the Past, Darkly:
Underground - Peel Slowly and See
In 1995, 25 years after their break up
(see "The Velvet Underground:
A Crack in Time" in our "Legends" series for a band history), Polydor
Records released this comprehensive set documenting the music of the Velvet
Underground. More legend than band at that, and this, point in time due
mainly to an over exuberant rock press heating and re-heating their particular
myth of shadows' metaphors and bestowing upon the band an imprimatur of
credibility that, while patently manufactured, somehow assured the critic
in question the same credibility. They (we) needn't have bothered. The
Velvet Underground were above all else, a great rock and roll band. The
fact that they also took the pop song kicking and screaming into the then
unknown-to-rock realms of literature, social
architecture and free jazz is gravy.
"Peel Slowly and See" lays almost all the
recorded work of the Velvet Underground out in chronological order. From
the rehearsal tapes made in John Cale's NYC Ludlow Street apartment in
1965 that comprise Disc 1 to the plaintive version of "I'll Be Your Mirror"
from Lou Reed's last performance with the band at Max's Kansas City in
1970 that almost closes the set (the actual box set closer "I Love You"
is an out take from the VU's 4th album "Loaded" and is an appropriate close
to the set. We love you too, Lou), PSAS tells the tale of one of the most
important rock groups ever by letting the music speak for itself.
Containing not only all of the Velvets'
official albums, but also the much bootlegged "lost VU record" material
and many rare and previously unreleased demos and live recordings, PSAS
gets the whole "box set" thing right. You have but to come in.
So, come on in!
Disc One: 1965
The wellspring. Recorded as a demo in July
of 1965 by Reed, Cale and Morrison it consists of multiple takes of future
VU classics "Heroin", "Venus In Furs" "I'm Waiting For My Man" and "All
Tomorrow's Parties" as well as "Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams" a tune later
covered by Nico and, the real oddity in the bunch "Prominent Men", a song
not heard again in which Lou Reed proves than, in 1965, even he wanted
to be Bob Dylan. The surprising thing is that, at the time of this recording
- two full years before the release of the debut album and it's versions
of these songs - the Velvet Underground sound was there from the get go
(excluding "Prominent Men", hey, Zimmerman cut deep, ok?). The modal guitar
drone and viola hum and screech creepiness that poisoned the well of the
Summer of Love two years hence was alive and apparent, fully formed and
writhing in the summer heat of that small apartment, hissing back at the
traffic noise that filtered through the window and onto this CD. These
recordings mark the earliest recorded examples of a great musical experiment,
the mixing of the terse verbiage of the detective novel, the confrontational
aesthetic of the avant garde and street level rock and roll.
Disc Two: 1966-67
The Warhol Years. Recorded in April, 1966
but not released until March of 1967, "The Velvet Underground and Nico",
which makes up the bulk of this disc, was as strong a debut record from
anything calling itself rock and roll. Ever. The CD opens with "Sunday
Morning", it's sunrise over the skyline intro of chiming guitars and bells
suggesting a pastoral hymn to the wonders of the natural life ala Spanky
and Our Gang, but upon close inspection reveals itself to be nothing less
than an tone poem/essay on the paranoia one feels when one wakes up on
yet another Sunday morning having yet again failed at something important.
BAM! "I'm Waiting For The Man" follows,
it's runaway train rhythms the result of the entire band playing itself
like one big drum, it's lyrics hissed through the ground down teeth of
the addict until the whole thing builds into a crescendo of claustrophobic
want and need. Nico then sings "Femme Fatale" a song Reed wrote specifically
for her to sing. Its sad and beautiful and built for the cold and frightened
vocal stylings of this German chanteuse.
The balance of loss and yearning in songs
like this and "Sunday Morning" against the more sinister darkness of "Venus
In Furs" and it's head-on addressing of S&M or "Heroin"s seemingly
amoral depiction of what addiction feels like is what made this record,
this band, so special. That rock and roll could aspire to the same level
of expression as had long been afforded the novel or the cinema, for instance,
was a notion new to the form and, along with Dylan's extension of the Beat
poet's credo of creation as a social force, is the main reason rock and
roll grew up in the first place. Along with the rest of this essential
CD ("Black Angel's Death Song", "European Son" and the lovely "I'll Be
Your Mirror" etc), the disc also includes a 10 minute excerpt from a 1966
performance of "Melody
Laughter", the extended improvisation
piece that pitted Nico's mournful, wordless wail against the continually
higher grinding and soaring strings and drums of the band until all reached
heights of ecstacy suggesting a marriage of Sonic Youth and Sigur Ros,
only 38 years ago. The disc is rounded out by 2 cuts from Nico's 1967 solo
record "Chelsea Girl", backed up by Reed and Cale and the original "single"
mix of "All Tomorrow's Parties", which of course, tanked.
Disc Three: 1967-68
Salad Days and the beginning of the end
of phase one. After the abject failure of "The Velvet Underground and Nico"
to ignite any sales figures, the Velvets regroup, cut ties with Nico and
Warhol and record new material, again in Cale's Ludlow Street apartment.
The results of these sessions are what opens this disc. The demos presented
here sound tentative and, indeed, except for "Here She Comes Now" never
appeared on any official VU releases, although they have surfaced in different
versions on many bootlegs. Live material from this same time presented
here "Guess I'm Falling In Love" and "Booker T" find the band flexing it's
not inconsiderable rock and roll muscles with sprawling grooves that might
have made the jet set shudder as they danced the NY night away, but did
little to prepare them, or anyone for what came next.
What came next was "White Light/White Heat"
where, if anything, the Velvet Underground amplified (in every sense of
the word) the psychic suffocation of their debut's most uncompromising
moments. This is also the record where Lou Reed made his bones as the most
innovative and far reaching rock guitarist of his generation, although
few noticed. Possibly the most distorted record ever made, "WL/WH" was
a sustained blast of sharply focused chaos aimed squarely at the blissed
out naiveté of the then burgeoning flower power movement. Sandwiched,
as it is, between the playful Ludlow Street demos and live material that
precedes it and the more professional demos that follow it, one might safely
assume that "White Light/White Heat" was a one-time primal scream of a
record. Lightning that can't be kept in a bottle, but we're lucky to have
the sound photographs found herein.
Disc Four: 1968-69
The calm after the storm. John Cale leaves
after "WL/WH" and is replaced by Doug Yule. Without Cale's prodigious musical
prowess and avant garde sensibilities to play off of, Lou Reed becomes
the unquestionable captain of the Velvet Underground, bringing them closer
to his bar-band roots and away from the experimentalism and abandon of
their first two records. This notion is given some weight by the live version
of â€What Goes On" that opens this disc.
Recorded on October 2, 1968 it marks Yule's
live debut with the band and shows a competent bar band stretching out
admirably, if less earth shaking, than before. This turning down of intensity
is reflected in the official release that, again, makes up the bulk of
Released in March of 1969 and simply titled
"The Velvet Underground", this third album finds the Velvets all harmony
vocals and electric 12 string guitars, seemingly at rest after the wars
of the last three years. More self-consciously introspective than ever,
Reed's songwriter star perhaps never shone brighter, before or since. The
sympathetic tale of the lost soul in "Candy Says", the clear headed willingness
to debate sexual roles without rancor in "Some Kinda Love" and the drop
dead gorgeousness of an ultimate love song like "Pale Blue Eyes" speak
to an honest and open vulnerability rarely admitted to, let alone addressed,
by a rock singer in this era of bell bottomed c**k rock.
The album's centerpiece is the quiet, folk-hymn
"Jesus", a softly strummed prayer sung in the voice of a child asking "Jesus,
Jesus, help me find my special place. Help me in my weakness, cause I've
fallen out of Grace". For a band to go, as Lester Bangs once said
"from Heroin to Jesus in 6 months" connotes a band still searching, still
attempting to grow, to be able to consider both the light and the dark
on real, human emotional levels and not just through quiet verses and loud
choruses (see both Led Zeppelin and Nirvana). The disc concludes with five
oft-bootlegged tunes eventually released in 1985 under the title VU as
well as previously unreleased versions of "It's Just Too Much" (live from
Texas, 1969) and a demo of "Countess From Hong Kong", two lesser known
from the Velvets canon.
The collapse of reality and the birth of
the legend. Loaded" is the Velvet Underground album that people are most
familiar with, if familiar with the Velvets at all, due to "Sweet Jane"
and "Rock and Roll" gaining something akin to heavy rotation on Classic
Rock Radio. That the most successful of Velvet Underground records was
recorded without Maureen Tucker and mixed without Lou Reed is one of the
more bittersweet ironies in rock and roll. Reed's song writing skills,
now honed to a Brill Building sharpness, were apparent from jump.
"Sweet Jane" alone stands, to my mind,
shoulder to shoulder with such all-time rock classics as "Johnny B. Goode"
or "Satisfaction". "Rock and Roll", "Cool It Down", "New Age", "Lonesome
Cowboy Bill" and "Train Round the Bend" are all swift and solid, old fashioned
rock and roll songs that careen and swerve up across back beats that come
straight from the Mothership, if not Maureen Tucker.
On the other side of the emotional coin,
we find "I've Found a Reason", Reed's most beautiful love song apart from
"Pale Blue Eyes", which contains the nicest recitation this side of Elvis'
"Are You Lonesome Tonight?" and the original album closer "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'",
a seven minute meditation on times and friends who have passed. That Doug
Yule winds up singing words he barely comprehends in a poorly advised attempt
to take the mantle of the Velvet Underground upon his shoulders after Reed's
departure, takes little from the power of these songs.
So there you have it. 5 CDs documenting
5 years of the most adventurous band working in, it can be argued, the
most adventurous period ever in rock and roll. The Velvet Underground brought
new noises, thoughts and both intellectual and emotional maturity to a
music that had before them been dismissed as "kid's stuff". Some kids!
Now go! Buy! Listen! Grow up!
Underground - Peel Slowly and See
1. Venus In Furs - (previously
2. Prominent Men - (previously
3. Heroin - (demo, previously unreleased)
4. I'm Waiting For The Man - (previously
5. Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams
- (previously unreleased, demo)
6. All Tomorrow's Parties - (previously
1. All Tomorrow's Parties - (mono
2. Sunday Morning
3. I'm Waiting For The Man
4. Femme Fatale
5. Venus In Furs
6. Run Run Run
7. All Tomorrow's Parties
9. There She Goes Again
10. I'll Be Your Mirror
11. Black Angel's Death Song, The
12. European Son
13. Melody Laughter - (previously
14. It Was A Pleasure Then
15. Chelsea Girls
1. There Is No Reason - (previously
2. Sheltered Life - (previously
3. It's All Right (The Way That
You Live) - (demo, previously unreleased)
4. I'm Not Too Sorry (Now That
You're Gone) - (demo, previously unreleased)
5. Here She Comes Now - (previously
6. Guess I'm Falling In Love -
(previously unreleased, live)
7. Booker T. - (live, previously
8. White Light/White Heat
9. Gift, The
10. Lady Godiva's Operation
11. Here She Comes Now
12. I Heard Her Call My Name
13. Sister Ray
14. Stephanie Says
15. Temptation Inside Your Heart
16. Hey Mr. Rain (Version One)
| DISC 4:
1. What Goes On - (live, previously
2. Candy Says - (closet mix)
3. What Goes On - (closet mix)
4. Some Kinda Love - (closet mix)
5. Pale Blue Eyes - (closet mix)
6. Jesus - (closet mix)
7. Beginning To See The Light -
8. I'm Set Free - (closet mix)
9. That's The Story Of My Life
- (closet mix)
10. Murder Mystery, The - (closet
11. After Hours - (closet mix)
12. Foggy Notion
13. I Can't Stand It
14. I'm Sticking With You
15. One Of These Days
16. Lisa Says
17. It's Just Too Much - (previously
18. Countess From Hong Kong - (previously
1. Who Loves The Sun
2. Sweet Jane - (previously unreleased,
full length version)
3. Rock And Roll
4. Cool It Down
5. New Age - (full length version,
6. Head Held High
7. Lonesome Cowboy Bill
8. I Found A Reason
9. Train Round The Bend
10. Oh! Sweet Nuthin'
11. Satellite Of Love - (previously
12. Walk And Talk - (previously
13. Oh Gin - (previously unreleased)
14. Sad Song - (previously unreleased)
15. Ocean - (previously unreleased)
16. Ride Into The Sun - (previously
17. Some Kinda Love - (previously
18. I'll Be Your Mirror - (live)
19. I Love You - (previously unreleased)
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