Tom Maxwell | Longreads | September 2018 | 18 minutes (3,669 words)
The Velvet Underground album VU is the binding agent in a career of releases that differ so dramatically one from another as to be almost artistic reversals. VU has the dark majesty of The Velvet Underground & Nico, the neurotic strut (if not the head-wrecking dissonance) of White Light/White Heat, the tenderness and emotional insight of The Velvet Underground, and the pure pop sensibility of Loaded. In its 10 tracks, it contains refined versions of what the band did well during the four years they lasted. The irony is that VU wasn’t released until more than a dozen years after the Velvet Underground disbanded.
Recorded primarily in 1969, after the ouster of multi-instrumentalist John Cale, and later cannibalized by principal songwriter Lou Reed for his solo career, the recordings that make up VU were shelved for 16 years. They stayed in the MGM vaults, mostly unmixed, until discovered during the process of reissuing the band’s catalog in the early 80s. As a result, VU benefitted from much improved audio technology and was released to a world not only better prepared for the Velvet Underground, but one that had largely absorbed its lessons. The album made a beautiful tombstone for the band’s career, at a time when all the members were alive to see it.
The Velvet Underground were a series of improbables. In 1964, 22-year-old Brooklyn-born pharmacological omnivore Lou Reed was a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records, churning out B-rate singles in an attempt to take advantage of the latest dance craze. One of these, called “The Ostrich,” caught fire locally. To capitalize on the success, Lou pulled a band together that included Welsh expat John Cale, normally an avant-garde violist, who showed up to the rehearsal for a laugh and the vague possibility of payment.
“The Ostrich” did not impress John Cale much, but the fact that Reed had tuned every string of his guitar to A-sharp did. This type of alternate tuning was well-known among the anti-art Fluxus crowd that Cale ran with. As he once said, “I was playing with La Monte Young in the Dream Syndicate, and the concept of the group was to sustain notes for two hours at a time.” But the way Lou Reed latched onto it interested Cale much more than his lame dance single or the sketchy Pickwick operation. (“I’d seen this guy — I think his name was Jerry Vance — tune the guitar where every string was the same,” Reed told Guitar World magazine years later. “I thought, ‘What an amazing sound!’ So I filed that one away.”)
As Reed once put it, he was trying to incorporate the sensitivities of novelists like Raymond Chandler and poets like Delmore Schwartz into his music. “What I wanted to do,” Reed told an interviewer in 1987, was “write rock ‘n’ roll that you could listen to as you got older, and it wouldn’t lose anything. It would be timeless in the subject matter and the literacy of the lyrics.”
Reed played a few of what he called “serious songs” for Cale, including a dark piece called “Heroin.” Soon they moved into a Lower East Side apartment together and formed a band. “In the beginning,” Cale recalled in the Peel Slowly and See liner notes, “Lou and I had an almost religious fervor about what we were doing.”
Guitarist Sterling Morrison, a friend of Reed’s from college, joined the band next, after a chance meeting with Lou on the subway. “When I met Lou at Syracuse University,” he told rock writer David Fricke, “we found that we both had an abiding affection for Lightnin’ Hopkins and sundry doo-wop things.”
“I was a very unsensitive young person and played unsensitive, uncaring music,” Morrison remembered. “Which is, ‘Wham! Bam! Pow! Let’s rock out!’ What I expected my audience to do was tear the house down, beat me up … whatever.”
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After a brief stint with an unreliable percussionist, Morrison contacted a friend’s sister, Maureen “Moe” Tucker, to play drums. A computer keypunch operator by day, Tucker listened to Bo Diddley at home and practiced along to Babatunde Olatunji’s Drums of Passion. She was sufficiently inspired by the Nigerian percussionist to put her bass drum on its side and play it with mallets. Her approach was relentlessly minimalist: On the Velvet’s song “I’m Waiting For the Man,” she whacks eighth notes on the snare drum with one hand — and that’s it — something no male rock ‘n’ roll drummer would ever have considered a viable arrangement.
“I didn’t like that love-peace shit,” Tucker once noted.
Produced by Andy Warhol (whose patronage guaranteed the band’s very existence) and joined on vocals by Christa Päffgen, a German model and actress better known as Nico, the band’s 1967 debut The Velvet Underground & Nico is a brash manifesto, with themes of bondage, addiction, abuse, and overdose, punctuated by moments of stunning tenderness. “In those days,” Reed reflected years later, “I thought there was a certain kind of aloneness going on and I felt I wasn’t the only one feeling that.”
Cale described the band’s sophomore effort, White Light/White Heat, as “a very rabid record. The first one had some gentility, some beauty. The second one was consciously anti-beauty.” It’s a buzz saw of an album, often heavily distorted with extended shrieks of feedback. In some songs, the vocals sit so low in the mix as to almost be inaudible. On others, the volume is deafening. According to Reed, engineer Gary Kellgren walked out during the recording of the epic, 17-and-a-half minute slugfest “Sister Ray,” saying, “You do this. When you’re done, call me.”
“There were slow songs on the first and on the second [albums],” Reed said in a 1969 radio interview. “It’s just, no one had noticed it, ’cause the placement wasn’t so good. ‘Heroin’ kind of ran away with it, ’cause it was kind of overt and easy to identify with. But you know, we didn’t want to be put in a bag of being forerunners of the drug maniacs and all of that. So I had thought there was a balance, like ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ and ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Femme Fatale,’ all those kind of things, which didn’t work out. Then the second album was an energy job.”
White Light/White Heat was released in January 1968. Nico, never considered a full member, severed her relationship with the band when they fired Andy Warhol. (“I was glad to see her go,” Tucker observed in Diana Clapton’s 2012 biography Lou Reed & The Velvet Underground. “To me, she was just a pain in the ass.”) Warhol’s only contribution to the album was its name and the black-on-black album art concept.
A good rule of thumb in collective artistic endeavors is to not put two bulls in the pasture. Given the strength of their individual personalities and vision, it’s no surprise that tensions formed and intensified between Reed and Cale. In September 1968, Reed called a band meeting, without Cale, in a West Village café. He told the band that John had to go. “I was enraged!” remembered Morrison. “To me it was unthinkable. I really laid into Lou.” Reed insisted, threatening to dissolve the group, and sent Morrison to break the news. Doug Yule, a multi-instrumentalist teenager from Boston, was hired less than two weeks after Cale’s ouster.
“The thing that I didn’t like about what I did was I sat back and allowed myself to watch John Cale leave the band,” Morrison once said. “Essentially the problems came when John left. … He was not easy to replace. Doug Yule was a good bass player, but we moved more towards unanimity of opinion and I don’t think that’s a good thing. I always thought that what made us real good were tensions and oppositions. I saw Velvet Underground music as crusading and it was a real personal thing for me.”
In the meantime, the band got kicked upstairs to a major label. They now had a two-album deal with MGM, parent label to Verve, which released the first two albums. The Velvet Underground, issued in the spring of 1969, is largely acoustic, something that didn’t sit well with inveterate rock ‘n’ roller Morrison.
“Cale’s departure allowed Lou Reed’s sensitive, meaningful side to hold sway,” Morrison said in Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story. “Why do you think ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ happened on the third album, with Cale out of there? … I said, ‘Lou, if I wrote a song like that I wouldn’t make you play it.’ My position on that album was one of acquiescence.”
“Oh, I was so sad when John went!” Tucker said. “I always wished he was over there, flailing away on his viola.”
Throughout the rest of 1969, Lou Reed cemented his position as leader and principal songwriter, as Morrison and Tucker continued to feel John Cale’s absence. Between May and October, the band recorded an album’s worth of material in the Record Plant in New York. “That was basically pre-production stuff,” Yule once said. “It was done to studio quality but not with that intent. It was all done in the daytime. Which to me is, like, when you’re working on an album in the studio — you know it gets dark at like five p.m.. This was all done at ten in the morning.”
It’s not clear that the band had the resources to record releasable “pre-production” material, so I would disagree with Yule on this point. Also, however one believes these recordings fit into the canon, they were definitely intended for release. The proof is that MGM reserved a catalog number: SE-4641, which labels only use for official releases. This is most of the material that makes up VU, considered, rightly, to be the great lost Velvet Underground record.
The process stretched over several months of desultory sessions, short enough to only allow the tracking of one song per day. What’s clear from the recordings — and something that could only have happened in Cale’s absence — is the intricate interplay of Reed and Morrison’s guitars. On “I Can’t Stand It,” they mesh and intertwine and begin to lose individuality in a combination of itchy rhythms and menacing drones, anchored by Yule’s steady bass lines.
Meanwhile, the band’s relationship with MGM was deteriorating. They didn’t believe the label was giving them much support. Conversely, MGM was cleaning house, moving in a direction to get rid of provocative bands as well as acts that weren’t selling. The Velvet Underground satisfied both those requirements, so MGM terminated their deal.
The band signed with Atlantic Records almost immediately. Danny Fields, a publicist at Atlantic, has said that the label wanted to do a record right away, and hoped to rescue the MGM material. That was never going to happen, so the Velvet Underground made what became their fourth album, Loaded, in Atlantic’s New York studios, mostly without Tucker, who was at home with her newborn daughter. “I always felt the key to lasting with Lou was to be up-front, normal and sane — someone he could depend upon, with no ego problems,” she once said.
Morrison’s absence on Loaded was emotional. “I had hardly spoken to Lou in months,” he admitted a decade later. “Maybe I never forgave him for wanting Cale out of the band. I was so mad at him, for real or imaginary offenses, and I just didn’t want to talk. I was zero psychological assistance to Lou.”
Artistically, the band had moved on. They only rerecorded one song from the last MGM sessions, “Ocean,” and it didn’t make the album.
“When we went to do Loaded the push was for FM hits and FM jingles which was hot in those days,” Yule remembered. “There was a lot of time spent ‘pep-talking’ Lou about hits and singles and like, three-minute songs, stuff like that. So when we went into to do Loaded there was this pressure on Lou and he started cranking up the heat on the tunes.”
But the isolation that Reed struggled against had caught up with him. “I gave them an album loaded with hits and it was loaded with hits to the point where the rest of the people showed their colors,” he said in a 1972 interview. “So I left them to their album full of hits that I made.” And so it was that Reed left his own band, one he wrested from Cale. He worked as a typist in his father’s accounting office for the next two years.
Morrison quit soon after, moving to Texas to finish his doctorate in medieval studies and ultimately become a tugboat captain. Yule wrote and recorded an album, Squeeze, releasing it under the band’s name, largely to satisfy contractual obligations. Tucker was supposed to play on it, but the band’s manager fired her. Squeeze is largely dismissed as not only terrible, but also not a proper Velvet Underground record.
Popular music continued to evolve in the coming decades, in interesting and often unpopular ways. Punk appeared a few years after Lou Reed quit his own band, then post-punk, then new wave. The Velvet Underground’s music inspired all of it: in the confrontational material, the amphetamine tempos, the nervous anti-hero vocals, the unadorned queerness, the population of beautiful losers, the fully formed subculture, and the complete absence of blues licks (a band rule), heroic guitar solos, and swing rhythms. They were the architects, the Cassandras. They prophesied the coming world, and no one believed them.
Sensing the band’s continued and growing relevance, Polydor Records began reissuing the Velvet Underground’s back catalog in the early 1980s. It was then that they discovered boxes of tapes of unissued recordings.
“We didn’t say we’ll just go in and lay down anything and screw ’em,” Tucker said about that time. “There was a sense that it probably wouldn’t be released by them. I think I figured it would just get picked up by the next record company, not realizing that MGM would own it. But when we switched labels, MGM wouldn’t give up the tapes.”
And here is a hard truth about the music industry, at least the 20th-century version of it: Artists seldom owned their work. In addition to the sundry devilries surrounding music publishing, every standard label contract stipulated that the label, not the band, owned the master recordings. You could take the song you wrote with you, but your label owned that particular recording of it. MGM shelved what Velvet Underground recordings it hadn’t released, rather than give them to another label.
Not that it mattered: The Velvet Underground seldom recycled material. They often performed songs live that were never recorded — numbers like “Move Right In,” “Melody Laughter” and “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore” — which you can hear on lo-fi fan recordings. Gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs called hearing one legendary number, “Sweet Rock and Roll,” played live a few times but never documented, one of the “most incredible musical experiences of my life.” The idea was to keep moving forward. “We have all sorts of strange things lying around in the can, as they say,” Morrison told an interviewer in 1970. “We record them and get tired with them before they’re released. It happens many times. We get demos and we play the demos and get tired of them.”
Once the shelved recordings were discovered in 1984, Reed had reservations about their being issued at all. “They got in touch with me to come out and listen to the tapes,” he said in Rob Jovanovic’s Seeing the Light: Inside the Velvet Underground. “It sounded pretty good at first and they said I could be involved in the production of it. Then after listening to the whole thing, I said, ‘I don’t think it should come out.’” He could have felt this way for any number of reasons, but it should be remembered that, by 1985, Reed had recycled most of the songs on VU for his solo career, rerecording “I Can’t Stand It,” “Lisa Says,” “Ocean,” “Andy’s Chest,” a retitled “Stephanie Says,” and “She’s My Best Friend.” The shadow of the Velvet Underground might have loomed a little large. In later interviews, both Morrison and Tucker stated that they made songwriting contributions, but let Reed claim sole authorship to keep the peace.
Because Reed chose not to be involved, Morrison was called in to help assemble two album’s worth of material, VU and Another View, an album mostly comprised of demos and outtakes. Producer Bill Levenson oversaw the mixing.
“The tapes were in terrible shape,” Levenson told Billboard magazine. “You could only play them backwards, and since they were recorded on 12-track, we had to modify a 24-track machine in order to transfer them up to 24 and get more tracks to work with.” Once the tracks were cleaned and mixed, Levenson was able to change Lou Reed’s mind about their release.
VU came out to a popular culture ready to receive it. College radio held sway, and what media culture would call indie rock was only a few years off. The idea of being underground was respectable; selling records was not. “I didn’t start singing or playing till I was fifteen and heard the Velvet Underground,” Modern Lovers’ singer Jonathan Richman once said. “They made an atmosphere, and I knew that I could make one too!” Indeed, by the time VU was released in 1985 there were dozens of taste-making bands around who owed their careers to the Velvet Underground, with a dozen more who had yet to even form. The improved sonic quality of VU caused it to hold its own, at a time when most of its peer recordings sounded hopelessly dated, in both artistry and production. The album was marketed to college rock and alternative radio, two avenues of promotion that simply didn’t exist in 1969.
Benefitting from the advantage of hindsight, Cale makes a return on VU, appearing on two songs cut at New York’s A&R Studios in February 1968. “Stephanie Says” features his legato viola and bell-toned Celeste. “Temptation Inside Your Heart,” recorded the next day, features an unedited vocal take, with Reed, Cale, and Morrison joking and laughing in the background in between their vocals. There is no apparent tension in the track at all, even though this would be Cale’s next-to-last recording session with the group. For a moment, the two bulls appear in the pasture once more.
Morrison once claimed that the Velvets “never had an agenda for success.” In light of their modest record sales and lack of airplay, this may have been retroactive ass-covering. But it seems that the band did have an entirely different agenda, one that would somehow, without affectation, synthesize their love of plain rock and doo-wop and Bo Diddley and Fluxus and drone; one that would be subversive through lyrical honesty and emotional directness. They succeeded, despite a career rife with accidents, betrayal, and innovation. “We were just anarchists,” John Cale once said. “But we were anarchists with heart. We really felt that we were doing this with a certain altruistic, non-malevolent spirit. We had a true moral code.”
While this approach may have guaranteed the band an ignominious death, it also assured them immortality. But the perception surrounding the band, even in posterity, is a shifting lens of possibility, profitability, and revision.
We do a disservice when we think about what music should be. We get what we get from the people who make it in the time that is allowed them, in response to whatever emotional and financial situation they are in. Their interpersonal tensions are the same kind of friction that propels a good narrative. Moreover, and especially in this industry, art and commerce are inextricable. One is parent to the other. The Velvet Underground genuinely believed that pop music could be a vehicle for unpopular expression. They would not have made their debut artistic statement without Andy Warhol’s influence and patronage; there would be no Loaded without their abiding obscurity and the need to score a hit. The band members all agreed that the various personnel issues — including Reed’s ultimate departure — were exacerbated, if not created, by their manager, Steve Sesnick. It was he who controlled the purse strings, made Lou Reed ascendant, and later engineered his leaving; it was he who oversaw the creation of Squeeze, now disregarded as a Velvet Underground record. The songs that make up VU would not have been shelved had the band been selling albums; by the same token they would not have been released had Polydor not sensed a profitable opportunity.
When the band temporarily reunited in 1993, it was comprised of the perceived “classic” lineup of Reed, Cale, Morrison, and Tucker — a lineup formed by the dictates of public nostalgia. Yule did not attend. “We could have done anything we wanted,” Cale told interviewer Marc Maron about the tour, but the band did not. “It all suddenly became an exercise in revitalizing a catalog,” he said. “And instead of doing something that everybody would look up to us and maintain the standards that we had …” And here Cale sighed. “I hated that.”
Thanks to record companies raiding the vaults to maximize profitability — and to the delight of the die-hard fan — that catalog Cale refers to is now a maze of posthumous releases, box sets, compilations, and deluxe editions that can confuse as much as satisfy. Of course, none of this would be the case were the band not so transient and compelling: When an acetate pressing was found by a collector in 2002 containing an early version of The Velvet Underground & Nico, with many alternate takes, it caused quite a stir, ultimately being issued as The Scepter Studio Sessions. Cale has hinted that he has boxes of early Velvet Underground home recordings in storage, which he is not yet emotionally ready to rediscover.
“John has said we didn’t get to finish what we started,” Reed remembered. “That is sadly true. However, as far as we got, that was monumental.”
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.