When Maureen Tucker, the refreshingly frank former drummer of the Velvet Underground, looks back on the group’s self-titled third album, released in 1969, she still remembers the trepidation she felt going into it. In late 1968, the band’s moody singer-songwriter Lou Reed had kicked out violist John Cale, a founding member who seemed to act at the time as the band’s artistic conscience. “I wasn’t delighted,” says the drummer, now age 70, with a bluntness that reveals her Long Island roots. “I was just wondering what was gonna happen, what we’d sound like. I was hoping we’d still stick together.”
But where the group had just put out its most violent record – the metallic cacophony it called White Light/White Heat – it was already beginning to work on what would become its most profound album: The Velvet Underground. Each of the band’s LPs, whether exploring the limits of distorted noise or perfecting pop intrigue, is uniquely great. The third record, with all of its mesmerizing restraint on songs like “Candy Says” and “Pale Blue Eyes,” shows the group at its most vulnerable. No longer was the group a bunch of heroin-spiking, sex-maniac downtown hipsters; Reed’s new batch of songs showed that they were fragile artists, exuding both the confidence of maturity while still struggling with the savagery of modern life. With the arrival of bassist Doug Yule, the mercurial and unpredictable Reed refocused the band’s sound into a more introspective brand of art rock that has resounded in the music of artists, ranging from R.E.M. to Glen Campbell, Beck to Nirvana.
A new, six-disc super deluxe box set of The Velvet Underground presents a comprehensive snapshot of the record by including three different mixes of the album, all of the studio sessions that could have comprised an unreleased fourth album and two discs of live recordings; its booklet contains liner notes by Rolling Stone’s David Fricke and rare photos. It’s the definitive portrait of that time.
Forty-five years after the album’s release, Tucker and Yule are the only surviving musicians to have played on the record; guitarist Sterling Morrison died in 1995, while Reed passed away last year. While nearly five decades have passed since The Velvet Underground came out, they still remember a shared vision for the band that dates back to before Yule’s recruitment.
The Velvet Underground formed in 1964 after Reed met the classically trained, Welsh-born violist John Cale, who had been experimenting with minimalist composer La Monte Young. Reed invited Morrison, whom he knew from Syracuse University, to play guitar with them, and they took adopted their band name from the title of author Michael Leigh’s 1963 book about kinky sex culture in the Sixties. After a stint with another drummer, the band brought in Tucker at Morrison’s suggestion.