Counterbalance: ‘The Velvet Underground’

Put jelly on your shoulder, lie down upon the carpet and dig into the Velvet Underground’s eponymous third album. A 1969 classic is this week’s Counterbalance.
The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground

Klinger: So the other day I’m hanging out in my basement. I’m waiting for my laundry to get through the spin cycle so I can put it in the dryer and go to bed. Because the party never ends. Anyway, I happen to catch sight of the 1979 edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, and I start flipping through it. I land on the index, and I notice something odd: the Velvet Underground’s name appears on four pages in the book. The Velvet freakin’ Underground. By all accounts today, one of the most influential groups of all time and the presumed architects of just about everything that’s come in its wake. Four pages. Not a four-page chapter. Four individual references — probably about seven sentences altogether.

Needless to say, my mind was blown. Even the critical industrial complex, for which Rolling Stone was the epicenter in the late ’70s, had yet to fully grasp the Velvet Underground’s legacy. In part, of course, that’s because their legacy was still unfolding as New Wave and ’80s artists had yet to begin dropping their name as a full-fledged touchstone of cool. Anyway, I was inspired to check back in with the group and their self-titled third album, which checks in on the Great List at No. 170 (if we were still covering the Great List in order, we would have written about this a few weeks ago). I’ve been listening to this album for nearly 30 years now, and I’m still caught up in its huge range of styles, from the sweet sadness of “Candy Says” to the avant gardery of “The Murder Mystery”. But it’s a very different record from The Velvet Underground and Nico and a vast yawning chasm away from the blistering White Light/White Heat. But I’m beginning to think that it’s the group’s almost perverse range of styles that kept just about everyone, from the general public to the critics, from fully wrapping their heads around this group. Am I onto something here, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: I wouldn’t argue with you on that point, Klinger. And God knows, I love arguing with you. The VU are one of those bands that strikes me as divergent. Not because they actively wanted to be different but because that’s just how it came out. The combination of Lou Reed’s very conventional songwriting with John Cale’s avant-garde approach to instrumentation along with Maureen Tucker’s singular take on rhythm and Sterling Morrison’s clear guitar work comes out markedly different from just about anything that was going on around them. Add to that the group’s use of effects and disregard for conventional recording techniques throughout the first two albums and you get the antithesis of 1960s pop music. No one bought the records and through the 1970s, the Velvet Underground was simply the band that Cale and Reed had been in before they went on to more successful solo careers.

The self-titled album from 1969 was a shift in the band’s sound, but it also marked the departure of Cale, who was replaced by Doug Yule, and apparently somebody stole all of their fuzz boxes, leaving the band to record without all the electronic gizmos that fueled White Light/White Heat. But even without the feedback and white noise, the new album was still several degrees to the outside of whatever was going on in 1968, plus it was coming from the Velvet Underground, a band that refused to be pigeon-holed. Like that album full of feedback? That’s cool. We’re into folk rock now. Deal with it. I’m dealing with a smile on my face.

Klinger: That’s interesting, since the last time we checked in with the Velvet Underground you seemed decidedly less enthusiastic. Of course, The Velvet Underground and Nico was at No. 4 on the Great List, so you hadn’t yet really begun your journey into the heart of rock-nerd darkness.

Mendelsohn: That’s true. When we first started, I figured we would do a couple and move on. I was young and brash and thought I knew everything I needed to know about music. What could the Great List possibly teach me? After four years and nearly 200 albums, I have a new appreciation for many of the artists we encountered, including the Velvet Underground and their approach the rock ‘n’ roll. I’ve come to realize just how much of an influence the Velvet Underground has had on the music I enjoy. As Brian Eno was fond of saying, the Velvet Underground’s first record only sold 30,000 copies, but “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band”. And most of those bands are on the Great List. Still not a fan of Nico, though.

Klinger: (Note to self: Make Mendelsohn listen to Chelsea Girl.) Yes, you raised earlier an interesting point about the radical tonal that took place with Velvet Underground. It almost seems too easy to think that the departure of John Cale immediately freed up Lou Reed to start channeling his sensitive side, but there’s hardly other explanation for it (although Reed says it was simply a matter of not wanting to replicate the more abrasive White Light/White Heat and demonstrate their full range). Either way, the more tender musical approach is mirrored with a deeper humanity in the lyrics. “Candy Says” is a remarkably sympathetic portrait of trans woman Warhol Superstar Candy Darling (a reference that was lost on Lester Bangs when he reviewed this album back in 1969, by the way).

It’s as if Reed had spent enough time in the Factory milieu that he was able to transcend writing about them as if these people were a “Venus in Furs” freak show and start writing about them as if they were, of all things, actual people with their stories and their own names (Billy Name, for example, who pops up in “The Story of My Life”). And why that perfect line from “Some Kinda Love” — “And no kinds of love are better than others” hasn’t appeared on more placards is beyond me.

Mendelsohn: I like that aspect to the record. Reed was always peeking under rocks and into smoke filled rooms for lyrical inspiration. With this record, those lyrics become much more focused and personalities begin to emerge. Songs like “Some Kinda Love” and “Candy Says” become the template for some of Reed’s best music, including “Walk on the Wild Side”, (also about Candy Darling) and “Sweet Jane”.

On the flip side you also have songs like “What Goes On” and “Beginning to See the Light”, with stripped-down, abstract lyrical content backed by unshakable, head-nodding rock. I like that dichotomy. Even within the structure of those songs, Reed and Co. go from balls-out rock to a softer, melodic breakdown that only serves to drive the groove further into my brain. At its core, this album is pop music executed at a level that is both above all of their contemporaries and yet still very primal.

Klinger: Well, that pop sensibility was what was always driving the Velvet Underground’s music, even at its most abrasive. It’s always instructive to remember that Reed got his start cranking out Brill Building knockoffs for Pickwick Records in the early ’60s with songs like “Cycle Annie” and “Do the Ostrich”. So many of the Velvet Underground’s songs are, at their core, relatively straightforward pop songs, with accessible chord changes and indelible melodies. That’s why even a potential button-pusher like “The Murder Mystery” is so compelling — that back and forth between Reed and Maureen Tucker (on the chorus? I guess you’d have to call it a chorus.) is pretty sure to get stuck in your head. As I’ve been listening lately, I’m also struck by how often they rely on almost music hall chord progressions: “After Hours”, certainly, but also “The Story of My Life”.

But thank you for referencing that Eno quote (and I’m also glad to see that the Internet has finally properly sourced it as Eno’s once and for all). He said that back in 1982, which isn’t too long after that Rolling Stone book was published and not too long before Polydor reissued the first three Velvet Underground albums (and added a couple more LPs of unreleased material to the canon). Taken within that context, it’s almost as if you can see a sort of evolution as VU makes its way from a cult band to a beloved institution, albeit one that continues to serve as a perennial barometer of cool. Losing Lou Reed last October brought about a considerable amount of consideration for his career as a whole and the Velvet Underground in particular, and it was always pretty easy to tell who the dilettantes were by the way they stressed the group’s focus on the dark, seedy side of life. Yes, that’s there, but Reed was the kind of lyricist who can do all that and then serve up a line like “I met myself in a dream, and I just wanna tell you everything’s all right”. And there’s something especially cool about that.