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Through the Past, Darkly:
The Velvet Underground - Peel Slowly and See 
Tim Byrnes

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 ‘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 this disc. 

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 songs
from the Velvets canon.

Disc Five:1970

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!

CD Info 

The Velvet Underground - Peel Slowly and See
Label: Polydor 
DISC 1: 
  1. Venus In Furs - (previously unreleased, demo) 
  2. Prominent Men - (previously unreleased, demo) 
  3. Heroin - (demo, previously unreleased) 
  4. I'm Waiting For The Man - (previously unreleased, demo) 
  5. Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams - (previously unreleased, demo) 
  6. All Tomorrow's Parties - (previously unreleased, demo) 

   DISC 2: 
  1. All Tomorrow's Parties - (mono single version) 
  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 
  8. Heroin 
  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 unreleased, live) 
  14. It Was A Pleasure Then 
  15. Chelsea Girls 

   DISC 3: 
  1. There Is No Reason - (previously unreleased, demo) 
  2. Sheltered Life - (previously unreleased, demo) 
  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 unreleased, demo) 
  6. Guess I'm Falling In Love - (previously unreleased, live) 
  7. Booker T. - (live, previously unreleased) 
  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 unreleased) 
  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 - (closet mix) 
  8. I'm Set Free - (closet mix) 
  9. That's The Story Of My Life - (closet mix) 
  10. Murder Mystery, The - (closet mix) 
  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 unreleased, live) 
  18. Countess From Hong Kong - (previously unreleased, demo) 

   DISC 5: 
  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, previously unreleased) 
  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 unreleased) 
  12. Walk And Talk - (previously unreleased) 
  13. Oh Gin - (previously unreleased) 
  14. Sad Song - (previously unreleased) 
  15. Ocean - (previously unreleased) 
  16. Ride Into The Sun - (previously unreleased) 
  17. Some Kinda Love - (previously unreleased, live) 
  18. I'll Be Your Mirror - (live) 
  19. I Love You - (previously unreleased)

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