Rock Snob Sommelier: Velvet Underground
There is so much mythology around the Velvet Underground that you’d think the Greeks would’ve built them a temple by now. Almost any band that falls under ‘alternative’, ‘indie’, or ’punk’ can probably be traced back to Velvet Underground.
But just because a band was influential doesn’t automatically mean the music holds up. So I’m going to focus this post on answering the question ”Which Velvet Underground songs and albums still hold up and I would enjoy without some rock snob stuffing a song’s contextual impact down my throat?”
Before I dig in, I think it’s worth stating that The Velvet Underground’s ‘alternative’ reputation for sex/drug lyrical references and experimental ‘is it music or noise?’ compositions is only visible in a minority of their recorded output. Several songs wouldn’t sound that out of place on classic rock radio although their music, overall, is a better fit for ‘alternative’ radio.
My guess is that the more acts you like on the below music map (courtesy of www.music-map.com), the more you’ll like them. If you can’t find a music act you like below, then you’ve got bigger problems.
The Velvet Underground have various ‘Greatest Hits’ packages – the best single disc option out now is The Very Best Of The Velvet Underground which has 18 tracks (albeit out of chronological order which annoys me even though it doesn’t really matter). The 30-track double album Gold will cost you twice as much but doesn’t necessarily add the tracks that I’d recommend. I think the box set Peel Slowly & See is great but it could cost up to $35-$50 so I’d make sure you listen to a number of tracks online before springing for it. I also recommend the live albums Live With Lou Reed, Vol.1 and Live With Lou Reed Vol.2 as long as you don’t mind altered tempos, altered lyrics, and extended jams on some tracks (I dislike jams in general but the instrumentation here is really good).
Below is how I’d rank the albums based purely on how much I like them. I’d consider this a clear distinction from typical ‘best of’ lists which factor in an album’s novelty, impact, etc. The best example with this is the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which is a fine achievement but I bet Paul McCartney’s fortune that a lot more people prefer ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Revolver’. One other note: VU’s albums have been re-issued and re-mixed a couple of times over the years – my ranking is based on the mix and album listings from the Peel Slowly & See box set.
|1||1969||The Velvet Underground||This is the first album after John Cale left the band. That is one reason the music is much less experimental and noisy – other reasons include a desire for Lou Reed to show another side of the band (also seen in a reduction in sex/drug lyrical references and Lou Reed’s re-mixing which pushed up the vocals in the mix) and the theft of all their special effect equipment. It’s a consistently strong set aside from the unbearable ‘The Murder Mystery”.|
|2||1967||The Velvet Underground & Nico||The Velvet Underground were under Andy Warhol’s patronage for this album and he insisted that one of his Warhol Superstars (Nico) sing on some of the tracks. Nico had the looks of a fashion model but her voice sounded like a German Kathleen Turner (aka Jesse James’ wet dream) It works though as all the tracks she’s on (All Tomorrow’s Parties, Sunday Morning, Femme Fatale, and I’ll Be Your Mirror) are very good. There are a couple songs on this album that don’t work for me at all but the great tracks outweigh them.|
|3||1970||Loaded (US Release)||While their album with the least amount of drug references seems the least apt to name ‘Loaded’, it’s titled as such because their record company (Atlantic) requested an album ‘loaded’ with hits. This album wins my #1 “Off the top of my head, best all-time 3-song start to an album” award with ‘Who Loves The Sun’, ‘Sweet Jane’, and ‘Rock and Roll’. After those three, there’s a drop in quality but it’s still very listenable.|
|4||1968-1969 (released in 1985)||V.U.||This is a collection of demos and tracks – all but two were recorded for a 4th album that got shelved because MGM’s CEO Mike Curb went on an anti-drug campaign (Just say no…to great music?) and kicked the band off the label. It’s less an album and more a collection of worthy tracks.|
|5||1968||White Light / White Heat||Even 5-star reviews of this avant-garde noise album admit this is their ‘least accessible‘. That’s an understatement. Love the title track though.|
It’s hard to objectively bucket Velvet Underground songs as easily as I did for, say, Elvis Costello so I’m going to go the subjective route. The three buckets should be self-explanatory…
(note: Any song with an * was a Velvet Underground demo/outtake that Lou Reed released solo. In all cases, I prefer the VU version.)
Play this video for the 9 minute live version of ‘What Goes On’ for a soundtrack while you read…
Velvet Underground – Songs That When I Hear Them Playing, I Stop To Listen
|The Velvet Underground & Nico||1967||Sunday Morning, I’m Waiting For My Man, Femme Fatale, Run Run Run, There She Goes Again, I’ll Be Your Mirror||Sunday Morning and I’ll Be Your Mirror are beautiful pop songs that might not qualify as baroque but Nico’s German-accented voice makes it feel like it. If noir pop was a musical genre, Femme Fatale would be its #1 song. I’m Waiting For My Man and Run Run Run teem with filthy guitar riffs and drug references while There She Goes Again has the same filth with nary an overt drug reference.|
|Extra Tracks Available On Peel Slowly And See Box Set & Other Compilations||1965- 1968||Prominent Men (Demo), Sheltered Life (Demo)*, There Is No Reason (Demo), Guess I’m Falling In Love (Live), Stephanie Says, Temptation Inside of Your Heart (Demo)||Prominent Men is a Dylanesque demo recorded prior the first VU album which is driven by a nice rhythm acoustic guitar part.
The rest of these tracks were recorded between the first and second VU albums.
Sheltered Life is a sweet, almost child-like song about all the things the privileged narrator hasn’t done because he’s led a ‘Sheltered Life’. Almost reminds me of something Daniel Johnston would write. (Note: Lou Reed’s version on his 1976 solo album ‘Rock and Roll Heart’ is a jazzy mess).
There Is No Reason is an earnest song that would’ve fit on the third self-titled album. The fact this is a demo and you can hear Lou Reed laugh at parts adds some levity to the song.
Guess I’m Falling In Love is a live recording on the box set (different from the instrumental only on Another View) with an awesome rhythm track and simple, direct lyrics. I think they re-used some of the track on ‘I Heard You Call My Name‘ but, unfortunately, sandwiched it with polarizing guitar noise.
Stephanie Says is a song where you can really appreciate what John Cale brought to the band. The viola and celeste (sounds a little like a xylophone) are just beautiful. (Lou Reed reworking of this titled Caroline Says I doesn’t approach this version).
Temptation Inside Your Heart also has a great backing rhythm and some carefree banter throughout the demo.
|White Light / White Heat||1968||White Light/ White Heat||White Light / White Heat is the ultimate VU punk/garage-rock song. It’s also one of the most misleading opening songs ever as the rest of the album bounces is avant-garde noise. I wish they had ditched that stuff in favor of the sound in this song and Guess I’m Falling in Love.|
|The Velvet Underground||1969||What Goes On, Pale Blue Eyes, Beginning to See The Light, I’m Set Free, After Hours||What Goes On and Beginning To See The Light are the loudest songs on the album and, undoubtedly, were staples in their live sets. What Goes On is a great mix of the sonic experimentation of previous albums while still maintaining a song structure. The live version on the 1969 live album extends out to 9 minutes which would usually annoy me but the guitars / organ / drum interplay on this song are far more interesting than the lyrics. Beginning To See The Light is more straightforward musically than What Goes On but a little more thematically interesting – the oft-repeated title seems like a sign of positive enlightenment but my reading of the lyrics is that the narrator is in a one-sided destructive relationship and has learned it’s fruitless to try hard or give a sh*t about the person (“Some people work very hard but still they never get it right”….the refrain “How does it feel to be loved?”)
Pale Blue Eyes is my favorite ballad by VU – a bittersweet lament at a lost love who lingers in his memories and didn’t live up to his perhaps unrealistic expectations.
Like Beginning To See The Light, I’m Set Free seems like it’s a positive step in the right direction – unburdened by the clouds of yesterday. And the uplifting music echoes that initial conclusion. But the chorus ends on “…to find a new illusion” so impending doom is on the way. But if you just ignore my interpretation, you’ll be uplifted!
After Hours was drummer Maureen Tucker’s only lead vocal to be placed on one of the four official records (I’m Sticking With You was released as a demo on V.U.). It’s such a sweet, innocent song…a yearning for love from someone who sees comfort in the night and the day as harsh reality.
|3rd Album Outtakes and The Lost 4th Album (aka V.U.)||1968-1969||I Can’t Stand It*, Lisa Says*||I Can’t Stand It has insipid lyrics but I dig the guitar and chorus. On Lisa Says, I like the verses and love how it gets taken up a notch on the soaring chorus (especially the pounding piano). Not quite a Pixies/Nirvana gap in verse to chorus volume but enough that it grabs you. (Note: The live version of this with different and expanded lyrics is the better of the two versions).|
||1970||Who Loves The Sun, Sweet Jane, Rock and Roll, Cool It Down||Who Loves The Sun almost begs for a comparison to the George Harrison-written Beatles song Here Comes The Sun that was released a year earlier. The songs are funny contrasts as while both have uplifting melodies – the sun in Harrison’s song represents hope after a literal or metaphorical ‘long cold lonely winter’ while Reed’s sun represents just another essential element (it makes plants grow!) that doesn’t matter when you’re suffering from a broken heart. I like both songs but Reed’s sun song warms my cold heart more. (Note: It’s an interesting bookend with I’ll Be Your Mirror from the 1st album as that song has the love-seeking narrator quote “I’ll be the wind, the rain, and the sun” and Who Loves The Sun‘s love-lost narrator doesn’t care about any of the three.)
Sweet Jane and Rock and Roll are as close to ‘radio staples’ that you’ll find in the VU canon but the guitar riffs and soloing that drive both songs sound unlike any other band of the time. Cool It Down isn’t on par with the other three songs but makes me smile anytime I hear it.
||1970||Satellite of Love*, Walk And Talk*, Ocean*, Rise Into The Sun||Satellite of Love is one of my favorite songs written by Lou Reed. He recorded this as a glam ballad on his David Bowie-produced Transformer album (fitting given Bowie’s outer space fixations) but I prefer the more rocking VU outtake with the little spoken-word intro. I’ve read some interesting interpretations of the song and Lou Reed describes it as the “worst kind of jealousy”. My read on the song: Watching TV can’t fill the void of love in absentia.
Walk And Talk is pretty simple lyrically but I like how the song just hops along. Ocean is one spooky, beautiful song that I think is about death (like waves carrying you out to sea). The chanted “Here comes the waves” feels like the grim reaper beckoning. It pairs well with Ride Into The Sun which starts in a sad place (lonely and tired in the city) but promises a prettier alternative by riding into the sun. Both of these songs feel like the come down from the high of Heroin.
Velvet Underground – Songs That When I Hear Them Playing, I Smile But Don’t Stop What I’m Doing
|The Velvet Underground & Nico||1967||All Tomorrow’s Parties, Heroin||All Tomorrow’s Parties - an outsider’s view on the hedonism of Andy Warhol’s scene as sung by Nico – just leaves me cold compared to ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’. It’s odd that this was the A-side and ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ was the B-side (that’s probably because this was Andy Warhol’s favorite track).
Heroin is an awesome track – with the music starting slow and then speeding up metaphorically reflecting the rush of the drug. The song is over 7 minutes long though – I need my fix quicker than that. But, in a slightly cooler universe, it would make great montage music for Martin Scorcese.
|Extra Tracks Available On Peel Slowly And See Box Set & Other Compilations||1967- 1968||It’s All Right (The Way That You Live) (demo), I’m Not Too Sorry (Now That You’re Gone) (demo)||It’s All Right (The Way That You Live) is the better of the two songs. Not sure if the song was meant to be lo-fi or if that’s only because it’s a demo. Yo La Tengo does a good cover of the song.
I’m Not Too Sorry (Now That You’re Gone) has a similar feel to It’s All Right in the verse but then takes an interesting (if not overly satisfying) detour into viola drone for the chorus.
|White Light / White Heat
||1968||I Heard Her Call My Name, Here She Comes Now||I Heard Her Call My Name is two songs in one – a propulsive, catchy garage band song divided up by jarringly fractured guitar solos by Lou Reed. The solos might have been awesome to see at a live show but make the recorded song barely listenable.
Here She Comes Now is better than a couple tracks on White Light/White Heat for the sole reason it’s only 2 minutes long. The music and Lou Reed’s vocals are hypnotic. The song may be about waiting for a girl to arrive or it may be about trying to get a girl to orgasm. Oh Lou Reed and his love of homonyms.
|The Velvet Underground||1969||Candy Says, Some Kinda Love, Jesus, That’s The Story of My Life||Candy Says is one of those run-of-the-mill ballads where the singer embodies a transvestite friend (Candy Darling) who wishes she could leave her body. This is the same Candy immortalized in ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ (Candy came from out on the Island/In the backroom she was everybody’s darlin’/But she never lost her head/Even when she was giving head).
Some Kinda Love is my least favorite song on the album next to ‘The Murder Mystery’. Just doesn’t work for me. But its line “Between thought and expression lies a lifetime” ended up being co-opted for Lou Reed’s post-VU box set.
Jesus has a nice, soothing lullaby feel to it and lyrically consists of just “Jesus, help me find my proper place / Help me in my weakness ’cause I’m falling out of grace”.
That’s The Story Of My Life - While bouncier than ‘Jesus’, it’s reminiscent’ in two ways: 1) The lyrics are very minimal – consisting of the title sandwiching “That’s the difference between wrong and right. But Billy said, “Both those words are dead” and 2) When you read a bit about Billy and Lou’s relationship, you say “Jesus!” and understand that perhaps keeping the lyrics vague was best.
|3rd Album Outtakes and The Lost 4th Album (aka V.U.)||1968-1969||Foggy Notion, I’m Sticking With You, One of These Days, It’s Just Too Much (live), Countess From Hong Kong (live)||Foggy Notion is an okay song. The production is similar to What Goes On and Beginning To See The Light but the music and lyrics are less inspired (“I got my calamine lotion”?!). I’m Sticking With You is sung by drummer Maureen “Mo” Tucker and sounds like a nursery rhyme – it’s cute but a notch below the other song sung by Tucker (After Hours). One of These Days is the most countryish VU song – even featuring a winsome falsetto from Lou Reed but this song, It’s Just Too Much, and Countess from Hong Kong are for completists only.|
||1970||New Age, Head Held High, I Found A Reason, Lonesome Cowboy Bill, Train Round The Bend, Oh Sweet Nuthin’||New Age is a odd duck – it was originally written to Lou Reed’s girlfriend and then rewritten by Reed (and sung by bandmate Doug Yule) as a fan’s neg-filled gambit to woo then-zeftig and thrice-divorced actress Shelley Winters (“Can I have your autograph? / He said to the fat blonde actress”…”You’re over the hill right now and looking for love.” ”I’ll come running to you honey if you want me”). The lyrics in the live version on Disc 1 of the 1969: Velvet Underground Live album seem more sincere – particularly the striking couplet “It seems to be my fancy / To make it with Frank and Nancy” which either points to Reed’s bisexuality or a hankering for some Sinatra. (this is the version covered by Tori Amos on her ‘Strange Girls’ album)
I Found A Reason is a mock, irony-laden 50′s doo-wop ballad. I found a reason to put it in this bucket because it wears thin.
The next three tracks are fine straight-forward rockers – I like the Reed vocals on the Beginning to See The Light-esque Head Held High but otherwise these three are nothing to write home about.
Oh Sweet Nuthin’ sounds like one of those slow-tempo, vaguely gospel Rolling Stones or the Grateful Dead. I think it’s about destitute people finding happiness in having nothing. It’s definitely not about whispering sweet nothings because most ladies aren’t turned on by lines like ”They threw her out in the street. But just like a cat she landed on her feet.”
||1970||Oh Gin, Sad Song, I Love You, Over You, We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together||Oh Gin is a pretty simple song about either alcohol or someone named Gin leaving Lou Reed. Sad Song has some cool guitar moments and, um, I guess is my favorite song about a doomed love affair with Mary Queen of Scots. I Love You is an unessential trifle but serves as a satisfactory coda to the Peel Slowly & See box set.
Over You and We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together are Lou Reed originals that only appeared on the 1969: Velvet Underground Live album. Over You has a bossanova feel to it – surprised they didn’t add it to the Box Set but it’s not an essential VU song. We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together is a rather generic rock song -it’s innocuous but beneath VU and more like a B-side for ’Louie, Louie’.
Velvet Underground – Songs That When I Hear Them Playing, I Skip To The Next Song If Possible
|The Velvet Underground & Nico||1967||Venus In Furs, The Black Angel’s Death Song, European Son||Venus In Furs does nothing for me and I’m surprised to see it on so many Greatest Hits packages. The music is droning and the S&M lyrics leave me cold.
The Black Angel’s Death Song is the perfect song for those that like atonal, screechy music accompanied by cryptic, apocalyptic (apocryptic?) lyrics.
European Son is 30 seconds of lyrics and about 7 minutes of noise rock. As noise rock goes, it’s interesting. I’ll say this – if you need to forget what’s on your mind, this song is a great mind eraser.
|Extra Tracks Available On Peel Slowly And See Box Set & Other Compilations||1967- 1968||Melody Laughter (Live), Hey Mr. Rain||Melody Laughter is interesting to listen to if you want to imagine what VU sounded like live in front of half-empty ballrooms as they improvised around a couple of chords. Otherwise, this song is only helpful if you’re throwing a party and subtle hints to get people to leave haven’t resonated.|
|White Light / White Heat
||1968||The Gift, Lady Godiva’s Operation, Sister Ray||If you like rocking out to short stories narrated with a Welsh-accent (via John Cale) over a noisy soundtrack, then I’ve got The Gift for you.
The music in Lady Godiva’s Operation is a bit jarring (like some of their 1st album tracks) but has grown on me in time. But Lou Reed’s vocals seem to be emulating Nico and get on my nerves. If you can focus on the lyrics, it’s an interesting tale of a woman’s lobotomy operation – a harsh rebuke indeed for riding a horse naked.
Sister Ray is the most polarizing Velvet Underground song. It’s hailed by critics as genius. Pitchfork has it as one of the top 200 songs of the 1960′s. It’s a 17 minute odyssey of angular guitars, propulsive rhythms and a tale that includes getting high (I’m searching for my mainline / I said I couldn’t hit it sideways) while being fellated (To busy sucking on a ding-dong / She’s busy sucking on my ding-dong / Oh she does just like Sister Ray said). I think Sister Ray is the dealer/pimp.
It’s not a song that will accept being played in the background and, outside of a live concert, I’m just not going to donate 17 minutes of my life to listen to a song that destroys any extracurricular focus.
|The Velvet Underground||1969||The Murder Mystery||This song is a 9 minute failed sonic experiment where two vocal tracks are reciting different lines – rendering both incomprehensible. I do like the Zombies-esque organ in this song.|
A 17-year old Lou Reed was sent for electroshock therapy 24 times by his parents because of a melange of behaviors including homosexual tendencies. Elton John’s homosexual tendencies, on the other hand, didn’t lead to anyone being shocked.
John Cale had a direct hand in two popular late 1970′s trends: punk music (besides his Velvet Underground work, he produced Jonathan Richman’s & The Modern Lovers “Roadrunner” in 1973 and Patti Smith’s “Horses” album in 1975) and serial killer movies (see Guts album cover).
The track “There She Goes Again” from Velvet Underground & Nico was one of three Velvet Underground tracks covered by R.E.M. on their Dead Letter Office album (Femme Fatale and Pale Blue Eyes are the other two). The La’s There She Goes, while not a cover version, should’ve given Lou some royalties given it borrows both a title and is reported to be about heroin.
Despite growing up in a Jewish household, Lou Reed wrote ‘Jesus’ – following in the great musical tradition of Jews for Jesus such as Bob Dylan’s ‘Slow Train Comin‘ album during his born-again phase and Paul Simon’s ode to the Catholic Church’s response to clerical sexual abuse in ‘The Sound of Silence”.
Before forming the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed was a staff songwriter at Pickwick Records and recorded a novelty song called ‘The Ostrich’ that was a parody of other dance craze songs like ‘The Twist’. Parody became tragedy after some dancers had their necks stomped on.
Drummer Maureen ‘Moe’ Tucker is the first notable female drummer of the rock era. Post-VU, she recorded and toured intermittently with various bands and had raised five children. She made the news recently as a Tea Party follower – which provides the crucial link between Velvet Underground and Ted Nugent.
The Velvet Underground were named after a paperback by Michael Leigh that is described by Amazon as “Swingers and swappers, strippers and streetwalkers, sadists, masochists, and sexual mavericks of every persuasion; are all documented in this legendary expose of the diseased underbelly of ’60s American society.”
The 1989 breakup of the former Czechoslovakia – coined the ‘Velvet Revolution – does not have anything to do with the Velvet Underground. But Czech leader Václav Havel was a big fan of VU and became friends with Lou Reed. This automatically makes him the coolest world leader in the 2nd half of the 20th century (excluding any world leaders who banged Marilyn Monroe).
Doug Yule, who joined the band starting with the 3rd album, carried on the Velvet Underground name after Lou Reed had left the band, releasing the album ‘Squeeze’ in 1973. This album has been disowned by the rest of the band, critics, and fans alike. It’s not to be spoken of. It never even got reissued as a CD. When a 70′s UK band decided to facetiously name themselves after this album (yes, the same band that recorded ‘Pulling Mussels From A Shell’, ‘Tempted’, etc.), the Velvet Underground showed their wrath by having John Cale produce their first album to make their lives miserable. Fun example: Cale pressed for the album name and theme to be ‘Gay Guys’ (not that there’s anything it…but it’s worth noting that the two main members of Squeeze are heterosexual).
Sterling Morrison, who balanced lead, rhythm, and bass guitars during his time with Velvet Underground – left the band in 1970 to get a PHD in Medieval Studies at the University of Texas. After realizing there aren’t a lot of employers looking for Medieval Studies PHDs (Where were you, Marcellus Wallace?), he became a tugboat captain in Houston. He passed away on August 30, 1995, two days short of his 53rd birthday. Here’s a great oral history on Sterling Morrison from several VU members and friends.
A young Ric Flair’s wrestling persona was heavily influenced by these lines in ‘Beginning To See The Light’: ”There are problems in these times but WOOOOO! none of them are mine.”
Lou Reed wrote a trilogy of <Fill In Girl Name> Says songs during his Velvet Underground days (Lisa Says, Stephanie Says, Candy Says) and then released ‘Caroline Says I’ and ‘Caroline Says II’ when he went solo. None of them came close to the popularity of his first effort – the ‘Charlie Says’ Good-n-Plenty song (I’m sure Good-n-Plenty was a code word for amphetamines back in the day).