Thursday, 14 November 2013

Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground (1942 - 2013)

Everyone knows the quote about the Velvet Underground; "They didn't sell a lot of records but everyone who bought one started a band." That's not entirely true of course. A lot of those fans became writers and college radio DJ's instead. And therein lies part of the enduring appeal of the Velvets. They attracted the kind of fans who could and would become promoters, Hell proselytizers, for the Underground church. And so it remains.


It's easy to forget in these post punk years that back when the Velvet Underground's first album came out in 1967 there was no real underground as we know it. Bands were either successful or they were not, if they were not they did not get played on the radio, let alone TV, and they got very few gigs. Touring was out of the question. The nation wide network of small alternative clubs and promoters simply did not exist. These are all the unruly spawn of the punk and post-punk revolution of the late 1970's as it urged a thousand flowers to bloom Mao-like across North America, Europe and Australia. As are the cadre of fly-by-night zines and more co-incidentally the network of ground breaking college radio stations which sprang up in the same era. This ad-hoc network would make it possible for a willfully uncommercial band like the Velvets to actually thrive in spite of getting absolutely no attention from the mainstream music press. There are no shortage of such bands today in a variety of genres to choose from. But back in 1967 such a musical world was not even a dream. Bands like the Velvet Underground, The MC5, The Stooges, Shaggs, Silver Apples, Runaways, Red Krayola, Love, Brinsley Schwartz, Holy Modal Rounders, Gram Parsons, Hasil Adkins, Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, Van Dyke Parks, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Albert Ayler and The Flaming Groovies, slaved away, sometimes for years, with only small devoted cults of lonely followers and a few stubborn music writers to keep them warm. Even combined they all probably sold fewer records than Monkees. Now they are recognized as icons of the late sixties underground counter-culture. And the Velvets are their godfathers, even for those who sound nothing like them.


They didn't plan it that way, nobody did in those days. Lou Reed, the son of a conservative accountant, started off with a thoroughly conventional background scuffing around in teenage garage bands and later as a staff songwriter for a bargain-basement Tin Pan Alley song mill when he stumbled on the far more Bohemian art students John Cale and Angus MacLise and along with fellow garage band guitarist Sterling Morrison, decided to form a band. Cale was a classically trained cellist, pianist and bassist who had been an active part of New York's avant garde music seen with the likes of John Cage and Lamonte Young. As for their first drummer Angus Maclise, he was part of the beatnik art and poetry scene. He named the band before quitting to be replaced by rock's first female drummer Maureen Tucker. Reed had studied modern literature with his rock & roll and like Bob Dylan saw no reason not to blend them. Unlike Dylan he and Cale also brought the avant garde to their music as well.


The first album had the legend "produced" by Andy Warhol boldly emblazoned on it's cover but other than helping them get a record deal and designing a cover he had nothing to do with the recording. There was his one and only musical brainstorm of course, forcing the band to adopt Nico, an icy glowering Germanic chanteuse, to the mix. The resulting album was a disorienting mix of reasonably straight forward, even beautiful, if off centre ballads like "Sunday Morning", "Femme Fatale", "I'll Be Your Mirror" with jaw-dropping wall of sound epics like "Venus In Furs", "Heroin", "European Son", "Waiting For My Man", "Run Run Run" and "All Tomorrow's Parties" which pushed the boundaries of what was considered rock & roll farther than anyone had ever considered, as well as wallowing in the dark side of the Summer of Love. People were not amused. The second album went even father, discarding the bitter sweet ballads for the full-on feedback overdrive of "Sister Ray", "I Heard Her Call My Name" and the Edgar Allen Poe mini rock opera "The Gift". People were even less amused. The first album limped onto the very bottom of Billboard's top 200 for a week an then crept away, as if embarrassed. The second album sank without a trace.

While everybody else was saying "All You Need Is Love" the Velvets said that the whole happy peace and love facade was not only a mask but a scab over a festering sore of sex and rugs. They turned out have a valid point about much of that of course but nobody likes a spoilsport, especially if he might be right. In their one journey out of New York and down to the centre of the action at the time, California, the Velvets were shunned as disturbing interlopers into the laid back hippy scene. While every other band was singing tributes to pot, acid and LSD, usually in cryptic or playful ways, the Velvets were wallowing in tales of heroin and speed in coldly matter- of-fact tones. They didn't even look the part, while everybody else was in a riot of flowing colours the Velvets dressed in severe black, dark shades and dour glares. Now their look is essential to any band with artsy rebel pretensions, but at the time they were an affront to all that was utopian about the sixties. After the failure of the first two albums Cale left and Reed carried on for two more albums that tried to forge a somewhat more conventional sound, sort of like a New York version of the Byrds. Both still had some classic (and surprisingly upbeat) songs in "Sweet Jane", "Rock And Roll" "We're Gonna Have A Real Good Time", and "What Goes On" but they were no more successful than the first two and Reed gave up in frustration as the band fell apart.


Lou Reed's post Velvet's career would have many ground breaking moments like "Berlin", "Transformer" (which scored a fluke hit in "Walk On The Wild Side" which probably surprised even him) and "Metal Machine Music" which unsurprisingly scored no hits. In between were attempts at the mainstream like "Rock And Roll Animal", "Busload Of Faith" and the surprisingly upbeat "I Love You Suzanne" which had an even more surprising video in which Lou Reed proved that he could not only smile but dance. Plenty of smart people swear by these later songs and I won't quarrel but I've always been a Velvets fan first and foremost.


Someone once said that most people who bragged about listening to the Velvets (or The MC5, or The Stooges) were full of shit. Most reasonably hip people who grew up in the eighties listened to The Smiths, Cure, Clash, Siouxsie, Sex Pistols, Simple Minds, and Psychedelic Furs at best. Maybe Teenage Head if you lived in Canada. But I was actually the only person in my high school who could honestly say I really did listen to the Velvets. In 1985 it so happened that the Velvet Underground's long out of print albums were re-released along with the "VU" album of out-takes and demos. Coincidentally the very same month a different record label (Rhino of course) also re-released the classic Nuggets collection of sixties Garage Punk. This allowed music mags like Spin to run full page articles saying in essence "Hey Punk. Yeah You. You think you're so cool? Well here's were all this Punk and New Wave started. So buy these records". Naturally I ran out and did so. Keep in mind that this was before the internet so you couldn't just go on Youtube and check out a band you didn't know, you had to actually go downtown and spend you money and take your chances. Of course the fact that you went out and searched for off-the-beaten track music in small dusty record stores and had to do some reading and research helped form an unshakable bond with band like this for the few who ventured out to the outlying districts of music. That is an era that that will never quite return in the internet age. I'm not sure that instant gratification and convenience is a fair trade.


When Lou Reed died this past month he was a much revered and still active elder statesman whose cool, monosyllabic persona was as beloved as a crusty uncle. He leaves John Cale as the only surviving member of the Velvet Underground since Maureen Tucker wasn't the original drummer. Sterling Morrison died in 1995 of cancer aged 53 and Angus MacLise of complications from tuberculosis, malnutrition and dehydration in Kathmandu in 1979 aged 41. Nico died after having a heart attack while riding her bike in Ibiza and striking her head in 1988, she was 49. Cale's replacement Doug Yule is still around, as is Mo Tucker.


One of the indicators of a band's importance is the number and variety of cover songs they inspire and the Velvets have a progeny that ranks with The Beatles. A few faves are;

Cabaret Voltaire; One of the founders of Industrial Music named the Velvets as one of the few bands they would admit to as an influence, their droning, feedback drenched version of "Here She Come's Now" brought the Velvet's nascent noise-rock experiments to perfect fruition.


The Cowboy Junkies; At the other end of the spectrum it took the Cowboy Junkies to realize the gentle beauty that was the flipside to the Velvet's menace. Lou Reed himself said that it was even better than the original.


Eater; This band from the first wave of 1976 London punk bands was known mostly for their extreme youth (average age of 15) and their barely competent but energetic three chord thrash. Their version of "Waiting For My Man" is too slap-dash to approach the original's hypnotic drone of course, and it totally misses the monotony of heroin by romping through the song like it's a drunken rave-up, but damned if it isn't still catchy. Their ham-fisted version of "Sweet Jane" is pushing it too far though.


Joy Division on the other hand were perfect for the Velvet's brooding dark side and this was their only cover song, as a live track on the "Still" album. Done with a very English droll wit, especially the closing brush-off; "You should hear our version of "Louie Louie", Whoa..."

The Runaways; The Runaways were the same age as Eater but they were more musically savvy and their changing of "Rock & Roll" to a stadium rocker manages to outdo Reed's attempts to do the same thing on his bombastic "Rock & Roll Animal" album. Check out how Joan Jett brings the boogie to the original guitar riff. Oh, and Sandy West brings the cowbell. Natch.


The Scenics; This artsy first wave punk band from Toronto were obvious Velvets fanatics and they proved it by releasing an entire album of Velvet's covers including a suitably cacophonous trek through "Waiting For My Man".


R.E.M.; Known in their early years for their variety of covers including a soulful version of "Pale Blue Eyes"


Simple Minds; It's actually from Lou's solo album "Berlin" rather than a Velvet's track but the Scottish artsy New Wavers did a lovely version of "Street Hassle" on their "Sparkle In The Rain" album. Much later they did a more perfunctory version of "All Tomorrow's Parties".



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