The Velvet Underground. Complete Released Works. Part Three
The Velvet Underground and Nico, Now - finally - we come to one of those albums that is insanely iconic (that peeling banana for a start), that you’re told is essential, but which so many people have and rarely listen to because - whisper it - they don’t really like it.
Characters like me, of course, love it (to put it mildly). Around about the time I first heard this LP (I was 12 or 13, my friend Paul had bought it in a chain record shop, filed in the comedy section) I recall talking to some older musicians in 1980, stalwarts of Adelaide’s piddly live scene. To them, the VU were “weird”, and therefore not worthy of examination. The Stooges, incidentally, were widely regarded as a joke, plunking, laboured plodders. The musicians I’m talking about were people who took Frank Zappa seriously (but dismissed Beefheart) and rejoiced when ELO came along (if I had a dollar for every bozo who forcibly showed me how super ELO sounded on their expensive new imported speakers …).
Is it possible that God doesn’t want Ozzy or Eric Clapton up there with Motorhead and Schubert, Bach, Bowie, Keith Emmerson and Bolan, and Robert Quine and Renestair EJ and Thelonious Monk and Charlie Mingus and Brett Smiley and Art Pepper and all the others … talk about spoiling the atmos …
Anyway, I bought my first Banana LP t-shirt in 1986. Hardly anyone blinked. It was just a smart-arse bit of apparel, surely. This was before the days of specific import given to band shirts (given a huge push on Joss Weidon’s show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - I mean, Californian kids wearing Cortinas t-shirts - in the '90s?!).
And don’t get me started on that dreadful, pretentious, precious creature: context. There have been books written about the NY alt scene by people who lived a couple miles down the road at the time but who were completely ignorant of it. This sort of thing leads to emphatic statements based on what the writer believes to be true, but aren’t. Anyone under 50 hooting on about the superiority of the Stones to the Beatles hasn’t got much of a clue about the context, only about what they think they’ve heard. Also, they’re stuck with a "real rock" bias. This is the sort of thing which dismisses pop like Abba and SAW. It doesn’t help that the Beatles began to be canonised after their most grumpy sod got shot. I expect the Pope will be making an announcement this year.
However, I’ve never heard the mono mix of The Velvet Underground and Nico; I bought a German stereo reissue in 1980; I peer confusedly at it now, wondering how the hell all those scratches got on it. I thought I treated this record like it was made of eggshells.
For several years I used to start every Sunday morning with this LP - the first song is "Sunday Morning" - one share house I lived in for about a year we all did the same thing (often followed by Killing Joke’s "Wardance", and Kraftwerk’s "The Robots", but that’s another story). So I think I kinda know the LP as it originally stood.
Before I begin, the liner notes by Richie Unterberger - author of "White Light/ White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day by Day" (Jawbone Press) - deserve especial praise for (firstly) keeping a complicated story as simple as possible, and for not frothing at the mouth as so many of the writers of box sets tend to do.
This mono mix is the original issue, and the CD I’m about to play is the second of six discs from the 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition. Just quickly, then:
Disc One is the classic stereo LP which we all have, plus a few alternate versions.
Disc Two is the mono album, plus two mono singles (one with a different ending, each slightly tweaked from the LP version). Disc Three is Nico’s first LP, "Chelsea Gilr" (valid because it has such a strong Velvets presence and involvement, and although you can later buy a decent double disc set of Nico’s first two LPs, with extras, if you find yourself hooked);
Disc Four features two rehearsal sessions from before the album was released (six of the nine songs on The Sceptre Sessions were used in part or in full’ as the basis for the versions on the eventual lp; the remaining songs are entirely differen’ from those on The Velvet Underground and Nico), and Discs Five and Six feature an entire gig from the relevant period. Together with that extra disc from 1965 with Peel Slowly, you can trace the band’s early development.
The cover itself had problems. It had a big yellow banana, with Andy Warhol’s name, and an enigmatic instruction to "Peel Slowly and See", a little akin to Carroll’s famous directive, "Drink Me" (remember how that turned out?). So, you’d have to have a fairly open or odd mind to pick the thing up back in ’67, never mind put it on. It was a few months later before the record company realised they really needed the bloody band’s name on the front cover.
As it happens, as far as I am concerned, "The Velvet Underground and Nico" is Andy Warhol’s greatest contribution to modern art. I get Warhol, always have I suppose, but not in the way most people seem to. But Warhol was merely a reflection of the modern world but a fairly shallow, uninspiring, uncritical one at that. Warhol never really had much to say, figuratively, literally, artistically, and he didn’t hide it. I mean, the man collected fucking cookie jars, for Christ’s sake, and stored them in a warehouse.
"The Velvet Underground and Nico", then, is a piece of art all of its own, just happening to be far more significant and influential than anything Warhol ever said or done, or caused to be done. At nearly 50 years old The Velvet Underground and Nico should be an irrelevance. It should have no impact save that of nostalgia: John Cale’s forthcoming gig in England, celebrating the lp’s 50th birthday should not even be a concept, never mind the gig of the year.
Surely, in 2016, we have advanced so far that a record 50-years-old should not sound remotely special now.
Six of the eleven songs were recorded in April 1966, four more (plus overdubs on two more) were recorded the following month; the last song was recorded six months later.
Just think about what was in the charts back then. Here’s a top ten from April ‘66:
1 (You’re My) Soul and Inspiration: The Righteous Brothers
2 Daydream: The Lovin’ Spoonful
3 Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down): Cher
4 Secret Agent Man: Johnny Rivers
5 Time Won’t Let Me: The Outsiders
6 19th Nervous Breakdown: The Rolling Stones
7 The Ballad of the Green Berets: S/Sgt. Barry Sadler
8 I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry: B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs
9 Good Lovin’: The Young Rascals
10 Kicks: Paul Revere and the Raiders Featuring Mark Lindsay
Not, perhaps, as awful as today’s top tens. But it’s very kinda … of its time. And the Velvets were the true "outsiders", because they didn’t know any other way to be but beyond the pale.
Today, there’s only one way to really get a band you’ve heard of endlessly but never really responded to, and that’s to listen to them. Make sure you won’t be interrupted, turn the fucking phone/ pad off, lock the door, dim the lights, stuff the headphones on, take another swig of vodka, and … press play.
I won’t refer to this again; the mono mix is now my favourite. It’s so up-front and powerful. If you’re used to the stereo version, that’s fine, but the truth is because most people jam two speakers together anyway you don’t really get too much of the stereo effect anyway. No, mono has the immediacy, the sudden shock of the new.
"Sunday Morning’"is the perfect beginning, and while everyone thinks Nico should’ve sung it, in a way it’s a mission statement for Reed. So shimmeringly beautiful, when "I’m Waiting for The Man" slams into position next, the effect is disconcertingly powerful. Eyewitnesses to gigs where they actually started sets like this had the hippy youth squatting and grooving along, captivated and feeling the love, baby … and then, their faces would change, their demeanour, and they’d get up and some would boo, some would leave, while others sat there, stunned and bewildered. Reed’s lyrics tell a simple story, and the content disturbs just as much as it intrigues.
Unintentionally, perhaps, Reed is also responsible for a lot of heroin use, normalising it and causing thousands of needless deaths and miserable existences, and the appalling behaviour of wankers who tell us that "heroin made them" perform their criminal excesses.
Don’t fucking argue.
Just on "Sunday Morning". The album would be bereft without it. The song was the last to be recorded, in November 1966; the rest of the record had been in the can for six months. Without reading the histories, this gap in itself has quite a few implications regarding the personality mix and the power struggles within the band.
As if to continue this rather dark joke at the listener’s expense, the third song, "Femme Fatale" (the first song on the LP sung by Nico) is as darkly romantically slushy, but it wouldn’t do as an opener for the album. "Sunday Morning" is the way we’ve all felt, lying there staring at the dust motes dancing in bars of sunlight, mind roaming like an insect. The crushing pressure of the music of "I’m Waiting for The Man" is savage. Hearing this juxtaposition for the first time is elevating. Or it was to me.
"Femme Fatale"'’s elegant, hovering simplicity sucks us back in, only to be walloped by the huge, hypnotic beast-approaching sound of "Venus in Furs". Reed’s vocal is, at first, the last thing you’re paying attention to, the band are so powerful. By the time you’ve caught up you’re in some sort of waltzing vortex, by the time the song ends you’re confused.
But there’s no time to breathe, "Run Run Run" starts hitting us over the head with a mallet, bounding about like an accusative puppy. Reed’s selling his soul again. Dear God. This is the first song on the lp to be actually inspired by the book which gave the band their name (written by Michael Leigh). If you’ve not read it, it’s a censorious and moralistic look at private sex lives, as revealed by the intrepid writer as he reads through contact adverts and … shall we say … follows through (albeit in a rather prudish, I’ll-hate-myself-in-the-morning way).
Leigh also wrote a sequel.
"Run Run Run" - another heroin and corruption song, I always thought - contains a dextrous bit of guitar, complete with abrasive feedback squall, which has inspired people from here to eternity. This is the song which first captured the imagination of untold numbers of guitarists; I would have loved to have been in the room when that great under-rated guitarist Bob Quine first heard this song.
Whether it’s Sterling or John on bass here, they’re competing with Lou with considerable effect. The half-lope with a pause for decay starts reverbing to the point where you wonder if, like the Blob, the bloody thing’s going to come out of your mental cinemas screen. Mo’s heartbeat drums are too evocative and emotional to discuss; they elevate the band to the point where they frequently resemble a garbage truck speeding down a lane. There’s just nowhere to go before this clanking, stinking behemoth.
The Velvets are so much a part of their era, yet nothing like it at all. They couldn’t have been more accurate in portraying a moral underworld if they’d been playing in Berlin in the 20s, or Liverpool in the '70s, or … yeah…
Then Side One ends.
No-one was like this in 1967. No-one. And the LP stills sounds new, fresh.
No-one was looking seriously - well, kinda; there’s a moment in "I’m Waiting for The Man" where Lou half-laughs, it’s extraordinary - at S&M and drugs and emotional dysfunction back then. Remember, this is a band which more or less formed in 1964. Do they "Wanna Hold Your Hand"?
So here’s the question. Do you really, really want to hear Side Two?
Or should you go get a drink? A spirit, I think. Gin, gin and tonic, or gin and It. What’s your poison?
I mean, the impact of Side One was unlike anything … and many simply wouldn’t have got as far as the end. It was weird, alien, deliberately ignoring the desire most bands had to be appealing. Where were the cheery, please-like-me smiles and cute haircuts?
Should you re-listen to Side One, try to figure it out? Well, the band clearly intended you to turn the side over.
So, knocking back another gin (you’ve emptied the vodka bottle), you turn the record over.
To discover that, to some extent, they’ve repeated the one-two sucker punch of Side One; "All Tomorrow’s Parties" beguiles, then "Heroin" utterly corrupts.
Side Two is the one you put on at the party if you really don’t like the people who’ve turned up.
"All Tomorrow’s Parties" - the lp version is longer than the single version (and in truth I can’t believe they thought this song would work as a single) - is where the band start opening up. Reed’s guitar - you can hear him thinking, I’m gonna fuck Cale up, as he begins to play, then slowly finds a groove he can flicker around. Nico’s voice is utterly commanding here, dominating even - she’s made a virtue of a crippling accent. And of course, there’s Mo’s precisely-timed drums. The ending, given all the elements moving - a cross between a sway and a jackhammer - is sheer bloody genius.
"Heroin" fills the sudden silence, slowly building, hesitant, gentle, and turns into a dirty, horrific rollercoaster. Beguiling and hypnotic, horrible and grating, persuasive and sly. Heroin is an evil song; it tells of the real world, it’s confusion and alienation, and the solution. Lou’s vocal is a marvel, there’s so much in it. Listen to him breathing as he sings, his intonations.
Musically speaking, Cale’s fucking fucking fucking viola solo, which seems to go on for most of the song, is so brutal that it overwhelms us; later in the song it sounds like Cale has deliberately turned his amp up, almost drowning everybody else. I have thought for decades that Cale’s viola on this LP has made so many guitarists sit up and go, "I’m going to learn to play guitar! I want to sound like THAT!". Why the mistake? Well, it’s natural. You hear a guitar and you expect to hear another guitar interacting. So… it’s emotional. It’s not thoughtful.
Unterberger notes that Cale was angry that Lou changed "Heroin"’s original first line: "I know just where I’m going’ to ‘I don’t know where I’m going"… "You fucked up the whole song by changing that line"… and that’s a hell of a piece of history. Also, Moe Tucker couldn’t hear the band during the recording, so … she stops drumming. And the take was kept.
Which is followed by one of Lou’s earliest bad girl songs, "There She Goes Again", about a prostitute (or hooker as the americans bafflingly call them). "You’d better hit her", as Lou says; if he’s inhabiting a character, not writing from his own experience, I suppose we shouldn’t judge. I’m sure Lou was a lovely fellow. The song strikes me as a parody of those cheesy wall of sound '60s girl band singles; which is why the punctuating "you’d better hit her" is so much more nasty.
"I’ll Be Your Mirror" is another extraordinary Nico moment, one of those songs which moves you as soon as you hear it. It’s songs like this which made record companies think Lou had the stuff of a pop star. Handled less competently it would be unpleasantly twee; here, it’s huge. It made it to a 7” of course.
"The Black Angel’s Death Song" is probably the most under-rated thing on the album, Lou’s narrated lyrics traintracking over Cale’s piercing viola. If you don’t catch most of the lyrics, the song itself is profoundly disturbing, partly as a result of the regular, conversational rhythm being so consistently torn apart by that fucking viola. As I say, under-rated. In context, it’s probably the least of the songs here.
"European Son (for Delmore Schwartz)" is immediately reminiscent of "There She Goes Again", but once the song gets moving there are some sounds here which … well, there’s that fly on the wall moment with Bob Quine, quite frankly. Again, it sounds like, first, the viola is turned up to drown everybody else out. Then the bass seems to be deliberately turned up in an attempt to drown out Cale and Reed. Reed then seems to turn up his guitar. After that it’s a free for all, everyone’s feedback wobbling over each other in indiscriminate waves.
God knows how the studio techs caught any of it without turning it into sludge. Mo’s drums, usually so prominent (like a heartbeat at three am) just get subsumed… ‘European Son’ is a brute of a creature, bashing and beating at us and won’t let go. You get the strange, frightening feeling the song will continue, off the vinyl and into your room, long after the needle has reached the middle…
"The Velvet Underground and Nico", even if you don’t like it, can’t really be argued with. It’s not just a record, these are not just songs, this is not just something some people did in 1966. You can’t ‘criticise’ some works of art (Goya springs to mind, Bosch, Bacon); there’s just no point. The effect is too … huge. I get Pollock, but I wouldn’t have it in the house. I get Andrew Browne, too, and Martin Harris and I certainly would have their work in my house. Mondrian? Zen wallpaper, and a gift to Mod marketing and The Buzzcocks. Warhol? If some kind benefactor left me a Warhol, regardless of its worth I’d sell it within the week. If there were no takers I’d give it to a fucking real estate agent. Warhol reminds me of those hair metal bands; worth a mint and enormously popular.
The extra tracks are different mixes, and mono single versions. A few more options for your mix-tape; the singles were hardly on the radar; one song doesn’t have a fade-out but finishes the way it should; one version retains Nico’s little chuckle at the end.
However, here’s part of a conversation I had with Bob Short, well-known Sydney musician, knucklehead and Velvets fan.
You know your notion that Cale's viola encouraged guitarists? The first album sound is very interesting but the real hint to punk is Stirling Morrison's bass. One of the weird things about punk is that the bass lines on sixties records were adopted as the guitar riffs of punk. Largely this is technological. Small speakers + tiny stereos = a sonic landscape filtered through an AM band space.
Many people think vinyl is better because they remember that smushing of frequencies into one unholy whole. They hated CDs because they couldn't work out where the guitar noise they had initially perceived had disappeared to. Morrison's bass was the runaway rumble of songs like ‘European Son’. Reed merely plays a double chord chop on verse lines whilst Morrison makes the noise happen.
When punks started doing covers, they virtually just turned it into a fast Ramonesy cover of ‘My Generation’. But that did pack a similar sonic assault to the original - at least in spirit. The solo noise break that erupts midway through ‘European Son’ is essentially a dual interchange between Cale and Reed that essentially blends guitar and viola into one terrifying beast.
The noise break was something freely adopted by [Bob Short’s 1977 outfit] Filth because it was the answer to a very specific problem. If you're playing fully spread chords over six strings (as opposed to power chords, riffs or barre chords), and if you move to a traditional solo using single notes, you don't bring a rise of excitement to proceedings: you’re actually dropping the volume.
In hindsight, you see the Ramones largely bypassing solos because they would have caused a dip in sound from the barre chord onslaught. Essentially, I'm saying that the Velvet Underground's noisy aggressive material required an agenda of ‘more is more’. As a band, there strength was being able to move from fury to tenderness. I’d suggest Lou Reed was probably not as nasty a person as he made himself out to be. I suspect he was a soft kind of girly man who covered himself in a very sharp spikey porcupine suit.
With observations like that, people like me should really give up writing, shouldn’t they? But never fear, there’s thousands more words to go.
And "smushing". I must use that word more often in conversation.
Where was I? Ah yes. Shall we continue to the Sceptre Sessions (April 1966, different versions or mixes of nine of the songs on the LP), or the Factory Rehearsals (January 1966) or the July 1965 sessions recorded in Cale’s loft (from "Peel Slowly"..?).
Alright, I’ll bite. Let’s go backwards, not forwards, and see how things developed into "The Velvet Underground and Nico"…
So, we’re at July 1965, Mo Tucker hasn’t joined the band, so it’s three long-hairs bashing away in a cheap loft apartment in New York City. It should be four; percussionist Angus Maclise was asked but was rather dysfunctional in matters of time. This is a form of aural archaeology to some extent and, because this recording was never expected - never mind intended - to be released by the band, it is therefore easy to criticise, particularly in light of where all this lead.
Fuck now, though. I wonder what a record company exec would have made of it at the time. What was big in July 1965?
The Four Tops: ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugarpie Honeybunch)’
The Byrds: ‘Hay Missa Tambreen Man’
The Rolling Stones: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Sonny and Cher: ‘I Got You Babe’
Tom Jones: ‘What’s New Pussycat?’
With the best will in the world, there’s only one of those which has anything remotely in common with the Velvets. At any time. So while the '60s were woah-ing away or mumbling in a hippy daze…
This early version of" ‘Venus in Furs" is clearly influenced by Sacher Masoch and, despite Morrison’s remark that it was "purely a literary exercise", one does tend to wonder whether Lou might have been considering entry into a forbidden world; certainly Michael Leigh’s book provides sufficient information to open doors. This version is very ‘Greensleeves’; apart from seeing how the rhythms and cadences are already present, we can hear Lou’s thinking as he wrote the song - this is clearly how he initially thought the song should go. With Cale’s accent, and his slight Welsh burr not quite removed, the effect is rather beautiful. Cale’s got a beautiful voice. At one point a bus goes past the open window.
Then they have another stab at it. And another. It’s captivating, it really is. Perhaps the third version is the best, despite a rare bum note from Reed. It would have make a great single, even then…
"Prominent Men" is a rather hippyish Dylan blues chug which I’ve never heard before; weird to hear Reed apparently mimicking Dylan. Fascinating but forgettable, I won’t be returning to this one. Dylan apparently got under everyone’s skin.
"Heroin" starts off a lot quicker than we’re used to, but as the two songs before indicate, they’re no stranger to taking things slow. Cale’s viola is used for the first time, and it’s much more sympathetic here than the version on the record. Reed’s vocal is a little too quick at times, glossing over the powerful meanings he’s evoking, as if he’s still working out exactly how to phrase things.
See, this criticism thing is easy if it’s not you doing it. Actually, this is a huge rendition, dragging you in and keeping things intense. Eerily, it’s also romantic in that literary sense as well as the usual sense. I prefer the last take where Reed’s voice is both nasty, selfish and unutterably fragile, like some sort of wharf rat down on his luck. It’s like he’s trying to inhabit someone else’s character. It seems that it took the addition of Mo to bring out the hidden brutality in Morrison, Cale and Reed.
"I’m Waiting for the Man" I can barely listen to. Gently plunked slidey guitar, Reed doing that Dylanny thing. It kinda works. On the plus side, I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate the difference between an initial idea, and a reworked, rehearsed, final rendition than this. Imagine getting a bunch of kids who’re unfamiliar with all this, playing the Dylanny cratur [sic, Barman, sic], getting a response, then playing the album version, both rather loud. I don’t know how many takes they eventually bashed at, I gave up and skipped as soon as the harmonica came out.
"Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams". John sings this, and his Welsh accent really brings out the understated power; also, he’s got a naturally great voice. Curiously, Sterling’s ‘knocking’ is the one thing you don’t really want to hear; it’s either too erratic and lame or should’ve been replaced with an audible metronomic click. Apparently they didn’t have one, which meant that the human metronome caused a few extra attempts. Anyway. One does wonder what the result would have been had the VU attempted this. Crunchy or smooth? Salty or sweet? There are several takes of this one as well; it’s rather lovely hearing Reed be so boyish and grouchy at the same time; ‘Come on man, what’s wrong with you?’. I prefer the last take.
"All Tomorrow’s Parties" … my god, it sounds like one of those horrifying folkie things which are just too sweet to be borne, much less listened to - now we can hear the facility with which Cale and Reed approached Nico’s "The Marble Index". Reed’s snarling at his friends when they fuck up is rather instructive. Reed’s vocal is, here, the closest to what we’re accustomed to; the one thing which sticks out like proverbial dog’s balls on a birthday cake is that Lou hasn’t got his persona and confidence and swagger yet; and that although the loose structure of some of the classic Velvets songs are there, the three need … something else.
Possibly several something elses; there are quite a few takes again. They clearly suffer from a lack of beat heaving them out of that squatting-on-the-floor amateurishness which is both charming here (shockingly so if you’ve been listening to the official versions for the last thirty-five years) and revealing. Subsequent takes become progressively more jaunty, almost Mamas and Pappas-ish.
Probably the other most obvious thing here is that the boys really, really wanted to produce commercially acceptable songs to fit inside the zeitgeist. Here we have the fledgling Velvets as, in fact, part of the zeitgeist, not a band from Mars. Hearing Lou Reed’s frequent "One, two, three, four - shit!" (and his general irritated impatience, at great odds with the delicacy of the music he’s making) indicates just how much importance he places on this demo session. I’m glad the bugger never took up banjo, that’s all I can say.
So, of the six tracks here, if I was doing a mixtape, I’d only choose a version of "Venus in Furs", "Heroin" and "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams". Essential for the nutters to hear at least once, but … yeah, it’s mixtape time. And that’s the key thing about these monolithic boxes - you end up picking and choosing. Each album allows you to construct at least two or even three alternate versions of the record from the assorted studio versions and mixes and live recordings.
So let’s return to that Super Deluxe box of The Velvet Underground and Nico and see how much they’ve changed in just over six months.
The Sceptre Sessions come first on this CD, although The Factory Sessions were recorded four-and-a-half months earlier. This is a good idea, as you’ll probably enjoy The Sceptre Sessions more; they’re closer to how the lp sounds, much closer to their brutality; also, the variations are different and fascinating to unpick, the only tracks missing are "There She Goes Again" and "Sunday Morning" (both not yet written).
Six of the songs are effectively the original takes - that is, the raw recording - which formed the belly of the lp itself; three are different versions entirely; "Waiting for the Man", ‘Heroin’, and ‘Venus In Furs’; the differences may not seem striking to the jaded, but to the listener who has heard this album well over 50 times, it’s somewhere between wonderful and fascinating.
The liner notes to The Sceptre Sessions leaves you wanting more. By now you have the guts of at least one "alternate album" compilation.
The Factory Sessions. This are what the fans are after, even more so. Described as a Factory rehearsal and dated 3rd January, we have the first hints of where the Velvets might take us, and is previously unreleased. "Walk Alone", "Crackin’ Up" (with bits of "Venus In Furs"), and "Miss Joanie Lee" are revelatory in that sense; the version of "Heroin" and the two versions of "There She Goes Again", both with and without Nico, are quite different from the eventual lp. In some ways, hearing Nico giggle like a shy schoolgirl is worth the price of admission as she makes several valiant (non-Gotterdamerung) attempts to get to grips with the song.
Frankly, I can live without those first two tracks: interesting (not to mention amusing) to hear in context for the musician, of course, because you can hear two completely different worlds colliding, and the vocals are so distant a musician can block them out. They all sound like the band’s in the corner of someone else’s living room, intimate and somehow distant in space as well as time; "Walk Alone" is pleasant enough if you’re talking with friends in a different corner. "Crackin’ Up" is again pleasant enough, but unless you’re in on the joke …
With "Miss Joanie Lee" the first thing you think of is, "Is this where ‘Waiting For the Man’ comes from?" Either way, it’s an enjoyable romp with the now-obligatory near-inaudible vocals. You can also have a bit of a think about the particular direction Reed takes on rhythm and blues - on this evidence alone, had the Velvets never come along, there seems no doubt that Reed would’ve carved some sort of nasty niche for himself in modern music.
Of course, now we’ve listened to all these sessions we now need to go back and comparison listen the original album. So, this time I listen in stereo and, because I grew up with the stereo version, and because the mono version seems to shove a large hammer into my chest, I find myself developing a yearning for that bloody mono version. I do like the stereo version, but …
Good thing there’s no sign of obsession in me whatsoever, eh?
So, what next? Well, what were the band like live (not in Andy’s bloody kitchen or where-ever it was)?
Thankfully, there are two discs to tell us. The liner notes (which I don’t always agree with) explain that the 4th November 1966 recording (at the erm, world-famous Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus, Ohio) is "the only reasonable-fidelity tape of the band in concert with Nico". The quality is pretty good, particularly if you’re accustomed to muddy bootleg recordings of the Velvets (as I am), so the question does rather remain, is there a stash of muddyish recordings of the Velvets from this period which have yet to see the light of day? I’d be prepared to take a punt on a box of muddier recordings - because, as with these box sets, money will be spent to clean up the recording as much as possible.
Apart from part of "Melody Laughter" which appeared on Peel Slowly…, the Velvets have now road-tested the material for about six months. At this point the band have finished "The Velvet Underground and Nico", the last song, "Sunday Morning" was added a few weeks prior; the LP had its widespread release and distribution in March 1967; two years later, Unterberger tells us, the record had sold about 58,500 copies. The band are clearly trying to spread their wings in public, and there’s little information given about this in the liner notes.
"Melody Laughter" is, it seems, how the Velvets opened this gig. It starts off as an apparently formless jam and goes for nearly half an hour. Any band trying this today in a half-way commercial setting would simply lose the crowd (if there was one). However, we can assume that at least the people who’d turned up (you can hear them chatting) were curious enough to persevere with what seems like the band working around a bass drone/ line; Cale’s viola is prominent. By the time the guitar and Moe’s drums start kicking in, the audience are obliged to shout, it’s getting loud.
A quick word on jamming; everyone knows they’re damn useful for bands to work out new songs and structures (Joy Division did this all the time, with Ian picking and choosing bits which he thought could carry or hook with a song). It’s a good recording of the Velvets at their most odd, and is essentially moving.
Very, very few bands can walk onstage and get away with this sort of hypnotism, which is how "Melody Laughter" and "The Nothing Song" develop, with Nico gradually ambling in to sing a wordless tune (which all rather grand, and not at all like the Ice Princess "vith der klunky akcent, you klon"). Toward the end of "Melody Laughter", Reed and Morrison chime in with a duet of completely stupid yeah’s and other ba-ba-ba’s; pretty funny given the charts were filled with these sorts of meaningless chirps.
In one way you could mutter about ‘pre-cursor to "Sister Ray’’, but that’s not really the case. If anything, "Sister Ray" was a reaction to a set situation ("OK, you’ve got twenty minutes, go!") whereas "Melody Laughter" is a band … feeling its oats. Reed’s guitar mimics then takes over Cale’s viola, then Cale goes for some dissonance and simple rhythms on the piano. That’s probably as accurate a description as any. Also, these jams were, apparently, ‘a regular part of the Velvets set’ at the time, and indeed the band appear to close with another 28 minute jam, "The Nothing Song".
"Femme Fatale" comes in almost immediately, and the band snap into it like a politician smelling an opportunity to embezzle. "Venus in Furs", "Black Angel’s Death Song’" "All Tomorrow’s Parties" follow, ending the CD at about 50 minutes; all the songs have recording flaws of one sort or another. That said, I simply don’t care; we’re lucky in the extreme to have these. For my part, it simply whets the appetite for more, of course.
The gig is notable for evoking a similar intimacy as "The Complete Matrix Tapes"; we can hear Reed asking the crowd if it’s too loud, for example. Which reminds me, as with all bootleg tapes of questionable quality, for best results play loud and adjust your graphic equaliser. It’s also notable because it shows us that, quite early on, the Velvets were tight, tight, tight. Pauses were to engage the audience or to tweak tuning (cue amazement from those berks who always figured the Velvets were out of tune.) THere were no celebrity roadies for this band, sadly.
The second CD of this set (and the last in the box) is, well it’s a bit like being thumped by a road-train in a feverdream. By God, this band were the business. Letting my imagination extrapolate just a little, what on earth would it have been like, witnessing and experiencing this? And coming out into the cool air, wondering what on earth was that?!
CD Six begins with a stomping "Waiting for the Man", a crushing, yowling "Heroin" and then a stonking, nearly nine-minute-long brutal crack at "Run Run Run", which seems to demonstrate that fierce competitiveness which fuelled this band, flicked its switch; you can hear them firing off each other, it’s striking. The final song, "The Nothing Song" (young punters would no doubt use terms like "minimalist", "drone" and "tribal" and so on, entirely missing the context) completes another 50 minute CD. In a perfect world we’d have decent recordings of these extraordinarily moving jams; in this one, what we have here will have to do.
With both "Melody Laughter" and "The Nothing Song', what the Velvets do here is to moderate their natural inclinations to allow a background to develop for Nico to sing against. I’d argue that, had circumstances permitted, they easily could have put together "The Velvet Underground and Nico Two" … if, of course, a record company had the nouse and inclination.
Of course, if by now you’ve heard that first LP and don’t like it or find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about, but prefer "The Matrix Tapes", well, I’ll politely understand. But your journey into Loureedland (or Luridland) is going to be a confusing one, often without full context…
Well, after beginning to chill with "The Nothing Song" we can now turn to the third disc which is, Nico’s first album, "Chelsea Girl", which was recorded about 10 months after "The Velvet Underground and Nico", and after the band had been playing with Nico for some time; although she had begun to do solo shows, Cale, Morrison or Reed (among others) would often accompany her.
One of two faces that glamourised the Velvets (the other was Warhol), Nico lent the Velvets’ glorious, beautiful atonal racket a patina of European avante-garde sensuality, so that her rather clunky accent sounds intriguing and exciting, rather than absurd and foolish. The length of time and work the Velvets had with Nico makes Chelsea Girl a much-anticipated lp by those who enjoyed The Velvet Underground and Nico. Those '70s muso’s opinions remain with me; the VU were "weird", yet Nico’s pronunciation was glamorous rather than goofy, (or "imbecilic" like the Stooges). It’s a thin line between goofy and exotic.
As "Chelsea Girl" contains quite a few VU connections, it would always be a valid footnote to a box like this (but not "essential" as the liner notes assert); as a '60s LP, "Chelsea Girl" is pretty good (almost Middle-Aged Mum K-Tel in places), but has only a few very damn fine moments, and frankly an entire lp of Nico is something I’ve always found … hmf. One side might be listened to in a month… Reed’s comment that they shouldn’t have added strings on this is par for the course for him at the time; I disagree, the strings certainly add substance; because of them we get a much better idea of just what Nico can do as a singer (the strings certainly ‘assist’ her range).
That VU mixtape you’re making begins to take on a new life. Reed and Cale’s ‘Little Sister’, with it’s medievalist aspect is exceptionally charming (without being twee, oddly). Cale’s "Winter Song" has a similar Early Music-ish, folk-pop sensibility; Reed’s "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams" is along the same lines.
It occurs to me that as "It Was a Pleasure Then" (we heard an early version on the first disc on ‘Peel Slowly …’) is Reed, Cale and Nico, it should be an extra track to the stereo edition of The VU and Nico; and a quick glance at Peel Slowly … reveals that yes, there it is, just before the next track, ‘Chelsea Girls’. The lyrics - all the lyrics relevant to the VU are printed here - reveal a patterned form which you could take and apply to ‘Run Run Run’ (for example); the tune chosen is completely different.
In context "It Was a Pleasure Then" is a stand-out track, completely captivating. Without "the rest of the band", the gents basically focus on drawing out Nico’s strengths, forcing their song into places only partially reminiscent of The VU proper. It’s more interesting because Reed and Cale would be very familiar with the song, so they’d know more about how to vary it.
The ltitle track, "Chelsea Girls’"however, is not the "gem" the liner notes claim as it quite simply outstays its welcome like a meth-head oblivious that the party ended hours ago, chuntering on into another day while the hosts snore on the lounge, surrounded by party debris they’re too polite to tidy. Great lyrics, but oh, my.
The last four songs (barring Reed’s "Wrap Your Troubles …") are more of the same, if you like that sort of thing.
At under 50 minutes, it’s not a long listen, "Chelsea Girl"; one does rather wonder if the compilers could’ve found a few out-takes or … something at least to fill up 20 minutes. These boxes aren’t cheap, and if you already have "Peel Slowly… " you’ve already got one highlight and one lowlight from "Chelsea Girl".
Ah, I have it. What about that opening track to the Valleydale live recording, "Melody Laughter"? Surely that fits well enough, thematically as well. That would allow the entire rest of that gig to ease gently onto one cd, thus reducing the costs or allowing the slapping-in of another gig of the period (of ‘less reasonable fidelity’).
So, here’s the rub. The Sceptre Sessions and The Factory Sessions, plus the extras and the stereo edition of the VU and Nico LP, also form the two-disc Deluxe Edition box (ie, two discs) of "The Velvet Underground and Nico". Also, there’s a Velvet Underground and Nico Rarities Edition (basically the mono disc found here in the Huge Deluxe Box).
So, if you already own "Peel Slowly…," you’ll be well-pleased with the Deluxe Edition, since it has all this in one place. But if you forked out for the Deluxe Edition two-disc set, then, really …it’s down to whether you want the Rarities Edition, or the Deluxe Box with the two live discs here.
If, of course, you can live without the two discs of the VU live in this period (which I can’t). And you could probably find a copy of Nico’s album somewhere. If you have a problem with the sound quality of the live discs here, however, and you think your stereo version of the lp on the Deluxe Edition is just fine with you, you’ll leave the Super Deluxe Edition Box on the shelf.
All that has given me quite a headache.
However, half of "Melody Laughter" aside on "Peel Slowly…", for me those two live discs (despite the merely "reasonable" sound quality) plus the mono mix make The Velvet Underground and Nico Super Deluxe Humungo Mungo Box set an essential, wallet-levering purchase, and the packaging and notes are merely icing. In other words, sod the two two disc editions, I’ll have the big box thanks.
If you do shell out you’ll be able to create a separate mix-disc of the album for yourself, possibly two. Why? Because you’ll find you have favourites and you some of the versions you won’t want to listen to too often, and the fun of a big bastard collection like this is that you can play Mr Clever Boots and, putting the disc on at a party (your disc), you can say, "Now, if I’d only been there at the time, this is the LP they really should have made"’ For example, a disc beginning with that live version of ‘Run Run Run’, followed by ‘It Was a Pleasure Then’, ‘Melody Laughter’ and ‘The Nothing Song’ would be mighty, mighty fine.
Why shouldn’t you just buy the single disc edition of "The Velvet Underground and Nico", and nothing else?
Well, ask yourself, "Am I a dick?"
If you answer "Yes", and if you are a dick, there’s no help for you.
TO BE CONTINUED