Wednesday, October 20, 2021

A track-by-track look at the VU documentary soundtrack

The Todd Haynes documentary on The Velvet Underground landed on Apple TV+ last Friday, and I reviewed it Monday on our Geezerology Gazette series over on YouTube. Accompanying the movie was a 16-track soundtrack album.

Some interesting things appear on this album, some not readily available elsewhere. VU completists and other big fans certainly will want to add this 2-CD set to their collections. Most casual fans, though, would be well-served to just add it to your streaming library.

I'll give a track-by-track rundown of what is on this set to give you some context for the material. This isn't necessarily a critical review or analysis, though I'll add some opinions to some of these descriptions. Mostly, though, this is a guide as to what you'll find here.

The music for this set was curated by Haynes and the film's musical supervisor, Randall Poster. The physical CD set comes with a booklet that has some liner notes written by Haynes. The musical content on the physical discs and on streaming are identical.

I have not purchased the CD set, but I've listened to the album a few times on Apple Music.

The soundtrack album consists mostly of Velvet Underground recordings that Haynes clipped for use in the movie. It also has a few non-VU tracks, most of them included to spotlight the kinds of music that inspired John Cale and Lou Reed in their formative years.

If you're a VU fan, you'll know most of these tracks. But I'll give you an idea as to what makes the particular tracks on this particular album special and worth seeking out.

Track 1: "Venus In Furs."
This is the track that appeared on the VU's debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, released in 1967. It's obviously gone through a modern remastering process. It sounds substantially cleaner than it did in its original release, without some of the unintended noise and ambience noticeable in the original. This is the case with several of the tracks that follow. It's classic Cale-era VU. No Velvet Underground compilation could be complete without this one.

Track 2: "The Wind," by The Diablos. This was a hit single in 1954 by this doo-wop group out of Detroit. Reed grew up listening obsessively to doo-wop records of the time. I'm not sure if this record was a particular favorite of his. But it certainly is representative of what that music sounded like in that era, so it gives a good idea of what it was that inspired Reed to pursue music as his life's work. The vocal harmonies of this genre informed a lot of Reed's music for the entirety of his career.

Track 3: "17 XII 63 NYC The Fire Is a Mirror" (excerpt), by The Theatre of Eternal Music. This is a six-plus-minute piece from La Monte Young's experimental group that was a major influence on Cale. This is a rare opportunity to hear something from Young, who has never released any of his music publicly. I don't know the details of this particular piece. I am assuming that the designations at the front of the title are catalog notes, saying that this piece was recorded on Dec. 17, 1963, in New York City. Perhaps Haynes details the origins of this track in the CD booklet. Cale would come to refer to Young's collective as "The Dream Syndicate." Like most of you, I have read La Monte Young's name and of the music he made -- mostly focused on harmonic experimentation and droning instrumentation. This is the first time I have ever heard a sample of Young's stuff. A lot comes into focus hearing this track. For one, it gives perfect context to where Cale came from. His squealing viola parts with the VU came straight out of The Dream Syndicate, layered on top of the structure of Reed's rock-and-roll songs. And listening to this track also helps make perfect sense of Reed's infamous Metal Machine Music. Until the day he died, Reed maintained that that 1975 album was a serious piece of music and not a middle-finger joke on his fans and RCA Records. Now, I understand what Metal Machine Music was -- it was Reed using electronic gadgetry to emulate La Monte Young. I know I have read that countless times and considered it largely bullshit. But now, having heard this track, it makes perfect sense to me.

Track 4: "Heroin." Like Track 1, a remastered, cleaned up version of the track from the VU debut album. This is the mono version of the track, issued alongside or even before the stereo LP -- a standard practice at the time. "Heroin" and "Venus In Furs" were among the songs Reed showed off to Cale shortly after they met and as they started discussing forming a band together. Reed provided the songs, and Cale brought the sonic frenzy.

Track 5: "Road Runner," by Bo Diddley. This is a live track of a single released in 1960. I don't know the particulars of this live recording, perhaps it's spelled out by Haynes in the CD booklet. It's included on the soundtrack to show us where not only Reed but also Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker drew inspiration as kids. Tucker in particular wasn't shy about her love of Bo Diddley. She covered a few of his songs on the four solo albums she recorded in the 1980s and early '90s.

Track 6: "The Ostrich," by The Primitives. This is the beginning of the Cale-Reed partnership, the first time they played together. Reed was a staff writer at Pickwick Records in 1964 and 1965, churning out throwaway tunes for budget albums sold in department stores for a few dimes. One of those songs was "The Ostrich," a dance craze Reed made up along the lines of "The Twist" or "Monster Mash" or a dozen other hits of the time. As was practice, Reed recorded the song with a group of young freelance musicians, and some radio station somewhere gave it some airplay and created a little buzz. So Pickwick hastily assembled a band for Reed to appear on a local TV show or something to play the song, and somehow Cale got the gig. This is the only recording, I believe, that exists of that live appearance. It's pretty muddy and scratchy and extremely lo-fi. But it's here. And it's a kick to listen to.

Track 7: "I'm Waiting For The Man." Like tracks 1 and 4, a cleaned-up classic from the debut album.

Track 8: "Chelsea Girls," by Nico.
This is from Nico's solo debut, Chelsea Girl, recorded in spring 1967, around the same time the VU's debut album landed. This song was written by Reed and Morrison, both of whom play acoustic guitars on the track. It appears on the documentary soundtrack to add some context to Nico's involvement with the band. Tom Wilson, who engineered the VU debut and produced White Light/White Heat, is the producer on the Nico album. He added a Larry Fallon string and flute arrangement to the minimalist track that provides an eerie, disconcerting layer to the song.

Track 9: "Sunday Morning." Another cleaned-up track from The Velvet Underground and Nico. This was the second single released in 1966, ahead of the album, that went absolutely nowhere. It's the gentlest, prettiest song on the album, and probably was added to the soundtrack to provide a contrast to the chaotic side of that version of the band.

Track 10: "Sister Ray."
This is a 19-minute live performance recorded in New York City in 1969, after Cale was gone and Doug Yule joined the VU. I cannot find details on the source of this recording. "Sister Ray," of course, originally appeared on the band's second album, White Light/White Heat, in 1968. This particular performance is pretty close to the studio version in its loud, abrasive cacophany. The live versions I had heard from this period, mostly from The Quine Tapes and The Complete Matrix Tapes, are considerably slower in tempo. This aggressive take on "Sister Ray" definitely is necessary for this compilation, but I think the original studio version would have been more appropriate here for history's sake. As it is, this soundtrack set includes no tracks directly from WL/WH.

Track 11: "Pale Blue Eyes."
Here is a remastered version of the track from the third album, The Velvet Underground, released in 1969. The VU now has transitioned from Cale to Doug Yule, from performance art to straightforward rock and roll. This is one of the most personal, heartfelt songs Reed ever wrote and subsequently has become one of the most-covered songs in the VU catalog. It certainly belongs in any kind of historical record of the band.

Track 12: "Foggy Notion."
The rubber really hits the road on this one. One of my favorite VU tracks, this is where Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and Bill Haley meet The Velvet Underground. This is a remastered track from the 1985 outtake compilation, VU. "Foggy Notion" was one of about a dozen tracks unearthed in the MGM vaults in the early 1980s, recorded in 1969 for an intended fourth Velvet Underground album. The record label pulled the plug on that record in an austerity move, and these abandoned, unheard tapes for several years were referred to as "The Lost Velvet Underground Album." In my opinion, this is the track that best defines the Yule-era Velvet Underground as the rip-roaring, earth-moving, ass-shaking rock-and-roll band that it was. "I got my calamine lotion, baby, do it again." Indeed.

Track 13: "After Hours."
This song closes the third album, distinguishable as Tucker's singing debut. The track here, though, is a live recording from late in the band's 1969 tour that appeared on the 2015 release The Complete Matrix Tapes. The track includes Reed's introductory monologue in which he explains why he recruited his reluctant drummer to sing the song.

Track 14: "Sweet Jane."
Here it is, the signature song from Loaded, the song Reed played at almost every single one of his concerts until the day he left us. This is the extended version, with the "Heavenly wine and roses" bridge that was excised from the original 1970 release. This edit first appeared on the Peel Slowly and See box set of 1995 and has become the de facto official version of the song.

Track 15: "Ocean." This song has an interesting history. The Velvets recorded it in studio at least three separate times. "Ocean" was recorded during the 1969 sessions for the intended fourth MGM album and was left behind when the VU moved onto Cotillion Records. That is what we have here, the track that eventually surfaced on the 1985 compilation, VU. The Velvets took two stabs at this song during the 1970 recording sessions for Loaded, but decided not to use it on that album. Then, Reed reworked "Ocean" again in London in 1971 and finally did release the song on his eponymous solo debut in 1972. The two abandoned recordings from the Loaded session eventually did appear on Fully Loaded, the two-CD deluxe edition released in 1997.

Track 16: "All Tomorrow's Parties." This was the band's first single, released in 1966, so the first time the Velvets, as well as Nico's distinctive voice, appeared on record. It's another remastered track from the debut, the only one in this collection featuring Nico singing lead. "All Tomorrow's Parties" is well-known to be Andy Warhol's favorite VU song.

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