The Velvet Underground. A great deal of ink has been spilled over this New York City band over the past 30+ years. Ever since the fateful evening Lou Reed left the group following their final gig at Max’s Kansas City in the summer of 1970. However, despite my treading water in a familiar river that has been paddled many times before, I’ve grown tired of hearing audio-challenged critics compare every other current band from New York City to this seminal ‘60s four piece. Truth is, from a lyrical and sonic standpoint, nobody does compare, or come within a mile of this group’s achievements. It’s painfully obvious when you listen to their records, this many years after the fact. Wouldn’t it be great if people could recognize this group as “one of a kind”, and drop the comparisons? Yo La Tengo? The Strokes? Luna? Come on folks. While they are certainly great bands in their own right, let’s do the Velvets a favor and keep them out of those discussions. It’s like pronouncing every other singer/songwriter that emerges with an acoustic guitar to being “The Next Dylan!”. It gets rather tiresome after a while, and in the end, people should let the music speak for itself, regardless of the artist’s influences.
Now, the four “officially released” albums by the Velvet Underground, which came out between 1967 and 1970, are all widely considered classics. I’ve chosen their self-titled third LP, as a favorite. Why? Well, for many reasons. This was the record that was recorded following the departure of John Cale, and the introduction of Doug Yule to the group. A significant change in the band. Some might argue for better, others for worse. Regardless, the resulting third LP is a definitive “transitional record”. Transitioning not just from a musical standpoint, but also in subject matter. Gone was the white noise, feedback, and Cale’s screeching viola. In comes the quiet electric 12-string guitars, acoustic guitars, tender guitar solos, and the “voice” to the forefront of the mix. The late Velvet’s guitarist Sterling Morrison has been quoted over the years in several publications saying that it was due to the band’s effects equipment being stolen in an airport hangar in Los Angeles that this album turned out the way it did—with its instruments clean, undistorted, etc. Being as this claim has been published countless times, who knows if it’s true or merely hogwash spun by a journalist. Despite the conflicting opinions I’ve read over the years in regards to this “theft”, anything is possible, so we’ll just leave it at that.
Upon listening to the record, the songs possess complicated, conflicted feelings that reflect many aspects of what we consider “human nature”. From lost love and redemption, to humor and sadness, to brief revelations, even to a double-vocal experimental opus called “The Murder Mystery”. The original “closet mix” that Reed chose when this record was originally released really emphasizes the vocal tracks, and it’s an important factor in the album’s resulting “intimacy”. Doug Yule and Maureen Tucker also make their first vocal appearances, which also give this particular record an added treat. They both display a great “innocence” behind the mike that give Reed’s lyrical compositions the perfect treatment they call for. On the album’s opener, “Candy Says”, we’re taken into the mind of someone claiming, “What else could I be / If I could walk away from me?” Reed has said he penned this song about Candy Darling, the Warhol superstar who later died of leukemia. Regardless of this influence, the questions the song poses could be applied to anyone. That’s what makes a song “a great song” in the first place. The second tune, “What Goes On” was composed originally when John Cale was still in the band. Here, it’s a mellower affair, but still a great organ and guitar weaving song. It also possesses what must be the longest “sustained-delayed-fuzz” sound of a guitar solo ever captured on record. Meanwhile, Reed assures us that “if we’re good, and do what we should, it’ll work alright”.
On the album’s third track “Some Kinda Love”, Reed cuts loose with some great word play: “Like a bore is a straight line, that finds a wealth in division, and no kinds of love, are better than others”. I’m sorry but, from a lyrical standpoint, Dylan is a cynical bore in comparison. Who wants to hear about “How many roads a man must walk down”, when Reed is telling you questions like that are pointless. Why? Well, Reed spells it out in the third verse: “Between thought and expression, lies a lifetime”. Meanwhile, Dylan’s claiming the “Answer is blowing in the wind”. Gee, thanks a lot Bob.
From here on, we’re taken into one of my favorite Reed compositions ever. “Pale Blue Eyes”. Reed has claimed it was written about someone he “missed very much”. The guitar solo on this song is also a work of art, whether Morrison or Reed played it I’m not sure, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling it off with this much style and perfection. After Reed is done assuring the listener this relationship was “truly, truly a sin”, on the next song “Jesus”, he’s redeemed himself. Maureen accompanies Lou in asking Jesus to “help me find my proper place”. Hard to imagine the very same band was pulling a 20 minute feedback-fuzz epic on their previous record, with Reed describing an orgy in which someone is “sucking on my ding-dong”. A changed band? You decide. Most people wouldn’t believe it was the same band to begin with, but that’s what sets the Velvet Underground apart from the others.
On the record’s second side, Reed gives us a glimpse into his sense of humor on “Beginning to See the Light”. Picking up the pace, the band swings while he claims “A little wine in the morning, and some breakfast at night / I’m beginning to see the light!”. On other songs, such as “I’m Set Free”, he indicates his frustration, and starts to question if there is such a light at the end of the tunnel: “I’ve been set free, to find another illusion”. From here we enter the song “That’s the Story of My Life”, which Reed claimed he wrote based on something Factory photographer Billy Name once said to him. Funny, this song almost sounds like a potential closer of any record. Instead of closing, we’re instead thrown into the “The Murder Mystery”.
This song was an “experiment” in which Reed reads one series of words into the speaker panned right, and on the left, you hear Sterling Morrison. Or is it the other way around? The listener can pan his/her stereo’s balance knob right and left to find out, and listen to the words to specify what is being said. How many other bands have done this? Encouraging the listener to participate in an “active” listening experience? Reed claimed his goal was to create “a series of conflicting emotions at once”. Does the song successfully confuse the listener? Yes, yes it does. The mystery is no closer to being solved from when it began.
The album’s closer, is the all-time great “After Hours” which is sung by Maureen Tucker. Supposedly she made the band leave the room while she recorded it because she was “too shy to do it in front of the others”. It’s great hearing her describe “dark party bars”, and “people on subways and trains”. With the refrain “If you close the door, the night could last forever / Take the sunshine out, and drink a toast to never”. It’s a great ending to a record that is still heavily underappreciated to this day.