along with Alabama, one of the least likely places to appreciate the band, I guess), it had been originally captured simply on cassette and released five years later as a double LP set simply because people craved for at least some live product from the Velvets and this was about the best they could salvage.

So, predictably, the sound quality is beyond average - Lou's vocals are somewhere way way down, Sterling's bass is somewhere way way up, and the rest lies in between and can, indeed, sometimes be heard. To make matters worse, as I've been informed, before transferring the material to CD, Polygram found they mislaid the mastertapes. As a result, you'll hear a lot of cracking and hissing on here. But guess what? It doesn't hurt. Not a band like the Velvet Underground it doesn't - if anything, the messy recording quality only emphasises the general raw/messy/crude/honest/insert-your-fav-adjective-here quality of the thing.

I mean, this whole show gotta be appreciated as a unity. A band of grim-looking, weird-sounding outcasts arriving at a place where nobody but the most brave will actually listen (you gotta hear these handclaps - sometimes it seems to me as if I can actually count the number of people showing their appreciation). Surprisingly polite, too: Lou gives a funny monolog at the beginning of the record, asking everybody if they'd like to hear two short sets or one long (one long, of course!), if they have a curfew or something, and telling about how they saw their cowboys and all, heh heh. And then they proceed to play these jazzy/rockabilly-like dirges of theirs, one by one, with an almost robotic dedication. It's... cool.

There are many relatively short tracks on here, but also a whole buncha long jams, and you probably know how the Velvets do their long jams - they establish a groove and then work it to slow agonizing death for five, seven, ten, twelve, minutes. With the departure of Cale, they pretty much stopped doing that in the studio (see the review above), but the live shows still centered around these extended improvisations. However, with Yule replacing Cale, they became somewhat more restrained and accessible - at the very least, when they were picking grooves, they picked all the right ones.

I'd say 'What Goes On' shows them at their best in jamming: Lou picks up a funky rhythm and chugs along, almost never missing a beat, while Doug is pounding at his organ in the background, and that "goes on" for what seems an eternity and yet never becomes annoying or tedious as 'Sister Ray' at its worse. It's the same minimalist, defiant stuff, but done in a way you could actually listen to. 'Ocean' is a little worse because it's slower and doesn't get the blood pumping - and, again, essentially one musical phrase repeated ad aeternum, but at least it's a decent phrase. It works a little bit in the same way as Creedence's mid-section in 'Ramble Tamble' - not that I've ever been a big fan of either, but hey, it's not "anti-musical" or something. And then there are two guitar jams in 'White Light/White Heat' and 'I Can't Stand It', more reminiscent of the early Cale stuff, with Lou (and possibly Doug) trading all these dissonant jazzy runs up and down the scale, but, again, with the firm press of the rhythm section, a general energy punch of each of the songs' main melodies, and a modest running time (around eight minutes each), these jams are cool. The key is not to push it, I think - you made your point, gentlemen, now play us something else.

There's a lot of material, as you already understood, and the two-CD edition actually expands the original tracklisting as far as I can see (oh, and, by the way, the album weirdly comes as two separate albums - Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, even if both are taken from the same show(s), which need to be bought separately, so a lot of people I know own only one half of it. Bizarre). 'Heroin' comes in two versions, but to my mind, both kick the studio original's wrinkled ass, even if my sordid sellout nature still thinks the song only became the masterpiece it can really be on Lou's Rock'n'Roll Animal.

Many of the songs weren't released at the time: they play stuff from the upcoming Loaded (a very slow and moody 'Sweet Jane', a very frantic 'Rock And Roll', a very lazy 'New Age'), as well as stuff that only made it onto future outtake collections and Lou's solo albums, as well as several this-album-only songs like 'Over You'. Occasionally they demonstrate their passion for Fifties rock, as when they play the lengthy 'Sweet Bonnie Brown/It's Just Too Much' medley. And when singing older material, Lou takes over the Nico material and shows that 'I'll Be Your Mirror' and 'Femme Fatale' can go on living even without those icy Teutonic emotionless snowqueen deliveries.

Listening to two CDs in a row is a bit of a drag, of course (so who knows, maybe separating the two was a wise decision after all), but it pays off, besides, some of these nifty drones make up for some real cooky background music. So, eventually, I'm pleased, as they manage to show all the best sides of the band here while downplaying most of their worst. Better sound quality and a better album cover could've helped though.



Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Quite acceptable for the basic rock'n'roll fan, right. But doesn't it betray the Velvets' image a bit?

Best song: ROCK & ROLL

Track listing: 1) Who Loves The Sun; 2) Sweet Jane; 3) Rock & Roll; 4) Cool It Down; 5) New Age; 6) Head Held High; 7) Lonesome Cowboy Bill; 8) I Found A Reason; 9) Train Round The Bend; 10) Oh! Sweet Nuthin'.

Play this back to back with Nico (or, even better, with White Heat) and you'll see how much they changed in such a short time. Yeah, the departure of Cale and addition of 'popster' Doug Yule in his place certainly added to the metamorphose, but I wouldn't be surprised if these changes were primarily caused by Lou's own plans to become a trifle more commercial. Nevertheless, the fact is that the album was completed without Lou, already after he'd left the band, and God only knows how it would have looked otherwise. As it is, the record is pretty normal: not only are there no signs of freakin' jams that made early VU albums so 'preposterous', there's not even a trace of Reed's former aggression and perversity. Instead, he concentrates on his 'softer' sides - the Dylan vibe that he always shared; some nostalgic feelings; and your basic gritty rock'n'roll that falls somewhere in between Chuck Berry and the Stones.

Not to mention Doug Yule, of course: his sappy ballad that opens the album ('Who Loves The Sun'), although quite pretty by itself, is so much incompatible with the Velvets' past that it really makes you wonder. The thing to do is compare this funny Turtles rip-off with the album opener on Nico: Lou's 'Sunday Morning', though a ballad as well, was mystical, German-influenced and just plain weird, while 'Who Loves The Sun' is obvious, doo-wop-influenced and just plain forgettable. Okay, forget 'forgettable'. Like a silly child, I love all these 'pah-pa-pa-pa... who loves the sun...'. But if you're much too serious to feel like a silly child, you wouldn't want to mess around with the song after you've heard it once.

But let us not put all the blame on Doug Yule, all right? Lou's own 'I Found A Reason' that you meet later on is a generic attempt at replicating some kind of Elvis-style soft ballad with Motown influences, together with bland background vocals and a spoken sentimental mid-section, ooh, what a horrendous song. My only hope is that it's some kind of parody. What's been happening here?

Fortunately, Lou hasn't yet forgotten how to rock out. 'Rock & Roll', one of the two classics present on this album (the other one is the much overrated 'Sweet Jane' which I'll be mentioning later on), has everything that makes up excitement and more: a funny storyline about Jenny whose 'life was saved by rock'n'roll', hey, doesn't that relate to us all?; some gruff, ridiculously strained vocals; a boppin' 'n' poppin' rhythm; a furious lead break; and even some little tasty bits of dirty feedback in the very end. Plus, 'Cool It Down', 'Head Held High' and 'Train Round The Bend' all score - there's little to distinguish them from your average R'n'B standard, but then there's Lou's singing voice that makes 'Cool It Down' a real treat. Wheezy and nasty, it doesn't get out of your head for quite a long time. And, just as to be perfectly honest, I must say that 'Train Round The Bend' is really distinguishable by its brilliant use of feedback incorporated into the main riff. And anyway, this is the sphere where Doug Yule really cannot compete with Lou: his dumb country-rock extravaganza ('Lonesome Cowboy Bill') grows out of nowhere and goes exactly in that same direction. What was he trying to do, compete with Gram Parsons? Sheez...

The 'softer' numbers also become more concentrated and hooky, but with a respective reduction of that groovy Velvets vibe. 'New Age' presages some of Lou Reed's solo work with its almost Berlin-ish feel: a sad, sceptical ballad with a nostalgic and strongly 'anti-celeb' feel (at least, that's how I would dub it); interesting and fresh, but not striking. And 'Oh! Sweet Nuthin' again borrows too much from country, moreover, it drags on for seven minutes without really achieving anything - it's not emotional, it's not experimental, it's not weird and it's not funny. It's just... okay. Not bad. Listenable. Acceptable. Accessible. Pleasant. Innocent. Presentable. Orderly. Professional. Hell, maybe even memorable. But the title perfectly matches the content: 'sweet nuthin' indeed.

So I definitely disagree with everybody who calls this album a 'classic'. Sure, it's conventional and a bit more 'musical' than their early ventures into the world of Indiano-German fantasies, but maybe I just miss these Indiano-German fantasies in the first place. This record has no identity and nothing outstanding about it. And now I also have something to say about 'Sweet Jane' - why shouldn't I? People love it as hell, and I enjoy it, too, but c'mon now, why does nobody ever mention that it's as obvious and evident a Dylan rip-off as possible? Everything - starting from the melody and ending with the lyrics. Every time I put it on, I can hear echoes of 'Stuck Inside Of Mobile' or 'Queen Jane Approximately' (lyrics-wise) in my head. So it's a little confusing - people keep praising Lou for such a cool song when the only thing he actually introduces here is his cool voice that's almost as bad as Dylan's but in a different way. This, in fact, is the only thing that gives the number a VU identity. Strange as it is, the song is probably one of the two or three biggest successes of the Velvets - covered and revered by everybody. Isn't it funny that by doing so people actually pay more tribute to Bob than they do to Lou without even knowing it?

Well I told you now, so consider your eyes opened.



Year Of Release: 1985
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Various quality outtakes; generally overrated by the critics, this is still a must for all Velvet fans.

Best song: I CAN'T STAND IT

Track listing: 1) I Can't Stand It; 2) Stephanie Says; 3) She's My Best Friend; 4) Lisa Says; 5) Ocean; 6) Foggy Notion; 7) Temptation Inside Your Heart; 8) One Of These Days; 9) Andy's Chest; 10) I'm Sticking With You.

This one's been quite often hailed as the 'Great Lost blah blah blah', but it certainly depends on what exact sense you include in the expression. Me, I suppose that to a certain extent it is great, not to mention lost (and found), but I can't help comparing these outtakes to the four studio regulars and the subsequent recordings of many of them on some of Lou Reed's solo albums, and a slightly noticeable 'eeh' escapes my lips. Now and then...

See, when these outtakes, most of them destined for the Underground's fifth regular album that never happened due to Lou's and the band's record company's obstinacy, were discovered by the record company in the early Eighties, the world was already hungry for more fresh Velvets' recordings, and the critics and the public fell upon them and extracted them and praised them with the highest praise. How could they do otherwise? By then, everybody with a more or less significant status in rock music had already proclaimed themselves descended directly - if not from Lou Reed's guitar, then from John Cale's viola. The album and its successor, Another View, were bound to be deified. But never worry - here I go to save the world and debunk the myth!

A clear example of how much this album is overrated is how all the critics who used to praise Lou Reed's solo albums suddenly turn their backs on him and say that all of these outtakes are superior to the later versions on Lou's solo albums. Dude, if that's how it really is, either I don't deserve to live or everybody else has got cotton wads in their ears. More probably, nobody has ever really compared the two groups of songs. To my notion, at least five of the ten songs on here have later been included by Lou on his solo projects: 'I Can't Stand It', 'Ocean', and 'Lisa Says' ended up on his debut album (Lou Reed), 'Andy's Chest', as everybody knows, got re-recorded for Transformer, and 'She's My Best Friend' turned out to be put on Coney Island Baby - six years after the 'rough mix' of VU. And, all right, so 'Ocean' kinda sucks: but it sucks on both versions, and at least the one on Lou Reed has enough 'static power' to make it seem impressive.

But 'I Can't Stand It'? It begins its life on VU as a catchy, solid, but very crude demo (and what's with that drum sound? I bet you anything it was re-recorded in the Eighties - it sounds electronically enhanced!), only to be tightened up and hardened up on Lou Reed to make a truly unforgettable experience. 'Lisa Says'? Great song, but who on earth would prefer the hoarse, out of tune screams 'Lisa sa-a-a-a-a-ys' on the VU version to the moody, gentle, so unbelievably charming 'Lisa says... oh noooo... Lisa says' of Lou Reed. (It's the 'oh no' part I miss so much, understand that). Same thing goes for 'Andy's Chest' and 'She's My Best Friend'. The overall problem with all these versions is understandable: They Are Not Moody. That's very important. On Lou's solo records, all of these songs took over an independent, breathing life of their own - small autonomous worlds in their own rights. Here, it's just a bunch of solid, guitar-driven demo versions with interesting, but not ideal melodies. I'll admit that 'She's My Best Friend' may be a bit more catchy and bouncy than on the slow, dreary version on Coney Island Baby, but it's also more generic (Mark Prindle said it reminded him of the Association, and I couldn't agree more).

But don't get me wrong. This is still quite a good little record. Quite simply, there ain't a single truly bad song here - and so, if you're afraid of the Velvets' weirdness, this will be the natural thing to buy after the self-titled record and Loaded. All of the above-mentioned songs, with the possible exception of 'Ocean' and 'She's My Best Friend', are still first-rate material, and that's not all.

Only two of the tracks here date to the Cale era, but it shows: 'Stephanie Says' is a gorgeous ballad that reminds me a little of 'Sunday Morning' because the melodies are similar (yet it's not a rip-off) and there's a glockenspiel part on both, but it's also highlighted by some moving, strangely inobtrusive violin playing by John, and it's a great highlight of the band's 'softest' side. And 'Temptation Inside Your Heart' has Lou and Sterling Morrison exchange some bizarre dialogue lines in between the lines of the song (which is a rather generic rocker by itself), such as 'Motown! You don't look like Martha and the Vandellas' and 'Lock the door this time', which roll on at great speed and great fun.

As for the Doug era, there's some more angry rock'n'roll (the never ending, but quite infuriating 'Foggy Notion'), some more routine, but pleasant pop ('One Of These Days'), and even a Moe Tucker-sung album conclusion - a great three-chord piano ballad called 'I'm Sticking With You' that she sings in the same childish, naive, charming little 'voicelet' of hers. In other words, the record's pretty diverse, and hardcore fans will definitely get a blast out of it. I do like it - get this, I do like it - but I do have the complaint I just voiced. The album's not finished, and that is a bad thing: turns out that the Velvets did depend on the arrangements and production after all, no matter how people like to emphasize the rawness and 'purity' of their sound. Get this record at all costs, but I wouldn't really advise you to do that until you've assimilated the first two Lou Reed solo albums - at least, that way you won't be accused of giving in to all the hype.


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