Sunday, April 06, 2014

Another VU

I just read Seeing The Light: Inside The Velvet Underground by Rob Jovanovic.  While not especially well-written or edited, I'd definitely recommend it as the most comprehensive look at the Velvet Underground available.  Almost 300 pages, it explains where the band came from and where it went after the glory years.

When you think about it, VU were the anti-Beatles.  They were recording around the same time but had no commercial success.  And yet, after the Beatles, they may be the most influential band of the 60s.

It all starts with Lou Reed (the book was published in 2010 so doesn't include his death), the weird kid, son of a Jewish accountant from Long Island.  He wasn't the accountant type, but had a talent for putting words together and playing the guitar.  He decided that's where he was going, and along the way picked up, in order, Sterling Morrison (who actually disappeared for a while but reappeared), John Cale and Maureen Tucker.  The band had a sound, certainly, made up of raw rock and roll, Lou's no-nonsense poetry, and Cale's penchant for the avant-garde.  By chance Andy Warhol saw them when they were just starting and decided this was the band he was looking for. He decided to "manage" them, though it was more giving his imprimatur and letting them work things out.  He had enough to do with the scene at The Factory as it was, and didn't know that much about music, so he wasn't hands-on.  Really he saw them as part of a multimedia package--that he would name the Exploding Plastic Inevitable--which included several projectors, a light show and dancers with whips.

He did make suggestions.  For instance, he told the band to let their shows be like rehearsals, because that's where a lot of the best stuff happens. It seemed to work, and many say the best of the Velvets was what they did live.  He also suggested they let German fashion model Nico sing with them, and it turned out to be a good fit--for the first album anyway, after which they dumped her.

That first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (produced by Warhol in name only) was recorded in 1966 but took a year to come out.  This was for several reasons, including the problematic cover, designed by Warhol, which had a yellow banana you could peel off to reveal a pink banana.  It also didn't get much promotion from the MGM/Verve label--perhaps they figured they were already working hard enough for the other weirdo on the roster, Frank Zappa, or perhaps they thought Warhol's name would be enough--and the album didn't sell.  It is, however, the one that most identifies the group and their sound, with its rock and roll and Cale's droning viola, but it didn't have a hit single, which makes all the difference. In fact, it got almost no airplay because radio was frightened of the band.  They sang about drugs and sex, and many saw them as symbols of debauchery and danger.  Today, of course, this is almost laughable, but the music is still out there, and it's one of the few albums from 1967 that can stand up to Sgt. Pepper.

On their next album--White Light/White Heat--they truly let their freak flag fly.  This was a sonic explosion, with the Velvets at their most experimental, never more so than the 17-minute+ closing number "Sister Ray," a musical miasma of depravity and confusion with the dials set at 11.  The album sold worse than their debut.

Reed and Cale didn't see the direction of the band eye-to-eye.  Reed was experimental, but didn't mind selling records, while Cale wanted to go further out if anything. So Reed told Morrison and Tucker that Cale was out, and if they didn't like it, the band was through. And the one member who couldn't be replaced was Reed, their main singer and songwriter.  It probably didn't help that they'd left Warhol at this point and were being managed by a guy who kept whispering into Reed's ear he was the star.

So Cale was gone and their next album, The Velvet Undergound, was a reboot of sorts.  This one featured the softer, more melodic side of the band. It also featured new bassist Doug Yule, who even sang lead occasionally.  The trouble was, with Warhol gone, they had little publicity of any sort--certainly not from MGM, that knew it was going to drop the band. The album didn't even chart.

Yet the band, touring regularly, was getting a bit of a following.  Just not enough to register in the music world. (They also toured first class, with their manager ensuring MGM would pick up the tab against future royalties.  Must have been nice, though sooner or later MGM must have figured there would be no future royalties.) They recorded enough songs for their contractually required fourth album, but it wasn't even released--until more than a decade later when the band's name meant something.

But the great record label Atlantic was interested and they signed.  (Even when they were essentially unheard of, people in the know were aware. Brian Epstein liked them and was ready to put them on a tour through Europe but he died before the contracts were signed.  David Bowie, before he was famous, loved them.  Vaclav Havel smuggled their music into Prague and spread the word, which eventually led to the Velvet Revolution.)  Their first album for Atlantic, Loaded, was a clear attempt at a a commercial pop sound, with Reed trying to write singles.  In fact, the title meant it was loaded with hits.  However, due to internal dissension which had been around at least since Cale was forced out, by the time the album was released in 1970, Reed had left the band.  Atlantic figured why bother, and with no promotion, the album didn't chart either.

But, oddly, that wasn't the end.  Doug Yule, now getting the whispers that he was the star, was happy to keep it going, and Sterling Morrison--who was working on a degree--was happy enough to make some money on a tour, as was Moe Tucker. After a year, Morrison got an academic job offer in Texas and dropped out on the road. Moe stuck around for a European tour so she could see the world, but after that she'd had enough.  They were replaced, and there was Doug Yule and a bunch of others still playing as the Velvet Underground.  They even recorded an album, Squeeze, that was essentially all Yule, and sank without a trace. Today it's a collectors item.

That could have been the end, but we know it isn't.  Reed took some time off, going back to living with his parents, but emerged reenergized and started a fairly successful solo career, releasing about an album a year in the 70s and 80s.  Cale also released some albums, reflecting a wide interest in numerous musical styles, which didn't sell like Reed's, but he also became a successful record producer, helping create, among other titles, Patti Smith's Horses.  Morrison happily worked as an academic throughout the 70s, occasionally playing for fun. Tucker, the most normal member of the band, worked for a while at Wal-Mart.

All along, the band's legend grew, and the albums kept selling.  Band after band, especially punk and new wave, pointed to the Velvets as their inspiration.  And then, in 1993, to everyone's surprise, they re-formed, all four original members, and toured Europe.  It was fun, and decent money for the poorer band members.  They might have toured America and even recorded a new album if old problems hadn't resurfaced.  Most of it was due, as usual, to Reed, who was never much of a team player, and now had twenty years experience of being completely in charge.  Then in 1995, Morrison died, and that ended any more chances they might get together.

But even without that glorious reunion, the band's reputation was made.  They and their albums regularly finish at or near the top of critics polls, they're in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, and their fans, young and old, number in the millions.  It just goes to show you what you can do if you stick to it, and have an awful lot of talent.

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