The Velvet Underground

1960s New York band The Velvet Underground have been cited as an influence by a legion of followers. Even if the ground rules of the rock album as an art form had been largely written by the time the Velvets’ debut arrived in 1967, there is still a strong argument for their status as the first rock band to exist as an alternative and underground act, as well as the first rock band to include a member with avant-garde credentials. The patronage of artist Andy Warhol allowed the group to pursue an artier and less commercial agenda and get away with music and lyrics that were more risqué than anything in the rock world prior.

The first incarnation of The Velvet Underground had two primary forces; New York-born vocalist and guitarist Lou Reed bore some influence from Bob Dylan in his literate lyrics and dry delivery, but his own unique voice is already apparent by the group’s debut. Reed is nasty and decadent at his most ornery, but also capable of sweetness and light. As Reed points out in response to criticism of lyrical content of S&M and drug use, literature had been able to explore these areas so there was no reason why a double standard should apply to rock music.

The other major force in the initial group was Welsh-born multi-instrumentalist John Cale; originally from a classical and avant-garde background, his contributions on bass, viola, piano, organ, and celesta, as well as his use of drone notes, push the band into musically adventurous territory. Drummer Moe Tucker was an excellent foil for the group with her simple and innovative drumming style, largely foregoing cymbals. The original quartet was completed by guitarist Sterling Morrison, while on their debut the group are joined by German vocalist Nico, thrown at the group to make them more commercial, but whose effect is the opposite; her icy, amusical vocal style is much less accessible than Reed’s hypnotic drawl.

Cale left after their second album and was replaced by Doug Yule, and the Yule albums are gentler and less experimental. Reed quit the band after their 1970 album Loaded, which is much more mainstream than their previous albums. Doug Yule dragged the brand on for Squeeze which has pointedly never been released on CD.

All four Reed-fronted Velvet Underground albums are important reference points for any student of rock music but of course, there’s plenty more to explore from the Velvet Underground camp: Cale, Reed and Nico have all produced acclaimed solo records. I’ve never connected with Reed’s solo career, although I should probably try out his 1970s albums rather than the CD era efforts which are easier to find. I really enjoy Cale’s solo career though – Paris 1919 and Fear are terrific albums.

The Velvet Underground Album Reviews

The Velvet Underground & Nico | White Light/White Heat | The Velvet Underground | IV | Loaded | Squeeze

Favourite Album: The Velvet Underground and Nico
Overlooked Gem: The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground & Nico

The Velvet Underground and Nico

1967, 9/10
Of the four Velvet Underground albums fronted by Lou Reed, it’s imperative to start with The Velvet Underground & Nico to understand the group’s importance; their next effort is also extremely ground-breaking but less accessible, while the third and fourth albums lack the experimental streak that makes this debut so compelling. Impressively the bulk of The Velvet Underground & Nico was recorded in April 1966, a year before it was released, making it even more ahead of its time.

The two key songs are ‘Venus In Furs’, where Reed discusses S&M over Cale’s viola scrapings, and ‘Heroin’, where Reed factually discloses his drug habits over a dramatic backing. If the rest of the album isn’t quite as compelling, it’s mostly interesting, ranging from the sweet pop of the opening ‘Sunday Morning’ to the garage rock of ‘Run Run Run’ and the flat out experimentation of the closing two tracks. There are quibbles; Nico detracts from three otherwise excellent songs with her monotone singing, while the final two songs are more interesting than they are listenable.

There are so many important and musically memorable innovations that originated here that The Velvet Underground and Nico is required listening for any student of rock and roll. As Brian Eno famously wrote: “only a few thousand people bought that record, but all of them formed a band of their own.”


White Light/White Heat

White Light White Heat The Velvet Underground

1968, 7/10
Abandoning the sweet ballads like ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Femme Fatale’ from their debut, the Velvets pursued an altogether noisier and more extreme agenda with their second release. Like the debut, it’s possible to see the influence of White Light/White Heat everywhere, from the noise rock of bands like Sonic Youth to the semi-rehearsed punk aesthetic of the two-chord, seventeen-minute ‘Sister Ray’. As a result, it’s hard to find any albums from 1968 that hold up so well years later – Tucker’s low key drumming and the dirty and primitive guitars keep this album a long way from rock clichés, while Reed and Cale provide enough personality to sustain the longer songs. In terms of songwriting White Light/White Heat falls short of the debut in quality but it’s captivating all the same, the sound of a band making music oblivious to any commercial concessions and inventing much of the framework for subsequent experimental/noise music along the way.

The two controversial songs on this album are also the two longest. The eight minutes of ‘The Gift’ feature a monologue about a young man who posts himself to his girlfriend, delivered in Cale’s Welsh accent, over a wall of guitar noise; by nature it’s difficult for the piece to retain playability after multiple listens. Meanwhile, the side-long ‘Sister Ray’ could have stood some trimming, but it’s an absolutely pivotal piece in the history of rock music, with its two-chord attack and catalogue of licentiousness providing plenty of inspiration for the less family-oriented end of the rock spectrum. Fortunately for the balance of the record, the shorter songs are much more approachable, surprisingly hooky and likeable garage rock. The call and response of the title track and the melodic and low key ‘Here She Comes Now’ are both surprisingly sweet, while Reed cuts loose on the chaotic ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’. ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’ uses an atmospheric droning melody that’s surprisingly effective and approachable.

White Light/White Heat isn’t necessarily an album that demands a lot of air time; it’s too harsh to feel like playing too often, but it still feels fresh in the 21st century.


The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground 1969 album

1969, 8.5/10
With John Cale forced out of the band, The Velvet Underground’s focus changes towards gentler material. There are vestiges of avant-garde with provocative lyrics on ‘Some Kinda Love’ and experimentation on the eight-minute ‘The Murder Mystery’, Overall, The Velvet Underground is a more conventional record based around Reed’s song-writing. Doug Yule joined the band to replace Cale, handling bass and organ.

Yule takes the lead vocal on the sweet opener ‘Candy Says’, a deceptively sweet opener in the same vein as ‘Sunday Morning’ from the debut, while Tucker gets the spotlight on the fey closer ‘After Hours’, her plain voice adding a touching dimension to another surprisingly pleasant song. Elsewhere the material’s just plain uplifting; ‘Jesus’ is a straightforward religious platitude, while ‘I’m Set Free’ also harbours gospel overtones. The album’s crown jewel is the sweet ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, seemingly a straightforward love song even though Reed throws in disarming lines like “The fact that you are married/Just proves that you’re my best friend.” ‘The Murder Mystery’ is the most experimental piece here, but it still works with a distinctive Tucker drum riff, the intertwining vocals, and the final breakdown into a disorienting piano piece.

A lot of The Velvet Underground is subtle enough that it does take a few listens to sink in, but it’s impressive when it does.


IV

1969, 8/10
The Velvet Underground signed a two-record deal with MGM, starting with 1969’s The Velvet Underground. They were recording their second album for the label when they were cut, and the tapes sat in the archive for years. They were discovered in the early 1980s, along with outtakes from the Cale era. The strongest outtakes were released as VU in 1985, while the rest came out as Another View in 1986, although both were altered with 1980s production trends like gated reverb on the drums. The Albums That Never Were blog created a reconstruction of how the original album could have looked in 1969, and that’s what I’m reviewing here. Notably, however, Reed’s ‘Rock and Roll’ was recorded during these 1969 sessions, but was rerecorded for 1970’s Loaded and it’s not included.

IV strikes a balance between the straightforward songcraft of Loaded and the more experimental edge of their earlier work – there’s a raw garage-rock feel to tracks like ‘Foggy Notion’ and ‘I Can’t Stand It’. There are some excellent Reed songs here – the atmospheric sweep of ‘Ocean’ recalls ‘Heroin’, while the country licks of ‘Ride Into The Sun’ work well as the closer for this configuration. Mo Tucker shares lead vocals with Reed on the charming ‘I’m Sticking With You’, later used in the movie Juno. Many of these songs were eventually recycled during Reed’s solo career – ‘Andy’s Chest’ appeared on 1972’s Transformer.

IV presents a convincing case that The Velvet Underground’s 1969 outtakes are some of their best work.


Loaded

The Velvet Underground Loaded

1970, 6.5/10
The final Velvet Underground album to feature Lou Reed, the title Loaded refers to Atlantic’s request that the band produce an album “loaded with hits.” While it’s hardly surprising that the album failed to meet this request given the band’s previous track record, it’s a valiant attempt nonetheless; even more than the previous record, it’s accessible and song-based. The shift in Lou Reed’s vocal style is marked; instead of his previous disengaged drawl, he’s often using a macho swagger, while the sweeter voiced Doug Yule fronts about half of the songs. With Tucker pregnant and largely absent from the sessions, Morrison and Reed are the only original members left and Yule assumes a much more central role. Yule’s brother Billy is the drummer.

There are also surprisingly sappy and half-baked songs, like the monologue in ‘I Found A Reason’, that are absent from the band’s other records. This is enough to make Loaded my least favourite of the four original Velvet Underground albums, but Reed’s still writing enough great songs to make it a worthy entry into the Velvet’s canon. Chief among these is the instantly catchy ‘Sweet Jane’, driven by a simple and distinctive rhythm guitar riff, while it’s arguably possible to trace back The Modern Lovers’ classic debut album back to ‘Rock & Roll’. There are also a couple more solid songs; the closing ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin” is a pleasant, melodic ballad that justifies its seven-minute running time, while ‘New Age’ is another pretty winner. Beyond the highlights though, it’s hard to get excited about the rest of the record; the opening ‘Who Loves The Sun’ is a nice mid-1960s style pop song, but it’s out of place on a 1970 Velvet Underground record, while songs like ‘Cool It Down’ and ‘Lonesome Cowboy Bill’ are largely forgettable.

Loaded has a handful of outstanding songs but it lacks edge and feels more like a Lou Reed solo record than a Velvet Underground album.


Squeeze

squeeze-the-velvet-underground

1973, not rated
The Velvet Underground’s final album was fronted by Doug Yule, and has pointedly never been released on CD.

10 Best Velvet Underground Songs

Venus In Furs
Heroin
Sunday Morning
Pale Blue Eyes
Sweet Jane
Ocean
Rock and Roll
I’m Waiting For The Man
Sister Ray
Ride Into The Sun

Back to 1960s album reviews…..

8 Comments

  1. I started listening to the Velvets a couple of years ago. Thought their debut was interesting; their second release nearly unlistenable (which I assumed was its purpose); their third album, however, is melancholy and introspective (would’ve loved it a whole lot more if “The Murder Mystery” was left off of the album); “Loaded” is enjoyable, every now and then. Nice overview, as always.

  2. We’ve already talked about Cale’s music and how much we like it. I came to VU after I was listening to Reed. It was good to see where he started. I like VU’s music. I dug that they were making this kind of music compared to a lot of the stuff being made on the West Coast. Seen a doc on them lately and that point was loud and clear. Lots of good covers of the songs. Just heard Mott’s version of ‘Sweet Jane. Good nod fella.

    • It’s pretty different than some of the music being made anywhere else too – I guess there are similarities to Dylan, who was also in New York. I generally prefer Cale solo, then VU, then Reed solo, but I’m probably weird like that.

  3. All points fair in your reviews, though you maybe a little too tough on Nico. The Velvets had another terrific album’s worth of material recorded in ’68-’69 that eventually came out in the 1980s. They were also a great live band, well documented on The Matrix Tapes.

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