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Velvet Underground - Velvet Underground Part 5

  by Jon Rogers

published: 7 / 10 / 2012

Velvet Underground - Velvet Underground Part 5


Jon Rogers in the final part of his five part series on the Velvet Underground reflects upon critical reaction to their 'The Velvet Underground and Nico' album upon its release in 1967, and examines its new six CD box set

In the run up to the release of the debut album in March the Velvet Underground are particularly quiet, which is perhaps rather odd as you would nowadays expect the PR and the band to want to raise their profile around now. Instead, with the band apparently hibernating Nico takes the opportunity to play a lengthy series of solo shows at The Dom, accompanied by a seemingly ever-changing cast of guitarists that now seem like a roll call of iconic 60s names and included her bandmates Reed, Cale and Morrison as well as the likes of Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley, Jackson Browne, Steve Noonan and even Ramblin' Jack Elliott. According to Martha Morrison though, her band members are taking it in turns to play with her not because they all want to but no one wanted to do it because it was seen as folk music. They didn't want to play that, but nonetheless had a sense of duty to help her. And according to Unterberger, present at least at one of Nico's gigs was one respected poet trying to launch his singing career called Leonard Cohen. The album 'The Velvet Underground & Nico' eventually gets released, probably in early March. The ad in the 'Village Voice' for the album in the 9 March issue would suggest it was around then but far from becoming one of those so-called 'instant classic' the Verve album just sinks without trace, most of the critics don't even bother to review it. It manages to reach the peak in the 'Billboard' charts of 171. Not even close to being a hit. Over the years there has been much debate over the reasons for the album's utter commercial failure with many commentators pointing to Verve's almost year-long delay in releasing the record after the bulk of the record had been recorded, citing that for the best impact it should have been released whilst interest in the whole EPI event was at a peak. But that would seem too simplistic, after all, what other label would have even bothered to release such an album? Record companies like Atlantic ran a mile at the prospect of releasing material like 'Heroin' when they were given the chance. It can't really be said either that Verve didn't make an effort with the packaging. At the time, it was only really artists like the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the Beatles that had the commercial clout to warrant a gatefold sleeve - and yet here was a relatively unknown band getting an elaborate packaging with both black & white and colour pictures. Plus the now iconic cover designed by Warhol with the silk-screened banana the owner could peel off, all presented on a brilliant white background. In fact, the owner was encouraged to do so, with the words "Peel slowly and see" and an arrow also printed on the cover. No doubt the actual printing and production of such a cover was both expensive and complicated to manufacture, no doubt contributing to the delay. But surely if Verve were trying to bury the album or at the very least not give it a promotional push, there would be no reason to lavish the record in an expensive cover. It would have been much easier and cheaper to do a simple cover. Certainly perhaps the label could have done more - ensuring influential critics got a copy, a comprehensive ad campaign maybe but also some of the fault lies with the band and Warhol's entourage as well. In the run up to the album and the immediate aftermath, despite some sporadic shows at The Gymnasium in New York and the Rhode Island School of Design the band's public profile is virtually zero. The only one bothering to get out there and do something is Nico and she's only doing that to earn a bit of money whilst the band is all but dormant. Surely it wouldn't have been that difficult to have at least organised something resembling a tour of the east coast to coincide with the release? But the real spanner in the works came from one of Warhol's own entourage - Eric Emerson. On the back of the album there's a photo of the band taken whilst performing as part of the EPI at the Chrysler Art Museum in Provincetown. Projected behind the band is a still from the film 'Chelsea Girl' featuring the upside-down head of Emerson. According to Morrison, Emerson, in need of some quick cash to fight a possession of LSD charge, saw this as his chance to get some money as no one has sort to ask his permission and tries to strong-arm Verve out of a lot of money. He submits a claim for a rather staggering $500,000 for damages caused by his image appearing on the album - no small amount at 1967 prices - and a further $750,000 for what he claims are damages he suffered for actually appearing in the film, also without his consent. The effect is that MGM/Verve, no doubt unwilling even to consider such an amount as compensation, just pull the album from production and stores and alter the artwork, simply air-brushing out Emerson's image with a murky yellow smudge. Ultimately, everyone lost apart from the lawyers. Both the band and label lose out on sales and possibly a chart position as the album is temporarily unobtainable. Emerson eventually settles with Andy Warhol Films on 1 May for a mere $1,000. The charges against the label are dropped after Emerson fails to appear in court to examine the case. Also a factor in the album's commercial demise was that while the packaging may have been eye-catching the band's name wasn't on the cover at all, just Warhol's. Anyone not knowing what to look for in the record racks might have mistakenly thought it was just some sort of novelty record by the artist and had nothing to do with the band. That was if the record could be found at all. At the time some record stores, fearing a moral backlash, would conceal albums such as the debut Fugs' album in brown paper bags or simply stock the more risqué albums under the counter only bringing them out on request. Ultimately, for an album of its nature, 'The Velvet Underground & Nico' isn't really about sales and chart positions or even length of time spent in the charts. Considering the heritage of the album there is little point in an analysis of the album. Any reader having got this far will no doubt be familiar with the record. And anyone not familiar by now probably won't be reading and probably won't be swayed. Go to any music magazine monthly for a 30-page re-write on why this album is significant and it will contain nothing or very little that will be new. Suffice to say that just about any rock band with any sort of artistic aspiration will no doubt owe them a debt. Let alone anyone who has ever tried to look cool dressed in black and wearing dark shades whilst holding a guitar. It is that friction between the avant-garde leanings, essentially epitomised with Cale, and the band's love of contemporary rock 'n' roll, such as the Who and the Kinks which really make the band interesting and set it apart. On one side La Monte Young's notion of the everlasting fifth (which he defined as "To be held for a very long time") is smeared all over the album, perhaps most obviously on 'All Tomorrow's Parties', 'I'm Waiting for the Man', 'The Black Angel's Death Song' and perhaps most notably on 'Heroin' where the held note produces a strangely calming effect before shattering into microtonal, Iannis Xenakis inspired noise. Elsewhere other songs are far more conventionally blues or rock 'n' roll structured - far more pretty and picturesque - but as with 'Sunday Morning' the attractive sheen hides something much darker. It's that tension between the two forms which give the album its edge and appeal. The Beatles might very well be cited as the band that breached the chasm between rock and the avant-garde, thanks to an interest in electronic pioneers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, but 'The Velvet Underground & Nico' was released a full three months ahead of 'Sgt Pepper'. Contemporary reviews were few and far between. Overall Timothy Jacobs in 'Vibrations' issue 2, was encouraging at best, citing it as a "good first album" but also managed to pretty much sum things up: "The music on this band, and indeed, on most of the whole album, is a full-fledged attack on the ears and on the brain. Using devices such as controlled feedback and a shrieking electric viola, the Velvet Underground attacks, grates, screams and pounds on the eardrums until the mind is virtually reduced to oatmeal." 'Record Mirror' clearly gave the album to one of its more "far out" reviewers who dubbed it "solid and by no means freaky". Although far from positive, Richard Goldstein in 'The Village Voice' gave it a measured response. "Some of the cuts on their album are blatant copies: I refer specifically to the progression lifted from the Rolling Stones' 'Hitch Hike' [originally a 1963 hit co-written by Marvin Gaye] in 'There She Goes Again'. The lead vocal on other songs sound distressingly like early Dylan. Some of the material is dull and repetitive. And the last two cuts, 'The Black Angel's Death Song' and 'European Son', are pretentious to the point of misery." Goldstein, however, didn't dismiss the album out of hand, saying 'I'm Waiting for the Man' was an "impressively understated vignette about scoring drugs in Harlem", 'Venus in Furs' "is fine electronic mood-manifesting" while 'Femme Fatale' is an "unearthly ballad". His highest praise though was saved for 'Heroin' which he thought was more restrained than live versions, still for him it was "seven minutes of genuine 12-tone rock 'n' roll." The short review in 'Jazz' magazine by the lecturer and author John F Szwed is perhaps a typical reaction: "Here, at least, they sound rather tedious despite their ventures into electric viola, et al. Their forte is the loud whine - something like a musical motorcycle. Perhaps with flashing lights, mixed media, and a 'psychedelic' setting... but as they stand, something is lost in the translation." Radio coverage is sparse to say the least with small stations, such as Bob Fass at WBAI in New York, only bothering. Even the more underground stations wouldn't touch the album, largely due to its content, as Morrison put it, of "drugs, sex and perversion" and often because of that the larger stations also even refused to carry advertising for the album. In some respects this almost comprehensive lack of media attention adds to the band's cult status and mystique. For those cool enough to know the band remained part of the clique, the 'in' crowd, rather than once the word had got out and popularity ensued - smash hits, TV appearances, back-to-back radio rotation - then that intangible bond was broken. This way they still remained the preserve of their dedicated supporters and fans. Not that they even had that many, some of the late April 1967 gigs at The Gymnasium were, reportedly, only attended by about 30 people and that was after the album had been released. Simply getting hold of their record often wasn't as easy as walking into a store and picking it up off the shelf. In effect to be bothered to go and track down their music indicated those that did really cared. And the rest fades into history. Later in 1967 the band ditch their management team of Morrissey and Warhol and team up with Steve Sesnick around June, a decision that would have very mixed fortunes for the group. Nico was also dropped, and she went on to pursue a solo career but would revive her connections with the band every now and again, andespecially Cale. The Velvet Underground would continue in this form for one more record, the abrasive 'White Light/White Heat', before Cale would leave the band after a power struggle and clash of egos with Reed. The band would continue with Doug Yule as Cale's replacement and with Reed the undisputed band leader before it all fell apart in 1973. But once Cale was out the band's aggressive, challenging side was over, and Reed pursued writing gentler and more conventional songs. They wouldn't manage to top the creative accomplishment found on 'The Velvet Underground & Nico' again. The Super Deluxe edition So, really is the super deluxe box set worth the asking price and what do you get for your pennies? The Downside For anyone who doesn't possess a copy of 'The Velvet Underground & Nico' it's probably best to start off with just the original LP and for those of you who do have a copy the first few discs are (largely) going to be covering pretty much the same ground. The first disc contains the stereo mix of the album plus the invariable smattering of alternate versions while disc two has the mono version plus the editions of the songs found on the singles. And there's not really a great difference between the two. Interestingly though, in the past Morrison has stated that the album was originally mixed in mono, so perhaps this is more approaching the sound the band were after. But there's really not a great deal in it. Nothing to get particularly excited over anyway. The single versions of the songs have been well represented in the past too, perhaps most notably on the original deluxe version of the album in June 2002. Of most interest over the first two discs will be the extra tracks on the first disc, a version of 'European Son' that breaks the nine minute mark - well over a minute more than the album version, an instrumental version of 'All Tomorrow's Parties' as well as 'single voice' version of the same song and a shorter version of 'Heroin'. So far, not so great. And things get worse. The third disc is simply a remastered version of Nico's debut solo album 'Chelsea Girl' which was originally released in October 1967 - not even any bonus material. The album, which was recorded earlier in April at Mayfair Sound Studios on Seventh Avenue in New York, has obvious connections to the Velvet Underground - namely the five songs written by Morrison, Reed and Cale - and that they helped her out in the studio, with Reed telling 'ZigZag' in 1972 that he had played on "two or three tracks". The most prominent of these songs is 'Chelsea Girls' which is largely a Reed composition with Morrison (who also gets a credit) admitting that his involvement was merely "meddling with chords". 'Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams' had its origins with the Velvets as the song was originally recorded by the band in July 1965 and got a live outing at the most a year later with Nico on vocals. 'Winter Song' which sits somewhat uneasily between the world of folk music and classical is a solo Cale composition with something of a gothic feel to it. It's not really essential listening. Even less so if the Reed/Cale composition 'Little Sister' which is very much in the baroque-pop vein and sees Nico wittering on about the sea, birds, pearls.... A more substantial offering is 'It Was a Pleasure Then' which features just Reed, Cale and Nico. The song, an eight minute ramble would appear to have its heritage in the elongated, improvised pieces the band were indulging in at the time, like 'Melody Laughter' and 'The Nothing Song'. Musically nothing much happens as it just drifts along, its rumble intermittently broken up by some guitar and viola squawking and squealing. It also shows off Nico at her most versatile. Her range swings from the Wagnerian to the (almost) angelic while lyrically she moves from actual words to wailing and abstract scat-style singing. It could have easily been included with the Velvets debut and wouldn't have been out of place. Elsewhere Nico sings songs by Jackson Browne, with whom she would later have an affair, and Tim Hardin as well as her beloved song Dylan had given her, 'I'll Keep It With Mine'. What really cripples the album though is the rather awful production and arrangement which now makes it sound very dated. 'Chelsea Girl' is a classic example of 'baroque-pop' which was in fashion at the time - wash everything in whimsical strings and flutes, giving the album a light, flowery chamber music feel to it. Which was somewhat at odds with Nico's rather deep, 'Götterdammerung'-style of delivery. Even Nico didn't like the album, saying: "I cried when I heard the album," in 'Nico: The Life and Lies of an Icon'. "I cried because of the flute. I hate it so much. It is a great mistake. The arrangements in general were not so good. Even so, I could bear the string sound. But I wish I could take the flute off." The entire inclusion of 'Chelsea Girl instead perhaps of just the five songs that involved Velvets members just really smacks of filler. And there aren't even any alternate or outtakes present. Since it's not like there isn't plenty of Velvets material that could have been used. Like 'Loop' or 'Noise' would be obvious examples, or even 'Booker T'? Or perhaps some of the recordings made in early 1967? Or even some early Reed compositions like 'The Ostrich' or 'Why Don't You Smile Now' or even some other live recordings. Instead, an opportunity is missed and Nico's debut album is given an outing in its entirety. And the album is hardly obscure now, easily available. The Upside It's the final three discs that are of the most interest by far. Up first are the Scepter Studios sessions, mainly taken from the acetate, followed by the rehearsal in January 1966 the band made at The Factory when Nico first joined. Well worth the asking price is the takes of 'Walk Alone' and 'Miss Joanie Lee' as well as the take of 'There She Goes Again' sung by Nico, although it might have been interesting to hear some of what else is on that tape such as the band's take of 'Ike and Tina Turner's 'It's Gonna Work Out Fine' and Booker T & The MGs' 'Green Onions', no matter how brief. Reportedly the tape also has versions of more obscure songs like 'Prominent Men' and 'Men of Good Fortune' (which will eventually see the light of day on Reed's solo album 'Berlin') as well as the likes of 'All Tomorrow's Parties' and 'European Son'. It might have been interesting to hear these too, no matter how fragmentary the songs might be. Still, these recordings are highly important in the band's early days. Possibly of most interest though is the entire set performed by the band on 4 November 1966 at the Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus, Ohio as part of the EPI although the recordings have been available on bootlegs for some time. In a February 1971 edition of 'Rolling Stone' Cale recollects the gig, saying it was "a huge place filled with people drinking and talking. We tuned up for about 10 minutes, tuning, fa-da-da, up, da-da-da, down. There's a tape of it. Played a whole set to no applause, just silences." And for the first time, a complete run through of the 28-minute 'Melody Laughter' gets a legal release. Previously, only snippets had been heard on the 'What Goes On' and 'Peel Slowly and See' box sets. In its entirety, it shows off to full effect the Velvets avant-garde credentials, lacking both a tune and lyrics. Instead, the song kicks off with a burst of feedback shrieking and guitar doodlings before Tucker starts to dominate with a insistent, tribal, repetitive beat. This in turn gives way to more guitar ambling and splashes of piano. The piece isn't entirely instrumental with Nico chucking in the odd lyrical phrase here and there and some adlibs at the end. She comes into her forte though in a six minute section which sees her deliver some improvised, droning, wordless vocals, caught somewhere between singing and moaning. Those fans with more conventional taste in music won't like this. They're not alone in that as amongst their number is Tucker herself, telling the 'What Goes On' fanzine: "I thought it was atrocious. But at least it was different. That would go anywhere from two minutes to 42. It used to drive me crazy. [...] Really, it was like torture... It just went on and on." When 'Melody Laughter' eventually comes to an close the band run through seven of the songs on 'The Velvet Underground & Nico' that include the likes of 'Femme Fatale', 'The Black Angel's Death Song' and 'Heroin'. Listening to these it's striking just how similar these live versions are to the album versions, only 'Run Run Run' is significantly that different, played in a different key and elongated out to just under nine minutes, padded out with longer guitar sections. Then to bring things full circle the band then launch into 'The Nothing Song' which is rather similar in length and style to 'Melody Laughter'. Clocking in at just under 30 minutes the song - if you can call it that - rambles on without any sort of focus or structure and lacking a tune, all backed with a repetitive, insistent, propulsive beat from Tucker. Nico sings what could be actual words in a monotone, robotic voice. As with the opening 'Melody Laughter' fans of the band's more conventional songs aren't going to be keen on this. So while there might be obvious filler here and Universal perhaps missed a trick in not picking for inclusion some obvious omissions that might have shed light in some corners of the band's early days, there are some utter gems here that are essential listening to any fan of the band.

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