Friday, December 30, 2011

OPINION: Dissecting the Velvet Underground Discography

By Austin Kirley

Hey internet, Austin here. As a close follower of this fine, fine weblog (or blog), you've probably noticed a bit of a lull in posting. Don't fret, however; we've just been taking a bit of a breather after our Best of 2011 lists. Come the Year of Our Lord 2012 we will we back in full force, better than ever. Thank you for your concern, as always.

The Velvet Underground is my favorite band of all time. Go ahead, name another band that broke more ground, influenced more artists, and fucked shit up as much as VU. See? You can't, can you? Think about what was happening in rock music in 1966: there were some cool garage bands, Frank Zappa, and the Beatles were starting to take drugs. Sure, that's all well and good, but is that it? Wasn't anyone trying something really and truly new; wasn't anyone making rock more aggressive and weird and noisy? As it turns out, yes, yes there was. And the Velvet Underground was their name.

The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

An iconic album cover if ever there was one, isn't it? It's an iconic album as well. Everything that makes VU good is on this album. With the beautiful balladry of "Sunday Morning", the protopunk grind of "I'm Waiting For the Man", and the all-out noise destruction of "European Son", this album is the perfect cross section of what makes the Velvet Underground the Velvet goddamn Underground. The dichotomy of the thing is astounding when you consider its era. Listen to the first track, "Sunday Morning". It's probably one of the prettiest songs ever written, and one of my favorite songs from the 60s. Now listen to the last track, "European Son". It's a mostly instrumental, 7 minute, noise-punk freakout that's probably the polar opposite of the opening track. It's tribal, hypnotic, and as brutal as any Sonic Youth track, and about 30 years earlier. "Heroin", which is probably the track that most casual fans would associate with the band, is the best example of the two-sided coin that is VU. It starts out as a nice little three-chord poppy tune about doing heroin (what else?). But about midway through the track, during an atmospheric guitar interlude, a metallic, scraping feedback takes over the track. The drums start getting louder and more intense, and the bass becomes slightly more arrhythmic and jittery, and the guitars are screaming and feeding back and droning like jet engines. And this was from '66 remember. It seems cliché to talk about how influential this was, because that's what most people seem to latch onto when talking about it, but it is worth noting. The Velvet Underground & Nico has probably invented more genres than any other album. It's just as much noise pop at one second as it is shoegaze or garage rock in another. What you know as "indie rock" today, was born from this album In short, it's a classic. Drop whatever you're holding and go listen, even if it's a baby...especially if it's a baby.

White Light/White Heat (1968)

I've mentioned before, in this very blog, that I'm all about taking things, music in particular, to their absolute extreme. That's why I'm such a big noise rock fan, and it's also why I'm such a big bubblegum pop fan. And taking it to the extreme is exactly what the Velvets do on this slice of vinyl. The thing is loud, fuzzy, atonal, and hideously ugly. And probably my favorite album of all time. Right off the bat, there's a huge plus for me: no Nico. I've said this before, and I'll say it again: Nico had no place in the Velvet Underground, and she doesn't deserve to be remembered as the integral part of the band that most people seem to think she was. She was one of Warhol's beauty queens. She couldn't sing, she could barely speak English, and she ruined what would have been otherwise enjoyable VU songs. Thankfully, she was purged from the band on this particular musical outing. A lot of other things were purged as well. Namely, most of the beautiful melodies, the love songs, and the production values. This is true lo-fi. And save for a short (literally two minute) song called "Here She Comes Now", which is by no means a bad song at all (it was later covered by Nirvana and featured in the movie Adventureland), the entire record, all 6 tracks and 40 minutes of it is a gloriously distorted mess. The opening track, "White Light/White Heat", which is about doing speed (what else?), is a dirty, bluesy, punker that (as a lot of VU songs are wont to do) devolves into a blistering noisefest, thereby setting the tone for the rest of the album. It fades out into the second track of the album, "The Gift". A lot of people have split feelings about "The Gift", and I count myself among those people. Musically, it's one of my favorite tracks of the album. It's eight minutes of thick bass droning, bashed out drums, and improvised guitar noise. What more could one ask for? However, Mr. Lou Reed throws a wrench into things, as he likes to do. The fantasic music I described is relegated to one stereophonic channel (specifically, the right one). On the left, Lou reads a short story about a man named Waldo Jeffers in what I can only describe as a faux psuedo-British accent. And to be honest, personally,  it makes my skin crawl. I can't stand listening to it. Thankfully, if you happen to be listening with headphones, you can simply remove one and listen to the instrumental track. Equally thankfully, the next song more than makes up for it. "Lady Godiva's Operation" has become my favorite Velvet Underground track of all time. A droning, slow, lo-fi tune about a sex change operation, this is probably the most ahead of it's time VU song in their discography. It sounds like Guided by Voices sniffed a bunch of glue and let loose on a Tascam. If someone told me that this song was from 1993, I would honestly believe them. Track four is the aforementioned "Here She Comes Now". It was the song that originally got me listening to the Velvets, by way of a fantastic Nirvana cover. Not much can be said about it except that it's a great song, and the only surfacing of any sort of pop on the album. It's like a breather in the middle on the rest of the record. And the remnants of that song are completely obliterated just seconds later on "I Heard Her Call My Name". Full of detuned guitars and snarled vocals, this is about as close to noise rock as music would get for another 20 years. It certainly gets my vote for most badass track of the century. And then, on track six, "Sister Ray" happens. It's a Leviathan of a song, and a fitting ending to a Behemoth of an album. What can I say about it, except to throw that baby to the ground and grab a copy.

The Velvet Underground (1969)

With The Velvet Underground, the band got a whole lot less weird, but that doesn't mean they got worse. In fact, while they still maintained the original VU lineup (Reed, Morrison, Tucker, Yule, and, for the first two albums, John Cale), they didn't make a bad, or even average, album. The first four VU albums constitute what is maybe the greatest run in the history of rock music. Like I mentioned, this album marks a drastic change in the band's sound. It's not that they lost all their experimentalism. Most of the tracks on this are ballsier than whatever you would hear on the radio in 1969, or even today; and "The Murder Mystery" is just as insane as anything you would find on  a Residents album. But the focus shifted from wild experimentation to songwriting. And keeping in line with previous albums, whatever the Velvet Underground tries to do, they do well. Some of my favorite Velvets songs are on this album. It's rock music with no real point other than to be good rock music. While White Light/White Heat was built on making the listener uncomfortable and on the edge of their seat, The Velvet Underground is much more of a solid album. The songs are solid and dense, much more permanent. They're more accessible, there's no denying that, but there's more than meets the ear on first listen. I think the Sonic Youth comparison I made before is equally apt for this album. A lot of the songs are long and slow, and make use of droning organs or guitars. The drums and bass create a hypnotic, repetitive base for the songs to build on. Reed writes some of the best songs of his career on this album, such as "Pale Blue Eyes", "What Goes On" (a personal favorite from the album), and "Candy Says". The record closes with what is probably the best one-two punch in the Velvets catalog: the 9 minute musique-concrete epic "The Murder Mystery" which flows seamlessly into the 2 minute acoustic folk ditty "After Hours", sung (in a charmingly amateurish voice) by drummer Moe Tucker. This is a perfect album to slap on while studying, or trying to fall asleep, or if you're in need of some great music. While by no means the strangest VU album, it's still very much worth your time for the fantastic songwriting. Drop that baby.

Loaded (1970)

This is the last Velvet Underground album by the somewhat original lineup of the band, and while it is a tad depressing that they never returned to the experimental extremes of VU & Nico or White Light, Loaded is still a terrific album in much the same way The Velvet Underground was. The focus is still on songwriting as it was on the preceding album. However, on Loaded, the band was consciously trying to write what they hoped would become radio hits (hence the title, meaning it was "loaded with hits"). They didn't succeed, at least not as much as they had hoped, which lead to their breakup after this album. However the album did produce two songs which have become modestly successful: "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll". I'm probably not the best authority on this album, as it's my least favorite of the four VU albums, but what I said before about The Velvet Underground still applies here. It's all very catchy and accessible, so much so that even the least musically minded classic rock junkie could jam along to a lot of the songs. I will say that I don't think it makes for the most fitting epitaph for the Velvet's legacy; but, like everything else they did, it's infinitely likeable and listenable. [Note: I recommend grabbing the Deluxe Edition of this particular record. It's got some great demos and outtakes, as well as some VU versions of what would later become solo Reed material. Good Stuff.]

Squeeze (1973)

I debated putting this album on this list. While it is still technically a Velvet Underground, it's in name only. All the members (Reed, Cale, Morrison, Tucker) had left the band except for the bassist Doug Yule, who proceeded to bastardize the VU name with this album. I have two words for this thing:


  1. I agree with everything.

    It kinda depresses me how far Lou Reed has sank...

  2. vocal on the gift-john cale!!!!!!!!