The Velvet Underground

It's hard to imagine anyone today listening to the Velvet Underground for the first time and not feeling immense disappointment. The Velvet Underground are unquestionably one of the five most influential bands in history -- or so it is claimed. Me, I have a theory that at least half of the bands who claim to be influenced by the Velvets are lying through their teeth in order to look hip -- just like many critics who sing their praises but never put their records on (Lester Bangs had this story about how every critic he knew had nothing but praise for the VU, but if you went to their house you'd find their albums in pristine condition, with no scratches or any other evidence that the record had gotten out of its shrinkwrap much). The Velvet Underground are unquestionably the most overrated band in rock history, unless the Sex Pistols count. Yes, they influenced everyone from Yo La Tengo to Vaclav Havel, but so did the Doors and a lot of other '60s bands - most of whom don't put me to sleep like the Velvet Underground do too often. Essentially the Velvets were an East Coast version of the Doors with a smarter (and better) pretentious drug-addled egotistic singer/songwriter at the helm and a more primitive, less pop (and arguably less interesting) sound. And they didn't have any hits or commercial success, which has a lot to do with why they're so overrated (hey, here's at least one '60s classic rock band that isn't overplayed on the radio). The Velvet Underground were a good, if inconsistent band, and as even I'm finally forced to admit, revolutionary (but not as much as their contemporaries the Beatles, Hendrix, Beach Boys, Who, Kinks, or maybe even the aforementioned Doors). Lou Reed was (and I say "was" -- have you heard the crap he's foisted on us for the past twenty years?) a decent songwriter -- not a great one like folks say, but a guy who had a way with words and interesting talk-sing style. The words are almost good enough for one to forgot how dull and repetitive his song structures are and his obvious musical limitations - good rhythm guitarist, though. I rarely do this, but I have to give a tip of the hat to fellow web critic Mark Prindle -- bless him, he was finally the first critic I've ever read who actually told it like it was about the Velvets. Everybody else just mindlessly kisses Reed's heroin-veined ass without a word of dissent. Despite the fact that they influenced punk and had lots of noise and dissonance and sang about drugs and weird sex, they somehow managed to make all of the above seem boring - an awesome feat, if not an inspiring one.

I do consider the Velvet Underground a decent band with a handful of classic songs, don't get me wrong. If every other critic alive (and dead - L. Bangs, R.I.P.) didn't overrate them so badly, I wouldn't have had to write that nasty first paragraph. Let's just evaluate the records one by one with an open mind, and try and forget anything you've ever read about the band before you listen to them.

The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) ***1/2

Groundbreaking, sure, but 1967 saw quite a few groundbreaking albums -- the difference is that the VU broke a certain ground that other bands wouldn't even touch. Not even the perverts the Rolling Stones sang so frankly about standing on the corner of Harlem scoring heroin, then crashing in some scummy Lower East dive to shoot up, then whiplashing your lover during sex play, all the while preparing for "All Tomorrow's Parties," that no doubt end in decadent drug/sex orgies with Andy Warhol's stable of transvestites, drug addicts, spoiled rich girls, trendy assholes, and other assorted freaks and poseurs. Reed's lyrical content really is the most revolutionary aspect of the album -- he's as self-consciously a detached observer of the lower depths as Nelson Algren, only not as good of a writer. As for the music, it sounds like simple folk songs lathered in bargain-basement distortion - the melodies are strong, if repetitive and not very catchy (like most folk melodies). Of course by this point Reed had shed his obvious Dylan infatuation for a more original stance, adapting some novel Kurt Veill touches in his tunes, giving the entire album an oddly Germanic-meets-Indian drone feel. Unfortunately, German art songs and Indian drones don't add up to rock'n'roll - take two dirgey forms of music, slap'em together, and you've got a great insomnia cure. Oh, but I guess it is rock'n'roll after all, 'cause "Run, Run, Run" is a lame ripoff of the Who's "Run, Run, Run" (couldn't Reed have been a little less obvious?), which while not even a classic of the Who's canon, trounces most of this shit all over the place - heck, the Who had something the Velvets don't: ENERGY. You see, and I bet you already knew this, the Velvet Underground consisted of a bunch of heroin addicts, and if there's one rule for rock music, it's this: heroin addiction makes for bad music. Except for the NY Dolls, of course. Anyway, the non-production sucks all the life of some classic songs - hey, I gave this record a good grade for some reason, didn't I? "Sunday Morning," and "Femme Fatale" are quite lovely little beatnik ballads, though I can't stand Nico's vocalizing on the latter - consult the R.E.M. version to hear "Femme Fatale" with a decent singer. Unfortunately, zee fraulein who has, how do you say, no talent, sings a total of three songs here - that's three too many! The Velvet Underground were so uncommercial that they allowed a talentless German model to front the band because she helped the band's image (this is true fact, friends). About half of these songs aren't very good - the final two in particular, as "European Son," ends in this load of loud pointless feedback that goes on forever with no purpose. Which is a fairly apt description of the band's second album....

White Light/White Heat (1967) **

A complete disaster. Some folks swear by this album, and to give it due, it's impossible to imagine Sonic Youth or a great deal of indie/punk rock without these blasts of corrosive white noise laying the foundations for the style. But so what, give me Daydream Nation any day, this album is a drag. The title track celebrates amphetamines, which is the only interesting thing about it - the band tries to rock, but the Velvet Underground don't know how to rock very well, because as I said earlier, there's no ENERGY. So what we get is 40 minutes of pointless white noise, which wouldn't be so bad except that it's wimpy, overly repetitive white noise that never finds any decent riffs to hang on, and it never gets hypnotic. The saving grace is Reed's blistering solo on "I Heard Her Call My Name," but after that you've got 17 minutes of "Sister Ray," which might be a little better than "In-A-Gadda-Vida," but is still a boring "experimental" piece of hippy shite - seriously, repeating the same boring riff for 17 minutes and having Reed sing about sucking on ding-dongs! What creative genius! "The Gift," is a juvenile piece of poetry recited by John Cale (spoiler: Waldo gets knifed); "Lady Godiva's Operation," almost seems like more of the same, but thankfully halfway through Reed steps in and takes over - still doesn't make it a good song, though. "Here She Comes Now," is a decent little pop song in this company, but it's not as good as the debut's "There She Goes Again."

The Velvet Underground (1969) ****

It's best to see White Light/White Heat and this album as two sides of the same coin - it's as if the band consciously decided to split their two sides on two separate albums, rather than integrate them wholly as they had on the debut. I realize that the harder-rocking side of the Velvets was more influential, but their folkier, quieter leanings certainly make for more listenable music. This is the one Velvet Underground album I can truly enjoy all the way through, except for the psychedelic multi-track experiment "Murder Mystery." With the band concentrating on his songwriting, Reed hits a peak in that area that he never had before, or ever has since. There are uptempo rockers such as "What Goes On," to link to the Velvet's white-noise roots, but most of the album consists of low-key ballads such as "Pale Blue Eyes," a great song that drags a bit too slow and long. But hey, Reed was probably strung out on smack when he recorded it, so I can see why. Shockingly, "Jesus," is straight-up gospel that Pat Robertson could hum, and there's not a hint of Reed being ironic. Reed's mood seems to have lifted, despite the sop to kinky sex, "Some Kinda Love". "Beginning To See The Light," and "I'm Set Free," are frankly optimistic and - gasp! - warm and moving. However, the album ends on one of my absolute favorite VU tunes, "Afterhours," a sweet, creepy ode to death wonderfully sung by drummer Moe Tucker.

Loaded (1970) ***

With Nico and Cale long departed (they left after the first and second albums, respectively) and Tucker on pregnant leave, only Reed and guitarist Sterling Morrison are left of the original band, which results in an album that sounds less like the VU and more like the opening act of Reed's solo career. New member Doug Yule sings lead on several songs, including the opener "Who Loves the Sun," which is nothing less than a sunny '60s AM pop charmer, a bit like the Turtles or Searchers with those pretty little hooks and harmonies. It's a far cry from the first two VU albums, as now they've coalesced into a more or less normal rock band - very conventional, pulling into a surprising country-rock direction in spots ("Lonesome Cowboy Bill"; "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'"). Despite "Sweet Jane," perhaps the greatest song Reed ever wrote, and two other classics, "Rock and Roll," and the underrated "New Age," most of the record feels slight. After all, without any weirdness and Reed's songwriting no longer at the peak it was on the third album, what you end up with a conventional early '70s rock album that has a few classics and a lot of decent-but-unremarkable tracks. I mean, really, generic rockers like "Train Round the Bend," and "Head Held High," have no greater reason to exist than all the other second-hand Stones rips that were floating around at the time. And I like the Stones better, myself.

Reader Comments

Phil Metcalf,

I just read your comments on the VU and have to say that I agree with them almost 100%. People have told me that White Light White Heat was the greatest album EVER! So I finally bought a copy and after listening to it, was bored shitless. And I still listened to it a couple of more times to see if it would grow on me, but I still can't stand it. The Velvets did have a few good songs; I like Heroin and Waitin' for the Man (an excellent catchy pop song!) and I have to admit that much of the music I do like wouldn't be around if they hadn't been here. But more often than not I feel the Velvets & people who sing their praises like the Idea of them more than they are concerned about the actual music. They are vicariously living out their bohemian drug addict homo and heterosexual etc. fantasies.

One interesting thing to note is the reaction when you mention these things to most people things such as "YOU don't like the Velvet Underground to "I feel sorry for you". People get indignant much more than if I said I hated the Beatles or the Rolling Stones (much better and more revolutionary bands than VU). Like a religious faith, they have to believe that the Velvets were the greatest band ever when, by all criteria other than influence, they clearly weren't. And even the influence can be debated. It's my sincere belief that most of the bands who said they were most influenced by the Velvets really were most influenced by Rubber Soul, Revolver era Beatles, but knew that they couldn't mention the Beatles as an influence (uncool), and said the Velvets to get that all important indie cachet.

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