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Discussions: The Velvet Underground

By Will Ryan & Dave Toropov; July 12, 2011 at 1:00 PM 

The Velvet Underground

Our second installment of Discussions, where writers are paired up to discuss some of their favorite artists, explores the library of the the highly influential Velvet Underground.

WILL RYAN: So The Velvet Underground are pretty good. I think for me, they were one of those early bands that transformed my perception of what music could be. I feel like they’re probably that for a lot of people. Specifically the first two records. Like in the long odyssey of developing a broader musical perception they have to be somewhere near the beginning. White Light/White Heat was probably the record alongside Fun House to show me early on that creativity, energy, and abrasion could make more compelling music than any type of virtuoso-ness. Makes sense that The Stooges and a lot of krautrock stuff followed in the VU’s wake.

DAVE TOROPOV: I hear that. When you buy your first VU record as a teenager, it’s an event. One of the things that I think is so wild about their first record is how many different things it can be to different people. For me, it was just really catchy songs. I skipped over the dark abrasive stuff at first (“Black Angel’s Death Song,” “European Son,” etc.) and played out “Waiting For My Man” over and over. It was just great garage rock. But I’ve heard people say it was the scariest record they’ve ever heard, and I can totally see that dimension of it as well. It’s a record that lives in the NYC sewers and the loft art shows simultaneously. That’s an incredible thing to do – for an album to have an identity that varies that greatly and touches so many bases. Part of it is a little silly, too, to be honest: the banana? Lou’s sense of humor in the lyrics and his vocal delivery? What I want to challenge though is that the first LP is the definitive Velvets record. I think White Light/White Heat really shows them in their truest, rawest form. The Velvet Underground & Nico could be read as a marketing ploy if you were a cynical man.

WILL: You’re so right about its varying identity. “Sunday Morning” and “Heroin” are probably my two favorite tracks off that record and they couldn’t be more different. One is a pounding tribally peak and valley anthem in visceral mimicry to the drug its named for, and the other is a lazily optimistic love song with a xylophone and some la-la-las. I’d have to agree with you about The Velvet Underground & Nico being the group’s most definitive statement, despite the Warhol-leanings, which it has definitely outgrown by a few thousand miles. It’s probably the most relevant in terms of influence and all that stuffs. There’s a lot on there that’s still blueprint these days, but I’ve always thought White Heat/White Light was a little underrated in those terms. It was more of an experiment for sure, but perhaps one of the most important and successful experiments. You obviously have “Sister Ray,” and Bowie covered the shit out of the title track, but “I Heard Her Call My Name” is probably one of the first tracks to really indulge in guitar feedback other than maybe stuff by MC5 or Blue Cheer. Before we maybe dig deeper into The Velvet Underground & Nico, where do you stand on White Light/White Heat?

DAVE: I’m in love with White Light/White Heat. That’s what I want to challenge – that The Velvet Underground & Nico is not the definitive Velvets record and that actually White Light/White Heat is. Like you said, I feel like it’s a record that is seriously underrated in its influence on both the garage and experimental music that came after it. It’s a record that doesn’t care about being friendly or easy-to-understand in the slightest. There’s violins on it, a 16 minute finale, and a spoken word song that kills all of the adrenaline the title track brought on at the start. “The Gift” is a huge statement in response to criticism about their lyrical content on the first album, and maybe the ballsiest thing the Velvets ever did on record. They’re essentially saying “your problem with us is not that our lyrics are offensive, your problem is that we’re a rock and roll band saying these things. So what if we just read our offensive lyrics like literature instead of singing them?” It’s brilliant, and on the whole it’s the Velvets’ finest 40 minutes.

WILL: Oh really? Okay. I can maybe dig that. I think if you look behind the scenes at least, it might make sense to put White Light/White Heat forward as the definitive VU record. They had kind of cut ties with Warhol at that point and anything that might have compromised who they were as a group and White Light/White Heat was sort of born from that turn of frustration.

So okay, we’re talking definitive, and I think that point might need a little bit of clarifying for it to make sense. The question really is, what defined or constituted the VU at their most definitive? What did they represent, or whatever, that might have contributed to their definitive-ness? Definitive.

DAVE: Hmm… that’s a pretty tough one to nail down for VU. I guess what I would consider “definitive” about them was their marriage of garage music to the counter-culture. Before them, garage rock was played mostly by suburban kids who covered the Batman theme and would kill for a spot on American Bandstand if they were offered the chance. The Velvet Underground took that ruggedness, that raw honesty of the garage form, and made it conceptual, even avant-garde. Fringe artists had always been experimental, but the Velvets were revolutionary because they proved that great art could be made from simple tools. That’s why I think White Light/White Heat is their greatest moment; because it has more courage and daring than any other record they made. Other records were just as strong in their songwriting and musicianship, but White Light/White Heat blows up every rock album that came before it.

WILL: Agreed. I think that works as a general point for them in their broader context for sure. Your point about garage rock as a simple tool for great art is pretty resonate. On that first record with “I’m Waiting for the Man” you can hear in how repetitive and striking the drums are where they divert pretty starkly from traditional garage. It’s profoundly subtle and amazing.

But the more I think about it, the more I think White Light/White Heat makes sense as VU’s most definitive work. “Definitive” might be a limiting idea at this point in terms of what the VU really is across their whole four-album run, but I think with that broader context in mind, they did bring something extremely fresh and vital and important to rock music. You mentioned their place as a New York band and I think a lot of it comes from the specific side of them as well and how willing they were to step in the shit – the underside of the scene they came from. That reality and ugliness might have existed lyrically to a certain extent in some earlier stuff like Cash or Dylan perhaps, but, more importantly, it was missing in rock music’s energy. Jazz certainly had it some, which makes White Light/White Heat‘s release on Verve sort of appropriate in a weird way. But that’s what VU brought to the table. The multifaceted ugliness and reality. While VU & N hinted at it with songs like “Heroin,” it just drips from White Light/White Heat. Now I’m still wondering is it their best record? We haven’t talked about The Velvet Underground or Loaded, which can both sound like a completely different band with the departure of Cale and the addition of Yule, especially Loaded.

DAVE: Each record they did see them mutate so wildly, which is probably a combination of both the entrance and exit of so many key members through such a short span of time, and the fact that they never wanted to become normal. At first you have the Balloon Factory/apocalyptic lightshow Velvets, then the ugly Velvets, who then crystallized into the downer Velvets, and finally relaxed into the “mainstream” Velvets. If we’re talking about which of these incarnations is “best” I honestly don’t know if that’s possible to determine for me. Each one of them fits a certain setting so well that I find myself thinking each of the four albums is the best one at different times. Loaded is interesting though because it’s them sort of hovering above the shit, to use your words, rather than swimming in it for the first time. “Rock & Roll” and “Sweet Jane” bust out of the creepy alleyways and hang out in drunk house parties. Instead and because of that, that album is probably the one I reach to first when I want to listen to VU. Because the first two records often feel too cool for me, like I’m walking in on some terrifying basement soiree that I heard about from a friend of a friend. Loaded wants to be friends with you, whereas I feel like the other records were deliberately anti-social. So is it the “best” Velvet Underground record? Probably not. But it’s the one that I can play in front of my friends and not feel like a music critic.

The self-titled record should be investigated more, though. It sticks out the most as such an unusual piece of music for them. I’m trying to think of another word, but “lazy” is what it feels like to me – like they didn’t care about being icons or breaking through for that album – even though it still holds a certain atmosphere that’s unmistakably a Velvets quality. Not quite depressed, but jaded and exhausted. Why do we come back to an album like that?

WILL: I’m like you, I totally reach for Loaded before anything else in the VU catalog. For me, it’s probably because it’s easy to just throw on and rock to (in front of friends too, yes), whereas the first two records have more of a cerebral quality to them, and you’re totally right about the differing atmospheres. Loaded is super inviting; even radio-friendly. Though I think there are some major sticking points to Loaded that, beyond accessibility, draw me to it. The main one being the often times satirical and absurd lyrics, and Lou’s whacked out, almost glam delivery, or the rock abandon to some of the songs that you don’t get on any other VU albums. “Rock and Roll” has to be one of the best pop songs from that era. It’s so purely empowering and universal. Plus Loaded is the fullest-sounding Velvets album, which always takes me aback when compared to the sort of rickety-ness of the earlier stuff. But I agree it’s sort of arbitrary to name the best Velvets era or record as they are all so wildly divergent.

I’ve never really thought of the self-titled record as lazy, but that’s a good way to describe it. I wouldn’t say that’s a negative thing either. It’s not lazily made or boring. It just feels sort of resigned (or jaded, as you said) to the type of stuff the VU were so earnest about previously. For me, it’s always been the odd one out in terms of their four albums. I’ve recently been listening to it a lot more, and, even more than Loaded, it feels like the VU that made the previous two records trying a pop record. It has the same darkened subterranean NYC atmosphere, whereas Loaded can be downright sunny sometimes. But I think the overall resignation and smoothly downbeat feel of The Velvet Underground is really what makes it worth going back to.

Do you have an opinion on any of their live stuff? Most of it seems to be from that era.

DAVE: I think you’re spot on in calling The Velvet Underground a resigned record. It’s clear listening to it that they had given up their aspirations to be “important” and just decided to write some good songs that could be played easily. Every track, with the exception of “The After Hours Mystery,” is delivered in this numb, relaxed way that makes it easily their most carefree album. It’s the only one that’s not a statement record and listening to it now, at midnight, appropriately, it feels like a straight-up perfect rock record. In regards to the rickety nature of the first two records, I agree with you, that wobbly sensation that everything could fall apart at any moment is part of what gives those records their tension and their brilliance. The Velvet Underground, however, I would argue, sounds just as full as Loaded – the organs on “What Goes On” drench the whole track in a half-smile, and the harmonies on “I’m Set Free” are close to becoming a small gospel choir – in a way that gives emotional dimension to songs that otherwise couldn’t be bothered to connect to the listener. To sound like you don’t care but still pack a resonant punch is a trick that many other bands have tried and totally failed to follow through on.

I haven’t heard any live Velvet records, but I’ve heard through the grapevine that 1969 is pretty essential. Could you shed some more light on this? This sounds like the final frontier for VU before you start obsessing over bootlegs and alternate album mixes.

WILL: Yeah, I’ve managed to head down the bootleg and outtakes road a bit. Though I definitely turned back at a certain point. It’s interesting for sure. Most of their live stuff is exactly what you might expect: audience recordings of people in now-defunct New York venues kind of just existing and talking over clinking glasses while the VU play and Lou Reed sort of unconcernedly chats with the crowd about random shit in between songs. Some of that is actually a really good piece of atmosphere that they still kind of embody. The one I’m thinking of might be from Max’s in Kansas City. It’s been a while since I dug into those. I wouldn’t say they’re essential by any means, but 1969 is pretty awesome and easily the most listenable of the live stuff.

As far as Loaded vs The Velvet Underground – the fullness I’m referring to might be fidelity or production more than the songs or arrangements themselves. “What Goes On” is definitely one of the VU’s biggest tracks, but it’s still kind of lo-fi and dusty with some negative space, whereas everything on Loaded is just bursting without much room to breathe. A/B “What Goes On” and “Rock and Roll”: The vocals are right up there in your grill on the latter track and it sounds less like we are now in a studio. That said, the bass on The Velvet Underground is strikingly huge. “Candy Says” is easily one of the most delicate songs the VU ever recorded, but the low end somehow booms. The difference might just be down to polish. Loaded is unquestionably the most produced Velvets record if nothing else.

DAVE: Cosigned. Loaded is all about the production, and I guess White Light/White Heat is pretty much anti-production. If you can dig that. It sounds like it’s supposed to be played out of an old Victrola. Or maybe a portable AM Radio.

WILL: White Light/White Heat will always be my favorite VU record. I don’t think there’s any way to justify it as anything more than that regardless of what the VU were/are for music.

DAVE: As a last word, just to be provocative: “Sister Ray” is the greatest rock song of all time.

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Other Discussions:

Tom Waits

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