by Brian Erickson
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
I hate Lou Reed. But it's hard to deny the beautiful mess he made with John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Doug Yule, and Maureen Tucker from 1967 - 1970. The Velvet Underground's catalogue stands as one of the most unusual, innovative discographies ever created. They personified the true art of image-curation years before glam-rock innovators like Bowie and Bolan would begin perfecting it. And unlike, say, Beefheart or Zappa, other game-changing performance artists of the day, the songs always seemed to come first. And it didn't hurt that they had a beat and you could dance to them.
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
There remains not a single album in the history of recorded arts which sounds like The Velvet Underground & Nico. Equally melodic as it is discordant, as cohesive as it is disjointed, This album stands as the first (and perhaps - with apologies to Big Star - best), "listen, then go start a band," record. The front half is both without flaw or peer. It presents a veritable Murder's Row of songwriting (mostly singer Lou Reed) and production (mostly bassist John Cale) excellence with standards like "Waiting for the Man" and "Femme Fatale," showcasing guest chanteuse Nico's arresting, German-accented vocals. The songs are anchored by guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker who form a solid if technically and aesthetically-unimpressive foundation; like a busted up Honda Prelude driving around with a Corvette engine in it.
The second half is nearly as great with junkie anthem, "Heroin," and the buoyant "There She Goes" holding it down. I would have preferred the album to end with Nico's "I'll Be Your Mirror," because I'm not huge on the penultimate "Black Angels Death Song" or closer "European Son," but when you're talking about one of the twenty-or-so most influential records ever made, I might just be splitting hairs.
White Light/White Heat (1968)
I often go back and forth between White Light/White Heat and its follow up as to which Velvets album is my all-time favorite. This is the one-and-only time the core lineup, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker made an album completely unto themselves and what an album it is!
Clocking in with only six songs, White Light White Heat wastes no time letting its listeners know that they would be in for something new. It's as though every song on the album is drenched in tape hiss and white noise. "Lady Godiva's Operation," manages to make guitars sound like surgical drills. "The Gift" is my favorite on the record as John Cale wryly tells an eight-minute story of a desperate college guy unsuccessfully mailing himself to his girlfriend's house. The story is held together by a groove so swampy and tight, it'd make New Orleans - the who dang city - do a double-take. But the true height of the record, and perhaps of The Velvet Underground's career is scorched-Earth closer, "Sister Ray." Reed trades Heroin for Dust this time around and the band careens around him in blissful, depraved chaos.
The Velvet Underground (1969)
The greatest "morning after a rough night" album of all time! Probably because after the sweet high of The Velvet Underground & Nico followed by the nightmarish bad trip of White Light White Heat, Reed & Co. needed to sober up a bit. Out was Cale, his placating tendencies fast becoming increasingly boorish. Reed had no use for his noise-making this time around anyway. Enter mild-mannered Doug Yule, his tender voice showcased immediately on evergreen opener "Candy Says."
Musically, there isn't a bad song on this album. Even the bizarre, spoken-word "Murder Mystery," functions better than its more menacing, heavy-handed cousin, "Black Angel's Death Song." Elsewhere, "What Goes On," proves that even a more tame Velvet Underground can still rock as hard as the Cale lineup. And Maureen Tucker's "After Hours" is as fitting an album-closer as "Desolation Row," or "A Day In the Life," encapsulating all which came before it into one final, satisfying experience. As a whole, The Velvet Underground is sublime; a pleasure-center mainstay for anyone in love with pop music's sweetest elements.
During their time as a going concern, The Velvet Underground were a commercial disaster. And by 1970, the band had reached the end of its rope. Dropped by their label, Verve/MGM, and playing near-empty venues anywhere they went, Lou Reed still managed to score them a deal with Atlantic Records who's godhead Ahmet Ertegun was a huge fan. But there was a condition. He told Reed he wanted a record, "loaded with hits."
The band responded by offering its most blatantly pop-oriented album. The effort proved too little too late. Reed quit before recording wrapped, leaving Doug Yule to sing on nearly half the record. And while the former's songs "Rock & Roll," and "Sweet Jane," would eventually find their way onto AOR playlists, it was the latter's opener, "Who Loves the Sun," centerpiece, "New Age," and closer, "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" that are the true highlights. Unfortunately, Loaded was another commercial flop and Sterling Morrison followed Reed's lead and left the band.
Recorded by Yule and Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice (Tucker was dismissed by the band's management), Squeeze often appears on lists of all-time worst albums probably more out of spite than actual content. In truth, this is a decent if mildly unremarkable collection of straightforward pop tunes.
Clearly trying to approach Reed territory with song titles like, "Little Jack," Caroline," and "Dopey Joe," these songs do neither the album nor The Velvets' legacy any favors. But to say Squeeze is a total artistic failure would be false. The album's best cuts kick off Side Two. "She'll Make You Cry," would have fit nicely on Loaded and I'm going to come out and say it: "Friends" is one of the 20 best Velvet Underground songs ever; a melancholy sister to "Candy Says." "Friends" ultimately proves that Yule - even if just briefly - seized his moment. And perhaps better management, or more time, or a desire to continue recording original material might have afforded Yule the chance to solidify his ideas into a truly substantial album, as both Reed (on Transformer, Berlin, and Coney Island Baby) and Cale (on Vintage Violence, and Paris 1919) were able to do. But as fate would have it, this was the final chance Yule and - by default - the Velvets would have. After that, it'd be up to fans and critics to carry and ultimately lift the legacy of one of the greatest, most challenging bands of all time.
The Velvet Underground's seminal unreleased material had been packaged and repackaged in various forms since the mid-1980s. But it wasn't until the 2012 deluxe remasters of their first four albums that this unissued LP (recorded before Verve/MGM dropped them) was properly sequenced and released. It's near-revelatory to hear these songs freshly mixed; like getting a brand new Velvets record! Reed knew the quality of the material and would use many of the songs - "I Can't Stand It," "Andy's Chest" to name two - for subsequent solo records. "Ocean" is the true lost gem; a proto-shoegaze song that moves along at a snail's pace, like the ebb and flow of the waves the song's lyrics evoke.
Had 1969 come out in real time instead of 45 years later, I'm not sure the band's commercial fortunes would have changed much. More than likely, we'd be talking instead about how The Velvet Underground would have been part of one of rock's most exclusive clubs: five great albums in a row!
Bootlegs galore! The Velvet Underground is one of the most heavily-bootlegged bands of all time. The 2010's have managed to make much of this material officially-sanctioned, though. So check out the super deluxe reissues of their first four albums as the bonus discs provide a wealth of rare, unreleased live concert and B-side material. Avoid the 1993 live reunion album. The recording is flat and the performance sounds hurried and uninspired.
The Peel Slowly & See box set from the 90s is particularly insightful as it offers up a bevy of acoustic Reed/Cale/Morrison rehearsal tapes. "Venus in Furs," sounds more like Freewheelin in this context and it's great to hear The Velvet Underground attempting to cut its teeth as a Greenwich Village folk trio before Tucker's entry into the group; it's a road not taken, but still fun to take a stroll down. Speaking of Tucker, Sundazed put out a 2xCD anthology which contains the corny, but touching Sterling Morrison tribute, "Last Night, I Said Goodbye To My Friend," as well as anything else you might need to hear from her. Reed and Cale's catalogue's speak for themselves: some great, some truly awful, but many still worth a listen or two.