Thursday, February 25, 2021

With the Velvets, it's all about first impressions

1967: Morrison, Reed, Cale, Tucker

It only took about 45 years, but it finally happened. My old roommate Geezer Bob listened to a Velvet Underground album for the first time in his life, and he got blown away.

Bob has known from the first time we met sometime around 1976 that I was a dedicated Lou Reed fanboy. But he never paid much attention, never heard anything from Reed either solo or with the Velvets that captured his interest. I did get Bob to go with me to a theater in Kansas City to see a mulleted and newly bespectacled Reed touring his 1989 LP, New York. Bob was a good sport about it, but as I recall, he wasn't impressed.

But how he finally came around happened quite by accident. He and I were kicking around topics for discussion for our developing Geezerology on YouTube channel, and I spontaneously tossed out an idea to do a Velvet Underground album. He agreed, and I immediately landed on Loaded as probably the easiest one for him to work on. In the spirit of trying to make this project of ours succeed, he took the assignment seriously and went to work.

I didn't expect much. I thought Bob would probably find something to like about Loaded. It's easily the most accessible and closest to the mainstream of the four VU albums. And the straightforward hitmaking approach to this one might work for my old buddy, I thought. But Bob surprised the heck out of me on camera when he called it "damn near a perfect rock-and-roll album." "How in the hell did I miss this over the last five decades?" he exclaimed, much to my delight.

I'm here to tell you now from experience: The old adage is absolutely false. You can indeed teach an old dog new tricks. And the other old dog on this team learned that he can still be surprised by the curveballs life sometimes throws at him.

It wasn't difficult deciding where to steer Bob for his first encounter with the Velvets. Loaded is easily the most accessible and least complicated of the four canonical VU albums. Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun signed the Velvets to his Cotillion subsidiary on the condition that they nix the graphic sex and drug references and give him something he could sell. Reed was happy to oblige, and he set out to write an album "loaded with hits," as Ertegun wanted. The result was a collection of 10 fairly straightforward rock-and-roll songs -- a perfect place for Bob to start in his Velvet Underground indoctrination.

1969: Morrison, Tucker, Reed, Yule

Is Loaded my favorite Velvet Underground album? That's a tough question for me. Sometimes it is. Sometimes White Light/White Heat is. Sometimes the posthumous outtakes collection VU is. My problem ranking my favorite VU albums is that for the most part, they all have something vastly different to offer. How can you compare Loaded to White Light/White Heat? How can you compare the debut with the third one? It's impossible. It really depends on what particular Velvet Underground mood I am in at a particular moment. 

But my experience with Bob gives me an idea. As I always say, and this is the last time I'll mansplain this, I don't rank a catalog of albums on artistic merit. That's because I think what makes a work of art successful, what gives it value, is purely in the eyes of the beholder. Usually, I rank albums based on how much each one speaks to me personally.

This time, though, I'll go from a different angle, keeping my buddy Bob and the uninitiated like him foremost in my mind: If I wanted to introduce an acolyte to the Velvet Underground, which VU album would I most or least likely to recommend as a first listen? Obviously, we already know which one would be No. 1. But let's play the game anyway, from least likely to most likely. For the sake of discussion, the considerable number of posthumous VU live albums, outtake compilations and reissues won't be considered here. We'll discuss only the five official studio albums, those that were made specifically to be a self-contained Velvet Underground record.

No. 5. Squeeze (1973):
Yeah, yeah, I know. But I'm not cheating. This was an official Velvet Underground album on release, so I'll acknowledge it. Manager Steve Sesnick signed a contract ith Polydor UK for a Velvet Underground album. Sesnick fired band members Maureen Tucker, Willie Alexander and Walter Powers because he wanted control of Doug Yule, who he long thought was the future of the Velvet Underground. Squeeze is Yule in a London recording studio along with Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice and a couple of uncredited musicians trying to replicate Loaded. It isn't the worst record I've ever heard. There are a couple of hummable tunes here, but nothing that will stick with you longer than it takes to play through the album. It sounds like your buddy who's a competent musician putting together a CD-R album in his home studio -- nothing more, nothing less. Squeeze is but a footnote in the VU history, deservedly so.

No. 4. White Light/White Heat (1968):
Let me stress: This is NOT my least favorite canonical Velvet Underground album. In a lot of ways and on a lot of days, this would be my favorite. By no stretch of the imagination, though, is it the album you'd recommend in 2021 to your buddy Bob to introduce him to the VU's catalog. It's not that it's atypical VU or that it's bad VU or anything like that. What it is is loud, obnoxious, abrasive, atonal, clear-out-the-dorm-room-so-you-can-get-some-sleep VU. This is the VU that beget the Johnny Rottens and the Richard Hells and the Stiv Bators of the world. It's also the VU that eventually morphed into the noise rock of Sonic Youth and Nine Inch Nails. Reed loved to tell the story of Verve staff producer Tom Wilson's crew walking out of the studio during the recording of "Sister Ray": "They don't pay us enough to listen to this shit," somebody said, according to Reed. "We'll leave the tapes rolling, come get us when you're finished." If your Bob is the adventurous type, sure, start him here. But if he's not, let him work his way toward White Light/White Heat. Baby steps.

No. 3. The Velvet Underground (1969):
The second and third positions in this ranking really depend on your read of your Bob. If your Bob seems to be more rock-and-roll and historically curious, as mine is, the debut album will rank ahead of this one. But if your Bob tends more to low-key, straightforward, mostly acoustic singer-songwriter fare, this one would probably come right after Loaded, possibly even at the top of the list. Reed had won a succession of power struggles, shedding the esoteric pull of first Andy Warhol and then John Cale. And now Lou clearly is the focal point of this band. The self-titled third album is his pronouncement to the world that he is a songwriter to be taken seriously. Except for "The Murder Mystery," the goofy studio experiment at the back end, this is essentially a Reed solo album with Tucker, Yule and Sterling Morrison as his backing band. He does give Yule and Tucker a turn at lead vocals on the opening track, "Candy Says," and the closer, "Afterhours," respectively. I think that is more in service to Reed's songs, not so much a way to pass around the spotlight. This album was recorded in California during a break in their exhaustive 1969 tour, where much of the posthumous live material came from. A lot of people consider this their favorite Velvet Underground album. It's not mine. It's the last of the four canonical albums I turn to. I don't dislike it by any means. It's just not my brand of coffee.

No. 2. The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967):
I don't have much to say about this album that hasn't already been said by people much smarter and articulate than I. This one turns up on every credible ranking of the Top 5 or so albums of all time along with a couple of Beatles albums and one or two by Bob Dylan. Give it a listen, place it in the context of its time and it's easy to see how this record eventually bubbled up from under the surface and turned rock music on its ear. Pretty much everything that happened in the following decades -- glam, prog, punk, new wave, alternative, indie, grunge, you name it -- evolved out of something on this album. Why No. 2, and not No. 1, on this list? Mostly because it could be a bit of a challenge to someone who had never heard anything from the Velvets. It certainly would require more work for an acolyte than Loaded, a much easier listen. If your Bob is really ready to dive in, doesn't need any coddling, sure, start him here.

No. 1. Loaded (1970):
Just flat-out a great place to start a Velvet Underground exploration, historical or artistic or purity debates aside. Yeah, it isn't a pure Velvet Underground album -- Reed pointed that out occasionally as long as he lived. The revolving door was in full swing -- Cale is long gone, Tucker is credited but not present, Morrison reportedly didn't contribute much at all. Reed called it quits at the end of the recording sessions, leaving Yule and Sesnick in charge of post-production and assembling a touring band to promote the album. Loaded in reality is a Lou Reed-Doug Yule project with a handful of young studio musicians, not so much a Velvet Underground album. But take Bob's word for it after his first time listening: It's near-perfect. And it will leave the uninitiated starving for more.

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