The Velvet Underground review by The Velvet Underground

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  • Released: Mar 11, 1969
  • Sound: 10
  • Lyrics: 10
  • Overall Impression: 10
  • Reviewer's score: 10 Gem
  • Users' score: 9.3 (20 votes)
The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground

Sound — 10
This is the first more mainstream attempt from the infamous Velvet Underground, surprisingly not as dark and avant-garde/proto punk styled, a little bit proto punk sense in retaining a garage type rock and roll feel to the whole body of compositions (mainly composed by Lou Reed). This definitely is one of the finest alternative rock albums, and alternative in general, released in the late '60s. There isn't as much experimental edge with dark sinister or taboo subject matter. This album does retain a darker feel to it, and the cover taken by Billy Name with the band members on a couch in Andy Warhol's Factory, all in silver and foil walls from after Warhol visited Billy Name's apartment asking for him to use the same theme on his warehouse. Strangely enough, I found out that Billy Name had darkened these photographs possibly alluding to the dark room that he made by converting one of the Factory's bathrooms into a darkroom where he mastered his photo developing and also locked himself in there not going out for days doing things like black magic and occult practice only letting Lou Reed in and a few others.

Strangely enough the original cover (that doesn't have the magazine cover blurred out) of the album has Lou Reed shown clearly holding a Harper's Bazaar magazine for Oct 1968 with the titles "The Cult of the Zodiac" and "Astrology and Wallstreet" as headlines for articles. Just something a bit eerie I discovered, this is only evident on an older 45 rpm single cover featuring the same photograph that Lou Reed blurred probably for legal issues to be avoided with the magazine, I just find it strange that the magazine has such a strange headlines coincidentally for the occult practice Billy Name would do in the blackroom, the band members area all sitting on a couch in Andy Warhol's "Factory" (i.e. art studio) formerly at 231 East 47th Street (between 3rd and 2nd Aves) in New York.

This album really shows that the band was moving in a different direction from the main songwriter Lou Reed. This album is different also in the fact that John Cale left and he was a huge contributor to the avant-gare experimental punk sound that you get on the first two albums, but now it's just Lou Reed and so the darkness is there it's just not as prevalent and done more in an alternative pop/rock fashion here in this beautiful album. Owning the Polydoor CD reissue from 1996 is a bit of a disappointment for me, picking up this copy a while back along with their debut with Nico and also "Chelsea Girls" by Nico. I do love the sound direction they are going in not so much as their first avant-garde dark proto punk album fused with psychedelia somewhat similar to bands like The Holy Modal Rounders, The Godz, and The Deviants who had similar efforts in the same stylings though never as dark and deep hitting a never like The Velvet Underground did I feel in that nihilistic sense here with all of their masochism. I mean the band name itself came from BDSM, tracks like "Venus in Furs" give you an idea.

A real dark acid fueled punk of its time that wasn't ready for these acts like Iggy and The Stooges and Alice Cooper for example, I mean they were just anti peace and love which really didn't catch on until later, The Velvet Underground doesn't really get "lighter" at all, they just mellow out more on this effort but still retain that dark aura each album gives off, it seems like its in more of a more happier tone but the undertone and lyrics are still in a depressive state still conveying the main concept of the darker side this band was all about in a new musical direction and style going more mainstream yet still making an alternative album with little compromise to their sound. The whole thing is mainly a Lou Reed composition and so the style does change, still having that darker pessimistic side but sounding more in a pop rock type style, there is still an experimental edge on one or two tracks and it is noticeable. Lou Reed wanted to change styles because he felt that it would be a mistake if the group tried to make another "White Light/White Heat."

I must get this album on an original vinyl from MGM because that pressing contains the Lou Reed closet mix not intended for release but used anyway, it sounds better giving Doug Yule's organ more volume and a key characteristic amongst the tracks, also a totally different mix of "Some Kinda Love." You can get this album on the "Peel Slowly and See" box set on disc 4 though, I heard it on YouTube and I compelled to get the vinyl now to hear the high quality of the original style of the album. I like the Lou Reed closet mix better than the standard Val Valentin mix now used but they are both practically the same more or less but have slightly different flairs to them. For the most part this does bear a high folk rock resemblance although it doesn't completely fit into that genre I would declare it to be a nice pop/rock folk rock alternative type of an album and even in a sense a type of art rock that portrays life as the band itself knew it at the time.

Lyrics — 10
Lou Reed's expressive songwriting is definitely felt on this classic masterpiece. Although the sound is different from the debut this isn't bad even though it's not as good as the debut for example but I still feel that it's a beautiful piece of art. Surprisingly enough not only because of Cale's departure but also the fact that their amplifiers were stolen. Doug Yule definitely gives the band a great new attribute with organ and bass while Morrison and Reed can do rhythm and leads so there is definitely some good chemistry there for a pop rock type band. But Lou Reed's lyrical exploration of the demimonde is as keen here as on any album he ever made, while displaying a warmth and compassion he sometimes denied his characters.

There is a creative side here and genius group effort overall, songs like "Candy Says" are closely linked to Velvet Underground Factory life with Andy Warhol, referring to the Warhol actress Candy Darling.

"The Murder Mystery" has some nice poetry recited simultaneously amongst dreary and gloomy music, so the band hasn't really lost that experimental dark edge that they have been known for them, it's clear it's still the same band you've been hearing just changing direction. Most people who don't like The Velvet Underground actually like this album and "Loaded" along with VU as they aren't anything like the original Velvet Underground albums. At Reed's insistence "Candy Says" would be sang by Doug Yule. The group themselves had produced this album so there is that independent quality and even though the group was trying to be more successful they still don't have a type of album that is easily accepted by the mainstream. It is definitely a more whole hearted and slightly humorous in a sense of playfulness throughout with songs like "Beginning to See the Light" about being nocturnal, it instead has a more joking attitude that makes it fun and enjoyable.

"What Goes On" is a really lovely jam based around a few simple chords with simplistic yet moving lyrics and a nice solo with a unique guitar sound effect. There is a more melodious background to this album that are reflective like "Some Kinda Love" and "Pale Blue Eyes" a love song ballad. The closing track "After Hours" shows the lighter and folk singer songwriter side of it with Maureen Tucker on the vocals while Lou Reed is playing the acoustic for it. There are just a mix of different moods and emotions pulled out of here varying from track to track but they are all done in a meticulous matter of skilled songwriting showcasing Reed's talent in creativity and unique divergence between contemporaries. This is a shot at a type of rock and roll garage rock revival that ends up exceeding the expectations of the band. The only song that exhibited the band's avant-garde roots is "The Murder Mystery," which incorporated a raga rhythm, murmuring organ, overlapping spoken-word passages, and lilting counterpoint vocals. "Jesus" seems to have a bit of a satirical theme to it but yet does retain it's beauty as a great Reed composition. Lou Reed on piano for "The Murder Mystery" is quite interesting because he does let the band do an experimental track but they mostly seem content to just play standard simple pop rock brilliantly written yet simple which is what you get from here.

"I'm Set Free" has a feeling of being bound and relieved and free from whatever entrapment had enveloped the person from whoever or whatever is binding them, just let go I guess is the whole mood and message from the song. "That's The Story of My Life" is about Billy Name, the photographer who had taken the album cover photograph for the band. This is really the Velvets at their most unrefined and it definitely is worth listening to, these were definitely skilled musicians ready to improvise without compromise so you get a unique dark mysterious and moody Velvet sound in a softer more mellow sound.

Overall Impression — 10
"Candy Says," "Pale Blue Eyes," and "I'm Set Free" may be more muted in approach than what the band had done in the past, but "What Goes On" and "Beginning to See the Light" made it clear the VU still loved rock & roll, and "The Murder Mystery" (which mixes and matches four separate poetic narratives) is as brave and uncompromising as anything on "White Light/White Heat" without doubt so the band really doesn't actually lose their dark edge or actual feel to the band just a sound directional change to be more mainstream accessible.

This album is the most personal, honest and direct one that you can ever get from The Velvet Underground discography from Lou Reed. Though this effort doesn't carry a same feel it would be close to "Supersnazz" by The Flamin Groovies of the same year in a garage proto punk sense that comes on here, it's just straight up simple garage rock pop schemes throughout that make it well crafted with Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison dual guitar work. Overall this album shows a skilled band that is ready to play together as a rock band in original quality, my real favorite from this album is "What Goes On," a great energetic song with more perspective lyrics from Reed about a relationship ("lady be good"). Regardless of all these creative lyrics you just get amazing sequences and some nice cuts like "What Goes On" with the dual banshee wail of the guitars that gives off an Indian psych sound somehow and a great jam, everything seems to fit like "Pale Blue Eyes" with a sad mood to the grateful "I'm Set Free" in a philosophical approach.

I don't think there are very many albums that have ever spoke to me like this one has and it will always have a place in my heart amongst other Velvet Underground albums and remain my favorite in that sense of free spirited rock and roll with passion and emotion. "Beginning to See the Light" gives off another playful attribute of someone playing the fool and acting hard as the lyrics say it with as beautiful ending that just clears up all the emotion chanting "How does it feel to be loved...". The dirty lust subject song "Some Kinda Love," with the taboo subject of kinky sex so the band never loses their whole persona and general main principals in style vocals and dark or taboo subject matter, they just musically carry on in a new progression from a slight band member shift. This Polygram issue is pretty decent in sound, I just wish that it had the original Lou Reed closet mix which sounds more raw and unchallenged, there isn't much in the paper cover booklet, just a snapshot of the group on the same couch from above the members.

2 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Another excellent review by Oliver White....I'm impressed with his level of detail....frankly, I just enjoy reading all of his reviews....thanks again for posting this..