The Velvet Underground – Bootleg Series, Volume 1

Bootleg Series, Volume 1: The Quine Tapes

The Velvet UndergroundBootleg Series, Volume 1: The Quine Tapes Polydor 314 589 067-2 (2001)

The Quine Tapes is essential for any true Velvet Underground fan. Recorded from dates on the same tour as 1969: Velvet Underground Live With Lou Reed and The Complete Matrix Tapes, this “Bootleg Series” release is decidedly of amateur recording quality (the series’ title is honest at least). Robert Quine was one of the handful of Velvet Underground superfans in their day (Quine later co-founded The Voidoids and then played with Lou Reed).  These recordings were made with a cassette recorder in the audience (the sound quality of the recording being comparable to The StoogesMetallic KO and Television‘s The Blow-Up). Disc One is material from the Family Dog in San Francisco, while Discs Two & Three are primarily from the Matrix in San Francisco, with just one medley from Washington University in St. Louis.

Disc One’s “Foggy Notion” takes the song on an extended and explosive guitar solo (one of the set’s gems). Disc Two’s “White Light/White Heat” is both aggressive and precise. Disc Three’s early version of “New Age” is profoundly inspired and features different lyrics than later appeared on Loaded. “Black Angel’s Death Song” is different without viola, but retains all the essential elements. Of course, the importance of The Quine Tapes lies in the three versions of “Sister Ray” included, clocking in at 24:03, 38:00 & 28:43 on each respective disc. Surprisingly, these versions often move in and out of slow grooves amongst powerful bursts of beautiful noise. “Sister Ray” is probably the greatest rock song but only when performed by the Velvets — other artists attempting the song are asking to be made fools. My money is on the “Sister Ray” recorded at the Family Dog on 11.7.1969 (from Disc One) as the finest recording in this set.

The Quine Tapes features many extended song performances. This album proves that the Velvets with Doug Yule were a different band than the Velvet with John Cale but still a great band. Without compromising any creativity, the Velvets do their best to entice people into their music. Blending songs that never made it onto any studio albums with many of the group’s most experimental numbers from years past, The Quine Tapes allows you to put the 1969 Velvets in context. Fans will perennially wait for the “holy grail” of live recordings with John Cale still in the band, but they just don’t exist (else they would have been released by now)!

The Quine Tapes goes far beyond 1969: Velvet Underground Live in sheer breadth. Only one recorded song overlaps between the two albums.  There is considerable overlap with The Complete Matrix Tapes, with that later release having supposedly higher fidelity.

While it can be somewhat frustrating when these bootleg recordings distort or fail to capture the entirety of the performances, the sheer brilliance of the Velvet’s musical ingenuity makes up for a lot of that. This isn’t a definitive Velvet Underground live recording. Nonetheless, The Quine Tapes is a portrait of the Velvet Underground as stylists rivaling anyone. The improvisational variety of songs within this release, much less compared to others, is astounding. There are no signs of the band’s (effective) demise looming a few month ahead. Maybe the album takes some effort but rarely in music are the rewards so great.  This set is good for a VU fix no matter how severe.

The Velvet Underground – Loaded


The Velvet UndergroundLoaded Cotillion SD 9034 (1970)

“Sweet Jane” sums up the unbelievable scope of Loaded. With reverence for all the joys and sorrows of this world, compassion is what rises to the surface.

“Jack is in his corset/Jane is in her vest/ and me, I’m in a rock and roll band.”

Whether Jack or Jane is in the corset (seemingly each version transposes the two), the distinction is meaningless.  There are spectators, performers, pawns, poets, lovers, families, hypocrites, philosophers, dreamers, and more.  These simple categories simply don’t matter:

and there’s some evil mothers/ well, they’re gonna tell you everything is just dirt/ you know that, women never really faint/ and that villains always blink their eyes/ and that, you know, children are the only ones that blush/ or that life is just to die/ but anyone that ever had a heart/ oh, they wouldn’t turn around and break it/ and anyone that’s every played a part/ they wouldn’t turn around and hate it

The usual question and answer format of the Velvets’ earlier albums isn’t present on Loaded, but you can use your imagination.  The music is still there in one place or another.  People get by — that in itself can be glorious.  Maybe, as Arthur Rimbaud so eloquently stated, “Life is the farce all must perform.” The Velvets, with infinite compassion, simply take pleasure in the grand scheme of it all.  The greatest rock band faced imminent destruction while recording Loaded.  They certainly proved their conviction at the least.

Despite Atlantic/Cotillion Records’ every attempt to ruin Loaded, it still rocks.  Had the record company continued allowing full creative control, this album could have been one of those “top ten all-time”. Credit is due the Ahmet Ertegun for recognizing the group’s talents. Atlantic did initially consider signing the Velvets a prestigious “score,” but those feelings quickly changed.  Loaded took forever to complete as the Velvet Underground disintegrated as a band. Atlantic switched producers and rescinded much artistic control. This band could make the most innovative experimental rock if they chose to but instead, given the circumstances, made a great pop album.

The album loaded with possible hits. Yet, the original release had bizarre mixes that re-ordered and shortened songs (“New Age,” “Rock and Roll” and the unforgivable disservice done to “Sweet Jane,” otherwise one of the greatest modern rock songs ever).  There is no possible explanation for this.  When re-released on the “Fully Loaded Edition” reissue, the original mixes were restored.  Though the song order was never corrected, all the great songs are still there, somewhere.  The recordings of a few, like “Head Held High” still show an unreal studio awareness, with subtle textures and precise timing.  The final product is imperfect, but that gives Loaded a kind of underdog status in the Velvet’s catalog.

Lou Reed was on a fucking roll for Loaded.  Many of his most memorable lyrics are nicely contained on this one disc.  The largely autobiographical “Rock and Roll” is one of the great proclamations of the glory of rock music.  “Who Loves the Sun” starts the album off with a spat of disillusionment and sweet isolation.  Unlike the sonic attack of the Velvet’s first two albums, Loaded establishes them as pop song virtuosos the equals of other rock bands like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones.   “Lonesome Cowboy Bill,” about William S. Burroughs, is careening fun.  The Velvets had traditionally been a dark, bleak band, but only by choice.  Loaded conclusively proves their range included rock rebelliousness and pop sensibility as well, simultaneously.  It’s easy to yap about all the classic rock and roll songs found on this album, but it’s no use to state the obvious.

Sterling Morrison’s best guitar work is on White Light/ White Heat.  On Loaded, his influence is sparse but powerful.  Morrison always added humor to the Velvets.  He was an influence of humanity in the group.  Despite his crumbling faith in the group he turns in a few fine moments.  Doug Yule played some of the lead guitar parts.  Sterling adds the flavor to Loaded that makes it so fun.

Tension comes in simple, easy-to-grasp doses.  Doug Yule’s vocals falter at times (weakening the otherwise great tune “I Found A Reason”), but are generally strong (“Who Loves the Sun”).  Moe Tucker does not play drums due to pregnancy (it’s hard to reach drums around a baby). The obstacles were apparent. The way the Velvets forge ahead anyway is the real story behind Loaded.

Every force runs against the Velvets and they still prevail.  Thanks largely to Lou Reed’s songwriting genius as a profound lyricist; worldly computations and amputations (to use Reed’s vocabulary) do little to dampen the spirit of this great music. The Velvets keep their “Head Held High.”

Wouldn’t you be a bit disillusioned if you were the greatest rock band, but no one cared?  Loaded delivers everything a great rock album must:  catchy hooks, rebellious attitudes, and yes, it makes you want to jump up and play some rock and roll yourself.  Glory is attainable.  After hearing this album, you want to achieve it too.  You can; somehow it will all work out.

When Loaded failed to be the commercial hit it should have been and old frustrations lingered, the Velvets essentially broke up, continuing on only as essentially a new band with the old name.  More than a decade later, the music world retroactively identified the Velvet Underground as the pinnacle of rock music.  Time proves the Velvet Underground were always right, in a world that often wasn’t.  Like Arthur Rimbaud, respect came after their lifetime.  A reunion tour was short-lived.  Lou Reed’s ego destroyed the group more than once.  Fortunately, four studio records survived what the band’s members couldn’t.

I would say the original version of Loaded suffers from some ridiculous edits and remixes at the hands of the record label, but the Fully Loaded Edition and the Peel Slowly and See box nicely fix those problems.  So I recommend seeking out one of those reissues as opposed to the “original”.

The Velvet Underground & Nico – The Velvet Underground & Nico

The Velvet Underground & Nico

The Velvet Underground & NicoThe Velvet Underground & Nico Verve V6-5008 (1967)

It may be impossible to hold your breath for forty-eight minutes, but The Velvet Underground & Nico makes you want to try. The themes are so timeless success was inevitable if not immediate. Haunting is the wrong word to describe this album. Here was rock ‘n’ roll with an urban soul. This music had compassion–not in the sense of orphans and puppy dogs, but in terms of some bleak realities music had heretofore largely ignored. There is no single, definitive rock ‘n’ roll album that obviates all needs and desires. The Velvet Underground & Nico does provide an expansive view of all that is possible. It is a rare glimpse into something daring yet fully-formed. Congratulations Velvets, it worked.

The Velvet Underground were one of the most important rock ‘n’ roll groups in history. As rock music’s reclaimed gem, the band’s influence fundamentally shifted the direction modern music was taking. The Velvets precisely divide early and modern rock ‘n’ roll. When this album came out, less than “no one” cared. Yet, as Brian Eno is often quoted saying, everyone who bought this record started a band. Through the miracle of historical revision, the music world corrected its oversight and has now placed the Velvet Underground at the peak of rock history where they belong. A record collection without the Velvet Underground & Nico is laughable.

The band was incredibly talented. John Cale and Lou Reed were the highly visible creative centers, but Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker provided the heartbeats of the band. Moe Tucker never played drum rolls, and was unafraid to use mallets. She could turn a Bo Diddley beat into a modern rock mainstay, as with “Run Run Run”. Morrison played subtle parts that perfectly framed the experimental pieces. The Velvet’s cavalier style threw together anything that produced a good sound. It is simply wrong to say they sounded unlike anything before them. There are elements of La Monte Young’s minimalism (including Eastern classical drones), energetic old-fashioned R & B, doo-wop harmonies (drawn from gospel), twangy country trimmings, controlled guitar feedback, rough layered blues, subdued rockabilly energy, folk-y personal reflection, and girl-group production values. The album deftly melded all these elements along with something more, as witnesses as “There She Goes Again” is more than a duplication of The Rolling Stones playing Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike.” Their genius comes not from mere combinatory music, but developing an entirely new approach to music through which they combined many existing elements. The highly experimental sound comes largely thanks to John Cale. Lou Reed provided the timeless lyrics, exposing the seedy side of the city. Sex, drugs, & rock n’ roll are no long just implied in the music. The Velvets bluntly present these things, making them the first urban rock band and the true rock revolutionaries of the 1960s.

The songs are at times pretty and at times provocative. The group set out to change rock ‘n’ roll, and that is exactly what they did (even if few noticed at first). “Sunday Morning” (the one song produced by Tom Wilson) is tells of a lonely person wondering about a lifetime made of tarnished days and weeks. “Heroin” and “Waiting for My Man” are drug opuses on a grand scale, but they retain a strange objectivity. The singer does not seem to draw any conclusions, understanding only what he doesn’t know. “Heroin” is the grand realization in music of Arthur Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations. Lou Reed had an incredible talent for turning ordinary life into extraordinary stories. He also tells the stories through simple words. It is easy to speak with complicated words, all you have to do is grab a thesaurus and/or go to college. A far more difficult task is speaking to a variety of social circles in a way understandable to everyone. The results are spectacular and timeless. Reed’s onetime mentor and drinking buddy Delmore Schwartz would not have it any other way.

“Produced” by Andy Warhol, the group’s debut album was really their own effort. Andy Warhol essentially did everything he could for the band, because without him the Velvet Underground would not even be an obscurity in history. Warhol gave the band money to record this thing and promoted a traveling multimedia extravaganza he called “the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.”  The Velvets cashed in on Warhol’s image; unfortunately, that wasn’t enough for the general public to digest them. Paul Morrissey (one of Warhol’s right-hand men) may have done some legwork, but it was Warhol who created and cultivated his own pop phenomenon. He also okayed the band to include all their “dirty words.”  Warhol issuing his meek little approval wasn’t meaningless.

Warhol forced Nico into the band, so Reed and Cale reluctantly let her sing three songs for the album. In fact, she provided the perfect foil for the band. Her deadpan vocals were decidedly non-expressionist. The twist she provides to “Femme Fatale” made it a classic. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is icily detached in a way that seems both proper and necessary. But it also is warm. In the documentary film Nico Icon, Nico’s aunt (who raised her) plays “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and kind of dances and sings along as best she can (though she only knew German). These songs mean something, to people of all kinds. Like the whole Warhol Factory, the music serves a whole segment of society previously cast from view and memory. The third song Nico sung, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” makes a near comic, near tragic description of the poor little rich girls all about the Warhol crowd. Nico’s detached performance is very much a savior of urban life in America. Or something like that. Like the new aesthetic of the Bauhaus school, she provides a new set of values to judge an increasingly mass-produced rock ‘n’ roll product. Nico was of course ahead of her time, but she was indispensable in the music she made with and without the Velvets. The Velvets (more specifically Reed & Cale) did not desire to be Nico’s backing band, nor did Nico want to be a part-time singer for a group that didn’t need her. They said she couldn’t sing in tune, yet the Velvets never tried to play “in tune” (making for some strange disagreements). The perfect solution was to splinter off Nico to pursue her own solo career (with John Cale playing a central role) keeping those three Nico vocals with the Velvets as nice little memories of something fleeting.

Funds were very thin in the recording process. Warhol didn’t float the Velvet much money. Many of the final album tracks were first takes, or had little editing. The ultimate tribute to the Velvets is their ability to produce one of the greatest recordings ever under such oppressive conditions. This album hardly represents the band’s potential. Consensus says the group was much better live. Only rock’s greatest band could have such a fantastic under-achievement as The Velvet Underground & Nico.

One of the benefits of having Andy Warhol as your “producer” is he can design your album cover. The Warhol banana is now synonymous with the Velvet Underground. The original album jacket had a peel-off peel that revealed a pink banana inside. The back of the album actually had a profound impact on the future of the band. An image shows the band at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable with a Warhol film projected onto them as they perform. It turned out that one of the people in the projected film (Eric Emerson) whose face appeared on the back of the album created legal hassles that delayed release. The Velvets had a tenuous hold on their captive audience to say the least. They fit perfectly with the Warhol crowd, but even the more open-minded segments of uptight American society were hardly ready for them. Despite rigorous live performance schedules, the timing of the album release hurt sales. Andy Warhol’s name and image could only do so much to push sales.

The argument over Eric Emerson’s image that delayed the album’s release cemented the commercial failure of this classic. It wasn’t that people didn’t like the Velvets. Originally their concerts were quite popular, and they had capacity crowds. The Mothers of Invention with Frank Zappa used to open for the Velvets. Zappa’s nasty personality surfaced though some bitter turf wars–the Mothers and Velvets were the first two rock groups signed to Verve records, and the Mothers took it upon themselves to use any means necessary to sell more records. Zappa concluded shows by saying how the headlining band sucked and that everyone should leave. This animosity always surprised the Velvets, but they were no angels (they literally threw shit around on tour). The devoutly believed they were the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world. They were right, but no one believed them. Lou Reed would not hesitate to bad-mouth any group he considered crappy. But the Velvets did respect talent. They regularly attended James Brown shows, and hung out with The Rolling Stones. There was also a great deal of respect for The Beach Boys, who don’t always get credit as being one of the most innovative and creative groups of the late 1960s.

The “right” people heard the Velvet Underground: CAN, The Stooges, Jimi Hendrix, Sonny & Cher, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, New York Dolls, Television, Patti Smith, Roxy Music, The Fall, Sonic Youth, The Modern Lovers, The Voidoids (particularly Robert Quine), Rocket From the Tombs, and yes even The Doors (to name a few).

The Velvet Underground seem to paint a dark vision of the world. It still is one good enough to suggest limitless possibilities. They glorify the hopes and aspirations of fundamental aspects of urban life. Even on “The Black Angel’s Death Song” the Velvets’ music was free and uplifting, as Reed sings: “choose to choose.” They didn’t just hope and dream, but took action to make things better through their music. The Velvets’ intellectual and arty approach goes beyond some peoples’ patience or taste. This isn’t to say the Velvets are an elitist music, quite the contrary. The Velvet Underground completely identify with a section of society. Their broad, non-directional approach holds up better than lesser, narrow-minded music. Indifferent to a society that refused to accept them, their sound progressed. Anyone not satisfied accepting the world at wholesale face value will have a strong inclination to like the Velvets.

Actually, White Light/White Heat may (repeat: may) be the better album, but this one was first. This album dared into the unknown. The audacity to release this record is itself the very essence of rock ‘n’ roll.

The Velvet Underground weren’t just some band that made interesting music. They were heroes–and a heroine or two. It was against monumental odds that they created music. The Velvet Underground were, like Karlheinz Stockhausen would say, the esoteric fringe where the arts now live. It wasn’t just that they had a limited following, lots of people hated them! Without Andy Warhol, the Velvet would have had to pack it up after about five concerts for lack of anywhere to play or record. But that wasn’t what happened. The Velvets did it. They made this lasting document that ultimately did change the world.

The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat

White Light/White Heat

The Velvet UndergroundWhite Light/White Heat Verve V-5046 (1968)

White Light/White Heat is an album that demands, but also teaches, a most elemental understanding of rock ‘n’ roll. In spite of its demands, it also opens up limitless possibility. It writhes not in perfection but realization. A cerebral work of great complexity, White Light/White Heat is a very important creative turning point in the history of rock music. The Velvet Underground nullified prior rock conventions in making the loudest album possible. What they left in their wake was a new world where a specifically urban rock ‘n’ roll ideal could begin to truly realize itself.

This is the album that assured John Cale a place in rock ‘n’ roll heaven. He won the Battle of “Sister Ray” (rock’s greatest cutting session) because he had the loudest amp. But his organ solo on “Sister Ray” is something more. His minimalist keyboard pounding swaggered and twisted its way into rock ‘n’ roll lore.

Lou Reed played a customized super-guitar that was nothing short of a necessity. Reed had his 12-string hopped up with about seven pickups (one even borrowed off bandmate Sterling Morrison’s guitar!). Solos on “I Heard Her Call My Name” (recalling Edgar A. Poe’s The Raven) and “Sister Ray” are not trippy peace/love fare. They are original and timeless. Songs telling of amphetamine rushes, hallucinations and murderous orgies don’t shy away from any subjects. Call them goth drug vampires or whatever, it is indisputable that the Velvets had an unbelievably deep and inclusive understanding of the nature of their medium. The dark ambiance of it all was at bottom more optimistic than cynical.

White Light/White Heat is almost a live album by its off-handed and raw nature. Yet, that is exactly what makes it great. It is the closest example of what the Velvets in their prime sounded like live. Any refinements would spoil the divine noise they created. White Light/White Heat is also what any future guitar-rock must be judged against. This is the prefect soundtrack for a real revolution. It’s no wonder Václav Havel named Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution after the band as he did.

Lester Bangs said the Velvets “invented the Seventies.” This only partially explains them. It was as if The Velvets slew the great beast guarding the inner circle of illumination. Here was a band having some new relationship with their instruments. They were not a bunch of depraved punks working solely with forbidden forms. Shattering the dogma still remaining in rock ‘n’ roll, the Velvet Underground questioned every rule previously deemed inviolable, in a genre that already seemed premised on breaking from convention. No amount of shock value could do anything for an album of this ilk.

The Velvets made something that lasts because of its philosophical premise. Music could be more than previously conceived; and it could do it with less. The immediacy is paradoxically the enduring quality. The urges and desires thumping to Moe Tucker’s drum heartbeats are the stuff that sustains it. No routine survives. Maybe it’s not enough to say that White Light/White Heat breaks conventions. It provides somewhat of a guide. It points you in a direction along an axis you never knew existed.

It takes a journey to the edge to properly stupefy yourself with existence. This is the album to take you there, to that edge. The one True musical Statement does not exist. White Light/White Heat, however, is a singular assertion. Sell a kidney if you have to, but you must get this album.