The Velvet Underground

      The Velvet Underground and Nico (MGM/Verve, 1967)
      White Light/White Heat (MGM/Verve, 1968)
      The Velvet Underground (MGM, 1969)
      Loaded (Cotillion, 1970)
     Live at Max's Kansas City (Cotillion, 1972)
  Squeeze (Polydor U.K., 1973)
     1969 Live (Mercury, 1974)
     VU (Verve, 1985)
     Another View (Verve, 1986)
     The Best of the Velvet Underground (Verve/PolyGram, 1989)
    Live MCMLXXXXIII (Sire, 1993)
      Peel Slowly and See (Polydor, 1995)
     Bootleg Series, Vol. 1: The Quine Tapes (Universal, 2001)

The Velvet Underground invented the New York noise that became punk rock, sinister and slinky at the same time. Even in its darkest, most demonic moments, you can hear a unique band—John Cale's viola, Sterling Morrison's jittery guitar, Maureen Tucker's drums, Lou Reed's sneer of sneers—having a real good time together. The Velvets had a beat, ripping all the country out of James Brown and Bo Diddley breaks for pure urban momentum. The Velvets had guitars, fashioning hooks and harmonies out of speed-freak feedback. The Velvets had songs—oh baby, did they have songs. Painful songs, often desolate songs, that were nonetheless full of rock & roll fun. "Sister Ray," "Femme Fatale," "I'm Waiting for the Man," and other walks on the wild side present a romantic vision of big-city nightlife over music that's tough enough to pass for gritty realism. Black leather and shades would never sound the same.

All four of the band's original studio albums are musts, but The Velvet Underground and Nico is the mustest. A sexy New York sociopath in a motorcycle jacket, schooled in surf music and doo-wop but inspired by the decadent Warhol Factory demimonde, Lou Reed led his band of art punks as they turned the big bad city into the sublimely beautiful rock & roll noise of "Sunday Morning," "Venus in Furs," and "The Black Angel's Death Song." Born-to-be-dead German chanteuse Nico adds her creepy old-world charisma to the ballads "Femme Fatale," "All Tomorrow's Parties," and "I'll Be Your Mirror." The street narratives "Heroin" and "I'm Waiting for the Man" ride on ruthless guitar clatter, stopping and restarting time at will, all glamour and danger. Every song here inspired countless other bands; more important, every song here inspires you to hear the rest. Well, maybe not "Run Run Run" or "There She Goes Again." That Andy Warhol—what a producer!

White Light/White Heat turns up the guitar fuzz to obsessive levels, climaxing with "Sister Ray," 17 blissful minutes of amps screaming in ecstasy. "Here She Comes Now" is the flip side, a two-minute acoustic incantation falling softly on your ears, almost all rhythm. "Lady Godiva's Operation" has perfect comic singing from Cale and Reed, while "I Heard Her Call My Name" and "White Light/White Heat" detail psychic horrors under the dumb fun of the guitars. That leaves "The Gift," an eight-minute spoken narrative that proves the world didn't lose a great novelist when Lou chose music. White Light makes vibrant music out of all the urban bleakness until it ends up sounding transcendently sweet, captured in the perfect moment when Reed struggles to force the word "am-fe-fe-fe-fetamine" out of his wracked throat.

The Velvet Underground, on the other hand, is all sweetness. After John Cale's exit, the Velvets became acoustic folkie balladeers, with a surprisingly warm Lou Reed warbling the sad doo-wop melodies of "Pale Blue Eyes," "I'm Set Free," and "Jesus," as well as the urgent rave-ups "Beginning to See the Light" and "What Goes On." Every song is a classic, with Maureen Tucker's "After Hours" an unforgettable last word. Loaded is even mellower, with new bassist Doug Yule taking over too many of the lead vocals. It's the Velvets' most conventional album, but when you're in the mood for the glistening guitar shimmer of "I Found a Reason" or "Sweet Jane," nothing else will do. This record was designed to translate fast, to go places, to give instant pleasure, and that's a key part of the Velvets' story. Lou was too much of a rocker at heart to turn up his nose at the redemptive power of pop trash, and so "Rock and Roll" is his version of the radio's version of the rock & roll that saved his life. "Train Round the Bend" has some of his best lyrics, and that back-cover photo is a gem: lonely guitars on a rainy day, hoping someone will pick them up and make them sing.

Reed quit the band during the Loaded sessions. Yule went on to make Squeeze under the Velvet Underground name; it's the sort of pricey collector's item you really shouldn't ever pay money for, lest you get laughed at by whomever you're trying to impress. On the other hand, so many people have been willing to shell out for Velvets' bootlegs (Sweet Sister Ray! Live '68 !) that the band has been repackaged archivally ever since. VU and Another View collect great outtakes such as "Foggy Notion," "Stephanie Says," "Hey Mr. Rain," and "Temptation Inside Your Heart." The Peel Slowly and See box collects this arcana (inexplicably leaving out VU's "She's My Best Friend"), adds more ("Guess I'm Falling in Love"! "Satellite of Love"!), throws in the four original albums, and restores the full-length version of "Sweet Jane" to Loaded. Essential—although there's even more where that came from (the 10/2/68 live version of "Pale Blue Eyes" is a killer).

Best of is a well-selected sampler that's still beside the point. Live MCMXCIII documents the Velvets' brief 1993 European reunion tour, and you had to be there, though John Cale sounds great bellowing "All Tomorrow's Parties." The Quine Tapes collects dim-sounding but fierce live performances, with some looong versions of "Sister Ray." Despite rotten sound quality, Live at Max's Kansas City rocks, with Reed in a hilariously Santa-like mood ("Wow, it's really fun to be able to play all these for you!") as the barflies chat about Tuinols between songs.

1969 Live shows off the Reed-Morrison-Tucker-Yule lineup on one frantic rave-up after another, catching your breath with quiet interludes such as "Over You" and "Sweet Jane." Listen to "Sweet Bonnie Brown/It's Just Too Much"—the lyrics are hardly there at all, the vocal is a callow Otis Redding rip, the melody is a shambles, but the guitars coast and zoom and rocket their red glare for five, six, seven minutes of beautiful blur. You can hear the Velvets pummeling away at this trifle, mixing up the heavy with the frivolous, the most obscure rock emotions with the most obvious ones. Plenty of Velvets' imitators have gotten louder, but nobody's ever managed to duplicate the Velvets' sense of adventure and romance. No one has ever duplicated the sound of Mo Tucker's drums, either; for all Reed's singer/songwriter tendencies, the Velvets were an irreplicable tribute to the spirit of teamwork and collective creation. Those were different times.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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