Saturday, June 8, 2013

# 3 The Velvet Underground Loaded


* Disclaimer. This review may discuss adult themes. The Velvet Underground are a deeply adult band.

Some research has gone into this because I didn't want to make judgements that weren't backed up by grounded accounts of the events that led to the making of this remarkable album. It is remarkable, just as pretty much everything this band ever released is to me. They stand alone as far as I can see. More than virtually any other band. There were fellow travellers at the time. The Lower East Side boho set, The Fugs, The Godzs, The Silver Apples, probably Zappa, though I've never heard much by that man that I can stomach. Nothing from the West Coast except perhaps for Eight Miles High by The Byrds, The Doors were running down a completely different track and nothing from England directly compares because this is such deeply American music But the fellow travellers I mentioned (except for that great Byrds song) are dwarfed into irrelevance by this group of people and the songs and albums they produced.

I didn't know why this, their fourth and final record was called Loaded. I would have assumed that it was a play on words like The Beatles Revolver. A loaded gun, 'uptight or high, a loaded message. In fact it's because the album's intent was to be loaded with hits. Genuine hit singles which would break the band forever from the underground and make them a commercial, mainstream group of hit-makers. An urban, streetwise Creedence.

It wasn't to be. Lou Reed left the band weeks before it came out. He's listed on the back sleeve third amongst the musicians who contributed to the album. Doug Yule, who joined the band on the departure/ expulsion of John Cale is listed first. Mo Tucker comes next although she played on little if any of the versions recorded here. To me she must be on Oh Sweet Nuthin'! or else it's a very fine approximation of what she does.

This back cover is a stark, black and white image of a recording studio and a list of credits. The front is a famous if slightly tacky and over-literal cartoon image of purple ooze seeping out from the steps of a New York subway station. The Velvet Underground are coming to get us. Time has given it grace and elegance for me. The shaded lettering is arched over the rising smog and the classic Atlantic insignia is embossed in the top left corner.

The Atlantic design on the record itself is always a joy to behold. Did anything sub standard ever come out on this label? If it did, I don't own any of it. So, to Who Loves the Sun, the first of the three massive hits that never were that set the tone for this album. I tried to detect some cruel undertone that exists on other gentle Velvet songs but I really can't hear it here. It's just a timeless, beautiful pop song. Simple chords, innocent vocals, ba ba ba ba backing vocals. Any record company worth its salt could surely put this where it belonged. Squarely in the pop charts. Sadly the band were gone before the general public even got a chance to hear it.

Standing on the corner. Suitcase in his hand. The corner as a metaphor for a certain American way of life. Prescient (one for the adjective fans) lyrics considering Reed's imminent departure from the group. I could just go on to quote the rest of the lyrics of second track Sweet Jane because it says something much more profound than I ever could. For me it's about how hard the daily grind of life is and how we rise above it as human beings to find our own grace. Jack's a banker, Jane's a clerk. He's in a corset, she's in a vest. They're like an adult worn down version of Terry and Julie from Waterloo Sunset. They know how to make their lives worthwhile.

The passage that gets me is always. 'Everyone who ever had a heart, They wouldn't turn around and break it And anyone who ever played a part Oh wouldn't turn around and hate it!' It's a song to the haters. Those who didn't understand or denigrated what was good in the sixties. It's beautiful. This song turns up on drive-time compilations along with AOR rockers that it has nothing in common with. This was actually what Reed was surely aiming for when he wrote it. But it's too good for that. Reed hated the fact that the version with ''the heavenly wine and roses' section wasn't on the final mix. I first heard it almost twenty years later when The Cowboy Junkies (no band could ever have been called this without The Velvet Underground) released their version of it with this passage restored. They did the song and the passage justice and Reed was publicly grateful.

Rock & Roll is next and it's every bit as good as the first two songs. The track chugs along with an effortless, stately grace. It must have been a joy to play.Sterling Morrison comes into his own here. Reed was notoriously not nice. Somebody told me that there were two kinds of people. People who like Lou Reed and people who know him. I never read a bad thing that Reed said about Morrison. He was probably the least credited member of the band but they wouldn't have been the same without him or lasted as long as they did. He held them together. After the Velvets he became a university professor and it's the sheer intelligence of the band that comes across here. It's a story about the music the band is playing and how it saved and changed lives. It's about a nine year old girl discovering a whole alternative set of possibilities.''Despite all the amputations. You could just dance to the Rock & Roll station. It was alright.'

(Sorry about Reed's vocal behaviour and sartorial lack of taste on here. He's too mannered for my liking. But Morison, as always, is great!)

Cool it Down does exactly what it says on the tin (sorry!). It's slower paced and funkier and similar in mood and tone to Some Kinds of Love from the third album which also occupies almost the same place on Side One of its album.. Like that track this also seems to be concerned with the sexual act. Though this time money may be changing hands. Lou's down around the corner again and he's looking for Miss Linda Lee. She's got the power to love him by the hour. It's probably best that we leave them to it. I seem to remember seeing this on some kind of work out album or playlist at some point but I'm not nearly supple enough at this stage of life to try it out myself.

                           This may well be the worst photo of the Velvet Underground ever taken

New Age's opening lyrics; 'Can I have your autograph. He said to the fat blond actress.' I can't think of anybody but Lou who could or would write something like this. It's horribly cruel but deeply tender at one and the same time. Reed has form for this by this point. 'She's down on her knees my friend... You'd better hit her' (There She Goes Again). But by this stage his writing has become far more layered. He's older and wiser and really becoming the short story writer or novelist he's always aspired to be. The song appears to be about a shameless young gigolo on the make. 'You're over the hill right now. But you're looking for love.' It could be downright nasty, there's a line about a marble shower which speaks of the shallow immediate gratification of sex with someone you really don't like. However, the music takes it on to another level. It's a song to the fallen people of Reed's congregation and it has that religious, spiritual vibe that makes their third album so special. 'It's the beginning of a new age'. I'm really not sure of exactly what he's referring to here. But the end effect as the song moves from the third person to the first is that people whose manner and ways, if you were observing in a restaurant or a bar might seem vulgar and tacky are given a dignity and grace that they entirely deserve.

Well that's Side One and Side Two has a lot to live up to. Incredibly it does so for me. It doesn't have any of the huge hits from an alternative universe that are on the first side but it maintains the same laid back, assured momentum to the last note.

Head Held High is the rockiest thing on the album. It's almost metallic in tone but the production gives it a gloss that previous, similar efforts (for example the White Light / White Heat album) didn't have. Lester Bangs loved it. It was written in a motel room in Seattle by Reed and Morrison while a cab was honking for them outside.It's short, sharp and effective.

Lonesome Cowboy Bill has always been one of my favourite things on here. It's almost deliberately throwaway. It's a blast..It moves so fast and seems so much fun. It's ostensibly about the rodeo, bucking broncs, sipping wine, ten gallon girls and yodelling. Make of it what you will. Reed denies that it's a tribute to William Burroughs though I'm sure he must have been aware of a possible connection when he wrote the song.

I Found a Reason is another song in the spiritual vein of the third record. Its lyrics equate love with achieving a state of grace. The vocal harmonies are just great here. Yule particularly deserves credit for what he contributed to the band in this respect. 'I do believe If you don't like something you leave.' Reed has moved on from his early songs here it's almost a straight narrative of what he sees round him. All the modern urban vice. You get the sense that he's trying to talk to his community on this album, imparting some of his hard-earned wisdom.

If I had a least favourite song it would be Train Coming Round the Bend but I actually like that too. It's got something of the eerie feel of their first record but it's talking about America as a whole rather than just New York.  There's a sense of this wider backdrop throughout the album. They've toured all over the States by now and there's a bigger wide screen perspective lyrically and musically as a result. The focus here is on the music with the lyrics playing a supporting role. If it's possible for a song to sound like a train coming round the bend it does so here.

Oh Sweet Nuthin! is an incredibly fitting way to close the recording career of one of the truly great bands. The words catalogue a series of downbeaten urban types. Reed's people again. Jimmy Brown, Ginger Brown, Polly May and Joana Love. They're battered scattered, scarred and beaten down by life but somehow just like cats wind up on their feet even though they ain't got nothing at all. They have their humanity I suppose. That's something we all have regardless of what happens to us.

Sometimes you get a sense that bands know things are coming to an end. I get this feeling here with this closing song. After the name check of the fallen heroes and their tales of woe it builds to a point where Morrison breaks into an incredibly fluid, sustained solo and the drums (it sounds like Mo to me) achieve a relentless hammering groove. I'm aware that I'm verging on cliched rock journalist speak but what the band achieve here is just extraordinary and really words fail me in trying to describe and evoke why and how this is..The song comes back to Reed and the harmony vocals and they draw the song to a close. It's seven and a half minutes in length but not a second too long.

As with The Beatles the sixties ended for the Velvets in 1970. Given its circumstances and the fact that it was put together and released without the full co-operation of the musicians who made it, it's an incredibly coherent, consistent  record. It's a totally different beast from any of their other albums and is the best example I can think of of a band developing their sound to have broader commercial appeal without ever once compromising their artistic credibility. It should have been huge when it was initially released. I love it!



  1. This is your best one yet, Bruce. I couldn't stop reading it. Really compelling read. Now I just have to buy it, finally.

  2. Cheers Rod. Very much appreciated! That's a great album ad you should own it.

  3. Wonderful, Bruce! I agree with Rod- I found your review really interesting- I'd never thought about the album in its wider context before. Plus, I think the album is brilliant- sweet jane, rock'n'roll, oh sweet nuthin', I will never tire of hearing those songs.

  4. Cheers Andy. I really think of you whenever I hear anything off this album or pretty much by the band in general. Our trips to New York,trying to write songs one time at UEA, you playing a really pretty good version of Heroin on a ukelele in Abdul's bar in Riga. Also one time driving across Dartmoor listening to Oh! Sweet Nuthin. You've got the taste. Hope all goes well.