Reviled by their hippie contemporaries, barely acknowledged by their record company, pegged by the media as a pop nightmare sprung full-blown from the pasty forehead of Andy Warhol, the members of the Velvet Underground worked hard and paid heavily for their place in rock history. It seems incredible now that in the band’s troubled lifetime (basically extending from late 1965 to the release of Loaded in 1970) they managed to record four of rock’s most enduring albums, zigzagging between dramatically ugly guitar noise and transcendent moments of folk-pop beauty. The Velvet Underground and Nico, recorded nearly twenty years ago, remains the official road map of New York City’s bohemian underworld. Artists as diverse as David Bowie, the Cars, New Order and R.E.M. have openly drawn on the Velvets’ legacy and singer-guitarist Lou Reed’s historic repertoire. Most hard-core and No Wave fringe rock today has nothing on White Light/White Heat for sheer industrial discord and locomotive propulsion.
But if the Velvets’ influence has never been matched in sales or thoughtful record-company promotion, the release of V.U. — a collection of newly discovered tracks from 1968 and ’69 — and the repackaging of the group’s first three albums helps redress the imbalance. The remastering (from high-quality Japanese pressings) of The Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground is certainly a blessing for anyone whose original pressings are now at death’s door. Unfortunately, no quality control at this stage will ever compensate for the inability of studios at the time to cope with the Velvets’ death-ray fuzz guitar or the evil scrape of John Cale’s viola in “Heroin” and “European Son” on the Nico album. But the refreshing clarity of these new versions frequently provides revealing glimpses into the guts of the Velvets’ remarkable sound and prophetic vision.
In “Sunday Morning,” also on the Nico album, you can hear much more clearly the mournful bowing of Cale’s viola under the abrupt Duane Eddy cluck of Reed’s guitar. Together, these two elements illustrate the precarious balance between the smudged elegance of the band’s pop essence and the graphic honesty of Reed’s drug and sex tableaux. The mad barrelhouse piano comping in “I’m Waiting for the Man” practically leaps out of the brittle mix, while the eerie doubling of Nico’s breathy Dietrich vocal heightens the haunting air of the song’s sad martial cadence.
As a statement of artistic purpose, indeed rebellion, considering the year it was made (1967), The Velvet Underground and Nico is still a powerful summation of art and fear — rock & roll reduced to its most primitive state to grapple with New York’s brutal realism. Some of the record’s original savagery and wonder has eroded with time, becoming too familiar through imitation. However, the simple physical impact of the band’s conviction remains undiminished. The crucial details brought out by the remastering — like Cale’s viola skipping with medieval glee through the serrated atonality of “The Black Angel’s Death Song” — help make that experience new.
The same can be said for The Velvet Underground, the predominantly acoustic album they released in 1969, and White Light/White Heat. Because they sit at opposite ends of the Velvets’ musical seesaw, these albums seem strangely incomplete, lacking both the panoramic spread of the Nico album and the sharp commercial focus of Loaded. Nevertheless, there is a lot to be learned from these reissues.
No amount of studio voodoo will ever make White Light/White Heat suitable for AOR airplay; with higher fidelity, Reed’s slasher solo in “I Heard Her Call My Name” sounds even more abrasive. But in the case of “Sister Ray,” the Velvets’ seventeen-minute orgiastic perversion of rock’s cerebral late-Sixties jamming, the remastering has sanded down some of Reed’s and Sterling Morrison’s guitar distortion to expose a vicious metal groove. Drummer Maureen Tucker is so deliciously crude, so frenzied in her dedication to the simplicity of the pulse, that she almost sounds like a tape loop. That, by the way, is a compliment.
The Velvet Underground, on the other hand, is gently expansive. Constructed as a highly personal song cycle, it is surprisingly caressing, even on uptempo tracks like the frisky “Beginning to See the Light” and “What Goes On.” The tender harmonies and overlapping, lacelike guitar patterns recall the intimate Nico ballads on the first album, yet the starkness of the production provides an unexpected entrance into the heart of Reed’s more lyrical songwriting. The ironic pairing of “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Jesus,” both soft and fragile, both confessing different kinds of love, best summarizes the hopeful warmth at the center of the Velvets’ rage.
Until now, the Velvet Underground story had ended with Loaded (except for posthumously issued live albums and shoddy compilations). But the release of V.U. is a major event, because its ten previously unissued tracks — bootleg appearances notwithstanding — constitute the missing link between the band’s late-Sixties mood swings and Loaded‘s commercial near-breakthrough. Except for two songs recorded with John Cale in 1968 (Doug Yule replaced him later that year), the material on V.U. is the bulk of a projected fourth Verve/MGM album that was never finished; it became known among fans as the Great Lost Velvet Underground Album.
Had it been completed and released, the Lost Album might have seriously altered the Velvets’ fortunes for the better. Although Loaded included some of Reed’s biggest hits in “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll,” it was just too late: Reed quit shortly before its release. But V.U. captures the band at the height of its powers, refining the edginess of the early records with a polished, accessible sound that doesn’t compromise its spirit of adventure. For the first time on record, the Velvets sound like a real band, not a concept in overdrive.
“I Can’t Stand It” and “Foggy Notion” are proof of this. Both songs are power-drill rockers based on the same urgent pulse as “Sister Ray,” the former rolling along with a snotty glide that easily whips Reed’s later rerecording on his debut solo album. There are also unexpected flashes of humor — “I live with thirteen dead cats/A purple dog that wears spats/They’re livin’ out in the hall/And I can’t stand it anymore.” The real surprise, though, is the way Reed and Sterling Morrison match up as a guitar team. Their creatively rhythmic strumming has a forceful snowball effect, and while Reed tends to take the more spectacular solos, Morrison plays effective fills with sharp, Keith Richards-style intuition.
The two songs featuring Cale slot nicely into V.U.‘s cohesive tone. “Temptation inside Your Heart” combines playful R&B goofiness with a bright, busy beat and a great strangled guitar solo. The chamber-music pop of “Stephanie Says” is not too distant from that of “Sunday Morning”; still, there is a special resonance in Cale’s tiptoe viola and the painful resignation in Reed’s voice and lyric (“Stephanie says/That she wants to know/Why she’s given half her life/To people she hates now”). The casual horror in so many of Reed’s early songs sometimes made it hard to indulge his more reflective moods. But performances like “Stephanie Says” and Reed’s charming duet with Maureen Tucker, the childlike “I’m Sticking with You,” show how tender he could really be and how sensitively the Velvets could translate that feeling.
Most of the other tracks on V.U. glow with that same vigorous spirit, if not the relentless drive. “One of These Days” is a lively parody of a cowboy drinking song, complete with sagebrush harmonies and a boozy slide-guitar break. “Ocean,” a gorgeous evocation of dark ennui, dramatically showcases the Velvets’ grasp of Reed’s occasional romantic turns. With his thoughtful vocal and Maureen Tucker’s imitation on her cymbals of rolling surf, the song anticipates Reed’s later epic ballads.
Rock historians and fans alike owe Polygram A&R manager Bill Levenson, the executive producer of V.U., a debt of thanks for resurrecting these tracks and for giving the band’s first three LPs the proper reissue they’ve long deserved. At $5.98 list price, The Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground are essential purchases — certainly essential listening for any study of Seventies and Eighties punk evolution. As for V.U., the Great Lost Velvet Underground Album is no longer lost. It is simply great.