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Off the Beaten Tracks: Tipping the Velvets

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THE Velvet Underground received a cursory mention in my profile of Nico published almost a year ago. Obviously, such a historically significant band deserve a column of their own, so here goes . . .

It was in late 1964 that New York singer and guitarist Lou Reed met viola player John Cale, a Welshman in the city to further his classical music education. Both were 22. Lou was already honing his songwriting skills working on the staff of Pickwick Records, churning out low-budget copies of current hits.

With a college friend of Reed, Sterling Morrison, on guitar, and a drummer named Angus MacLise, they formed a band first named the Warlocks, then the Falling Spikes and finally the Velvet Underground. MacLise left the band accusing them of a ‘sellout’ after they agreed to play a gig for money – a princely 75 dollars – and was replaced by 21-year-old Moe Tucker, a sister of one of Morrison’s friends. She preferred to stand while playing and often used mallets instead of drumsticks.

In 1965 the group were introduced to the artist and filmmaker Andy Warhol, who offered to be their manager. They became part of his multimedia travelling show, Exploding Plastic Inevitable, accompanying his movies with their music. At his suggestion the German ice queen Nico joined the Velvets and he secured a recording contract for them with the Verve label.

The Velvet Underground and Nico was recorded mainly in New York in the spring of 1966 but did not see the light of day until the following year. Although sales were minimal, it was a sensational record. The suggestive Warhol-designed sleeve featured a yellow banana sticker which could be removed to reveal a pink one beneath. And the music was a direct counterpoint to the ‘summer of love’ stuff emerging from San Francisco and points west. While hippies were putting flowers in their hair, Lou Reed’s gang were singing about the seamy side of life.

The album begins gently enough with Sunday Morning but then kicks into the brooding I’m Waiting For The Man, about the misery of drugs and trying to find a dealer – ‘Up to Lexington, 125, five; feel sick and dirty more dead than alive’. This would be one of Reed’s preoccupations for much of his life, as it would for Nico. Her first vocal outing is the brilliant Femme Fatale – ‘Little boy, she’s from the street; before you start you’re already beat’. Like most of the tracks, this oft-covered classic was written by Reed. I’ll Be Your Mirror is another example of his songwriting genius.

The droning, plangent Venus in Furs is a musical version of the 19th century novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the man who gave his name to masochism. Then comes Heroin.

Hardly surprising, really, that stores banned the album, radio stations refused to play it and Verve was reluctant to give it any promotional effort. It remains a remarkable achievement more than 50 years on, with its combination of sweet pop songs and avant-garde, feedback-infested dirges featuring Cale’s manic viola playing. The Czech Vaclav Havel, who bought the LP during a visit to America, claimed it inspired him to become president of his country, although it is hard to imagine how. And in south London, a 19-year-old David Bowie was given an advance copy of the album and became obsessed with it. ‘This music was so savagely indifferent to my feelings,’ he is quoted as saying in the book Notes from the Velvet Underground by Howard Sounes. ‘It didn’t care if I liked it or not. It was completely preoccupied with a world unseen by my suburban eyes. One after another, tracks squirmed and slid their tentacles around my mind.’ Bowie, who soon began to play I’m Waiting for the Man live, went on that by the time the LP had ended ‘I was so excited I couldn’t move. It was late in the evening and I couldn’t think of anyone to call, so I played it again and again and again.’

Nico left the band after they parted company with Warhol in a dispute over their future direction. They stepped up their schedule of live performances and their sound became much harsher and more improvisational, with some songs stretching past the half-hour mark. In September 1967, the Velvets’ second Verve LP White Light/White Heat was recorded over just two days. Cale would later describe it as ‘a very rabid record’. He added: ‘The first one had some gentility, some beauty. The second one was consciously anti-beauty.’

It certainly isn’t easy listening. The 17-minute final track Sister Ray is a jam session built around three chords while The Gift is a story narrated by Cale about a man who decides to mail himself to his girlfriend in a box, which she opens with a sharp knife to fatal effect. I must admit that this is an album I never play.

Following an increasing clash of egos with Reed, Cale became Welsh rarebit. Reed had a secret meeting with Morrison and Tucker at which he said that he would dissolve the band unless they agreed to fire the viola player whose ideas, including recording under water, he felt were ‘too out there’. They reluctantly agreed and poor old Sterl was dispatched to deliver the bad news.

Cale’s replacement was Doug Yule, in whose apartment the band had stayed at one point. Morrison heard him practising the guitar and suggested to Reed that they hire him. He was taken on as a bassist and organist.

In late 1968 they recorded their third LP, The Velvet Underground, for MGM Records, of which Verve was a subsidiary. This is much more of a pop effort and mainly but not completely reflects Reed’s keenness to shake off Cale’s wacky influence. It opens with Yule on vocals for Candy Says, a song about Warhol actress Candy Darling, who would gain a further mention in Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side some years later.

My favourite tracks are Some Kinda Love, Pale Blue Eyes  and the final song, After Hours, sung in childlike fashion by Tucker. Least favourite is The Murder Mystery, featuring Reed and Morrison reciting different poems simultaneously and Tucker and Yule singing different lyrics at the same time for the choruses. As off the wall as anything Cale would have come up with, surely?

The album was initially as successful as its predecessors, i.e. not.

Undeterred, the band toured extensively and in November 1969 played shows in San Francisco which were recorded by a fan, Robert Quine, and released in 2001 as a triple album, Bootleg Series Volume One: The Quine Tapes. Again this is something which rarely troubles my stereogram but listening to it in preparation for this article made me think I should give it another chance. Here, if you’re feeling brave, is a 37-minute version of Sister Ray. Quine, by the way, went on to become a seriously good guitarist, playing with Richard Hell and the Voidoids in the 1970s, touring with Reed in the 1980s and recording with, among others, Brian Eno and Tom Waits.

By the time of their fourth LP Loaded, the Velvets had been dropped by MGM, officially because of the drug references in their music but probably because commercially they stank. They were signed by the Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion Records, who demanded an album loaded with hits, hence the title. They were to be disappointed, although it does contain two of the band’s most famous songs, Sweet Jane and Rock and Roll.

Sweet Jane is in my all-time top ten tracks – that opening riff never fails to bring out the goosebumps. Of the four songs with vocals by Yule, however, particularly New Age, I feel they would all be better sung by Reed. Sterling Morrison agreed. ‘The album came out okay, as far as production it’s the best,’ he said. ‘But it would have been better if it had real good Lou vocals on all the tracks.’

Disillusioned by the band’s lack of success, Reed quit in late 1970. Soon afterwards the Velvets began to be acknowledged as among the most influential of all rock groups and their records started to sell in significant numbers. Their debut album was named 13th best of all time by Rolling Stone magazine in 2003, while the other three all came in the top 500. There would be reunions aplenty.

Next week, Lou’s walk on the wild side.

 

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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