The soundtrack to Todd Haynes‘ award-winning documentary The Velvet Underground contains some of the most riveting, inspired, and influential rock music ever recorded. That’s not hyperbole. It’s possibly an understatement. The two-disc collection anthologizes 11 Velvet Underground tracks, all of them great, plus five additional songs by influences and associated acts.
The Velvet Underground formed in the mid-1960s and somehow merged the avant-garde and experimental New York music scenes with the garage rock sensibilities of budding poet Lou Reed, the band’s chief songwriter and sardonic frontman. Reed loved doo-wop and was writing pop songs for an also-ran record label at the time. But in college, he’d developed affinities for the Beats, Ornette Coleman, and drugs, and in his band, all those sensibilities and influences converged. A Velvets record always took listeners on a ride; it’s just that sometimes that ride was a trip uptown to score heroin.
Pop artist Andy Warhol managed the band in their early years and produced their first record, urging Reed and his mates to record with Nico, a German model who had starred in several of Warhol’s art films. The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) sold poorly but eventually became a fixture on lists of essential rock records. The band split with Warhol and Nico, and later with multi-instrumentalist and composer John Cale, who played viola and bass but more importantly was the band’s resident experimentalist. They made three more studio albums with Reed at the helm, including the proto-punk White Light/White Heat (1968)and the more pop-oriented Loaded (1970), the latter featuring Cale’s replacement Doug Yule sharing vocal duties with Reed.
Without the Velvets, it’s hard to imagine that there would have been a Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, R.E.M., or Sonic Youth. It’s doubtful the CBGB’s scene would have flourished in the 1970s, or that alternative rock would have ruled the 1990s. The Velvet Underground pre-dated even Bowie (who covered various Velvet Underground tracks), the Stooges, and the MC5. They probably paved the way for the band that paved the way for your favorite rock band.
So what is the virtue of a two-CD retrospective of a band whose relatively small discography has already been canonized? I mean, unlike, say, the Rolling Stones, you can digest the entire output of the Velvets on a single, rainy afternoon, and that includes their official live releases (themselves essential) and outtake compilations.
First of all, the 11 Velvet Underground tracks on this soundtrack serve as a solid, if somewhat predictable, introduction to the band. They highlight the Velvets at their most iconic and most iconoclastic. “I’m Waiting for the Man”, “Sweet Jane”, and “Pale Blue Eyes” – all included here – are probably the closest they came to hits. “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs” are reminders of Reed’s embrace of the gritty and the taboo. A noisy, 20-minute version of “Sister Ray” effectively shows how far the anarchic Velvets’ live shows were from the concerts of even the jam-inclined members of the Woodstock Generation. The stunning “Sunday Morning” (here, lovingly sequenced after “Chelsea Girls”, Nico’s solo ballad released just months after her collaboration with the Velvets) is an argument that in a bizarro version of the 1960s and 1970s, Lou Reed might have scored baroque, AM-radio folk-pop hits.
But the band’s discography selections included on the soundtrack seem far less risky and innovative than the band itself was. The curation is almost too good. One might have expected some obscurities or quirky choices for a group that resisted being user-friendly and whose fan base typifies the music nerd ethos. Indeed, the droning, distorted 20 minutes of “Sister Ray” are antagonistic. Still, extended versions of the noisy classic appear on various live releases, so even this choice seems less radical than it might. “Ocean” and “Foggy Notion” – both included on the soundtrack – are outtakes, but they appeared on a compilation that came out nearly 40 years ago, so they are also very familiar.
So while new fans get an accurate and robust sense of the band’s range, longtime fans don’t get anything all that new or novel.
Second, the five tracks on the soundtrack not by the Velvet Underground are interesting and offer at least a shallow nod at the larger context of the band’s career. Included is the aforementioned solo ballad by collaborator Nico, “Chelsea Girls,” which nicely complements the mellow VU tracks compiled here. Bo Diddley’s “Road Runner” and the Nolan Strong and the Diablos’ doo-wop hit “The Wind” underline Reed’s love of rhythm and blues. “The Ostrich” by the Primitives is a notable example of Reed’s songwriter-for-hire work in the years preceding his life as a Velvet.
But the most intriguing non-Velvet Underground track on the soundtrack is the minimalist, discordant excerpt from Cale’s pre-Velvet Underground band, the Theater of Eternal Music, an avant-garde collective led by the composer La Monte Young. The excerpt sheds light on the Velvets’ noise-rock leanings. Hearing this abstract work flow directly into “Heroin” is another example of the solid sequencing of the soundtrack. Velvet Underground fans have likely heard “Chelsea Girls” and “The Ostrich”, but they might not have dug into Cale’s classical work, and that alone makes the Eternal excerpt valuable and exciting. In a sense, it’s the highlight of the soundtrack.
It’s possibly unfair to want the soundtrack to a documentary about a rock band to serve up obscurities, but when that band is the Velvets, you expect more idiosyncratic curation. But I could be wrong. Maybe reducing the band’s legacy to a “best of” was the most audacious, punk decision Todd Haynes could have made. Warhol would have been proud.