The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground – 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition

Few bands ever had a year like the Velvet Underground did in 1969. Even fewer have a set that documents a year like that as beautifully as this one.
The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground - 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition

The Velvet Underground. The Velvet Underground. This band’s eponymous 1969 release, so different from 1968’s White Light/White Heat, is the sound of a band finding clarity through subtraction. Gone was John Cale, and with him the grinding viola and most of the avant-garde leanings he brought to the forefront. Gone were — according to guitarist Sterling Morrison — all the effects pedals that allowed for the distortion and feedback so prevalent on White Light/White Heat, stolen at the New York airport as the band flew to Los Angeles to record. Gone was the Verve label, with the band moving up to parent company MGM’s main label. Gone was New York itself, and all but the last tenuous threads of its connection to Andy Warhol and The Factory. The result is the barest Velvet Underground record, stripped down to its skin.

All those changes, of both personal and proclivities, are immediately apparent. Album opener “Candy Says” is sung by newcomer Doug Yule, enlisted mere weeks before recording as a replacement for Cale. With his held notes and smooth, almost placid delivery, he sings like an olympic diver, barely a ripple or quaver as he rises through his range. This vocal turn is unexpected and welcoming. It’s a far cry from the titular opening salvo of the prior album. To say “Candy Says” is delicate may be understanding it; it’s a frail and skeletal doo-wop song, complete with softly reverberating doo-doo-wah backing vocals that sound like it takes all the energy the singers have to rise from a whisper to a sigh. Yule’s vocals only come to the fore again on one other track, the searching folk song “Jesus”. There his harmonies carry Reed’s lead vocal, filling in gaps and adding needed buoyancy to the beautifully brittle plea.

On the original album, “Candy Says” and “Jesus” are the bookends to the pulsing heart of side one, the trio of tracks “What Goes On”, “Some Kinda Love”, and “Pale Blue Eyes”. The jangling shuffle of “What Goes On” still feels current, for its template has yet to go out of style. Though the Velvet Underground was not the progenitor of that mode of staccato guitar playing, its rock and roll variant has proved incredibly influential. (This staccato style goes back at least as far as Steve Cropper and his work with Booker T & the MGs and on innumerable other Stax recordings.) From the Feelies and R.E.M. to Yo La Tengo and Real Estate, this style of rave-up has proved to be perennial, blooming again year after year, decade after decade.

But it isn’t just the jangle that has proved to have legs. Many artists, including several of those previously mentioned, have drawn inspiration from Lou Reed’s guitar solo. An overlay of three separate takes played simultaneously, it harkens back to the fuzz and fury of prior records; however, this has a restrained musicality to the feedback those records often lacked. It is that restraint that time and again is what defines The Velvet Underground; from instrumentation to performance, there is a comfortable control to the album.

“Some Kinda Love” is a fine example of that restraint. Simple, clean guitars, a muted, sinuous bass line, and the heartbeat of a muted cowbell accompany a more spoken than sung Lou Reed vocal. Reed, his every intake of breath audible, slides from line to line with either a sigh or a smile. To hear him laugh here is the most disconcerting sound on the album, for what is scarier than a gleeful Lou Reed? But those smiles and that laugh are but further indicators of where the Velvet Underground was in 1969. This is the sound of a band comfortable and confident in its abilities. Where once the Velvet Underground walked a knife edge of tension, there is a nary a frayed nerve on display on the whole record.

That’s especially true on the album’s most famous tune, “Pale Blue Eyes”. At heart a folk-rock song, Reed’s paean to a love gone but not sublimated is warm and comfortable like a well-worn sweatshirt. Enveloped in past memories and an elliptical, stutteringly delicate guitar line played by Sterling Morrison, Reed’s wistful, heartfelt delivery sells the earnest lyrics without ever falling into schmaltz. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do, but he and the band manage it with their newfound characteristic ease.

While side one may have the showstoppers and the songs that have entered into the canon, the second side is not without it’s own high merit. “Beginning to See the Light” is another slice of staccato R&B, with Reed’s whoops, hollers, laughs, cries, cracking pitch, and whispered asides showing the influence of Ronald Isley on songs like 1959’s “Shout” more than anything from his peers. Time and again, The Velvet Underground hearkens back to the pre-Beatles music of its youth: the late ‘50s and early ‘60s folk revival, the doo-wop and girl groups that ruled the Long Island airwaves, the gospel and R&B that thrummed through New York via Detroit, Memphis, Chicago, and elsewhere.

The muted yet booming drums that anchor “I’m Set Free” sound like nothing more than an homage to Phil Spector, as are the background “oohs” and “babys” that could be pasted from a number of Spector productions from the early ‘60s. But for all the homage, it’s the solo here that is most noteworthy. It moves in a near vacuum of sound, fluid and sinuous, a bubble of mercury that can’t quite be caught. The reverb is just enough to differentiate from everything else on the album. It’s as if by some grace it just appeared, shimmered into life, and was gone. The allusion to an illusion made real, but only for a moment.

“That’s the Story of My Life” is another momentary illusion; a jaunty ditty that feels like an album closer, stuck in the middle of the second side as a tease and palate cleanser. A sketch more than a song, it places distance between the metaphysical weight of “I’m Set Free” and the aural weight of “The Murder Mystery”, a track that feels like the last gasp of the band that once was but is no more. With Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison both reading/chanting parallel but different lyrics (panned hard left and hard right, respectively) over a rising, cresting, then repeating motif during the verses, and Maureen Tucker and Doug Yule singing overlapping choruses in a similar hard pan, “The Murder Mystery” is a nearly nine-minute experiment in muted cacophony. The lyrics are clear and easily deduced – at least when the balance is panned to one side in order to focus – and what is mostly mere wordplay when separate becomes an odd concurrence that is more than the sum of it’s parts when whole. Like waves split by a jetty, the intersections change how each is perceived, overlapping, one clear then the other, until they unite as something totally new and unfamiliar in pattern. Repetition doesn’t dull this effect; without conscious effort to screen one from the other the overlap overwhelms time and again. It’s like two guitars that sound initially dissonant but create a new melody from their intersection. How it works is the mystery.

On its two prior records, the Velvet Underground closed with arguably its most dissonant and avant-garde songs (“European Son” and “Sister Ray”, respectively). On The Velvet Underground, the band finishes not with the dissonance of “The Murder Mystery”, but perhaps its most left-field and truly unusual track, “After Hours”. Sung by Maureen Tucker, it’s a song that could best be called a mid-tempo ’30s jazz ballad. Accompanied only by a simple bass line and an acoustic guitar, Tucker gamely steps up to the mic and gives it her awkward all. There is neither precedent nor antecedent for this in the music the Velvet Underground released in its time together. It’s sui generis, hailing from nowhere and going to the same place. It’s also an understandable fan favorite, for it embodies all the frailties and insecurities and delicate sensibilities of The Velvet Underground as a whole. “After Hours” is the perfect capstone on an album that, more than anything else the group ever recorded, wears its vulnerabilities as badges of honor.

The Velvet Underground – 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition is much more than just the single album, though it does contain three distinct mixes of the record itself. First is the “Val Valentin Mix”, which is the one referenced for the above description. Valentin was the engineer for the recordings, and his mix was the one released overseas and eventually on compact disc. Second is what became known as “The Closet Mix”, which was done by Lou Reed himself and was used for the initial vinyl release in the United States. Its nickname comes from Sterling Morrison, who said, ”I thought it sounded like it was recorded in a closet. I guess he [Lou] felt the real essence of the tracks was the lyrics.” Besides the band being pushed far to the back, a different vocal take of “Some Kinda Love” was used on “the Closet Mix”. That track also has a single guitar track instead of the two on the Valentin mix. Preference between the two versions is left to the individual; there is no definitive version, though it’s easy to see why some people side with Lou’s mix. It makes an intimate album all the more personal. However, the Valentin mix gives the band greater prominence as a whole, and the contribution of the other members is not to be underplayed. Both are worth having at hand, depending on the listener’s mood.

However, it is tough to argue that the “Promotional Mono Mix” that comprises the third disc of this set is much more than a curio. Little on this record is improved by the flattening and punchiness of late ‘60s mono; the space and subtlety of much of the record is effectively neutered. While “What Goes On” and “Beginning to See the Light” can handle the extra kick, it isn’t enough of one to be transformative. On the other hand, “The Murder Mystery” becomes incomprehensible and painful, converting carefully planned and executed stereo work into nothing but aural muck. Ultimately this mix is a curio, one that few will return to after an initial listen.

That’s far from the case with “1969 Sessions”, the recordings often discussed as the “lost” Velvet Underground album. Doug Yule puts paid to that notion by stating, “My understanding was that this was demo stuff, the beginning of the next project.” These songs, cut in various studios throughout 1969, would, after years of bootlegs, see the light of day on the two mid-’80s compilations, VU and Another View. At that point, several songs were in an un-mixed state, or mixed in ways that were for one reason or another deemed unacceptable. Those tracks, including “I’m Sticking With You”, “I Can’t Stand It”, and “Lisa Says”, along with several others, were mixed in what was then the current taste in production; lots of extra reverb and echo, especially on the drums. Here, a modern mix has been created that does its best to replicate the sound of the 1969 mixes; or, alternately, they’ve been left as they were in 1969. Though unfamiliar — nearly 30 years of listening to the ‘80s mixes leaves a heavy imprint — the mixing engineers have succeeded spectacularly. While not a standalone album per se, they now feel of a piece and sound. As nice as it is to have these tracks collected and mixed as they are here, Yule is right that these are tentative performances and, in some cases, merely perfunctory, demos for a project that was not to be. Only one of these tracks, “Rock & Roll”, would be revisited for the next Velvet Underground album, Loaded. “1969 Sessions” is a glimpse down a road not taken.

The metaphorical road holds no weight when compared to the real one. Like most of its contemporaries, the reality of the Velvet Underground was one of constant touring. The year 1969 found the band performing short residencies in city after city; three-night stands in the cities of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Dallas, with repeated visits and single nights elsewhere in between. In the fall of 1969, the group settled on the West Coast, playing everywhere from Los Angeles to Vancouver, with multiple long stays in San Francisco. Most of those were at The Matrix, a club owned by Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane. The venue had a professional four-track booth, and many tapes recorded there have been favorites of bootleggers and record labels alike. While recordings from the Velvet Underground’s late November shows were used as the primary basis for the 1974 double-album 1969: Velvet Underground Live, it’s long been known that more recordings existed. Leaked tracks in recent years also showed that the fidelity of those recordings was better than what came out in 1974.

So the decision to release two discs worth of recordings, here titled “Live at The Matrix”, is the collector’s dream. These CDs total 18 songs in all, only six of which were on 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, while “Sister Ray” appears from the audience’s perspective on Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes. Mixed and mastered from the original four-tracks, even the familiar songs have new depth and character. Reed and Morrison’s guitars are distinct and clear, and Yule’s bass and organ, while not at the level they would have been in person, are audible and not a muddy wash. Tucker’s drums sound correct, with just the right amount of punch. Lead vocals are a bit in front, backing vocals range from loud and off-key to dead-on to completely negligible.

To best hear the changes, it’s good to directly compare these mixes to prior releases. For example, “Some Kinda Love”, one of the songs repeated from 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, has individual bass notes as opposed to the low rumble so familiar from the last 40 years of listening. Reed’s vocal loses some of the room presence that inconsistently creeped into the mix, and it’s far easier to discern the two separate guitar lines. But it isn’t just on the quieter tunes where the difference is audible; on somewhat louder – or at least busier – tracks like “White Light/White Heat”, the vocals burst out of the speakers, the funkiness of Yule’s approach to the bass comes to the fore, and Tucker sounds like she has more than a snare to play. On 1969: The Velvet Underground Live her cymbal hits dissolve into a trebly wash; here they snap with individual clarity, and don’t bleed out atop the mix.

The improvement over the seven previously released tracks is one thing, but the treasure here is the 11 unreleased performances. “I Can’t Stand It Anymore”, complete with a disturbingly funny introduction from Reed; Tucker’s reluctant showpiece “After Hours”; “I’m Waiting For The Man”, “Venus In Furs” “There She Goes Again” and “Heroin” from the first album, all recast via the prism of the third. At this point in time, “Live at The Matrix” stands as the definitive live document of the Velvet Underground.

The Velvet Underground is a band shrouded in myth, in story, and in history unrelated to the music it created. It’s hard to approach that music without all of the baggage associated with it, but immersion is a great way to make it happen. Live in the over five hours of music this set contains for a few weeks. Enjoy the differences, both obvious and subtle, in the Valentin and Closet mixes; try and get through the mono mix of “The Murder Mystery”; wonder at what could have been if the band had kept working on “Coney Island Steeplechase” and “Lisa Says”; spend the late nights listening to The Matrix recordings, and hear a band in peak form, listening to each other, stretching and exploring through 36+ minutes of “Sister Ray”. Few bands ever had a year like the Velvet Underground did in 1969. Even fewer have a set that documents a year like that as beautifully as this one.

RATING 10 / 10