Genre: (Folk) Rock
Preceded by: White Light/White Heat (1968)
Followed by: Loaded (1970)
Related to: Lou Reed – Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal
While speaking about Lou Reed’s great live album before, it was already mentioned how the Velvet Underground overwhelmed me when hearing their debut album for the first time, some 40 years after it was released. Noteworthy of course, but not something completely unique. What was unique, was the fact that this occurred again with the two following albums; I embraced White Light/White Heat as well as The Velvet Underground from the first time I heard them and cherished them as some of the best records ever made. Not something evident in view of the huge contrast between those two albums, but revealing a lot about this band’s versatility.
On the second of March 1942, Lou Reed was born in New York. Exactly one week later, on the other side of the Atlantic, a Welsh woman named Margaret Davies gave birth to her son John Cale. The first one completed his artistic education at university in June 1964, the latter organized his first concert on the sixth of July that year in London, where he studied at that time. The two met for the first time later that year when Cale moves to New York, as he was supposed to study classical music there. However, Cale was quickly enticed from his study books by the enchanting drones that came out of some guy’s guitar, playing a song called ‘Heroin’.
The two formed some bands together, before deciding to start performing as The Velvet Underground in 1965, together with Sterling Morrison on guitar and Angus MacLise on drums. If not for that book about the sixties’ secret subculture the band was named after, it could have easily been The Primitives, The Warlocks or The Falling Spikes. The final line-up was reached right on their first gig, as MacLise (considering that performance a sellout) was replaced by Maureen Tucker.
However, it only really started to go somewhere after pop art guru Andy Warhol became their manager, giving his new band carte blanche concerning their sound. Although, carte blanche? That was without taking into account the presence of German model Nico, who (on Warhol’s persistence) sang along on their debut album, with the meaningful title: The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967). The ever important second album followed early ’68, and Reed & Cale (Nico was meanwhile exiled) succeeded to astonish another time on White Light/White Heat. The fragile beauty that was an essential part of the debut had disappeared, but noise was given its dignity.
That the third album would once again sound different, was already predicted by the departure of John Cale from the band later that year, being replaced on bass by Doug Yule. However, that the electric powertrips would be almost entirely replaced by a gentle, melodic rock sound still was, to say the least, astounding. Rarely did a band ever make such an abrupt switch concerning its characterizing sound without losing a single fraction of its quality. Let’s go.
The bands new style as well as its new member is immediately introduced on the first track, ‘Candy Says’. Yule takes the lead vocals in this song, about the trans woman Candy Darling. She played in some of Warhol’s movies and would remain a source of inspiration for Reed on later occasions, as the second verse of ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ on Transformer shows. A soft, slumbering guitar guides Yule, while the percussion is reduced to a minimum. When the needle moves over to the second track, the variation between the two sorts of songs on this album becomes clear. ‘What Goes On’ is a terrific straight forward rock song, on which that classic, pushing, Velvet guitar sound kicks in again. It’s a true gem, as the song contains one of the best instrumental combo’s ever with the rhythm guitars and the organ (Yule) constantly building towards a great peak at the end of the song.
The opener of side 2 (‘Beginning to See the Light’) is a similar song, but sounds like a light version of the former. This makes it the most poppy song on the album, although ‘What Goes On’ was picked as the album’s only single. As most earwigs that seduce you to listen to a full album, it’s the first song that loses its glow after having accomplished its duty. Another song that jumps out is the penultimate one: ‘The Murder Mystery’, the only track on the album that points back to the avant-garde sound of the previous albums. It’s a very eccentric but intriguing piece thanks to the interchanging between the vocals (Reed/Morrison during the ‘verses’, Tucker/Yule during the ‘chorus’) and the bewitching instrumentation (notice the organ again). Hidden beauty.
The rest of the album consists of six soft ballads, often enriched by a folk rock accent. Three of them complete side 1, beginning with ‘Some Kinda Love’. It opens with a duet between guitar and bass while you can already hear Reed impatiently catching a breath in the background. Overall it sounds like a light melodic rock song, if not for the continuously pumping bass and interesting lyrics. However, on such a rich album it’s one of the ‘least’ songs. It’s followed by ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, a song of absolute beauty. Reed really shines here with extremely fragile vocals, only accompanied by another slumbering melodic guitar and a tambourine in the background. The song is said to be dedicated to Reed’s first love, Shelley Albin, but more important the centerpiece of the album shows Reed as a genius songwriter. Side 1 is closed by ‘Jesus’, with the writer of ‘Heroin’ and ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ now begging Jesus for help. The sophisticated soft sound is still there, but because of its place on the album it’s completely overshadowed by its predecessor.
Another personal favorite is ‘I’m Set Free’, which must be one of the key songs in Reed’s oeuvre. The reason is that it reminds of the Velvet’s debut and is at the same time a forerunner of Reed’s solo career (most notably Transformer). It builds up slowly (Tucker demonstrates her skills here with a simple but essential rhythm) towards this typical peak in the middle, featuring a nice guitar solo. What’s left are two short songs, around two minutes long. First one is ‘That’s the Story of My Life’, with another typical folk tune and even a Beatles sounding guitar solo in the middle. The other one is ‘After Hours’, on which Tucker takes the lead vocals. It was obviously inspiring for Meg White, who would contribute similar songs to some White Stripes albums later on. Here, it fits perfectly as closing song.
The Velvet Underground is an album that profited from the growing role of Lou Reed and his expressive songwriting after the departure of the bands co-founder. It would become the third part of an impressive trilogy, on which the band showed it could handle a lot of different styles. One more album (Loaded) would follow and although it was not bad at all, Reed left the band before it was even released as it was completely edited (to get airplay) without his consent. However, in your search for pureness in rock music, one of those first three albums is your best bet.