THE VELVET UNDERGROUND FEATURE
fondness for atonal drones, and former computer operator Maureen Tucker, a friend’s younger sister with an idiosyncratic approach to rhythm, were the unlikely quartet who (along with temporary ﬁfth member Nico — Marlene Dietrich on downers) unleashed this masterpiece of applied nihilism and gritty reality onto an audience attuned to Eastern dippiness, kaftans and the approaching Summer Of Love. Unsurprisingly the Velvets never made it big in California.
In fact, their fame was limited to the bohemian set of Greenwich Village, courtesy of their adoption by Andy Warhol. The great conceptualist had tired of creating art per se and had embarked on a new policy of franchising the Andy Warhol imprimatur out to a collection of freaks and oddballs of varying degrees of talent. After spotting The Velvet Underground in a club playing a song called ‘Never Get Emotionally lnvolved With Man, Woman Or Beast’, he absorbed them into this Factory set and sent them out on the road in the Exploding Plastic inevitable, a multi-media performance of Paul Morrissey’s Factory films and appearances by Edie Sedgwick and dancing poet with a bullwhip Gerard Malanga. for which the Velvets supplied a suitably inaccessible and atonal live soundtrack. To say the least, America wasn’t quite ready for them. ‘Their music will replace nothing except maybe suicide.’ said respected contemporary pundit Cher.
Warhol’s name is the only one displayed prominently on the first album cover, but his only real involvement was to foist the gloomy Teutonic chanteuse Nico on the band. Reed played along for a while and her renditions of ‘Femme Fatale’ and ‘All Tomorrow’s Partics’ hit the right notes of fatalistic decadence. Warhol’s only other contribution was to give the band its look. It was in deference to him that they adopted the leather jackets, and the shades came as a natural result of having to play while ﬂickering art movies were projected onto the backdrop. Thus was born the street-punk image.
It was a look that ﬁtted snugly with the songs. The album showcased the two complementary sides of Lou Reed’s songwriting style. Songs like ‘Waiting For The Man’, ‘Run Run Run’ and the notorious ‘Heroin’ were hip, factual reports from the street, without the distancing techniques his contemporaries still felt necessary when dealing with topics like narcotic addiction. By contrast ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’ and the sado- masochists’ anthem ‘Venus in Furs’ were
lou Reed \vlth lice In 1973
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laden with poetic imagery and literary wordplay. Burdened by the Warhol connection and commercially ignored, nobody at the time recognised the album for the work of lasting genius it undoubtedly is.
They never quite recaptured its glories. Having escaped the small pond of Warhol’s Factory and ditched Nico they released White Light White Heat, the logical conclusion of their experiments with noise, and generally regarded as the worst-produced record in rock history. Its ‘highlight’ ‘Sister Ray’ was a 17- minute celebration/negation of sex and drugs that was as scary as it was unlistenable, Morrison and Cale doing their utmost to drown out Reed’s dubious lyrics with a barricade of unfriendly sound. The third album was a gentler affair, with the barbs coming in the lyrics rather than the instrumentation. By then Cale had proved the more dispensible after his disagreements with Reed reached crisis point. He was replaced by journeyman Doug Yule. Reed himself stuck it out for one more album, the lacklustre Loaded, and quit in August I970, to live with his parents and work as a clerk in the family firm.
. . . And essentially that was that for the next 23 years. Doug Yule kept the band name for a few years, playing country rock to college kids, but nobody was fooled. Maureen Tucker brought up a family. Sterling Morrison completed his doctorate in medieval literature and worked the tug boats, John Cale made a bunch of left—ﬁeld critically-acclaimed but commercially ignored solo albums, and Lou Reed . . .
Reed is the most surprising ingedient in the reunion because he has carved out an existence beyond the Velvets. His solo career in the 70s and 80s was as provocative, uneven and meandering as his old friend David Bowie’s, but with his last two albums, the astringent New York and the harrowing Magic And Loss he’s established a mature and articulate voice appropriate to an artist of his age. Unlike his contemporaries he’s talking about death, mid- life uncertainty and disgust in a voice, well, two decades on from his Velvets’ obsession with self-destruction and hedonistic experimentation.
Which is why The Velvet Underground 1993 won’t work. Lou the Streetwise punk poet with his intimidating be-shaded sidekicks hammen’ng out an unheard-of racket doesn’t exist anymore. And even if he did, such has been the legacy of the Velvets that in the last two decades every gimmick-hungry yob digging gold from rock ’n’ roll has grabbed the
mike to tell us he’ll die before he’s old, usually with plenty of feedback in the mix. We’ve heard it all. Sterling Morrison once said of ‘Heroin’ ‘Rock fans have taken heroin thinking Lou took heroin, forgetting that the character in the song wasn’t necessarily Lou Reed.’ There’s no danger of failing to make the distinction this time around. Lou will be the one on nothing stronger than a glass of warm milk and a few vitamin pills. All together now: ‘llll’m waiting for my pension
The Velvet Underground play Edinburgh Playhouse on I and 2 June.
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND: ASelective Discography
I The Velvet Underground And lilco The
timeless debut and one of the few 605 records than still sounds fresh in the 905. ‘Heroin’ still astonishes, ‘Venus In Furs’ disturbs and you can still sing along to the opening lines of ‘Sunday Moming’. Should be in everybody’s All Time Top Ten.
I White Light White Heat 1968’s aural hell, distinguished by Cale’s delivery of the sick short story ‘The Gift’, the deceptive pop of ‘Here She Comes Now’ and the sheer bloody-mindedness of ‘Sister Ray’. New Order used to play it as an encore just to persuade people to go home.
I The Velvet Underground The most listener-friendly Velvets’ release, at least if you don’t listen too closely to the twisted lyrics. Stand outs are ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and ‘Beginning To See The Light’ both of which have proved endurineg popular choices for cover versions.
I loaded Reed’s final album with the Velvets and a contentious, occasionally sloppy effort, redeemed by the inclusion of ‘Sweet Jane’ another song destined to become an indie standard.
I Live 1969 the Velvets captured on a rare tour, frequently ﬂeshing out the songs from their reedy studio versions and killing any suggestions that the band were an arty- farty bunch who couldn’t cut it on stage.
I W An excellent compilation of outtakes released in 1985 including band versions of ‘Stephanie Says’ and ‘She’s My Best Friend’. A second collection, Another VU was beginning to scrape around the bottom of the barrel.
The List 2| May—3 June I993 7