Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground has been called the most influential band of the last 50 years, more so than the Beatles or Rolling Stones who caused a bit of a rock revolution in the United States. The conventional wisdom is that very few people paid attention to the Velvet Underground albums when they were released and yet just about everyone of those who did pay attention somehow formed a band or became part of a band that had  ingested and digested the influences of this band, and took its lessons further into punk, post  punk and beyond.  Along with the MC5 and The stooges,  The Velvet Underground was namedropped as a hug, seminal and significant influence on many of the punks, post punks and New Wave musicians of the UK punk revolution that took flight in 1976.

Initially the Velvet Underground moved within the sphere  of influence  of Andy Warhol and the New York art crowd and would as such probably have been no more than a high art project rather than a proper pop group. If one listens to songs like "Femme Fatale", "There She Goes" and "All Tomorrow's Parties" there seems to have been no reason, with some record company support and radio airplay, why any or all of these tunes would not have been major pop hits, currently to be found on any number of anthologies of hits from the Sixties rather than languishing in the comparative obscurity of cult affection. These songs are from the debut album and the rest of the songs are experimental, with "Waiting for the Man" and "Heroin" being overtly about drugs and "Venus in Furs" being about off-kilter sexuality. not necessarily a comfortable mix on a pop-album and this may be why the band did not get the mainstream attention and exposure it surely deserved. I would imagine that Lou Reed, at the very least, was seriously interested in making it big in the world of popular entertainment. He had, after all started his career in music as staff writer for a minor New York rock and roll label.

John Cale was the avant garde, classically trained, experimental spirit of the group, as counterfoil to Reed's pop instincts and this is perhaps why the first album juxtaposes the pop songs with the noise tunes such as "Black Angel's Death Song" and  "European Son" and the insistent thrash riff of "Waiting for the Man." One can imagine the Velvet Underground providing the soundtrack for "art" movies or art happenings and poetry readings. A stage is a stage and a gig is a gig and for the Velvet Underground the Warhol connection was worth the publicity but may have been the death knell as well give the relative obscurity of the Warhol entourage and its effect on mainstream art in the Sixties because mainstream culture did not think of Warhol as much more than a joke and this would not have been helpful for a sustainable career in music. Rock critics liked the Velvets and Lou Reed could manage to parlay this approval it to a solo career that was equally storied and approved by the scene makers and taste makers of the significant rock press.

"Black Angel's Death Song" sounds a lot like a Bob Dylan parody and "European Son" has the rave up guitar freak out that would have made it a great tune to play at Happenings and underground parties and Lou Reed speaks the lyrics in a bit of a trade mark delivery that also adumbrates the entire Lulu album he recorded with Metallica in about 2011. It is, to my mind, a weakness of the debut album that the Velvets guitar sound is just so insipid. If the band had a proper producer he might have beefed up the riffs considerably, as one can sense the mailed fist in the, um, velvet cloth of the jangly sounding performances that must have been one of the inspirations for the Eighties bands who were so much in thrall to that Velvet Underground blue print. Lou Reed should record a version of "European Son" with Metallica. That collaboration would surely highlight the power of the inherent rave up. The Velvet Underground were not so radically different from other bands around at the time, except maybe for the subject matter of the songs, and could have been much more of a proper rock band if they had turned up the amps in the studio.

It is apparent from the Velvet Underground albums that followed on the debut, the band is truly a pop band reaching towards popular acceptance and commercial success and has left the weirdness and noise behind. Most of the later great songs like "Rock and Roll," "Lisa Says" or "Sweet Jane" are remarkably quiet musically speaking with the effect of the songs being the lyrics.

Lou Reed managed to wrote songs that sometimes seem very banal in their matter of fact narratives yet hide deeper truths about the world he lived in and the demi monde of the New York of the Seventies. When one pays careful attention to what Reed says about that scene, it seems to be very similar to what I would imagine Berlin was like in the Twenties.

A lot of pop music is transparently aspirational and anodyne for that reason. The practitioners may have originated in poverty and deprivation but they have no intention of telling us about those bad times whereas Springsteen, as another example, does not necessarily share his teenage home life with us but tells us the stories of the people he knew back then and of the working class people who need championing. In his way Reed is very much the bard of the New York underbelly. The Beatles wrote beautiful but ultimately impersonal love songs. Perhaps Reed's tales are as impersonal though the characters seem a lot more real than the saccharine protagonist of Paul McCartney's best-known tunes.  

On reflection the Velvet Underground also had a great deal of influence on the jangly indie pop bands in the UK in the mid to late Eighties who made a pop sound that sometimes seemed twee beyond belief and yet often had quite strong rhythm sections to anchor the guitar filigrees and wispy tunes. In this respect  it was the quiet sound, and no so much the way the songs were played,  that these Eighties  bands adopted. Twenty years later, in the 21st century, the highbrow garage band concept to the Velvet Underground became a major influence again. Generation after generation there will be someone, or many ones, who will rediscover the Velvet Underground and be inspired by the combination of rough, noisy guitars, pop tunes and darkly subversive lyrics.  It is a heady mixture that will continue to please and satisfy as long as rock and roll exists.

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