Sunday, May 23, 2010

Secret History: The Velvet Underground

I was just going to just jump into 1967 when I decided that the Velvet Underground deserved their own post.  If ever there was a band that represented the secret history, it’s them.

No band better defines the division between what many people call classic rock, and what has always been looked upon as “alternative” music.  Call it punk, glitter, whatever. 

It was the music most of us hated.  It was just too damned weird.

The sixties made things easy for us.  For a time (1964-69) AM radio was a place where good music and popular music were synonymous.  We had FM for what we considered the more adventurous music, and when Sgt. Pepper came along, everyone was an artiste.  All of these factors conspired to make us think we’d explored all there was to explore.  It made us lazy. 

But even then, there was an “alternative” universe being created, thankfully before the window of opportunity collapsed.  It avoided the trap of taking itself too seriously, and it stayed rock and roll based, not trying to use classical music motifs.  Perhaps as a result, it didn’t get played on the radio.

Why not?  Because whatever people say about missing the sixties, I think most were secretly relieved when they was over.  They couldn’t wait for things to get back to normal.  Check out what songs became hits on AM radio in 1970, and compare that to just the year before.  (No, you do it.  I’m busy.) 

And FM?  Well, if anything, the increasing crap on AM only made it more attractive.  But as people get older, they want to be taken seriously.  So the music they listened to had to seem more mature.  How to do that?  Well, add orchestras, stress musicianship, and trade in the electric guitar for an acoustic.  Above all, be serious.  That’ll let people have their pop music and feel grown up, too.  You know it’s art if everybody’s frowning.

So music that hoped to be sold got pretty safe.  But, as a friend once said, “safe” is one long slow slide into mediocrity.  In order for something to thrive it’s got to change.  And change can challenge people.  Some aren’t up for it. 

A friend once complained that there hasn’t been any great music since 1975.  Given where he was looking – AOR radio – I had to agree.  Had he been looking elsewhere, he might have felt differently.

And that’s a shame because I happen to think that what we call “alternative” music has been responsible for far more great rock and roll music than supposedly “classic” rock.   

My Faithful Readers: Ahem, hey Jaybee, what about the Velvet Underground?

Me:  Oh, yeah.  I forgot
I’m ashamed to say that I didn't hear my first Velvet Underground album until 1982 – at least fifteen years after it came out.  I was only three tracks into “Velvet Underground and Nico”(1967) on my first listen when it was clear to me that I was listening to a great album.    (This from a guy who doesn’t usually know he likes an album until he’s heard it a dozen times.)  I couldn’t believe how enjoyable it was.  From the beautiful ballads - written back when Lou Reed would put actual melodies in his songs, and sing them, too! - to aggressively experimental rock and roll, it amazed me that, with the exception of “Heroin”, I had heard none of it on the radio.  It was as though a , well, secret history had been revealed.

And yet, it’s quintessential “classic” rock.  I’ll admit that some of the subject matter must have been considered iffy (drugs, sado-masochism, hey, what’s not to like?) at the time, but it was the 60s for god sakes.  But then again, these topics stand in start contrast to our image of the Summer of Love.  Classics include: “Sunday Morning”, “Waiting for My Man”, “There She Goes”, “Femme Fatale”, “I’ll Be Your Mirror”.  It’s one of the all time greats.

I then figured that if the radio wouldn’t play this when it first came out, thus preventing it from entering the collective consciousness, what else were they passing on?  And if that’s what I missed then, what was I missing now?  This was when I officially gave up on commercial radio as a source of music that I could love.

The second album, “White Light/White Heat” (1968) is one of the most uncompromising albums ever made, and is admittedly a bit much.  The amps are turned way up beyond the point of distortion, let alone clarity.  If anything the subject matter is even more out there.  It could be heard as Lou Reed’s first of many extended middle fingers to his audience.    But it does have great moments – the astounding momentum of “Sister Ray”, “Lady Godiva’s Operation”, the beautiful “Here She Comes Now”.  Not for the faint hearted, it’s definitely that last one to get.

The third album - simply called “Velvet Underground” (1969) - is a total shock, because its quietly beautiful - and yet not pretty - sound occupies a completely different universe from its predecessors.  Maybe it’s the morning after the orgy of the prior album.  Minor caveats include the woozy lead guitar in the middle of “What Goes On”, which is more than made up for by the great rhythm(!) guitar solo at the end, and the experimental “Murder Mystery” which is a bit long.   Highlights include “Candy Says”, “Beginning to See the Light” and “Jesus”, which, if it were ever played at Mass, I might start going again.  It’s a morning album, but have your coffee first.  Definitely worthwhile.

“Loaded” (1970) is the last official studio album, and is much more relaxed and seemingly lightweight than the prior ones, so much so that it may take a few listens to take hold, but by then, you’re hooked.  It’s got “Who Loves the Sun”, which could have been done by the Cowsills, “Sweet Jane”, which was done admittedly better by Mott the Hoople, and “Rock n Roll”.  Lou Reed sounds like he’s having the time of his life, which is weird, because he quit the band before the record was completed.  This one’s the funnest.

Of the live albums, I recommend the double “1969: The Velvet Underground Live”.  Of the two collections of lost recordings released in the 80s, I can vouch for the first “VU”, which has “You’re My Best Friend” and “Ocean” which are amongst my all time VU favorites.

So I suggest that you start with “Velvet Underground and Nico” for the classic songs, or “Loaded” for fun.  Then choose between the strong songs on “Velvet Underground” or the good tunes on “VU”.  And if you make it to “White Light/White Heat”, I’ll be very proud.

You don’t put the Velvets on during a party, unless you’ve invited a bunch of heroin addicts.  And at times you will find them to be downright unpleasant. 

But the Velvet Underground would be the well spring from which hundreds of other bands would arise.  Some of them could be unsavory (Iggy and the Stooges), or downright alarming (The New York Dolls).  In other words, they were often totally at odds with what many of us thought of as serious music.  And they smelled of gimmick, when it should be about the music. 

But what about the music?  There was always something twisted about it.  (Call it Bizzarro music if you like.)  It was loud, messy.  Definitely not mellow.  It was, after all, rock and roll music.  And we thought we were getting too old for it. 

But that’s only because too many of us see a contradiction between a seeming lack of seriousness and art.  And thanks to the ever tightening grip of money on radio, and the blindness of even so called free form stations, this music would always be relegated to the musical ghetto.

But over time, it’s become clear that this has been the real source of inspiration for the great rock and roll music being made even now.  And we have the Velvet Underground to thank for it.

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