THE VELVET UNDERGROUND-LIVE AT MAX’S KANSAS CITY.

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND-LIVE AT MAX’S KANSAS CITY.

1970 should’ve been the start of a new era for The Velvet Underground. They had just signed a two album deal with Atlantic Records in late 1969. This should’ve been the dawn of a new era for The Velvet Underground, where they belatedly made a commercial breakthrough.

Instead, 1970 was The Velvet Underground’s annus horribilis.  They released their fourth studio album Loaded, on 15th November 1970. By then, Lou Reed had left the group he had cofounded.

This presented a problem for The Velvet Underground. They were due to tour North America, promoting Loaded. So bassist Doug Yule switched to bass and took charge of lead vocals. To play bass, Walter Power was drafted in. This new lineup of The Velvet Underground spent part of 1971 touring North America. During the tour, the members of The Velvet Underground wrote some new songs for the album they owed Atlantic Records.

When The Velvet Underground returned home, they headed to Atlantic Records’ headquarters, where they showcased their new songs. These songs, they hoped, would feature on their fifth album. However, The Velvet Underground without Lou Reed was a totally different band to the one Atlantic Records had signed in 1969. They were like a rudderless ship heading perilously close to the rocks.

Executives at Atlantic Records realised this. They also realised that the new songs weren’t good enough, so rejected them out of hand. For the members of The Velvet Underground this was a crushing blow. To make matters worse, The Velvet Underground still owed Atlantic Records an album. Atlantic Records had a solution though. 

They looked through the Atlantic Records’ archives, and decided to release an album of live material. This became Live at Max’s Kansas City, which was released on May 30th 1972. It became The Velvet Underground’s first live album, which was reissued by Rhino on 22nd January 2016. Live at Max’s Kansas City also fulfilled The Velvet Underground’s contractual obligations to Atlantic Records, and marked the end of an era. Things had been so different in 1969. It was the start of a bright new dawn. 

For The Velvet Underground, 1969 had been a turbulent year. They had released their third album The Velvet Underground in March 1969. It featured the debut of Doug Yule, who was brought in to replace John Cale. This was meant to the start of a bright new future for The Velvet Underground.

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.

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 recorded ten songs penned by Lou Reed. By December 1968, The Velvet Underground was completed it 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.

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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. Throughout the tour, The Velvet Underground showcased these new songs on what was a lengthy tour.

As The Velvet Underground’s seemingly never ending tour continued, 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.

The Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes were released in 2001, and The Complete Matrix Tapes box set was released in 2015. 1969 was fast proving to by The Velvet Underground’s Annus horriblis. Surely, things would improve as when the new decade dawned.

That proved to be the case. 1970 saw The Velvet Underground’s luck improve. They were signed by Atlantic Records, and told to record an album: “loaded with hits.” This would be a first.

Loaded.

Commercial success had eluded The Velvet Underground. Three albums into their career, and they hadn’t enjoyed a hit single. The nearest they came to commercial success was when their 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico reached 129 in the US Billboard 200. It was all downhill from there. In 1968, White Light/White Heat struggled into the US Billboard 200 at 199. Then when The Velvet Underground was released in 1969, it stalled at 197 in the US Billboard 200. The Velvet Underground were faced with a mammoth task to produce an album: “loaded with hits.”

With these words ringing in his ears, Lou Reed went away and wrote the ten tracks that became Loaded. Then recording began at Atlantic Recording Studios, New York with Geoff Haslam, Shel Kagan and The Velvet Underground producing Loaded. However, one member of The Velvet Underground was missing.

Maureen Tucker missed the Loaded recording sessions. They took place between April and August 1970. Her only contribution was singing on the outtake I’m Sticking With You, and adding drums on a demo of I Found a Reason. Loaded was the first Velvet Underground album Maureen Tucker was missing from. 

Various musicians replaced Maureen Tucker on Loaded. Engineer Adrian Barber, who played on Who Loves the Sun and Sweet Jane. Tommy Castagnaro then played drums on Cool It Down” and Head Held High. Billy Yule, Doug Yule’s brother deputised on drums on Lonesome Cowboy Bill and Oh! Sweet Nuthin.’ Even bassist Doug Yule played drums.

Although hired as a bassist, Doug Yule played fuzz bass, piano, keyboards, lead guitar, percussion and added backing vocals. He added the lead vocals on Who Loves the Sun, New Age, Lonesome Cowboy Bill and Oh! Sweet Nuthin’. Sterling Morrison played lead and rhythm guitar. Lou Reed, who was now The Velvet Underground’s main creative and driving force, played lead and rhythm guitar, plus the piano. This depleted version of The Velvet Underground, plus a few friends eventually, finished recording of Loaded in August 1968. The release was scheduled for 15th November 1970. A lot would happen before then.

With Loaded completed, usually, The Velvet Underground would’ve been readying themselves for the usual round of promotion that takes place before an album is released. Not this time. 

Lou Reed called time on his career with The Velvet Underground on 23rd August 1970. This left The Velvet Underground like a rudderless ship. 

With The Velvet Underground having lost their leader and creative force, others took charge of final mix of the album. 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. However, one of the remaining members of The Velvet Underground disputed Lou Reed’s claims.

It was newcomer Doug Yule who spoke out. Despite being a relative newcomer to the band, he disputed what Lou Reed said. Doug Yule claimed that it was Lou Reed who edited Mary Jane, before he left The Velvet Underground. This essence of his explanation was that Lou Reed edited the song so that it would be a hit. However, it was claim and counter-claim. If Lou Reed edited the song, why did he edit the “heavenly wine and roses” of the melody from the song? The editing was just one of several grievances Lou Reed had.

The ten songs on Loaded came from the pen of Lou Reed. However, when Lou Reed received his copy of Loaded, he discovered that the songs were credited to The Velvet Underground. What made this worse, was that Lou Reed was third in the credits. He felt he wasn’t receiving the credit he deserved. Rubbing salt into the wound was a large photograph of Doug Yule playing the piano. The Velvet Underground’s creative force was overshadowed by the newcomer. Was this a deliberate slight seen Lou Reed had left The Velvet Underground? 

As Lou Reed studied Loaded album’s cover, he discovered that Maureen Tucker was credited as the drummer. She hadn’t played on Loaded, as she was pregnant. It was the only Velvet Underground she didn’t play on. Ironically, many critics felt Loaded was one The Velvet Underground’s finest albums. However, even another member of the band didn’t agree with this.

Sterling Morrison had been ever-present on the four albums The Velvet Underground had released. This made him well qualified to critique the album. He had mixed feelings on the absence of Maureen Tucker and Doug Yule’s increased influence on Loaded. Without Maureen Tucker: “it’s still called a Velvet Underground record. But what it really is is something else.” Then when asked about Doug Yule playing a bigger part on Loaded he said: ”the album came out okay, as far as production it’s the best, but it would have been better if it had real good Lou vocals on all the tracks.” It seems the newcomer hadn’t convinced  The Velvet Underground guitarist. What did the critics think?

Most critics were won over by Loaded. It followed in the footsteps of The Velvet Underground, which showcased a much more populist, commercial sound. Among  Loaded’s highlights were the hook-laden, Sweet Jane and Rock and Roll. Even without the “heavenly wine and roses” of the melody, Sweet Jane was a timeless classic. Along with Rock and Roll, they became favourites on American FM radio stations. Other tracks that were mentioned in dispatches by critics were the soulful infused I Found a Reason and New Age. However, not everyone was convinced by Loaded.

Rolling Stone magazine wasn’t impressed by Loaded. They were the highest profile critic of Loaded. Ironically, they’ve performed a volte face, and nowadays, Loaded is one Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 best albums of all time. However, Rolling Stone weren’t being contrarian, like some critics.

While Loaded is indeed, a minor classic, it could’ve and would’ve been a better album. Especially, if Lou Reed took charge of all the lead vocals. Sterling Morrison had a point. Lou Reed was The Velvet Underground’s best vocalist. Having written the lyrics, he was able to bring them to life. From Sweet Jane and Rock and Roll, to Cool It Down, Head Held High, I Found A Reason and Train Round The Bend, Lou Reed unleashes a series of vocal masterclasses. Sadly, he only sung six of the ten vocals. That proved to be a a mistake. 

In another group, Doug Yule would’ve been a more than adequate replacement. However, he couldn’t quite live the lyrics like Lou Reed. That’s not to say his performance is disappointing on on Who Loves the Sun, New Age, Lonesome Cowboy Bill and “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’. Far from it. Instead, they’re just not as good as The Velvet Underground’s worldweary leader, Lou Reed. Those  were big shoes to fill. Even Sterling Morrison agreed.

Similarly, Maureen Turner was missed. While her replacements are more than adequate, it could be argued that there’s no continuity. Each drummer has their own sound and style. Despite that, Loaded came to be regarded as a minor classic. Very few people thought that would be the case in 1970.

When Loaded was released on 15th November 1970, the album failed to chart. It stopped just short, reaching 202 in the US Billboard 200. So near, but yet so far. This was a familiar story for The Velvet Underground.

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Their fourth album Loaded deserved to fare better. They had sacrificed and suppressed their true sound to deliver an “album loaded with hits.” Loaded had everything going for it. It benefited from a much more commercial sound, and plethora of hooks. This meant that Loaded was The Velvet Underground’s most accessible album. Surely this was what record buyers wanted The Velvet Underground reasoned?

Record buyers had shied away from The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat. Then on The Velvet Underground, which was released in 1969, Lou Reed and Co. moved towards a more populist, accessible sound. This came at the cost of John Cale. Still The Velvet Underground failed commercially, and MGM dropped the Velvets. This proved the ultimate irony.

Just under a year later, and Lou Reed was gone too. This left just Sterling Morrison and the returning Maureen Tucker. That presented a problem for The Velvet Underground. They were due to tour America and Canada promoting Loaded.

It was bassist Doug Yule who came up with a solution. He switched to bass and took charge of lead vocals. To play bass, Walter Power was drafted in. Drummer Maureen Tucker returned, and her place behind her drum kit. While this was a long way from the classic lineup of The Velvet Underground, it meant that the group would be to tour North America.

After rehearsing, and Walter Power learning The Velvet Underground’s songs, the band headed out on tour. It was with a degree of trepidation that they took to the stage for the first time. Never before had this lineup played live. Gradually, though, they found their feet, and for part of 1971, this new lineup of The Velvet Underground toured North America. 

During the tour, the members of The Velvet Underground began working on their fifth studio album. They were some new songs for the album they owed Atlantic Records. Maybe, it would the album that saw The Velvet Underground make their long-awaited commercial breakthrough?

That wasn’t the case. The Velvet Underground didn’t even come close to getting the opportunity to record another album for Atlantic Records. 

Once The Velvet Underground’s North American tour was over, the band returned home. Now they were ready to begin work on their fifth album. So, they made an appointment with executives at Atlantic Records, where The Velvet Underground played some of their new songs. These songs, they hoped, would feature on their fifth album. However, The Velvet Underground without Lou Reed was a totally different band to the one Atlantic Records had signed in 1969.

Executives at Atlantic Records realised this. They also realised that the new songs weren’t good enough, so rejected them out of hand. For the members of The Velvet Underground this was a crushing blow. To make matters worse, The Velvet Underground still owed Atlantic Records an album. Atlantic Records had a solution though. 

They looked through the Atlantic Records’ archives, and decided to release an album of live material. This became Live at Max’s Kansas City, which was released by Atlantic Records on May 30th 1972.

Live At Max’s Kansas City.

It’s fitting that The Velvet Underground’s Atlantic Records’ swan-song had been recorded at Max’s Kansas City, in New York. It was one of The Velvet Underground’s favourite venues. So much so, that it was like a second home.

It was in 1965, that Max’s Kansas City first opened its doors. This just the year that The Velvet Underground were born. Since then, Max’s Kansas City had been a favourite hangout for The Velvet Underground. They weren’t alone.

Max’s Kansas City was a hangout for the actors, hipsters, models, scenesters and singers. It was where the beautiful, famous and contrarian came to play. Even Andy Warhol and his Warholian disciples were known to hang out at Max’s Kansas City. So was Rolling Stone Mick Jagger. Even the staff at Max’s Kansas City had designs of fame and fortune.

This included Debbie Harry in her pre-Blondie days. She waited tables, while awaiting her big break. Debbie Harry would witness the recording of The Velvet Underground’s first live album, Live At Max’s Kansas City.

The album may never have happened, if Brigid Polk, a close friend of The Velvet Underground hadn’t decided to tape the show. For some reason, that night, Brigid Polk brought along her tape recorder and pressed play.

She captured the essence of The Velvet Underground live on Live At Max’s Kansas City. It was remastered by Rhino for its recent release. This has improved the sound slightly. Despite that, its still slightly rough around the edges. That can’t be helped. Brigid Polk didn’t have access to top quality recording equipment. Her recording was probably only ever meant for her own, and band’s enjoyment. She didn’t know she was recording history being made, as Live At Max’s Kansas City features Lou Reed’s last performance with The Velvet Underground.

When Lou Reed takes to the stage, he’s part entertainer, part bon viveur. As the band tune their instruments and audience make small talk, Lou Reed takes to the stage. Drolly he says “you’re allowed to dance, in case you don’t know.” Then The Velvet Underground start with a stonewall classic.

That’s the only way to describe I’m Waiting For The Man, from The Velvet Underground and Nico. That grabs the audience’s attention, before The Velvet Underground showcase Sweet Jane and Lonesome Cowboy Bill from what would be Lou Reed’s swan-song Loaded. Then The Velvets go back in time.

Beginning To See The Light was from the 1969 album The Velvet Underground. This was the first Velvet Underground album since the departure of cofounder John Cale. After that, Lou delivers a heartfelt version of I’ll Be Your Mirror, one of the most beautiful songs in The Velvet Underground’s back-catalogue. It’s another song from The Velvet Underground and Nico, which is a classic album. That’s the case with the first four Velvet Underground albums.

That includes their 1969 eponymous album. It featured Pale Blue Eyes, which The Velvet Underground revisit on Live At Max’s Kansas City. It’s akin to a best of live, with Sunday Morning from The Velvet Underground and Nico being next on the setlist. Lou Reed seems to reserve one of his finest vocals. Then he brings things up to date with New Age, which would feature on Loaded. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Things had been so different three years earlier.

Back in 1966, when The Velvet Underground and Nico was released, the band’s whole career was stretching out in front of them. Anything was possible. That included releasing one of the greatest and most influential albums in musical history, The Velvet Underground and Nico. One of its highlights was the timeless Femme Fatale. As Lou Reed delivers the lyrics, was he remembering four years ago, when their career was in its infancy? Maybe that’s the case, as he prepares to deliver his final song as The Velvet Underground’s frontman.

The song he chose, was After Hours, from The Velvet Underground. This seems fitting, as its nearly the wee small hours of the morning. As The Velvet Underground prepare to take their leave, on what became Live At Max’s Kansas City, the audience treat The Velvet Underground like conquering heroes. However, it proved to be a pyrrhic victory.

The Velvet Underground had won over the crowd at Max’s Kansas City. However, Lou Reed lost the battle that was Loaded. 

The album didn’t turn out as he had planned. Songs he alleged had been edited, and the running order changed. This didn’t please Lou Reed. He felt he had no option but to call time on his career with The Velvet Underground on 23rd August 1970. This left The Velvet Underground like a rudderless ship. 

The Velvet Underground had not just lost its creative and driving force, but its de facto leader. Without Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground were but a shadow of their former self. It didn’t take Atlantic Records long to realise that. After hearing a few new songs, executives at Atlantic Records rejected the songs. They weren’t good enough, and The Velvet Underground never recorded another album for Atlantic Records.

This left a problem. The Velvet Underground owed Atlantic Records an album. They solved this by searching the Atlantic Records archives, where they found the tapes to Live at Max’s Kansas City, which was released on May 30th 1972. It became The Velvet Underground’s first live album, which was reissued by Rhino on 22nd January 2016. Live at Max’s Kansas City also fulfilled The Velvet Underground’s contractual obligations to Atlantic Records, and marked the end of an era.

Live at Max’s Kansas City was Lou Reed’s swan-song, and essentially, the end of one of the greatest bands in rock history. Without Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground were a pale shadow of the band they had once been.

When The Velvet Underground headed out on their North American tour, to promote Loaded, the end was neigh. Bassist turned guitarist and vocalist Doug Yale was never going to replace Lou Reed as The Velvet Underground’s frontman. It was the end of the road for The Velvet Underground.

While The Velvet Underground struggled on without Lou Reed, they were never the same again. Loaded was the last album The Velvet Underground released. Squeeze which was released in 1972, was a Velvet Underground in name only. The band had long ceased to exist.

Live at Max’s Kansas City was last time Lou Reed played live with The Velvet Underground. His swan-song was captured by Brigid Polk, a friend of The Velvet Underground. It was lucky she brought along her tape recorder and pressed play.

If she hadn’t, there would be no document of Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground swan-song. It would’ve have passed into the mists of musical history, and most likely, have achieved near mythical status. However, Brigid Polk captured musical history being made on what became Live At Max’s Kansas City. While the sound quality is slightly rough around the edges, the recent remastering has improved the sound quality, and Live At Max’s Kansas City is a fitting celebration of Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground swan-song.

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND-LIVE AT MAX’S KANSAS CITY.

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