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Peel Slowly And See - Exploring The Velvet Underground

22 November 2019

“I think that everything happens for a reason, everything happens when it’s going to happen.”Lou Reed 

Formed in New York, fifty-five years ago, The Velvet Underground were perhaps the most important and influential outfit of the twentieth century. The colliding chemistry of singer-songwriter Lou Reed and Welsh avant-garde musician John Cale was not just the forming of a band, but the forging of like-minded experimentalists. As the band took shape with the added fast but slow licks of guitarist Sterling Morrison. Finally, a finished product with the addition of tomboy drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker in 1965, the outfit played artistically wild, and loud enough to capture the eye of pop-artist Andy Warhol. With the addition of chanteuse and second vocalist Nico, The Velvet Underground moved closer to the all important debut album. 

Compared to other overproduced releases of the day, The Velvet Underground & Nico is the musical equivalent of a jagged, prison shank-crude and simple but lethally effective. The use of Nico to sing the softer songs on the album was a stroke of genius. With the atmospheric “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, the seductive “Femme Fatale” and the bleak hopelessness of “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. Her tender voice gave light to an album which otherwise would have fallen into an abyss of darkness. A wider context was needed, as the songs Reed snarled out were the building blocks of punk, packing the noise in so densely creating an intentional full sensory-overloading experience.

The revolutionary “Heroin”, two chords stretched into a seven-minute epic about how it feels to take heroin. By any stretch not a romanticising lyric but an honest one. Whereas the normal song in the charts of the day like the Rolling Stones “Satisfaction” a song you’d enjoy or even dance to, “Heroin” like the drug itself you simply experience. But the scary, dark idea was placed in the listeners mind that Lou Reed is singing with the obvious conviction of knowing full well about the subject of taking heroin first hand. There is no lie here, no second hand notion or ‘read about’ ideal. 

“He (Lou Reed) was a great songwriter who pushed the boundaries in terms of what he was writing about”Moe Tucker

Pushing forward into the hypnotic chiming-chord introduction of “Venus In Furs”. Galvanized by the whip strokes of John Cales viola. A moment that immediately catches your attention, and drags you willing or not into Lou Reed’s world. A more complicated structure than most songs on the album, but again the lyrics for the time, when it was released must have driven a stake through the sensibilities of society. Similar to “Heroin” there was an obvious lack of fear in which the openness of how these subjects were tackled. Subjects such as drugs and sadomasochism were openly sung about. Normalizing the themes as if they were a teenage romance based tune from the age. 

Another addition to the sound was Reed’s ostrich tuned guitar, where all strings are tuned to the same note. This created the perfect drone effect to play against Cale’s viola, hence creating that feeling of hypnosis. The same format used on “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. An ode to the lost souls hanging out at Andy Warhol’s Factory, his studio come party zone located on East 47th Street in midtown Manhattan. The people, and performers who came and went, a lot of whom only lived for the next good time, finding life in general a struggle. Throughout Reeds career he would write about these different characters, a dedication in song to them and sometimes even an album. 

Swiftly the album moves into the cutting “Run,Run,Run” which mentions a host of characters such as Teenage Mary, Margarita Passion, Seasick Sarah, and Beardless Harry. A simple number about scoring drugs, and the dangers of an overdose -Seasick Sarah “Turns Blue”. All this underworld activity set against the backdrop of Union Square. A song memorable for the stinging if not unconventional guitar solo by Reed which erupts into white deafening noise. One of the more curious additions is “The Black Angel’s Death Song”. Notable for one of the few overdubs on the album which is dominated by the piercing sound of John Cale’s electric viola, creating an intentional, uneven sound throughout the song. On top of this is the constant bursts of feedback primarily created by Cale simply hissing into the microphone. 

“We’d hold a chord for three hours if we could.”John Cale

Then to close we have Lou Reed’s personal hate speech “European Son”,  aimed at one Delmore Schwartz. A past literary partner of Reeds, the longest track on the album, and a precursor of what was to come on their next release. A frustrating year long delay on the albums release, finally hitting the streets  in March 1967. With the lack of any commercial success of the album, which prompted Reed to fire Warhol as their manager and so breaking all ties to him. Although alongside John Cale, Lou Reed did compose the tribute album to Warhol after his passing entitled Songs For Drella in 1990.  Shortly after Warhols firing Nico was also forced out of the band due in part to her partial deafness, and time spent getting ready in dressing rooms. In truth, Warhol wanted her in the band, now he was gone the opportunity to oust her was imminent. Although she did have a successful cult following throughout her musical career, starting with Chelsea Girl , and the career defining The Marble Index. In January 1972 at the Bataclan club in Paris, Reed, Cale and Nico reunited on stage for the first time since her departure from the band. 

“..often during White Light White Heat I thought things were more distorted than they had to be..”Sterling Morrison

If you believe  The Velvet Underground And Nico is an album about drugs, then by comparison the sophomore Velvets release White Light-White Heat is an album which is on drugs. With no Andy Warhol this time to rein Reed in, he could let fly with an eruption of white noise, attacking the listeners every sense. No Nico to shine a sultry light in darkness, this is the abyss, this is where romance comes to die. The opinion is often stated that this is the true album, and voice of the Velvet Underground. All four members working in unison as one colossal, feedback-driven war machine. The overstretched sound pulled in on their debut release so as not to hamper any commercial success, but here was let loose to astounding affect all under the guidance once more of Tom Wilson at the desk.

White Light-White Heat in its black album cover, a reflection of what the package is as a whole, the almost hidden skull tattoo of Joe Spencer blending into the darkness. The significant black on black with the band’s name, the album name and Verve company insignia all placed on one line. It was a minimalistic approach to packaging compared to the previous, and costly peel-able banana.

This was voodoo punk before punk had a name, what it should have been. The summoning up of all the aggression in society, focused, and executed. With savage feedback dripping as if a disease, ripping at the albums core. The opener, “White Light/White Heat” is a driving statement in the vain of “I’m Waiting For The Man”. John Cales chugging piano against Reeds vocal, all the while the other Velvets provide the chorus. The intense subject the Underground deals with faithfully is of all things the intravenous injection of drugs and their after effects, mimicked in intensity by Cales fuzzed out, distorted bass outro as if reaching a climax high.

This is followed by the full-blown drama of “The Gift”, Cales spoken word story put to the distorted music of the Velvets, an instrumental known simply as “Booker T”. The deadpan story follows the protagonist ‘Waldo’ mailing himself to the subject of his stalking, while getting mutilated by accident on delivery. The stereo version separates this tale into two channels, the music versus the story.

“Lady Godiva’s Operation” in contrast a dark noir, twisted with a romantic story, or as close to romantic as the Velvets get all surrounding a botched operation, humorously sung in the first half by John Cale describing “Lady Godiva”. The second half sung by Cale alternating with Reed, again full of that deadpan, dark humor which builds in suspense to an eruptive finale.

“Here She Comes Now”, the standard song of the set solely standing apart from the others by the lack of avant-garde effects. The song itself can be interpreted in either of two ways-one it’s song smeared with sexual innuendo, about a girl going to ‘come’, or secondly an ode to Lou Reed’s guitar, his battle cry normally being; ”Here she comes now!” before he blasts off into a solo, either way a pleasant break in the madness. Which does not subside for long as “I Heard Her Call My Name” comes out fighting from the recording. The feedback screeching, distorted guitar driven song, immersed by two ‘atonal’ guitars played by Reed at ear-splitting volume.

A tour de force before the albums closer, almost a build up to the orgy of avant-garde sound that was to come. “Sister Ray” is the penultimate song by the Velvet Underground. A song which defines all which was at the heart of the band’s mission statement. It centers on the familiar themes of Velvet songs, the transsexual killer who carries out a series of murders, sixteen to be exact,  and as the police break the door he is shooting up on smack while having an orgy with sailors and other transvestites. Taking up most of the second side of the album, this heavy-weight result of a seventeen-minute improvised jam, whereby Cale drives the song with an organ fed into a distorted guitar amplifier. The one take recording, the result of a mutual agreement of; “whatever happens-happens, whatever goes wrong-goes wrong, just keep going”.

“They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself”Andy Warhol 

These albums are the monumental influence within the Velvet Underground’s discography. All the elements that made the band are here for exploration. Following the departure of John Cale, The Velvet Underground would lose a part of itself, never again would they sound so free. The follow-up, the self-titled mellow and acoustic affair is a contrast to the destructive beauty of White Light-White Heat. Likewise, the final release Loaded which would include the last input from Reed. Both albums held a unique brilliance, but with the danger dialled down, and that was the knife edge that the Velvet Underground balanced upon.

Lou Reed – (March 2 1942 – October 27 2013)
Nico – (16 October 1938 – 18 July 1988)
Sterling Morrison – (August 29 1942 – August 30 1995)
Andy Warhol – (August 6 1928 – February 22 1987)