Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Velvet Underground - And Nico


For many years, the battle for “Greatest Band Of All Time” has been a three way fight between The Beatles, The Stones, and The Velvet Underground. Whilst the quality of material from the UK contenders has often hit astonishing heights, the Velvets have often been thought of as being the most influential - effectively inventing the entire genre of Indie Rock. Any band who have dared to play some slightly out of tune chords, or have opted to have ended an album with a ten minute freak out jam, will almost certainly have stolen these ideas from the Velvets. And yet, famously, they sold so few records during their original existence, it was only after their split that people started to take notice.

In this blog, we will look - album by album - at the (UK) Velvets history from their first record, “The Velvet Underground & Nico”, to what is currently their last, “The Quine Tapes”. Compilations will, for the most part, be left aside, although a detailed look at the 1995 “Peel Slowly And See” boxset is included. Details of notable repressings are listed, and for each LP, I shall list one (or more) of the CD pressings that have appeared from the mid 80s onwards - where catalogue numbers are specifically shown, these are the editions I would suggest you buy.


The Velvet Underground & Nico

After a pair of slight line up changes, and a demo tape that went un-noticed, the “classic” Velvets line up of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen “Moe” Tucker was in place by 1966. The abrasive sound of the early albums wasn’t fully apparent on the first demo, but started to come into being once Tucker had been brought into the fold. The band were discovered by artist Andy Warhol, who invited them to take part in his Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows, where the band performed amidst a sea of films displayed on a screen behind the band, and a bevy of dancers. It helped to bring the band some attention, although some members of the group later admitted that it was as much a hindrance, as a help - as they were worried that people were viewing them not as a band seeking a record deal, but simply part of the Warhol crowd.

The band were eventually signed to Verve, and Warhol “produced” their debut album - this, at times, apparently involved Warhol doing nothing more than listening to what the band were playing and giving it the thumbs up. His most notable involvement seemed to be getting a German singer called Nico to join the band, with her singing vocals on three of the album’s eleven songs, as well as providing backup on one other. Again, there have been some stories circulating claiming that some of the band were not happy with this, as there had never been an intention to feature a female singer in the group at any point. The counter claim to this is the fact that, several years later, Reed and Cale played on a solo Nico album, “Chelsea Girl”.

The album’s eventual release date was later than planned. Early attempts to land a deal via an acetate of sessions recorded at Sceptor Studios were ignored, and even after Verve signed the group, they seemed to take a rather long time to get the album into the shops. The band’s profile was quite high during the Plastic Inevitable shows, but had dipped by the time the album was released in March 1967. One of the Nico sung songs, “All Tomorrows Parties”, was released as the lead single in the US the previous year (arguably a controversial choice, as it wasn’t entirely typical of the rest of the album - people may well have thought the Velvets were a band fronted by a woman from that one song), but neither the album nor the single sold well at all. The album did just about dent the top 200 in the States, but even the few critics who reviewed the album were less than ecstatic - compared to the lushness of other records from the period (Sgt Pepper, Pet Sounds), it’s noisy, awkward, sometimes muffled roar, was not exactly easy listening. Nowadays, it’s regarded as one of the most seminal rock and roll records of all time.

The album has been reissued on several occasions over the years. When first issued, it came in a famous Warhol designed cover with a peel-able banana on the front - the cover controversially had Warhol’s name in big letters on the front, but not the band’s, leading some people to assume either the band or the LP (or both) were called “Andy Warhol”. Later pressings have, or have not, had a peel-able banana on the front. In the mid 80s, the first CD edition of the album replaced the original mix of “All Tomorrows Parties” with the ’Single Voice Version’ (Verve 823 290-2) - basically taking the original double tracked Nico vocals, and replacing them with a single set of vocals. A compilation CD issued at the same time, “The Best of the Velvet Underground” (Verve 841 164-2), included the original double-tracked version. When the album was reissued in remastered form in the 90s, this mix was replaced with the original version, making the ’Single Voice’ mix one of the rarer items in the Velvets cannon.

A 2002 deluxe double disc edition (Polydor 314 589 624-2) featured the original mono and stereo mixes on each disc, with some of the “Chelsea Girl” songs at the end of one disc, and tracks lifted from the pair of mono 45’s issued in the US back in 66 to attempt to plug the LP on disc two. Whilst some of these mixes are noticeably different to their album counterparts (“All Tomorrows Parties” was only half as long), one or two others sound - to these ears - to be identical to the mono LP versions.


White Light White Heat

There are two stories circulating as to why Warhol took Nico away from the Velvets soon after the debut LP had flopped. One is that Warhol, upon realising that the band weren’t exactly popular, saw no further need to be associated with them, and walked away. The other is that the band laid the failure of the record firmly with Warhol, and fired him. Either way, the relationship between the two parties was soured, and would never fully be resolved. Now back to the Reed/Cale/Morrison/Tucker line up, the band released their second LP in 1968. It’s often been claimed that the record was far more avant garde than the debut, and whilst there is an element of the band jamming away, with vocals then seemingly laid over the top on several songs, overall, it is far more of a straight ahead rock record than “The Velvet Underground & Nico”. However, the likes of “The Gift” (Cale telling a surreal story whilst the band play in the background) and “Sister Ray” (two minutes worth of lyrics, re-repeated over a constantly revolving seventeen minute jam) have seen it seal it’s place as a more “left field” record than the first.

The record sold even more poorly than the first, and the critics who hated the first record, disliked this one even more. It made it no higher than number 199 on the Billboard Charts in the US, whilst chart positions in other countries were simply non existant. Again, in a re-writing of history, the record has been re-evaluated in recent years, and is regarded as a highly important release.

Originally released in what looked like a plain black cover with the band name and album title and nothing else on the cover, holding it up to the light revealed a slightly lighter image of a tattoo in the bottom left corner of the record. Following a set of reissues in the UK in the 70s and early 80s which used a new “white soldiers” cover (Polydor SPELP 73, amongst others), the CD edition of the album released in the mid 80s (Verve 825 119-2) used a new black cover (with no image), and the name/title now printed much larger at the top of the record. The 1996 remastered edition (the latest version - Polydor 531 251 2) uses the original cover, but there is nothing in the way of bonus tracks on this edition.


The Velvet Underground

Midway through a tour supporting “White Light White Heat”, Cale left the band. He was either fired or left as he could no longer work with Reed - again, take your pick as to which story is true. Trouble was, where would you find another Welshman who could play bass, viola and organ? The answer was, you couldn’t, so the band took the opportunity to reinvent themselves. Cale’s replacement was non-Viola playing Doug Yule, and the band began to craft a slightly more serene, controlled and clearer sound. There was still a rock and roll element to the band - “What Goes On” was a slightly less demented “Sister Ray”, “The Murder Mystery” as ingenious as “The Gift”, but the likes of “Jesus” were quieter than anything the band had ever taped in their lives.

Once more, the course of history has changed in terms of the critical acceptance of this record. Ignored by everybody on it’s release, it’s highly regarded nowadays, with the likes of “Pale Blue Eyes” being deemed some of the best material the band ever recorded. Two different sets of mixes were prepared, one by engineer Val Valentin, and another by Reed. The latter, dubbed “The Closet Mix”, has always been the rarer of the two, only ever being released in full on selected pressings in certain countries at different times. At least one later pressing apparently used half of the Valentin mix, and half of the Closet mix, for some strange reason. The album was first issued on CD in the mid 80s (Verve 815 454-2) and used the Valentin mix, but the 1995 box set “Peel Slowly And See” included the whole album in it’s “Closet Mix” form.


Loaded

No sooner had the band’s third album been released, than they headed off on tour across the US again, performing some new songs during the course of the shows. They were quickly back in the studio, and recorded an albums’ worth of material for a potential follow up record, although not everything the band played on stage was taped in the studio. However, as part of a cost cutting exercise at Verve, the band were deemed to be unprofitable and were dropped from the label. The masters of the planned followup to "The Velvet Underground", legally, remained the posession of the label, and although the tapes were later referred to as the “lost” fourth album, the band simply weren’t allowed to keep them and in the event, found themselves looking for a new label, with no new songs in the can.

They were eventually signed to Atlantic, and set about re-recording the fourth album from scratch. Four of the songs from the abandoned Verve album were re-recorded, with John Cale even rejoining the band briefly to play organ on an early version of “Ocean”. Some of the material was attempted more than once - the final version of “Ocean”, for example, was a newer recording without Cale. The sessions were very productive - the band recorded enough material to fill up a double album, but in the end, ten songs only were picked for inclusion on what would become “Loaded”.

In the US, the record was scheduled for release on an Atlantic subsidiary label, Cotillion, with a summer 1970 release date expected. The UK release was scheduled for release on Atlantic. What was interesting about the record was that the ten songs included featured no involvement from Tucker at all, as she was pregnant, with session musicians assisting instead, meaning that the fourth Velvets LP featured what was technically a fourth line up.

Although Wikipedia lists the recording dates as being from April to August 1970, it seems the sessions were over by July. I had often believed that “Loaded” was completed earlier than this, as the band had lined up a residency at a venue in New York called Max’s Kansas City starting in June, and that they would showcase the record on the basis that the LP would have been released just before this - but it seems that the first batch of shows at Max's were indeed scheduled to take place prior to the album's release.

In the event, by the time the band were hitting the stage for later shows in the residency, “Loaded” was not on the release schedules, and the band found themselves playing a slab of new material to an audience who had never heard it before - I still maintain the band had hoped "Loaded" would have been released during August 1970. Tucker did not play at any of the shows, but did remain in the group. Midway through the residency, Reed decided he had finally had enough of the music business, and quit the band, leaving Yule to take over as sole singer and guitarist for the rest of the shows.

“Loaded” was eventually released in September 1970 in the US (Cotillion SD-9034), but would not get a release date in Europe until the following year. It won an “album of the year” award in Holland I do believe, the first time the band had ever really gotten any recognition before their eventual re-discovery later that decade, but it was too late - the band were more or less over. Despite critics adoration of the record, Reed was unhappy - several tracks had been heavily edited, claiming this had been done without his permission, and gave him even more of an excuse to walk away from not only the band, but the record industry in general.

The 1995 “Peel Slowly And See” box set included all of the band’s four albums in their entirety, with “Loaded” appearing in slightly different form - the original unedited versions of “Sweet Jane” and “New Age” made their official debut. The version of “Rock And Roll” was also slightly longer than that originally issued, although again, I can’t really tell the difference, and even the liner notes made no mention of this. A series of extra tracks from the sessions were included as well, and were quite notable in that all were tracks that you might have already heard on Lou Reed solo records, and here were revealed to have originated from these sessions - the aforementioned “Ocean”, “Ride Into The Sun“, “Sad Songs”, “Oh Jim” (here as “Oh Gin”), “Walk And Talk It”, “I Love It” and most impressive of all, “Satellite Of Love”, one of Reed’s most famous “solo” recordings, could have been Velvet Underground "hits" had history taken a different course.

In 1997, Rhino issued an expanded version of “Loaded”, dubbed the ‘Fully Loaded Edition’ (Rhino 8122-72563-2). This featured, again, the Reed endorsed versions of “Sweet Jane” et al, plus bonus tracks from the box set. Also included was another song from the sessions, later taped for Reed’s debut solo LP in 1972, “Love Makes You Feel Ten Feet Tall”, whilst the second disc featured alternate mixes of all ten of the tracks that made the original album. It appeared in a “moving sleeve” - the package came in a die cut slipcase, with the “cut” made around the smoke emitting from the subway entrance. Inside, a thick lenticular insert was tucked inside the jewel case, with a mix of red and green colours making up the so-called ‘front cover’. Basically, this meant that when the jewel case was inside the slipcase, moving the box left and right made the coloured smoke move. Very clever.


Live At Max's Kansas City

After the three-man Velvets finished the Kansas City residency, they did not split. The band were still signed to Atlantic, and even after Sterling Morrison decided to leave, a revamped line up of Yule, Tucker, Willie Alexander and Walter Powers belatedly toured the “Loaded” album after it’s European release in 1971. It seems the band were contracted to record another record for the label, but as time passed, Atlantic were convinced that a fifth album was simply not going to happen, and they released this record instead.

“Max’s Kansas City” had been taped on a bog standard tape recorded by an audience member - it has long been stated that the tape was from the final show with Reed, although some reports contradict this. The tape was passed to an A&R man at the label, and Atlantic took the best parts of the tape to compile into a 40 minute album with Reed’s assistance. The band had actually played a matinee and an evening show on the day of taping, and highlights from each made up the record. As with “Loaded”, the record was issued on Cotillion in the US, but Atlantic in the UK.

Because the tape recorder was simply laid out on a table near the stage, the recording - unsurprisingly - was a bit lo-fi, with chat by other audience members sometimes drowning out the sound of the band. It was, of course, in Mono, but given that Mono albums had ceased to exist in the 60s, Atlantic no longer had a need to produce blank labels with a “Mono” legend on them, so the UK pressings used stereo labels, but with the “Stereo” wording crudely blacked out with the word “Mono” stamped rather cheaply above it!

In 2004, an expanded edition on Rhino was released (Rhino 8122-78093-2). Like the “Fully Loaded” edition of “Loaded”, it was a two disc affair - disc 1 featured the early show, disc 2 the late. The two shows featured quite different set lists, with hardly any songs appearing in both shows. The original LP had not only featured songs from a mix of the shows, but also featured them in the wrong order - the reissue had the two shows with the original running order restored.

To all intents and purposes, “Max’s Kansas City” was the official finale to the band. But things were to take an interesting course.


1969 Live With Lou Reed

At the same time that Reed was helping to prepare the “final” Velvets LP, albeit a live one, the Yule-led version of the band was still going strong. The band were still underground - it was at this point, reportedly, that Velvets fan David Bowie met the group at one of their shows and chatted with Yule, under the impression he was talking to Lou Reed. It seems so little was known about the group at the time, that even Reed’s departure was low-key.

After the “Loaded” tour in late 71, Yule found himself being encouraged to keep the band going by the band’s manager, Steve Sesnick. Yule wrote eleven new songs for a potential album, and thus, the Velvets signed to Polydor in 1972. However, Sesnick somehow managed to keep the other three band members away from Yule, who ended up recording virtually the entire album himself, with a little bit of help from Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice. The resultant album “Squeeze” was issued in 1973, but Yule was unhappy with the whole situation. Tucker, along with Alexander and Powers, were effectively pushed out of the band by Sesnick. A new lineup of the band was put together to tour at the end of 1972, partly at Sesnick’s request, but when he deserted the band mid-tour, Yule struggled to keep it all going, and split the band up at around about the time “Squeeze” was finally released. The band “reformed” again the following year, when Yule set out on what he planned to be a solo tour, but found that the tour manager wanted to bill him and his band as The Velvets - a situation helped along by the fact that one of his sidekicks, Billy Yule, had played drums on parts of “Loaded”. The tour disintegrated after a handful of dates, and the band finally bowed out. A Japanese only Box Set featuring performances from the 71, 72 and 73 tours later surfaced as “Final VU”. I have never heard either of these records, so can’t comment, but opinion on them is divided. What is notable, of course, is that the name “Squeeze” was purloined by Messrs Difford and Tillbrook a few years later for their South London based new-wave band.

Meanwhile, the Reed-led version of the band started to gain a bit more prominence. Bowie had begun performing “Waiting For The Man” and “White Light White Heat” during his 1972 shows, and in 1974, Mercury Records found themselves in the position of being able to release “new” Velvets material. “1969 Live With Lou Reed” was a double album of more (only slightly) lo-fi recordings, taped during the tail end of the year, at around about the same time the band were kicked off Verve.

The album is a fascinating listen - sounding as though it was taped in front of about ten people, it’s hard to believe this is the band who within a few years,would be attributed with recording the most important debut album of all time. The band spend the first few minutes seemingly tuning up, Reed matter-of-factly asking the crowd if they have to go to school the next day…as great as the record is, it really doesn’t sound like a band who would later achieve such legendary status, and in many ways, it captures perfectly the disinterest the world had in the band at the time.

The original 17 track LP included material that was being considered for that “lost” fourth album - some of which did eventually make it (“Sweet Jane”, “New Age”, “Rock And Roll”), two that didn’t but by 1974 had appeared in re-recorded form on Lou Reed solo records (“Ocean”, “Lisa Says”), and three more that would never have been heard by anybody in any form at the time (“Over You”, “It’s Just Too Much”, and “Real Good Time Together”). If studio versions of the first two exist, they haven’t surfaced yet, but “Real Good Time Together” was taped by the Velvets for the fourth album, although it was not issued until the 1980s, whilst a Reed solo version appeared on his monumental 1978 LP “Street Hassle” (possibly the most under-rated record made by anybody in the entire echelons of rock and roll - please check it out if you have never heard it).

The record was issued on CD in 1988, but there seemed to be a record company phobia at the time about issuing double CD’s, and so the album was split in two with the first half appearing as “Volume 1” (Mercury 834 823-2), and the second as “Volume 2” (Mercury 834 824-2) - the original sleeve was used on both CD’s. Each CD came with an extra song - Volume 1 featured a previously uniussed version of “Heroin” (Volume 2 had a version of the song from a different gig), Volume 2 added a version of “I Can’t Stand It”- another, in 1969, “new” song which then failed to make it onto album number 4, but surfaced in rerecorded form in 1972 as the first song on Lou Reed’s self titled debut LP. The version taped for the fourth album remained unissued until 1985 - which is where we are headed next.


VU/Another View

In 1984, Verve announced they had found the “lost” fourth album. Whether or not they had suddenly found them, or knew where the tapes were and decided to capitalise on the band’s new found reputation - well, it depends on how cynical you are. Nonetheless, in 1985, the first Velvets album for 11 years surfaced, consisting of ten previously unheard Velvets songs. Although the sleeve notes banged on about that “fourth” album, two of the songs included were actually taped whilst Cale was still in the band, and had he not left, may well have appeared on the band’s third LP.

Although all of the songs were “new”, six of them had been re-recorded and released by Reed across several of his RCA albums in between 1972 and 1976 - only “Foggy Notion”, “Temptation Inside Your Heart”, “One Of These Days” and “I’m Sticking With You” were completely left on the shelf and appeared on “VU” (Verve 823 721-2) for the first time in any form. “I’m Sticking With You” and “Ocean” were two of the four tracks from the “lost” Verve album that were later re-recorded with a view to them being included on “Loaded”.

In 1986, a second set of unreleased tracks turned up on “Another View” (Verve 829 405-2) - only nine songs made the record, one of which appeared in two different forms, making only eight new songs. Again, two of the eight songs date from the Cale line-up, so it could be argued there was a bit of barrel-scraping going on here. And yet again, two songs from here were taped again during the “Loaded” sessions (“Rock And Roll” and “Ride Into The Sun”), whilst both “Ride Into The Sun” and “Real Good Time Together” had, by 1986 (and as mentioned earlier), both appeared in newly recorded form as Reed solo songs.


Live MCMXCIII

Following the release of an Australian only box set early in 1993, this was the next Velvets “new” release after “Another View”. It’s origins can be traced back a good six years.

Andy Warhol passed away in 1987, and his death left an indelible mark on Reed and co. Following the acrimonious split between artist and band some twenty years before, the wounds had never really healed - Reed and Warhol had even attended the same party some years later and Reed reportedly made no attempt to say hello. As a way of saying goodbye, Reed and Cale recorded an album in 1990 called “Songs For Drella”, “Drella” being Warhol’s nickname - a mixture of Dracula and Cinderella. Although it was released on the label to which Reed was signed as a solo artist, Cale did take lead vocals on a number of songs. Both men shared the instrumentation, but Reed’s profile was so high at the time, it was difficult to not think of it as a follow up to his astonishing 1989 LP “New York”. Reed also played some of the songs on stage during his 1992 tour in support of the “Drella” followup, “Magic And Loss”.

Reed and Cale played a handful of shows before and after the record’s release, which offered up a series of songs either about Warhol, or from his perspective. On 15th June 1990, at the end of one such show, the pair were joined onstage for an encore of “Heroin” by Tucker and Morrison, the first time any version of the Velvets had appeared on stage since the early 70’s. The reunion was not permanent, with Reed and Cale falling out soon after, and that - for now - was that.

However, in 1993, the “classic” line up of Reed/Cale/Morrison/Tucker got back together in one of the most important reunions of all time. A short European tour was lined up (presumably on the basis that this line up of the band had never played outside the US), although plans were also being made for a US tour, and a new studio album. The band played their first UK show in Edinburgh on 1st June 1993, although the English leg of the “tour” was nothing more than a pair of shows in London over the weekend of 5th/6th June. The first show, at the 2000 capacity London Forum sold out immediately, the second show was at the 10000 seater Wembley Arena. The band played more or less the same set each night, and debuted a new song “Coyote” towards the end of the set. I witnessed the Wembley gig, and my overriding memory was that the band sounded pretty much the same as they always did on record, and it was a thrilling spectacle to watch.

Rather than concentrate on the two albums recorded with Cale, material from all four albums was featured, as well as stuff from “VU” and “Another View”, in an attempt to make the set list quite varied. At the end of the month, they returned to the UK for a slot at the Glastonbury Festival - despite the fact the band had invented virtually every other band who played that weekend, they weren't headlining, and instead appeared halfway down the bill on Friday 25th. The band also played some support slots for U2 around about the same time, a strange situation of a band who had influenced another being the opening act for - rather than being THE - headline act. Such is the life of a band who lots of people seem to love, but who never sold many records.

However, life was not all rosy in the Velvets camp and after completing the last set of European shows in July, Reed and Cale had another falling out - and the band split again. Thankfully, somebody had had the foresight to tape and film the three shows the band had played in Paris between the 15th and 17th June, and this formed the basis of a live album issued later that year, “Live MCMXCIII” (Sire 9362-45464-2). The track listing more or less mirrored the full set the band were playing, although “Coyote” was moved further down the track listing so that it now appeared at the very end of the record. A single CD of selected highlights was issued in a different coloured sleeve (Sire 9362-45465-2) - another strange trait that record companies loved to do in the 80s and 90s, presumably aimed at people who couldn’t afford the 2-CD version, although if I remember correctly at the time, the price difference between the two was negligible.

A VHS of the Paris shows, titled “Velvet Redux” was also released to coincide, and has since been made available on DVD. One of my claims to fame is having seen the Velvets in concert, and the chances of you ever seeing the classic line up again are now over, as Morrison passed away in 1995.


Peel Slowly & See

In 1995, the 5-CD Boxset “Peel Slowly And See” was released (Polydor 527 887 2). Discs 2 to 5 concentrated on the four albums released with Reed as the singer, with related bonus tracks padded out to fill each disc. In order to achieve a level of continuity, some of the tracks appeared before the relevant album, rather than after, if they had been taped at an earlier date. Material from “VU” was also included at the end of disc 4 (“The Velvet Underground”) which seemed a pointless decision, but was obviously included to show the transitional period from this album to “Loaded”. As mentioned earlier, the “Closet Mix” of “The Velvet Underground” was included, and “Loaded” replaced the edited versions of “Sweet Jane” and “New Age” with the previously unheard full length masters.

Disc 1 featured the Reed/Cale/Morrison demo tape from 1965 - this was recorded after original drummer Angus MacLise had left the band, but before Tucker was invited to join. Anybody who thought the likes of “VU”, “Another View” and “1969 Live” had exhausted the archives would have been pleasantly surprised to find that the bonus tracks scattered throughout the set included not just alternate recordings of otherwise available songs, but also included demos of tracks that had not been released in any form at all at that point.


The Quine Tapes

In 2001, Polydor issued what was planned to be the first in a series of “official bootlegs” of yet more live Velvets recordings. The band, far from being anti bootlegging, encouraged people to bring tape recorders to their shows, and a fan by the name of Robert Quine (hence the title) taped several shows during their 1969 tour - and material from three venues (but several shows) from this tour were offered up on this triple CD set.

Again, despite there being numerous albums with previously unreleased material on the shelves, “The Quine Tapes” (Polydor 314 589 067-2) revealed that the band were even more prolific during this period than previously thought, as the box contained a never before heard song called “Follow The Leader” on disc 2. “The Quine Tapes” remains, at present, the only release in the series, as a series of legal issues between the band and Polydor have prevented any further releases from escaping from the vaults. As such, it remains, at present, the final word on the history of The Velvet Underground.

It feels, given that the band last played nearly 20 years ago, that the importance of the Velvet Underground is starting to be lost on newer generations of music fans. This is a shame, as when you listen to these records, the inventiveness contained within is breathtaking - some of the stuff that gets passed off as "alternative music" nowadays isn't even fit to clean the (shiny shiny) boots of this band - yes, that's you, One Night Only.

Further reading:
Oliver's Velvet Underground fanpage: http://olivier.landemaine.free.fr/vu/index.html

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