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. What allowed the Velvet Underground to pursue an artier and less commercial agenda was the patronage of artist Andy Warhol, whose influence permitted the group to get away with music and lyrics that were more risqué than anything in the rock world prior.
The first incarnation on the group had two primary forces; New York-born vocalist and guitarist Lou Reed bore some influence from 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 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. The Velvet Underground was perhaps the first major group to feature a woman as an instrumentalist; drummer Moe Tucker is an excellent foil for the group with her innovative drumming style, largely foregoing cymbals. The original quartet was completed by rhythm 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 really 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 far more mainstream sounding 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 obvious 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 seventies 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 and Nico
Of the four Velvet Underground albums fronted by Lou Reed, it’s imperative to start with The Velvet Underground and Nico to understand the group’s importance; their next effort is also extremely groundbreaking but less accessible, while the third and fourth albums lack the experimental streak that makes this debut so compelling.
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.
But there are so many important and musically memorable innovations originated on tis album 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
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 genericism, while Reed and Cale provide plenty of personality to sustain even the longer songs. In terms of songwriting and even general listenability, White Light/White Heat falls quite a way 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 indie 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
With John Cale forced out of the band, The Velvet Underground’s focus changes towards gentler material. While there are vestiges of the avant-garde nature of the original band, with provocative lyrics (‘Some Kinda Love’) and experimental music (the eight minute ‘The Murder Mystery’), The Velvet Underground is based around Reed’s song-writing.
New bass player Doug Yule gets a lead vocal in 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.
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.
I don’t mind the more commercial sound, but 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 isn’t a bad swansong for a pivotal band in rock’s history, but at the same time it’s hardly representative of their oeuvre – it feels more like a Lou Reed solo album than a Velvet Underground album.
Ten Favourite Songs by The Velvet Underground
Venus In Furs
Pale Blue Eyes
Rock and Roll
I’m Waiting For The Man
Run Run Run