Ask me on any given day what my favorite song or album is and the answer will change with the direction of the wind: I am a fickle creature whose music obsession takes many different forms. Generally, however, I might be tied down into admitting that Dylan transcends popular music to become one of the most important poets of the 20th century. I can also be persuaded to be tied down to the fact that Neil Young can’t write lyrics, but man that sound is immense, and really what do words matter when Tonight’s The Night is as lethally thrilling as driving the wrong way down the 101 in the dead of night on an overpowered motorcycle. I will stand by my firm and unwavering belief that the New York Dolls with the late, great Johnny Thunders at the helm, is greater than The Ramones by a studded neck collar and a nodded out sleepy eyed grin. I might even bestow Joni Mitchell’s Blue the title of most perfect album of all time, in a matter of fact over personal taste.
The rest is subject to the weather, the direction of the wind, and what is missing in my life at the time, but ask me what the best band of all time is and my answer never changes. It is The Velvet Underground, with Lou Reed, though Nico is expendable past the first album, and not in any later incarnation with some upstart pretender trying to milk that cow that never produced the cash crop, dry.
The Velvets have it sewn up, pinned down and screen painted on Warhol’s Factory wall: The Greatest Band of All Time: Lou Reed’s The Velvet Underground. Don’t ask me for objectivity, I am about as capable of that around Lou Reed’s artistic output as was that absurdly talented, emotionally crippled blowhard oaf of the music critic scene, Lester Bangs. Why are they so good? Why would you even ask me that? You can make the case for the Rolling Stones, you can plead out haplessly for The Beatles. Some of you can try and persuade me Fleetwood Mac have it, make your cases for Led Zep or even back the outside but plausible contenders, Radiohead, but the fact is none of those bands would even exist without The Velvets and their adventures in noise and hi fi sound and fury, sweetness and light, and the barriers they broke down. There would be no Paranoid Android without Heroin.
There would be no Bowie or glam without Lou Reed’s ‘Death-Dwarf’ (as Bangs so accurately labeled it) period of eyeshadow and make up and backcombed hair let alone the band’s willingness to step into the underground, the gutter, the dark, hidden side of life and push those boundaries out far enough that the ’70s could happen. Punk? Doesn’t exist without the noise fest of The Black Angel’s Death Song and European Son, and that goes double for heavy metal. In fact Lou Reed’s final album Lulu, which is highly underrated to be honest, put Metallica to the best use since their Black album. Lou Reed’s Underground was the ancestor of rebellion, the forerunner of every shocking thing ever said in popular music history, whether they made a cent out of the enterprise …. or not and to be frank, as far as the $$$ go, it was mostly a gigantic bust.
The Velvet Underground made three ‘real’ albums, plus Live At Max’s Kansas City, one of the most vibrant and electric live albums ever created. The seminal, Velvet Underground and Nico, with the classic peel it and see Andy Warhol Banana cover, the pared back, recorded in a closet reverb heavy and dark forerunner to Lou Reed’s Berlin, the eponymously named Velvet Underground problem child middle album, and the bright and freaky, Loaded, which with the addition of Doug Yule, almost made it to commercially successful territory, and gave birth to Sweet Jane, the most perfect pop song ever written. Any pop song with a doo wop heritage and three chords can brighten the airwaves, but Sweet Jane, with its hopelessly nostalgic lyrics and hidden fourth chord, that jingle jangle guitar sound with the heavy reverb, laid the path to every indie kid’s dreams of pop nugget perfection ever since. ‘All you protest kids! You can hear Jack say…”Give it to me, Sweet Jane!”‘
The Velvet Underground are the missing link between the 1950s doo wop, the roots of rock and roll with that Chuck Berry strut and some strange ingredient ‘x’ which brought art, the avant-guarde, poetry and experimentation. Listen to early demos of Velvet’s songs and Lou Reed channeling Dylan, down to the drawl, the meaningful socially aware lyrics, and even the damn harmonica, comes shining through. This is monochrome neon. Danger and decadence. Those glasses holding the liquor might become shattered glass and a soundtrack at any moment. This is speed-driven, white heat, white light, pure New York experimentalism. These songs are odes to Edie Sedgewick, Bridget Berlin, and all those names and faces that decided to take a detour through the underground. The Velvets had a soft edge, but they were never on the surface, never mainstream. Brian Eno once said “Only five thousand people ever bought a Velvet Underground album, but every single one of them started a band.” I would go further and say that they not only started bands, but some of them invented new genres from the seeds sown by Lou Reed and his band of merry artists.
Folk stardom was never their destiny, even if the Velvets were always masters (and mistress) of the acoustic gentle song. The second album represented the apex of ‘velvet soft’ tunes, with hard lyrical edges, in the form of Candy Says, Pale Blue Eyes, After Hours et al. It was music from the opium dens and the depths of sadness, somehow both easy listening and some of the most difficult to digest songs the band ever produced. Candy Says never fails to bring a tear to my eye for the lost and longing of Candy and their hatred of ‘their body …and all that it requires in this world.’ Lou and Candy want to watch those bluebirds fly over their shoulders one day. Some people can’t even see the bluebirds, or their sad songs. Some people are the kind to shoot those birds right out of the sky and deny a moment of joy to those who are not part of the ‘normal’ the mundane, and the common. The Velvets made uncommonly heartful music, that expressed in sound and words the depths of fear, loss, and sadness. They distilled the scene and the lost and longing of the souls within those factory walls and the orbit of Warhol, and made it into
The Velvets wanted some of that art house pie, and with the blessing of Warhol, who told Reed to keep ‘all the dirty words’ and encouraged the noise and experimentation, and provided the factory space with all the inspiration and encouragement to push the boundaries of supposed ‘taste’. None of this had been done before. It was stunningly brave stuff on both lyrical and musical levels.
Visually the band was like nothing that came before. These were characters that belonged in a Paris salon, an arthouse movie, their clipper ship to China, was packed with China white, uppers, downers and various losers and fakers. Their female drummer, Mo Tucker was the picture of androgyny. The British classically trained avant-gardist, John Cale had the severe look of a smacked out medieval monk, Sterling Moss was the picture of enigmatic cool, and Lou Reed himself was a monochrome butterfly, encased in leather and prone to dramatic gestures, like miming shooting up smack on stage. The living personification of Warhol’s factory life, they were the full package. They didn’t just look the part, they lived what they sang. Reed wrote songs which were letters from the gutter right into the ears of young impressionable Americans. They were never part of the hippy scene, instead forerunners to the CBGBs days of punk, and part of that dark thread in modern music, which provided a sharp and shocking counterpoint to all the sweet niceness of the west coast and their bands which made fortunes off being marketable, widely likable, and easy to listen to.
The Velvets remain a challenge, and that is both their charm and what keeps them the worst kept secret of modern music. The world has not caught up to Reed, Cale, Tucker and Moss and their adventures in noise and Reed’s lyrical and social shenanigans. In part two of this series, I will be taking an in-depth look at The Velvet’s seminal album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, and asking the question, does anyone really enjoy listening to The Black Angel’s Death Song?