Fifty Years Ago The Velvet Underground Released The Velvet Underground.

Following disagreements about The Velvet Underground’s future musical direction, John Cale left the group. This was almost inevitable because  for some time, John Cale and Lou Reed views about The Velvet Underground’s future differed. John Cale wanted The Velvet Underground to continue to innovate and create experimental music like White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground’s second album. Lou Reed, however, 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.

Replacing John Cale in the The Velvet Underground was Doug Yule. He made his Velvet Underground debut on their 1969 eponymous album, which will be released on vinyl on 16th March 2015 as a double album by Universal Music. The Velvet Underground was the start of a new chapter in the band’s career.

This new chapter began in November 1968, at TTG Studios, Hollywood. That’s where ten songs penned by Lou Reed were recorded by the new lineup of The Velvet Underground. 

Lou Reed played piano, lead and rhythm guitar and added lead vocals. Sterling Morrison played rhythm and lead guitar. Maureen Tucker added percussion and sang lead vocal on After Hours. New member, Doug Yule, played bass, organ and sang lead vocal on Candy Says. These ten songs became The Velvet Underground, which debuted the band’s new sound.

The songs on The Velvet Underground were a mixture of ballads and rock songs. This was very different from The Velvet Underground’s first two albums. Lou Reed influence is writ large all over The Velvet Underground. That’s despite the production of The Velvet Underground being credited to the band. However, the rest of The Velvet Underground were happy with the change of direction.

Of the three other members of The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed had been the most vocal when it came to the band’s future direction. He was determined not to record White Light/White Heat II. So it seems, were the rest of The Velvet Underground. Percussionist Maureen Tucker was also willing to sacrifice the group’s old sound. She wanted to be part of a successful rock band. Especially now that Velvet Underground were signed to MGM Records. For the new lineup of The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground was a new start in more than one way.

On the release of The Velvet Underground in March 1969, the album was hailed to the most accessible of their career. Critics remarked upon the quality of the lyrics and vocals. The Velvet Underground was described as melodic and tuneful. It seemed that The Velvet Underground’s new sound had won over the critics. That wasn’t the case.

Lester Bangs, who, in 1969, was writing for Rolling Stone magazine, felt The Velvet Underground wasn’t as good as White Light/White Heat. However, he did concede that the much more accessible sound of The Velvet Underground would win over new fans.

That proved not to be the case. When The Velvet Underground was released in March 1969, it failed to chart. Neither  of the singles charted. What Goes On was the lead single. It failed to chart. Neither did Pale Blue Eyes, the follow-up. However, seventeen years later, in 1985, somewhat belatedly, The Velvet Underground reached number 197 in the US Billboard 200 charts. By then, The Velvet Underground had been hailed as one of the group’s finest moments. However, is that the case?

Opening The Velvet Underground is Candy Says. It’s a pensive ballad about Candy Darling, a transsexual actress who Andy Warhol ‘discovered.’ She would provide the inspiration to Lou Reed’s 1972 single Walk On The Wild Side. Doug delivers a tender, melancholy vocal. He tells the story of a tortured soul, who died in 1974, aged just twenty-seven. Accompanying him are subtle drums played by brushes, a probing bass and jangling guitars. They frame the vocal, allowing it to shine. The way he delivers lyrics like “I wish I could walk away from me,” it’s as if this resonates with Doug. He’s able to breath meaning and emotion into the lyrics.

What Goes On has a rockier sound. Lou’s vocal is grizzled, while the rhythm section and jangling guitars power the arrangement along. Lightning fast slap bass and guitars join forces with a Hammond organ, as Lou struts his way through the lyrics. Then when his vocal drops out, The Velvet Underground kick out the jams. Rock meets psychedelia as the two sides of the old Velvet Underground collide head on, before later, Lou returns. By then, the ghost of John Cale has made an appearance as The Velvet Underground’s past and present combines to create one of the highlights of  The Velvet Underground.

Drums and percussion combine with chiming, searing guitars on Some Kinda Love. They provide a pounding, pulsating, hypnotic backdrop for Lou’s drawling vocal. It’s a taste of what was to come from Lou Reed after The Velvet Underground. Guitars are panned left to right. Full use is made of the full stereo spectrum. As a result, the guitars envelop Lou’s vocal. The mesmeric drums provide the heartbeat, as Lou swaggers and drawls his way through Some Kinda Love.

An understated rhythm section and tambourine combine on Pale Blue Eyes another ballad. They provide the backdrop for Lou’s fragile, thoughtful vocal. Again chiming, crystalline guitars envelop his vocal. The rhythm section sit in the middle of the mix, providing the heartbeat. Meanwhile, Lou delivers a vocal on what’s a beautiful devotional that was inspired by Shelley Albin, Lou’s first love. 

Jesus, which closed side one of The Velvet Underground, has a thoughtful, understated sound. A spartan arrangement meanders into being. Just a guitar, bass and harmonies accompany Lou’s vocal. It veers between needy, desperate and hopeful as he sings: “Jesus help me find my proper place.” A driving, strident, confident guitar and a dark moody bass accompany Lou. So do harmonies. They sound similarly fragile, as if able to empathise with Lou’s plight.

Originally, Beginning To See The Light opened side two. It’s the perfect track to do so. It literally explodes into life, The Velvet Underground’s rhythm section and guitars driving the arrangement along. Lou takes his lead from them, and unleashes a swashbuckling vocal. Literally, it oozes confidence as he joyously half sings, half screams “I’m Beginning To See The Light.” The result is a hook laden anthem from The Velvet Underground that inspired thousands of other groups.

I’m Set Free sees the tempo drop, but the drama remains. It comes courtesy of a lone pounding drum. It sits in the middle of jangling guitars. Gradually, it grows in power, moving forward in the mix. In doing so, it matches Lou’s vocal every step of the way. Then when his vocal drops out, a shimmering guitar and pounding drum vie for your attention. They then join with harmonies and Lou’s hopeful, heartfelt vocal as the track reaches a crescendo.

Unlike many of the tracks on The Velvet Underground, That’s The Story Of My Life has an unmistakable sixties sound. However, it’s a sound that’s inspired two generations of bands. The jaunty arrangement skips along. Just the rhythm section and chiming guitars accompany Lou’s wistful, lived-in vocal. He’s come to terms with his life, and realised he can’t change anything. Despite the sixties sound, it’s a track that’s aged well and shows another side of The Velvet Underground.

The Murder Mystery is the only track on The Velvet Underground to feature the four band members. However, it’s a much more avant-garde track. This is more like the music John Cale would’ve created. This is down to the structure. During each verse, Lou and Sterling recite different verses of poetry simultaneously. One vocal is panned left, the other right. Then during the choruses, Maureen and Doug sing different lyrics and melodies simultaneously. They too, were panned either left of right. All this gives the track a much more experimental sound. Especially with the free jazz backdrop. It comes courtesy of rolls of drums, washes of Hammond organ and crystalline guitar. All this sounds like a homage to John Cale, The Velvet Underground’s former creative force.

Closing The Velvet Underground is After Hours. It’s an acoustic track and sounds like something from another era. Here, Maureen delivers the lead vocalist. She is accompanied by a strummed acoustic guitar that’s panned right. A bass is panned left, but is way too loud. It should sit further back in the mix. Even then, After Hours wouldn’t rise above average. It’s a far from an innovative track. The best way to describe After Hours is ironic, in a late-sixties hipster sort of way. This proves a disappointing way to close The Velvet Underground. 

When The Velvet Underground was released in March 1969, it marked the end of an era. For their first two albums, The Velvet Underground were one of the most innovative groups of the sixties. Their pioneering fusion of art rock, avant-garde, experimental, psychedelia and rock would inspire several generation of musicians. However, neither 1967s The Velvet Underground and Nico, nor White Light/White Heat were commercial successfully. This lead to a split in The Velvet Underground.

John Cale wanted The Velvet Underground to continue to create cutting-edge music. Lou Reed and Maureen Tucker eyed commercial success. They wanted to be part of a successful band. Even if this meant changing direction musically.

Lou Reed and Maureen Tucker won out. John Cale, left The Velvet Underground with his principles intact. He wasn’t in favour of The Velvet Underground releasing pop oriented music. He was an innovator, someone who was constantly ahead of the musical curve. Pop music didn’t interest him. So he went his own way.

The rest of The Velvet Underground brought onboard Doug Yule as John’s replacement. This was the lineup that recorded The Velvet Underground, an album of ballads and rocky tracks. It was meant to transform The Velvet Underground’s fortunes. However, fate intervened.

On The Velvet Underground’s release, it failed to chart. Lou and Maureen’s dreams of being part of a successful rock band lay in tatters. They’d sacrificed being part of one of the most innovative bands in musical history. It was all for nothing. Riches and fame still eluded The Velvet Underground. 

Since then, The Velvet Underground has found a wider audience. Nowadays, every self-respecting record collection contains The Velvet Underground’s albums. However, not every Velvet Underground album was created equally.

For the newcomer to The Velvet Underground, then 1969s The Velvet Underground is their most accessible album. It’s far from their best album. 1967s The Velvet Underground and Nico was The Velvet Underground’s finest hour. It features The Velvet Underground at their innovative and influential best. 1968s White Light/White Heat comes a close second. Again, it features The Velvet Underground pushing musical boundaries to their limits, on what was a truly groundbreaking album. So much so, that critics wondered what was coming next from The Velvet Underground?

They certainly didn’t expect The Velvet Underground, with its ballads and rock-oriented tracks. For many people, The Velvet Underground had sold out, and  sacrificed their creative force at the altar of fame and fortune. That was disappointing. After all, The Velvet Underground could’ve continued to transform music for years to come. Instead, they released just two more albums, 1970s Loaded and 1973s Squeeze. However, fifty years have passed since the release of The Velvet Underground. and the dust has well and truly settled, and this allows everyone to reevaluate The Velvet Underground. It’s a reminder of a pioneering group, as they evolved,  and changed direction musically. Beautiful, and sometimes, wistful ballads, rub shoulders with rocky, anthems on The Velvet Underground. This makes The Velvet Underground’ the most accessible album from one of music’s most innovative bands. However, one can’t help wonder what type of album The Velvet Underground would’ve released if they hadn’t sacrificed their creative force at the altar of fame and fortune?  

Fifty Years Ago The Velvet Underground Released The Velvet Underground.


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