The Velvet Underground. Complete Released Works. Part One
Been thinking about death a lot lately. And, imminence.
Lou Reed’s death, Bowie’s, Cohen’s … they didn’t affect me a whole lot. I was more upset when Alan Vega went, but also, Victoria Wood and Benny Hill - somehow I just figured they’d go on forever, like Cab Calloway or Ken Dodd. What these folk left behind, though…
Probably the reason Lou Reed was always reluctant to acknowledge the Velvets in his later, hugely successful careers (despite playing their songs), was that for all his success, he could not - not ever - have produced anything like the Velvets on his own; and that to some extent that reduced his creative validity, that he’d created something far more lasting and significant with other people, than anything he’d ever created with his own outfits.
Paul McCartney is said to have been obsessed with his past with The Beatles, and went out of his way to make more money than the Beatles did…
I don’t know how he does his accounting, but chunks of money do not, not now nor never, equate to cultural and social impact and influence. We still hear echoes of The Beatles today. And the Velvets, in everything from soap commercials to supermarket music.
The Velvets with Nico.
Cutting to the chase, I regard every one of the Velvets boxes as essential, five bottle creatures at the very least. Some of them are no longer available. In fact, a couple you’re going to have to chase to the end of the earth: until one dropped into my lap courtesy Craig Barman and his kindness, I’d only seen one copy, and that at the house of a music industry insider. However. as I go I will give advice to the trepidatious and the stingy, as to whether these items are, in fact, essential to you, the punter and music lover, not just frothings of me, the enthusiastic fan.
Here they all are, in order of date of release:
Peel Slowly and See (Polydor/ Chronicles)
The Velvet Underground and Nico (Polydor/ Universal/ Universal Music Enterprises)
White Light/ White Heat The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground
Bootleg Tapes Volume One: Bob Quine (2001)
John Cale: New York in the 1960s (2006)
The Complete Matrix Tapes (Universal/ Universal Music Enterprises)
That’s … huge, really, isn’t it?
A few of you may have noticed that Craig Barman (the chap who runs this website), occasionally has his Facebook account emphatically and enthusiastically hacked by someone - I suspect a daughter - who rails against his constant love of all this “old” music. Kim Stanley Robinson remarks (in “Green Mars”) that “every generation is its own secret society”, rejecting the old and embracing the new.
Frankly, that’s fucking wonderful. Face it, we all need to have our tastes and behaviour shaken a little every now and again. We all need to our Facebooks hacked by someone who won’t wipe our contacts, but will yell at us for being a boring old bastard.
If we remember much of anything about being young it should be a horror of the old, a creeping disgust, never once for a nanosecond believing that we will one day be pot of belly, hairless, stoopy, with ugly purply veins where ugly purply veins should never be, grey if not white pubic hair and weird things like sudden lumps and pits where weird things like sudden lumps and pits should never be, stinky of breath and weak of bladder and bowel and suddenly finding that one cannot consume delicacies such as alcohol or curry.
Now, I recall being young. I loathed the bland and the boring, which mostly consisted of almost everything everyday. I’ve since learned to live with some of it. But I’m still that intolerant, impatient young dickhead. I’d like to say to Craig Barman’s hacker/s, that I reckon the VU might annoy your dad. (ED: No, actually.) And, like the label on the first B52’s LP says (the first time I ever saw this on a record) you should “Play Loud”.
So, since by now all of the Velvet Underground’s studio LPs and official live LPs released during their existence have now received the Fucking Monster Deluxe Edition treatment, I think it might be time to have another listen to a band I regarded for many years as an essential part of myself.
Also, I’ve not listened to them closely for several years (I’ve been busy), and I should quickly explain I don’t mean incidental plays on radio when I’ve been near one, or someone playing it with an acoustic in the street. When you’re young, older music can be a daunting, if not repellent task. The sheer backlog seems vast and indigestible, like one of those Dickens monsters. Some of this old music is everywhere and everyone bangs on about how great it is and … usually you can’t hear quite why it’s so good.
Sometimes that music really is wonderful (if overplayed in the public zeitgeist) but some other old music really only means something to someone who was there and saw it in context. I mean, I understand why the Doors were so important. But I’m fucked if I enjoy any of it much. That fucking organ is too liquid farty dishwashing detergent, and the lyrics are mostly pretentious, sententious bollocks. Light your own farts, or sharts, even.
Every fucker these days cites the VU as an influence. A few may even be telling the truth. Just bear in mind that, when the band reunited for a tour in 1993, every gig held more people than the VU ever played to the first time around. A good analogy would be the one Eno came up with; “Everyone who saw the Velvet Underground formed their own band”. It’s not true of course, but certainly the Velvets influenced almost everyone who saw them in such a fundamental way that their lives changed.
The Velvets have been extensively bootlegged, and quite a few bootlegs are, to the Velvets fan, somewhat essential: Here is an excellent place to start. It’s also worth noting that for all these legitimate Velvets boxes, the compilers knew they had a ready market (I counted 16 that I definitely want). On Landemaine’s list there are currently 15 double LPs or box sets. For a band which barely cracked the top 200 US album charts when they were around, this is pretty phenomenal.
Before we get started, I’ll just say that sometimes fandom is a bit like train spotting. One tape swapper I encountered had one sole tape I wanted: he published a booklet of all of his tapes (as many did back then), and there was about a page of bands whose tapes he’d acquired so as to use as swaps to help him get his main area of interest. The booklet was about 36 pages, the print was about 8 or 9 point (ie, miniscule) and, while the first few pages listed Joy Division, close to 30 pages was taken up with gigs and recordings by … (gulp) New Order. I nearly shat myself.
I’ve heard New Order gigs. Horrible things. They don’t seem to know how to talk to the audience, or even interact with them. They are about as interesting and remote as a goat on a mountain peak. No, I take that back, the goat would be interesting. Some people never get past Iggy and the Stooges; their cut-off point is circa 1974. Everything Iggy after that is, as far as they are concerned, shit. I’ve met people who prefer only the first Velvets LP, others love the first two, still others came to the band via “Rock’n’Roll Animal”, “Transformer” or the 1969 “Live” double set.
The Velvets had such a huge impact on musicians, fans and record store owners down the decades that bootlegs by the truck-load have been produced. Such was the never-ending, it seems, interest in the band that in 1979 and 1982, two made-in-Australia Velvets bootlegs ("The Velvet Underground Etc", and "The Velvet Underground and So On") were reviewed in the UK music press.
And bootlegs have prospered endlessly, and they lead directly to official box sets, such as the one of every single take made during the Stooges’ “Fun House” LP which was, as I’m sure you are aware, reissued due to demand. Which is, surely, madness. Because of the huge amount of Stooges material which has been officially released, and unofficially released, I cannot really imagine a Stooges ‘Deluxe Behemoth Box Set’ for each LP really working.
So, faced with this phalanx of Velvets box sets (one for each of the four studio LPs, two boxes of live material, and a grab-bag box of all LPs plus numerous extras), hell, which do you choose? Or, given the total cost involved (around $800 Australian if not more), why should you spend so much? Are the VU really that good? Why shouldn’t you just buy the two-disc sets of each album, surely that would be more than ample?
Apart from anything else, if you’re a long-term Velvets fan, and already have a few of the many bootlegs (quality and track selection ranging from vomit to marvellous), should you shell out for these as well? Bear in mind that quite a lot of material on these Deluxe Boxes is already available on these bootlegs - but the bootlegs are rather limited, and not by any means the best quality. The people doing these Deluxes have tried hard to tidy up the hair flowing out from under the jockstrap.
Well. If you want to listen to the VU, whether you’re an old scrote who big-notes their way in pubs (and who never quite got around to listening to them), or whether you’re a youngster who is so sick of old farts banging on about how life was just amazing when they were young (and so removing some of the joy of discovery from those who actually are young), I’m here to help ya. But only if, as I indicated earlier, you love music already.
First: a much better man than me recently observed; ‘every generation has their watershed moments, their bands which changed the world’…
Second: I was young when I discovered the VU, at a time when we were on the edge of art’s precipice, plummeting forward and lunging back at the same time, mining the past for forgotten and neglected gems. I was 16 when I first owned a VU record, nearly ten years after Reed had left the outfit. At that time, it seemed so obvious. If a record didn’t sound good cranked up loud, then it didn’t really get my attention.
At the time I didn’t know that not every band sounds good loud. This is why Big Bands were so popular in the 30s and 40s, by the way; they were LOUD compared to most live music back then. My dad loved big bands. I love loud music.
Because the VU’s first two records were released in both mono and stereo, as the recording industry strove to accept stereo (now is not the time for the mono v. stereo lecture), we have a choice of what to listen to first. Also, as with all the Super Deluxe Boxes … the LPs have been either remixed, tweaked a little, or at the very least remastered. In 1993, when the band reunited to tour the world, Cale commented that by modern standards, their LPs sounded like they were "recorded under water". No longer.
These modern (re-)releases present the band at their very best. Right now you can order each of the VU CD or LPs more or less as-is - in stereo. That’s the cheapest option if you want to investigate just one lp, just to see how good this stuff really is. Or whether it’s for you.
The VU are not for everyone, and nor should they be. The other option is to get the grab-bag box, “Peel Slowly and See”, which has all the studio LPs plus a handful of extras, including an early rehearsal session (over an entire CD) which doesn’t pop up anywhere else.
"Peel Slowly" has been out for some years now and it’s still the most cost-effective option. However, in the wake of the Super Deluxe Box Sets, “Peel Slowly”’s assortment of all the LPs (in stereo), extras and ephemeral recordings, becomes mostly redundant (unless you absolutely must have those early, rather charming recordings made in Cale’s loft).
The packaging is also rather cool, with the discs themselves modelled on lights behind the VU in several photographs, the disc packages like the original tape boxes, and the wonderfully awkward 34-page lavishly-illustrated booklet with all the data the gleefully anal require.
If it turns out you fall heavily for the Velvets (the interweb’s description is "proto-punks" but as usual the Interweb is filled with half-truths, bullshit, hipster bluff and ignorance disguised as wisdom) then you’ll want “Peel Slowly” just for that early rehearsal session anyway. I confess I am terribly fond of my Peel Slowly, but in the wake of these Super Deluxes, the poor thing won’t get pulled out very often. Especially if I put a few of my favourite non-Super Deluxe songs onto a mix-tape.
But it will still look pretty on the shelf. If, however, you either have a surfeit of money, are a natural OCD completist (who buys everything even if you only like one song), or if you happen to love the VU so much that you’ll cheerfully go hungry … you’ll need to buy these huge, LP-sized Super Deluxe box sets of each album.
The first, usually referred to as "The Velvet Underground and Nico" (although newbies would be forgiven for thinking it was called Andy Warhol as they’re the only words on the front cover), contains a mammoth six CDs. The second, "White Light/ White Heat", contains three CDs. The third, "The Velvet Underground", also has a mammoth six CDs, however, two of them turn up on "The Complete Matrix Tapes", and three are variant mixes of the day, so if you already have the LP and aren’t that excited by other mixes...
Unless you’re hooked and are really buying this box for one CD, a bunch of 1969 studio sessions remixed in 2014 but all tracks already available on LP and CD. The fourth, their last studio LP, "Loaded", contains another six CDs; essentially three variants of the album (including demos, many of which have already been released on an earlier 2-disc edition called the "Fully Loaded" edition), a previously unreleased live set and the deluxe version of the "Live at Max’s" album (which has already been released).
The sixth disc is an audio-only DVD containing another three versions of the LP; Surround Sound in DTS 96/24 High Res Audio and Dolby Digital; Surround Sound to Stereo Downmixes 96/24 High Res Audio, and Flat Transfer of Original Stereo album in 96/24 High Res Audio. Whatever all that means. So you may not want this one if you already have the "Peel Slowly" box and the "Fully Loaded" edition from 1997, and the "Live at Max’s" Deluxe Edition (which I can frankly live without - Bob Short tells me the thrill of the Max’s recordings is the crowd yapping but frankly if you want interesting yapping, take a tape recorder onto a bus. Hours of pervy fun and boredom.)
This is all looking a little quivering overkill, isn’t it? Here’s what I suggest. Decide what sort of person you are. No, really. Do you love music, really love it, or is it just some background thing? If music has never moved you … stop reading and fuck off. Just go. I don’t like you and, while I’m sure we may have many things in common, you’re wasting your time reading this. You’ll never listen, never hear, real music. In abstract terms, that’s fine. But right here, right now as I type these words, if you don’t love music, or aren’t prepared to investigate … you’re a narrow-minded shitbag and you should go work in a factory, a mine or some sort of mushroom-picking enterprise.
So. If you’ve never heard the Velvets before, take your pick. First LP - uncompromising music veering from crushing to gorgeous. Or "Loaded", the fourth studio LP, where Lou Reed recognisably starts to become **LOU**REED** or, "The Complete Matrix Tapes". Or, perhaps, the "Peel Slowly" box with those original loft recordings, or even John Cale’s "New York in the 1960s", the box of stuff he recorded before he met Reed. I’m going to play all these very loud.
The only person I’ve ever met who claimed to have actually witnessed the band (he couldn’t name the club, but accurately described Cleveland’s The Cave), explaining that the Velvets were very loud for the day, and that the effect was "like being stoned, not like on dope, but actually being stoned, with rocks …"
The sheer … influence … of The Velvet Underground makes these Super Deluxe Box Sets rather overdue. As I say, they’re not without fault, of course. But what they aim to do is provide a broad snapshot of where the band were around the time of each LP’s release. When you start looking at the band like this, you realise they had at least four more fine studio LPs in them - if only they’d been able to get into the studio in the too-short time they were together. Instead, we have out-takes, rehearsals and live tapes which only hint at what could have been. The boxes are at their most useful in gathering so much material scattered around into one helpful place.
The Complete Matrix Tapes
So I’m going to start my descent down memory lane with the most recent official Velvets release, which seems to have annoyed reviewers, because these recordings, more than any others I think, mark the clear starting point of **LOU**REED** as we remember him today.
January 2016’s Mojo had a small review by Chris Nelson which begins; “If you can get past the redundancy … [it] prompts the query, Who exactly is this set for?’ Completists …? Audiophiles …? Lou Reed’s second cousins?”
In one sense, Nelson’s plaintive cry makes sense, as the original “1969: The Velvet Underground Live” was released in late 1974 (with a hideous industry-designed sleeve) partly to bolster sales of Reed’s “Berlin”, improve sales of “Rock and Roll Animal” (a live album) and anticipated similar sales of “Sally Can’t Dance” (which got to number 10, apparently), and partly to shut out someone who wanted to release it and take all the dosh. A slightly extended pair of CDs was released in 1988 and, as sometimes happened around digital tranferring’s early days, the disc seems to have been taken from a copy of the vinyl itself.
However, when some of the songs from the two gigs (remixed and remastered) turned up on the super deluxe edition of "The Velvet Underground" (the third studio LP, which had some 18 live renditions, 11 of which were unreleased), that was an added inducement to open the wallet for that box.
As with every legendary band, there are fans and there are fans. Also, not everyone wants the super deluxe things; one long-time Velvets fan once remarked to me: “Who has the money for all these things, Robert?”.
Well, indeed. I mean, if you had the original “1969 Live” LPs, and then forked out for the super deluxe third LP, you might be a tad miffed to discover the entire Matrix set in the one place. However, this isn’t about being a completist: there are plenty of completist sites devoted to a particular band or artist. (My favourite name being Nick Cave Collector’s Hell, which says it all. Do I really need the edition of that LP with a fucking tea towel? Will the record sound any better if I have it?)
This is about the …
First, then, the Matrix tapes are the best quality live recordings of the Velvets during this period (although do feel free to contradict me, I’d kill for other recordings) and - they’ve been recently mixed and mastered. A rapid comparison in sound quality of Bob Quine’s recordings ("The Velvet Underground Bootleg Tapes Volume One: Bob Quine") at the same place reveals a positive gulf of variation. This is important partly because on the Matrix Tapes you can hear more clearly what the Velvets are up to, determined, it seems, to never do the same song in the same way twice.
Nelson complains that the four versions of “Some Kinda Love” in the Matrix box are “comparable”; yeah, but they’re still different. I mean, the Velvets weren’t New Order, who trot out and do a note-perfect rendition of their songs, night after night all around the world, barely acknowledging their audience. Fucking factory workers clunking out factory music for factory workers. It’s also a fine entry point into Lou Reed too, not just the Velvets, especially if you love Uncle Lou but never bought a Velvets LP (or did, but hated it).
"Matrix" is the sound of aliens coming in from the cold, discovering and hiding in rock’n’roll, figuring out where they can yank it, and still maintain impact and sense. Having “The Complete Matrix Tapes” all in one spot, all together in some sort of cohesion, with brilliant sound (far better than the initial 1969 double and the 1988 CDs), is an ‘at fucking LAST’ moment.
Name a different favourite band who put out a live LP, when you know damn well that there were other tracks recorded at the time, and how much you’d basically like the whole damn lot, thanks, not just four sides of vinyl. The Birthday Party’s "Drunk on the Pope’s Blood" live set at The Venue in November 1981? It was ages before I got the whole gig, and that was on cassette. You want it all. And Velvets fans, fascinated by how the band worked together, tight yet improvising, want the lot (including beetroot, pineapple, bacon and egg, and even those weird American pickles). The music, the lyrics, the context …
“The Complete Matrix Tapes” are an excellent starting point for any music lover - . Not everyone will respond well to their first three records; in several ways they are quite exclusory. Either you get it straight away or you can fuck off. Not so with "The Matrix Tapes" … Lou welcomes us in his offhand, wry manner, and the intimacy he continues to evoke throughout the four discs is wonderful.
The remixes bring up endless nuances, and the Max's double now sounds woefully lo-fi, and it crackles and hisses a bit, too. With this set, you can stand in the room with the band and just marvel at Reed’s dexterity (his guitar in ‘“ Can’t Stand It” is extreme punk way before punk), and just how relaxed and together the outfit are, that they can start and turn on a dime, so to speak.
Four discs. Over two nights. All originals, and really, nothing that can be rightly called a dud.
Certainly some songs are not as good as most of the others. But that, frankly, is to carp pointlessly. I’ve spent 2016 returning over and over to this box. Recorded in late 1969, the variety of songs - several never officially released until decades later - and several released later the following year… you’re not dropping into the deep end here.
If you love rock’n’roll, I reckon "The Complete Matrix Tapes" is for you.
TO BE CONTINUED