Peel Slowly and See, the long-awaited five-disc Velvet Underground box set, offers fresh perspectives and some hidden truths, even for longtime Velvets fans. None is brought home more vividly than this simple proposition: The Velvets were a band.
It wasn’t singer/songwriter Lou Reed plus backing musicians, and it wasn’t just a laboratory for volatile interactions between Reed’s literacy and street sensibilities and John Cale’s classical pedigree and avant-garde proclivities. It was a true unit. The synergy of Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison’s incisive R&B-driven lead and rhythm guitars, and Maureen Tucker’s Olatunji-via-Bo Diddley tribal stomp was the “genius” of the Velvet Underground.
Ignored or reviled during their time together, VU have proved themselves over the long haul to be arguably the most admired and influential American rock band. Musically they’ve been important not just for their sonic minimalist aesthetic but for their all-around grasp of rock’s roots, vocabulary and resources, from lyrical ballads to machine-shop clamor, modal droning to crafty pop, folk rock to country rock, raga to music-hall soft-shoe.
In the beginning, recording without drums or percussion, the Velvets played an eccentric sort of folk rock. Their ’65 demos — the first of Peel’s five discs — are reminiscent of New York folk hipsters like the Holy Modal Rounders. The early demos generally make for archival, rather than pleasurable, listening. While Reed was already an extraordinarily gifted songwriter, it was often the other Velvets’ contributions that made the music truly special. It’s only when Cale cuts loose on the viola that “I’m Waiting for the Man” begins to surge with power, and “Heroin” would not find its ultimate levels of intensity and drama until Mo Tucker’s nervous tom-tom pulses entered the picture.
The four Velvets studio albums are included in their entirety; Album 3, The Velvet Underground, is represented by Reed’s preferred, now oddly alternative-sounding “closet mix.” The sound throughout is breathtaking in its clarity; lyrics one could never disentangle become easily audible. And it’s no longer difficult to follow the individual instruments through the densest collective mashups, even on the heretofore impenetrable “Sister Ray.”
Discs 2 and 3, which include the first two albums and some welcome extras, document VU before the sacking of John Cale. They’re as transcendent as rock & roll gets. Among the extras are live workouts that display the band’s often-obscured R&B roots (“Booker T.,” “Temptation Inside Your Heart”) as well as two group improvisations with Nico. There are also some demos intended for Album 2 (White Light/White Heat) — the stunning “Here She Comes Now” is all swirling, droning, shifting tone colors.
After the bracing, take-no-prisoners barrage of the first two albums, the later group, with bassist Doug Yule replacing multi-instrumentalist Cale, emphasized the more tuneful songwriting of Reed. He seems somehow more appealing when yelping, “Whip it on me, Jim,” in the middle of “Sister Ray” than he does crooning the creepy “Jesus” or warbling the sticky sweet, radio-ready pop of “Who Loves the Sun.”
Nevertheless, there’s a great deal to enjoy on the last two discs. We get Tucker’s splendid vocal features on “After Hours,” “I’m Sticking With You” and “The Murder Mystery.” And we get more of Morrison’s subtle, special magic: the wailing, guitar-driven “Foggy Notion” and “I Can’t Stand It”; roaring live runs through “It’s Just Too Much” and “Some Kinda Love.” There are also early studio run-throughs of songs Reed would record for later solo albums — like the haunting “Satellite of Love.”
This is some of the most inspirational and ultimately timeless music you’ll ever hear, reproduced with brilliant sonic verisimilitude. The selections that reveal these musicians to have been ordinary mortals just make masterworks like The Velvet Underground and Nico all the more impressive. When the VU synergy triumphed over individual foibles and failings, it triumphed so spectacularly that personal limitations and hang-ups seemed to melt away in its white-hot glare. It’s as though the participants had been somehow alchemized by this “band spirit” into functioning as highly idealized versions of their everyday selves, and we are all the richer for it.