Sunday 28 April 2013

The Velvet Underground: A Retrospective

Is the Velvet Underground the best rock band of all time? Possibly the most underrated. Are they the most iconic rock band ever? Surely the coolest. It's hard to speak in generalizations when it comes to VU because theres never been an official consensus on them: commercially ignored on release (the only success they received was from a small underground following), they were far too experimental to ever compete with The Stones or The Doors, instead they broke up after only a few years and waited for a slowly-building following to hoist them up into the halls of rock and roll greatness, so much so that a band that received no attention when they were around has now received a huge backlash from music fans claiming them to be an overrated band, only remaining famous as a source of hipster cred because of their unflinching ability to ignore the direction of the mainstream.

So where do I stand on such matters. Are they a rock and roll great or simply a band who has long outstayed their welcome for all the wrong reasons? Well all I have to do is look at my official rankings of my favorite musicians of all time (which, because of my current slowness at updating this site, so far remains only in my mind) to see I rate them second to only Nirvana, a band that Kurt Cobain admitted was heavily influenced by the Velvets (or whatever their nickname is).

So, in what I hope will become a common feature on this site, I will be going through the entire Velvet Underground back cataloge and giving my opinion, supposedly helpful to both newcomers to the band, and fans desperately hoping for validation on their musical tastes. 

The Velvet Underground & Nico 

The most famous album to ever sell only 30,000 copies, the Underground's collaboration with German singer Nico might not have been the success the band hoped for at the time, but it has became a beacon of light to all indie artists since, showing a band doing their own thing and nothing else. Not to mention the now iconic cover art, drawn by the bands manager, and minimalist genius (or pseudo-artist hack, depending where you stand) Andy Warhol.

The album sounds gritty and naturalistic; a million miles away from the studio manipulation of today. The songs (even on the remastered versions of the album) sound very... unclean. Like some of the songs were rough cuts of songs which should have been improved later. Yet that's where the charm of the album comes from. Even on one of the records highlights, the heavy (yet lyrically simplistic) "Run Run Run" the rough-sounding recording just makes you feel like your sitting in a sleazy bar, listening to the VU playing songs that perfectly fit the mood.

Truthfully,  I don't really love any of the songs here. It's an album thats great more for keeping up the same tone throughout, not for producing countless hits. The only bit of true greatness here is "Heroin" a 7 minute song from Lou Reed that distills what its like to be high on the drug, both through Reed's lyrics ("and I feel just like Jesus' son") and through the guitar riffs, subtly changing from fast to slow. Yet this isn't to say I dislike the songs here; all the tracks are competent and none sound terrible, just unadventurous. But I do give the band brownie points for keeping up the same mood and style for the whole album: nothing irks me more than an album that feels like lots of different unrelated recordings stitched together.

The other highlights of the album are "I'm Waiting for The Man" Reed's tale of waiting for his dealer to arrive, "Venus in Mars" a song that I can only describe as scary, mainly from it's unnerving sound and patronizing lyrics ("shiny, shiny"), "There She Goes Again" a decent bluesy song, and the aforementioned "Run Run Run" a perfect example of the band making a memorable rock track without disregarding their style.

The other tracks are simply there. Not exactly filler as they all try to do their own thing, and also because many have became fan favorites; according to Spotify the bands most listened to track is the albums opening track "Sunday Morning" a slow mournful song that mimics that of what you might play to make a child fall asleep. "Black Angel's Death Song" is the weirdest song on the album. It's hard to describe it's sound, but I imagine it would go perfectly at the end of a fantasy film at the hero's funeral... but that might just be me. I wouldn't put this track on for fun, but for what it is, it's an accomplished piece of experimentation.

If there's one person that does let the album down it's Nico. I've heard sources that have claimed her voice to be "beautiful", one of the last words I would ever use. "All Tomorrow's Parties" "European Son" and "Femme Fatale" while liked by many fans, did absolutely nothing for me, they just simply showed me a band trying too hard to be artistic, and flowing too heavily into the realm of minimalism. While "I'll be your Mirror" just illustrates what a rough sounding singer Nico was.

All in all it's a good place to start with the Velvet Underground, despite not being as perfect as it's reputation makes it out to be. It perfectly distils what The Velvet Underground was all about, and is worth a listen just for the brilliance of Heroin. 6/10

White Light/White Heat

This might be frequently sighted as the bands best album by fans, yet it remains the bands least accessibly work. To put it one way, if there's a singular reason why VU is thought of as an experimental band, this is it. At only 6 tracks this is the bands shortest album, yet all of what you get is great stuff, or at-least worth a listen to hear the album's avant-garde nature. 

"White Light/White Heat" opens the album, a fast, aggressive track that many say had a big influence on the punk rock movement, which was still quite a few years away at the time of recording. Yet I disagree, it's the easiest listen here, and what I'd put forward for the closest the Velvet's would ever come to making a Beatles-esque track. 

The two most accessible tracks are "Here She Comes Now", a floaty piece of simplistic lyricism that stands as the calmest (and best) thing on the album, and "Lady Godiva's Operation" a song about a failed lobotomy. It shows Reed's deadpan humor in full-swing, with the track's name taken from the name of a ancient noblewoman from British Legend. 

Then comes the two tracks I'm guessing people will have the most trouble with. "Sister Ray" is a 17 minute rock track that starts out pretty good, before descending into agonizing repetition long before the tracks over. It's hard to decipher the lyrics, but from what I can scavenge from Reed's horrifically confusing explanation I believe the song is about the point some police arrive to break up a drag-queen orgy. On the other hand I've heard many say that "The Gift" is a one time listen, but I'd say it's one of the best tracks the band ever played. It's 8 minutes long, and has John Cale reading out a short story that comes out of the left speaker, while an aggressive rock instrumental comes out of the right. There's something about this track which just draws you in. A hypnotic quality to Cale's dry, dead-pan delivery. And that same guitar riff, building and building, as if showing the lead characters growing paranoia, then his growing excitement, and then just silence... 

The only song here I have a problem with is "I Heard Her Call My Name". The guitars on the track were distorted, and the song uses guitar feedback heavily throughout. But it just sounded dull to me, nothing special about the weird distortion of the song. A read somewhere that the band were unhappy with the song as well, and that they preferred the live version. 

White Light/White Heat comes off as the high point of the bands more experimental days. The album shows how enjoyable and original an avant-garde album can be, and both "Her She Comes Now" and "The Gift" are essentials for rock fans. 9/10 

The Velvet Underground 
After the departure of John Cale (replaced by Dough Yule) the band's sound changed dramatically. The aggressive sound of the guitars on their previous albums was gone. Replaced by a calmer, less experimental sound, that had the band move into a more country music direction.

The 10 tracks here come across as a mixed bag. It has some of their best stuff and their worst. It's got nothing as experimental as White Light, yet apart from a few tracks there is still very little interest from the band in cracking into the mainstream. 

"What Goes On" has to be one of the coolest sounding rock songs ever written, and "Beginning To See The Light" is the highpoint of their trek into folk music. While "Pale Blue Eyes", despite being a 5 minute song that never speeds up or changes, has remained one of the bands most memorable tracks, if a bit un-lively. 

Those where the tracks that I instantly picked up on, as for the rest of the album I had a much harder time getting into the sound of this one than the others, but over time the album has grown on me greatly, if not into their best album then at-least into their most varied. They no longer sound like underground artists with something to prove, by this point they were matured musicians who could put out an album of competent material and be pleased with it. 

The albums opening track "Candie Says" instantly sets up the calm, soothing mood that will follow. It's a song Reed wrote about 60s cross'dresser Candy Darling, a bit of a tortured soul that worked with Andy Warhol. Reeds lyric's perfectly convey the sadness and confusion of a character who (especially in the 60s) people can react very hostile to. "Jesus" is another more slow, moody song, that at first felt a bit too minimalistic empty, but over time this simplistic song has grew on me through, and the music fits well when you think of what a primal nature it is to some people to cry out to Jesus and be troubled by religion. 

Three tracks that did nothing for me were ones that fell very heavily into the relaxing feel of the album, yet seemed to drain the energy out of the whole thing; "Some Kinda Love" "That's the Story of My Life" and "I'm Set Free" are all bland songs, both offering nothing personal in terms of lyrics, and all feeling unneeded due to the musical offerings of both tracks being a lot better on the albums other tracks. 

And now we come to the most polarizing track The Velvet Underground ever made. Personally, I wouldn't listen to this track for fun, yet it's more than a wasted attempt at art for the sake of art. All four band members appear in"The Murder Mystery", during the verses Reed and Morrison recite poetry simultaneously, while in the chorus' Yule and Tucker sing different pieces at the same time. It's a mad song to be sure. The middle of the song has a freaky piano beat come in, and all of the voices coming at you at once starts to take it's tole on you by the end of the song. But believe me it's more than just a quick-throwaway pieces of weirdness, it's a hypnotizing track, and one that I've actually found it a lot easier to return to than I originally thought it would be. 

The album ends on "After Hours". It's the only song of theirs that features Maureen Tucker, the bands drummer, as the singer. After reading it Reed decided he couldn't sing it himself because it was "too beautiful". Make of that what you will, but I see it as Reed basically saying he himself was tarnished too much with Heroine and the New York underworld to ever put his voice on such a simple, sweet little tune. It's not an insanely over-the-top rock orchestra to send off the album, just a short track, with as the man described it himself "beautiful" lyrics, and a catchy rhythm. 

I found it the hardest to write about this album. From it's name to it's obscure black and white front cover, the Velvet Underground's third album feels like it lacks the personality that runs through each of their other albums. The band started to go in a lot of directions after making this one, so in a way this stands as the high point of what could be seen as the bands mission at the time to create very experimental, non-mainstream music and deliver it in a way people could enjoy. Then again, it features fewer standout tracks as on the other albums, and is probably the worst place to start for newbies. 8/10

I suppose people could say (and probably did say) that for their fourth and final studio album that The Velvet's sold out. That they sold their artistic integrity and chucked it away, along with their guitar feedback, distorted instruments and risqué lyrics. Yet the people who say that are idiots, as this is a showcase for a band that had grew and changed hugely in the 3 years since their first release. 

And not only is this the most accessible album on this list, I'd also argue it's the best. The album features the two most well know songs by the band; one of my all time favorite tracks in "Rock & Roll" a joyous pieces of rock celebration, that distills the power of music not only in it's lyrics but in the guitar solo. A song that should be-able to boost anyone up, even in gloomy times. "Sweet Jane" was also a decent success for the band. The music is good here, but it's really Reed's singing that boosts this song up into greatness. Most of the lines don't even rhyme, it's just that great conversational style of singing that only some types of voices can handle. 

Both of these songs actually received quite a bit of radio airplay when they were released, and pointed to possible future success for the band if most of the members hadn't already left the band by the time Loaded released, most moving onto solo music careers. 

"Whole Loves The Sun" sounds a bit similar to the Beatles track "Here Come's the Sun" but with a bit of Underground sarcasm thrown in ("Who cares about the rain? Who cares if it makes plants grow"). It opens the album and sets the surprisingly happy tone that is felt throughout. "Cool it Down" is another highlight, a cool-ly relaxed song that further shows the bands mainstream aspirations with its simple beat and... charming lyrics ("She's got the power, to love me by the hour, give me L-O-V-E). 

"New Age" feels like the closest thing the albums comes to-to evoking the sound of the bands previous albums with its slow mournful pace. It involves a man at a diner asking for an autograph from a once-famous movie star. "I Found a Reason" also has a more slower, melancholic sound to it, yet the lyrics, as the title suggests, are anything but. The cliche romanticism in this song is the sort of thing that would have been chucked off of previous albums because of it's yucky, mainstream interiors yet here it fits in perfectly. 

The closest thing this album has to filler is "Train Around the bend" and "Lonesome Cowboy Bill", both have a heavy blues/country music influence, and they sadly wear this high and proud, despite clearly being the bands weakest area of work. Both are listenable though. 

The album, and the band itself, finishes on a high note. "Oh Sweet Nothing" is 7 minutes of total rock'n'roll bliss, a track that truly deserves it's length, and ends what was a short yet brilliant journey by a small unknown indie band to becoming maybe not a huge commercial success, but a band that continue to inspire people to this day. 

If The Velvet Underground ever made a masterpiece then this is it, it's a close to perfect album that shows the variety of talents on display in the band, and also shows that even when not in their avant-garde comfort zone they were still masters of what they did. An essential piece of music. 10/10

And the rest
If you couldn't tell by now, I like The Velvet Underground a lot. I think the fact they were around for such a short time is a bug tragedy for rock music. They explored such a wide range of genres and experimented in ways bands today wouldn't even think about doing. 

And not just the band, but Lou Reed in particular, was a true original. I would happily rate him my favorite songwriter. He wrote about subjects like sex and drugs, but unlike most artists which sing about these things to big their own rockstar image up, Reed added a realness and personality to these subjects. His songs were brilliant in their simplicity and honesty, and not in their rebellion or supposed artwork like so many famous songwriters write about. I'd also recommend checking out Reeds solo work, I wouldn't say it's as great as VU but its a lot more prolific. 

I'm also not reviewing any of the further releases of the band. "Squeeze" their fifth official studio album was, for anyone who doesn't know, simply a Doug Yule solo album. The label wanted another album from the band, and as all of the other members had already moved on to other projects it was left to Yule to create another work under the bands name. It's not exactly a terrible album, just nothing like the other releases, and unimportant when dissecting The Velvet's career. 

I'm also not reviewing the live albums or the 80s release "V.U." which was released when the band was starting to pick up a following. It's a collection of unreleased material from the band, with some of it from their infamous "lost fourth album". It's a decent collection, with "Stephanie Says" "Foggy Nation" and "I'm Sticking with You" being highlights, but I wouldn't say that it stands up to their main releases.

I must say, that while always loving The Velvet Underground, by writing this piece and listening to all of their work back-to-back, I've discovered a new appreciation for the band. They're not always the easiest band to love, probably the reason they never received the success of their peers (something which still confuses me) but if you get stuck into their music then you will find a wealth of brilliant music, from some of the greatest musicians to ever play together. 

 Top 10 Songs 

10) I'm Sticking With You 

9) Cool it Down 

8) Heroin 

7) Oh Sweet Nothing 

6) What Goes On 

5) The Gift 

4) Stephanie Says 

3) Sweet Jane 

2) Here She Comes Now 

1) Rock & Roll 

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