Lou Reed has always steadfastly maintained that he Velvet Underground were just another Long Island rock 'n' roll band, but in the past, he really couldn't be blamed much if people didn't care to take him seriously. With a reputation based around such non-American Bandstand masterpieces as "Heroin" and "Sister Ray," not to mention a large avant-garde following which tended to downplay the Velvets' more Top-40 roots, the group certainly didn't come off as your usual rock'em-sock'em Action House combination.
Well, it now turns out that Reed was right all along, and the most surprising thing about the change in the group is that there has been no real change at all. Loaded is merely a refinement of the Velvet Underground's music as it has grown through the course of their past three albums, and if by this time around they seem like a tight version of your local neighborhood rockers, you only have to go back to their first release and listen to things like "I'm Waiting For The Man" and the "Hitch-Hike"-influenced "There She Goes Again" for any answers.
And yet, though the Velvet Underground on Loaded are more loose and straightforward than we've yet seen them, there is an undercurrent to the album that makes it more than any mere collection of good-time cuts. Lou Reed's music has always concerned itself with the problem of salvation, whether it be through drugs and decadence (The Velvet Underground and Nico), or pseudo-religious symbolism ("Jesus," "I'm Beginning To See The Light"). Now, however, it's as it he's decided to come on back where he most belongs:
Standing on the corner
Suitcase in my hand
Jack is in his corset, Jane is in her vest
And me, I'm in a rock 'n' roll band ...
And once stated, the Velvets return to their theme again and again, clearly delighted with the freedom such a declaration gives them. Each cut on the album, regardless of its other merits, first and foremost a celebration of the spirit of rock 'n' roll, all pounded home as straight and true as an arrow. "Head Held High" is the kind of joyous shouter that just begs to be played at top volume, "Train Round The Bend" should satisfy all you hard blues fanatics out there, while "Lonesome Cowboy Bill" deserves a hallowed place on your favorite AM station. If Atlantic fails to get a Top 40 hit out of any of these, especially the last, they might think well of overhauling their entire corporate set-up.
Commercial potential not-withstanding, Loaded also shows off some of the incredible finesse that Lou Reed has developed over the years as a songwriter, especially in terms of lyrics. It's always struck me as strange that no one has ever attempted to record any of the Velvets' material, though it must be admitted that its previously bizarre nature probably tended to frighten many people off, but there should be no excuse with the present album. Building from chord progressions that are simple innovations on old familiars, Reed constructs a series of little stories, filling them with a cast of characters that came from somewhere down everybody's block, each put together with a kind of inexorable logic that takes you from beginning to end with an ease that almost speaks of no movement at all.
In "New Age," for instance, he opens with what must be one of the strangest lines that have ever graced a rock 'n' roll song: "Can I have your autograph?' / He said to the fat blonde actress" — and from there, mingles cliche ("Something's got a hold on me/And I don't know what") with poignant little details about marble showers and Robert Mitchum, all combined into one of the most beautiful "love" songs to be heard in a while. Instead of taking the song through the standard verse-chrous-verse that might have been expected, the arrangement builds through three separate sections, each following perfectly on the heels of the last, culminating in a rush that takes you out beyond the boundaries of the song into the very grooves of the record itself.
And then there's "Rock and Roll," which tells the story of Ginny who was "just five years old," playing with the dials of her radio until she turned "on a New York station and she couldn't be-lieve what she heard at all." Or "Sweet Jane," possibly the Velvets' finest song since the cataclysmic "Sister Ray": "Ridin' in a Stutz-Bearcat, Jim," says Reed in the midst of a vocal performance which would put Mick Jagger to shame, "You know those were different times/The poets they studied rules of verse/And the ladies, they rolled their eyes." You can talk all you want about your rock poets, but I can't think of many who could come close to matching that.
In fact, there's so much variety on the album that you could go through any number of the cuts and pick out much the same things, those extra little touches that make each one special and able to stand up in its own right. "Who Loves The Sun," a bouncy little number which opens up the record, closes with a few "Bah-bah-ba-bah's" that are reminiscent of the "doo-doo-wah's" which graced "Candy Says" on The Velvet Underground. "Cool It Down" quotes admirably from Lee Dorsey's "Workin' In a Coal Mine," while "I Found A Reason" contains a recitation straight out of any classic Fifties slow song. There's even a Velvets' hymn to close things out in the properly devotional way: "When you ain't got nothing," they sing in letter-perfect four part harmony, "You ain't got nuthin' at all ..."
Yet as a good as Loaded is (and as far as I'm concerned, it's easily one of the best albums to show up this or any year), there are some minor problems which tend to take away from its overall achievement. Namely, and whether it's the fault of the mix or the production is hard to say, it feels as if many of the harder songs on the album lack punch. The group as a whole performs well — Sterling Morrison's lead guitar is unerringly good (especially on the rave-up within "Oh, Sweet Nuthin' "), while Doug Yule's bass work frames each of the songs nicely — but it seems that something has been lost in the transfer of their material to tape.
Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that Loaded was recorded before the Velvets undertook a summer-long engagement in the upstairs room at Max's Kansas City. There, playing five nights a week on what can only be called their home field, it was inevitable that their approach to the tunes on the album would change, become more refined and pointed as the group settled into what they were doing, giving them time to stretch out and expand upon each of the separate pieces.
Brigid Polk, a New York artist whose mediums are the Polaroid camera and the Sony cassette machine, has a series of tapes from those performances, and I would say without exaggeration that the music contained on them is some of the finest rock 'n' roll that has been played in many a year. On a small stage, surrounded by a mass of dancing bodies (and when was the last time you saw that), the Velvets fulfilled all of their early promise, taking even those classics which they had put aside for so long (such as "Heroin" and "Sunday Morning") and turning them out in newer, somehow brighter clothes. It was a homecoming, in more ways than one, and there are few who were there that will soon forget it.
At this point, unfortunately, it remains to be seen whether such a thing will ever happen again. Due to a near-textbook case of management hassles, Lou Reed left the group toward the end of the Max's engagement, and though there is a possibility of a reconciliation at some future date, the present situation doesn't look promising. In the meantime, the Velvets have added ex-Lost bass player Walter Powers to their number and are currently rehearsing for a tour. Reed, however, has always been the focal point of the group, the one who wrote their songs and provided their magic, and it is doubtful whether they can overcome his loss.
None of which can detract from any of the power and beauty contained in Loaded. In the midst of Reed's tale of five-year-old Ginny, he notes that, "Despite all the amputations, you know you could just go out and dance to a rock and roll station." And that, I guess, is what it's always been about.