“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The Velvet Underground would surely have agreed with  Charles Dickens in 1969. They had just endured the most tumultuous year of their career. 

The Velvet Underground released their eponymous third album in March 1969. It stalled at 197 in the US Billboard 200. So to promote The Velvet Underground, the band headed out on an exhaustive, gruelling tour. In the midst of the tour, The Velvet Underground were dropped by their record company MGM. This didn’t stop The Velvet Underground recording what a live album over two nights in November at The Matrix in San Francisco. 

For a while, The Matrix had one of The Velvet Underground’s favourite venues on The West Coast. It seemed to bring out the best in The Velvet Underground. So there was no better place for The Velvet Underground to record a live album. These two nights at The Matrix featured The Velvet Underground at their very best. However, until very recently, only some of live at The Matrix album has been released. 

Only five tracks from live at The Matrix featured on Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes when they were released on 2001. Despite this, many critics felt this was the finest live recording of The Velvet Underground. It was, they felt, a shame that The Matrix Tapes hadn’t been released in all their glory. Some of The Matrix Tapes made their way on one of the discs on the The Velvet Underground’s Loaded box 45th Anniversary Box Set. Again, it was a tantalising taste of this musical pandora’s box. Little did anyone know, that a couple of weeks later, that The Matrix Tapes would be released by UMC as a four disc box set. At last, this legendary recording is available for all to hear and enjoy. The Matrix Tape is a snapshot of The Velvet Underground during one of the most tumultuous periods of their career.

Things started to go awry for The Velvet Underground in 1968. The group’s two main creative forces clashed about the future direction of The Velvet Underground. John Cale left The Velvet Underground. This disagreement arose after the release of White Light/White Heat, which was the start of a new chapter in The Velvet Underground story.

White Light/White Heat.

When The Velvet Underground began recording their sophomore album White Light/White Heat in September 1967, it marked a new chapter in the band’s career. Nico, who had been the band after the release of The Velvet Underground and Nico. This wasn’t the only change 

The Velvet Underground cut their ties with Andy Warhol. It was time to to go their own way. This marked an end in their relationship, which had been deteriorating since the release of  The Velvet Underground and Nico. Now reduced to a quartet, The Velvet Underground began work on White Light/White Heat. 

At Specter Studios, The Velvet Underground would record six tracks during September 1967. With Andy Warhol no longer part of the picture, Tom Scott was drafted in to produce White Light/White Heat. It was released on 30th January 1968.

Before that, critics heard White Light/White Heat. Their  reviews were mixed. Many critics didn’t get White Light/White Heat. Nor did they know what to make of White Light/White Heat. They were left scratching their head. It was, after all, unlike anything else released during this period. 

White Light/White Heat can be described as an avant garde cacophony of sound. This feedback driven album would prove hugely influential, and can be credited as one of the albums that gave birth to punk. However, just like The Velvet Underground and Nico, the lyrics on White Light/White Heat were controversial. Again, The Velvet Underground weren’t going to submit to establishment censorship. The Velvet Underground it seemed, were determined to do things their way. This would prove costly.

On the release of White Light/White Heat, it wasn’t a commercial success, stalling at just number 199 in the US Billboard 200 charts. Neither of the singles, White Light/White Heat, nor I Heard Her Call My Name would prove commercially successful. For The Velvet Underground, this was a huge disappointment. 

Still, The Velvet Underground were awaiting their commercial breakthrough. The Velvet Underground were at a crossroads. Little did they realise that belatedly, White Light/White Heat would be regarded as a hugely influential and innovative album. That would come later. By then, The Velvet Underground would be reduced to a trio. For one member of The Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat was their swan-song.

After two albums which had failed commercially, Lou Reed decided that The Velvet Underground had to change tack. They had to release music that was much more pop oriented and therefore, commercial. John Cale however, didn’t agree with how Lou Reed’s master-plan.

This had been a bone of contention between the pair for some time. John Cale wanted The Velvet Underground to continue to innovate, and create experimental music like White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground’s sophomore album. Lou Reed didn’t agree. 

Lou Reed believed that The Velvet Underground’s music should become more pop oriented. This he felt, would broaden their appeal. No longer would they be an art rock group whose music appealed to discerning music lovers. Eventually, Lou Reed won over the rest of The Velvet Underground. For John Cale this was hugely disappointing. So, he decided the only option was to leave The Velvet Underground.

Following the departure of John Cale, The Velvet Underground began looking for a replacement. Eventually, Doug Yule was chosen as John Cale’s replacement. He made his Velvet Underground eponymous third album in November 1968, at TTG Studios, Hollywood. 

The Velvet Underground.

With John Cale no longer part of The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed became its creative force. He set about implementing his master plan for commercial success and critical acclaim. This meant a much more pop oriented, commercial sound.

The new-look Velvet Underground made their way to  TTG Studios, Hollywood in November 1968. That was where the new lineup of the band recorded ten tracks penned by Lou Reed. These tracks Lou Reed hoped, would result in a change in fortune for The Velvet Underground. All would become clear when The Velvet Underground was released in March 1969.

Before that, critics had their say on The Velvet Underground. The majority of the critics were won over by The Velvet Underground’s new sound. Some critics went as far as to say that the album was The Velvet Underground’s finest hour. They were impressed The Velvet Underground’s much more accessible sound. The Velvet Underground were congratulated on the quality of songwriting, and the delivery of the lyrics. However, there was a but. 

Some critics felt that The Murder Mystery was an experiment that hadn’t worked. Others ant further, lamenting that The Murder Mystery fell short of the quality of White Light/White Heat. Other critics remarked that The Velvet Underground lacked the eclectic sound of its predecessors. Even the quality of recording was criticised. Mostly though, critics thought that The Velvet Underground were on the right road. However, as usual, record buyers had the casting vote.

When The Velvet Underground was released in March 1969, the album crept into the US Billboard 200, reaching just 197. This was a disaster for The Velvet Underground. Lou Reed’s decision to embrace a more commercial sound had backfired.

Following the release of The Velvet Underground, the band headed out on tour. They spent much of 1969 touring America and Canada. Night after night, they reworked tracks from their first three albums. The audience watched as a tight band fought for their very future. Some nights, The Velvet Underground debuted new songs. 

New Age, Rock and Roll and Sweet Jane found their way onto the set list. This trio of songs found their way onto Loaded, which was released in 1970. That was a long way away, Much would happen before then.

The Velvet Underground’s seemingly never ending tour continued. Each night, they continued to hone their sound. They were a very different band to just a few years previously when they were Warholian disciples. That was the past. Now The Velvet Underground were willing to forsake what many thought was their true sound, for commercial success. That proved ironic.

After three albums that had failed commercially, MGM were starting to loose patience with The Velvet Underground. It didn’t help that MGM had been haemorrhaging money for a couple of years. They had too many loss making acts on their roster. Something had to give.

During the night of the long knives, executives at MGM decided to cancel the contracts of eighteen loss making acts. This included The Velvet Underground. They were invited to the headquarters of MGM, and told that their contract had been cancelled. However, was the decision to cut The Velvet Underground loose purely a business decision?

Since then, there has been speculation that The Velvet Underground were dropped just because they were losing MGM money. Maybe, it was more to do with The Velvet Underground’s image being at odds with MGM’s corporate image? That proved to be the case. In 1970, an executive of MGM said: “it wasn’t eighteen groups, Mike Curb was misquoted. The cuts were made partly to do with the drug scene—like maybe a third of them had to do with drug reasons. The others were dropped because they weren’t selling.” It seemed that MGM’s mattered more than selling records. MGM it seemed, only wanted artists whose lifestyle they approved of. 

Many thought that being dropped by MGM must have been devastating for The Velvet Underground. It seems it was, and it wasn’t. When Lou Reed was interviewed in 1987, he admitted: “we wanted to get out of there.” That may just be bravado. After all, the music industry is a small village, and word would’ve spread like wildfire why The Velvet Underground had been dropped. Some critics however, thought the situation was ironic.

Back in 1968, The Velvet Underground had made what many regarded as the ultimate musical sacrifice. They had changed direction musically on their eponymous third album. No longer were they seen as an art rock band by championed by many critics and cultural commentators. Instead, the move towards a more populist sound was seen as the ultimate betrayal from The Velvet Underground. This resulted in John Cale’s departure from the band. Now that The Velvet Underground had been dropped by MGM, the loss of one of their main creative forces, had been for nothing. Given what had happened, it was the ultimate irony.

Now without a record contract, The Velvet Underground headed back out on tour. Touring was now their main source of income. So they spent much of 1969 on the road. Mostly, it was the tight version of The Velvet Underground that took to the stage. Other times, they revisited their past. 

The Velvet Underground decided to reinvent songs, during lengthy improvisations. This mixture of art rock, avant garde and free jazz showed that the old Velvet Underground weren’t dead. Some critics believed it was merely being suppressed in the search for commercial success.

During their gruelling touring schedule, The Velvet Underground made occasional forays into the recording studio. Some of the songs The Velvet Underground recorded, were seen as having potential. However, they couldn’t be released, as The Velvet Underground were in dispute with MGM. With no recording contract, and locked in what could prove a biter, lengthy and expensive dispute with MGM, things looked bleak for The Velvet Underground.

By November 1969, The Velvet Underground arrived in San Francisco, and were due to play at The Matrix and The Family Dog. These shows were recorded, and were meant to be released as live albums. However, that didn’t happen until the next millennia, when Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes was released in 2001.

Even then, a mere five tracks from The Matrix concerts featured on Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes, when they were released on 2001. Despite this, many critics felt this was the finest live recording of The Velvet Underground. It was, they felt, a shame that The Matrix Tapes hadn’t been released in all their glory? That’s been rectified with the release of The Matrix Tapes box set.

The Matrix Tapes.

Anyone who bought the recently released the Loaded 45th Anniversary Box Set, will have enjoyed a sneak preview if The Matrix Tapes. However, this was just an amuse bouche. The Matrix Tapes box set is more like a musical banquet.

Within The Matrix Tapes box set, are four discs featuring forty-two tracks recorded at The Matrix, in San Francisco. For anyone who has longed to experience and relive these legendary concerts, now is the chance. However, there’s a but. Only nine of the tracks haven’t featured on other Velvet Underground reissues. 

Anyone who owns Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes, The Velvet Underground and the Loaded 45th Anniversary Box Set, will own thirty-three of the forty-two tracks. They may resent paying another £30, $45 or €39. However, for those who worship at the altar of The Velvet Underground, The Matrix Tapes box set will be an essential purchase. Especially given the quality of sound. That’s not surprising, as The Matrix had its own in-house recording studio. This makes quality of music The Matrix Tapes much much superior than other Velvet Underground live albums.

There no shortage of Velvet Underground live albums, The Matrix Tapes box set features what many regard as The Velvet Underground at their very best. That’s the case from the moment The Velvet Underground take to the stage at The Matrix.

The Matrix Tapes.

Disc One.

Lou Reed isn’t just a bandleader, listening to his droll introduction to I’m Waiting For The Man, he’s part raconteur, part bon viveur. Soon, the audience are spellbound, as The Velvet Underground launch into one of their classic tracks. From there, What Goes On gives way to Some Kinda Love from The Velvet Underground. Then it’s time for The Velvet Underground to returned to their debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico and unleash a trio or tracks from their classic album. 

The Velvet Underground revisit Heroin, which was one of their debut album’s highlights. Venus In Furs gives way to the wistful Here She Goes. By then, The Velvet Underground  have hit there stride. It’s the perfect time to drop We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together. That’s certainly case. 

Despite being a New York group, it’s as if The Velvet Underground are hometown heroes. San Francisco embraces The Velvet Underground. Especially as they reinvent and remake tracks. They take on new meaning. It’s a case of never try and second guess The Velvet Underground, who are at their most inventive, genre-melting best. Over You is followed by a new song, Sweet Jane, which would make its debut on The Velvet Underground’s fourth album Loaded, in 1970. From there, it’s a return to The Velvet Underground’s eponymous third album, and Pale Blue Eyes and After Hours. That’s the end of disc one, and The Velvet Underground take their leave. However, there’s plenty more to come.

Disc Two.

Disc two of The Matrix Tapes, features many of the same songs that were on disc one. Given the the Velvets had only released a trio of albums, that’s not surprising. Some songs, the audience expected to hear each night. That includes I’m Waiting For The Man, which opens their set. It’s followed by Venus In Furs, before Some Kinda Love gives way to Over You. While these songs all featured on disc one, The Velvet Underground remake some of these songs on disc two. Sometimes, songs head off into unchartered territory, with the Velvets treating the stage like a musical laboratory, as they, reinvent what were already some of their best known songs. Then it’s all change.

The Velvets unleash a despair ridden version of I Can’t Stand It. Then The Velvet Underground are back on familiar ground, with another Velvets classic, There She Goes Again. It’s followed by After Hours and a riotous take on We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together. The Velvets have the audience in the palm of their hand. So they deliver a version of Sweet Bonnie Brown (It’s Just Too Much), Then it’s time for one of the Velvets most controversial classics.

Heroin was just one of the tracks that resulted in The Velvet Underground and Nico being banned in many places on its release in 1966. That wasn’t surprising, given the moral climate. Songs about drug abuse, prostitution, sadism and masochism and sexual deviancy weren’t what America’s moral guardians wanted the American youth to hear. However, three years later, there’s an air of defiance in Lou Reed’s vocal. That would’ve been the perfect way to take a bow, but The Velvet Underground unleash the title-track to White Light/White Heat, before closing their set with I’m Set Free from The Velvet Underground. Only then do The Velvet Underground take their leave. That’s not the end of the story though.

Disc Three.

Unlike the first two discs, disc three features just six songs. We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together opens the set, before hot on its heels comes Some Kinda Love, There She Goes Again and Heroin. The songs are extended, as the Velvets reinvent the tracks. Musical genres melt into one, with elements of art rock, avant garde, psychedelia and rock ’n’ roll being combined by the Velvets.

The penultimate song on disc three is Ocean, an underrated track. Then Sister Ray, which closed White Light/White Heat, closes disc three. It’s a spellbinding performance that shows that live, The Velvet Underground could hold their own against other members of rock royalty.

Disc Four.

That continues to be the case on disc four of The Matrix Tapes box set. The Velvet Underground combine classics and hidden gems. It’s a case of giving the audience what they want, when I’m Waiting For The Man opens the set. It’s followed What Goes On, Some Kinda Love and what should’ve been their theme tune during their 1969 tour, We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together. That’s the case on the rest of disc four.

Beginning To See The Light from The Velvet Underground, is followed by Lisa Says. Then the Velvet showcase two new songs, New Age and Rock and Roll, which would feature on Loaded. I Can See The Light then sets the scene for a trio of tracks where The Velvet Underground are at the peak of their power.

Somehow, The Velvet Underground up the ante on Heroin, White Light/White Heat and Sweet Jane, which closes The Matrix Tapes box set. It’s a fitting finale, and just like the rest of The Matrix Tapes box set, features a groundbreaking band at their most inventive and innovative.

Atlantic Records realised that The Velvet Underground were a pioneering band, and signed then in 1970. The Velvet Underground only ever released one album on Atlantic Records, Loaded. It didn’t even chart in the US Billboard 200. Instead, it was a case of close, but no cigar. Loaded reached 202. However, by then, Lou Reed had left The Velvet Underground.

On 23rd August 1970, Lou Reed left The Velvet Underground This left The Velvet Underground a rudderless ship, which was threatening to come-a-ground. 

With The Velvet Underground having lost their leader and creative force, others took charge of final mix of Loaded. That was fatal. Lou Reed should’ve handed Atlantic Records the final mix, and then left.

When Lou Reed saw and heard a copy of Loaded, he was in for a shock. The claimed that Loaded had been re-sequenced. This hadn’t been authorised. That was bad enough. No longer would Loaded flow as it was meant to. Much worse, was that some of Lou Reed alleged that some of the songs on Loaded had been edited. 

Lou Reed railed against the edited version of Mary Jane. So badly edited was the song, that it was bereft of its very melody. A heartbroken Lou Reed described the melody as: “heavenly wine and roses.” Sadly, it was gone. New Age was another song that had fallen victim to the razor blade in the editing suite. No longer was Loaded the album that Lou Reed had envisaged. It was a far cry from November 1969, when The Velvet Underground produced two barnstorming performances at The Matrix, in San Francisco.

These two nights at The Matrix, are documented on The Matrix Tapes box set. This four disc box set, features forty-two tracks. There’s Velvet Underground classics, and hidden gems like New Age on The Matrix Tapes. It’s regarded by many critics as as the definitive Velvet Underground live album. Especially now, that it’s available in it entirety.

That’s never been the case before. That’s despite The Matrix Tapes being recorded forty-six years ago. Since then, thirty-three of the tracks have found their way onto various Velvet Underground reissues. However, UMC recently released The Matrix Tapes for the first time. Somewhat belatedly, this legendary live album can be heard in its entirety, and features one of the most innovative and influential bands in the history of music, The Velvet Underground. They’re in full flight, reinventing classics and hidden gems on what’s considered The Velvet Underground’s legendary live album, The Matrix Tapes.




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