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78 Rpms - The Velvet Underground

  by Jon Rogers

published: 6 / 11 / 2013

78 Rpms - The Velvet Underground


In our series, in which our writers write about ten songs that made them love a favourite band or artist, Jon Rogers in tribute to Lou Reed, who died in October, reflects on some of his favourite songs by the Velvet Underground

The editor of this site is clearly a sadist in the most vile vein. This much is blatantly clear. Reduce the output of perhaps the most influential (and captivating) rock band in popular music to just your ten favourite songs? It would have been easier to reduce my selection to ten favourite Velvets albums (if they'd ever gotten round to making ten).So keeping in mind the part about which songs "made me love..." rather than simply my favourite, here we go. 'I'm Waiting for the Man' From the album 'The Velvet Underground and Nico' (1967) As with many songs on their first two albums the Velvet Underground were in stark dialectic opposition to the musical fashions of the day. In the late Sixties it was all flower power, wearing a sunbeam in your hair and going to California, to like, wow, find yourself, maaaannnn. Centred around Manhattan's Lower East Side, the Velvets were appalled by that. The band's main songwriter Lou Reed focused on a dark reality. While the hippies sought some sort of spiritual enlightenment - invariably through the use of 'mind-expanding' drugs like LSD, the Velvets, mainly Reed and multi-instrumentalist John Cale, sought out "harder" drugs like amphetamine sulphate and heroin. In the deceptively simple 'I'm Waiting for the Man' Reed relates a tale of going up to Harlem to score from a dealer. Reed does not ask the listener for sympathy, but with a journalistic eye just reports what happens. Up he goes to Lexington with his $26, waits around for the man to show, samples the goods and then off he goes. Musically, the same refrain is just about endlessly repeated over and over and just chugs away. 'Heroin' From the album 'The Velvet Underground and Nico' (1967) Perhaps Reed's high water mark of song writing - it's certainly up there. Rather like Pablo Picasso's cubist work where is was trying to convey something more than a pictorial representation of an object or person, Reed, musically, conveys what it must be like to take heroin and the reasons that can lead to taking the narcotic in the first place. The song starts off slowly and then builds slowly into a frenzy as drummer Moe Tucker's pounding builds - reflecting the rush and sense of euphoria as the effects of the drug take hold. It is not, though, a paean to the drug as Reed details the downside of the drug as well as the highs (pun intended). He makes it clear that there is a price to be paid to being an addict. Rock music is littered with songs about drugs, but they really do not come any better than this. 'Venus in Furs' From the album 'The Velvet Underground and Nico' (1967) Inspired by the book of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, 'Venus in Furs' deals with a S&M relationship between Severin and Wanda - one of dominance and subservience. It is not pretty and not your typical boy meets girl scenario as so well expressed by the likes of Phil Spector. The harshness of relationship is mapped out not only by the lyrics but also by Cale's screeching viola. Disturbing and unsettling. 'European Son' From the album 'The Velvet Underground and Nico' (1967) Undoubtedly the most radical 'song' on the whole of the band's debut, in a record that would produce the blueprint for many a rock group to follow. It's not really a song at all. More like a cacophony of noise and dissonance. Dedicated to Reed's creative writing lecturer at Syracuse University, Delmore Schwartz, the song starts off conventionally enough with a Bo Diddley riff, a couple of verses of lyrics that do not make any coherent sense before a sound that appears to be glass shattering, and then all hell breaks loose and any musical structure breaks down into screeching guitars. On and on it goes for nearly eight minutes in anguished fashion. Search out the original acetate version recorded at Scepter Studios for an even longer, and possibly superior, version. 'White Light/White Heat' From the album 'White Light/White Heat' (1968) Released as a single in 1968 the song, coming in at under three minutes, apes the rush produced from an amphetamine hit. A short, sweet stab of euphoria - a dazzled white flash of intensity that dies just as quickly. Reed's lyrics describe the sensations produced with the music, especially Cale's electric bass, mimicking the rush of speed as the drug takes effect. Perhaps not quite on the same level as 'Heroin', in songwriting terms, but still highly effective. 'Sister Ray' From the album 'White Light/White Heat' (1968) Recorded in one take in the studio the 17-minute song brings most of the early themes of Reed's neatly together in one place. A sort of musical version of Herbert Selby Jr's 'Last Exit to Brooklyn' it's a song about "total debauchery and decay" as Reed once put it. Some drag queens pick up some sailors, shoot some smack and indulge in an orgy. Or something like that. It is hard to tell just exactly what happens. Partly due to the terrible way the song was recorded - a sort of Spinal Tap-esque "everything louder than everything else" with all the dials in the red until it distorts. It is also hard to hear anything distinctly over the sheer ferocity and bombardment of the noise. Reed, Cale and guitarist Sterling Morrison just let rip while Tucker desperately tries to hold it all down with her relentless tempo. In reality the song is closer to the notions of free jazz rather than a conventional pop song in 4/4 time. There is no one definitive version of the song and played live the band would use it as a vehicle to indulge in some free-form improvisation where the song would be stretched to breaking point, often lasting well over half an hour and often radically re-worked until it bore little resemblance to the studio version with Reed improvising lyrics over the top. The band even worked a long, meandering 'intro' to the song, usually referred to as 'Sweet Sister Ray' which itself would often last for well over 30-minutes. 'I Heard Her Call My Name' From the album 'White Light/White Heat' (1968) Four-and-a-half minutes of utter blitzkrieg assault on the senses that really does leave your "eyeballs on your knees". Enough said. 'What Goes On' From the album 'The Velvet Underground' (1969) After the ferocity of their second album and the departure of Cale from the band, Reed took the group in a gentler direction but their eponymous third LP still had life in it. 'What Goes On' is simply riff-tastic, finds it pulse and just stays there, pummelling away. Over and over. The studio version last a relatively short five minutes but live the band would often double that, relentlessly pounding away at the one musical phrase. Simple but effective. 'Pale Blue Eyes' From the album 'The Velvet Underground' (1969) For all the band's associations with songs about drugs, deviant sex and the seamier side of life, Reed could also pull off tender songs full of love and tenderness. None more so than this. Dedicated to Reed's first love, Shelley Albin, who actually had hazel-coloured eyes, the song details a lost romance - Albin was married at the time - with the song's refrain "linger on your pale blue eyes" repeated frequently. A song that tugs at the heart-strings. 'I Can't Stand It' From the album 'VU' (1985) Originally recorded in 1969 and only, officially, released on the compilation 'VU' album in 1985, 'I Can't Stand It' harks back to Reed's love of early rock and roll and sees him at his most surreal - the hero of the song lives with 30 dead cats and purple dog that wear spats. A departure for a lyricist that usually deals in a cinéma vérité style of grim urban reality. The song, often overlooked by commentators, bounces along at a lively pace, even if the reason why Reed can't stand it anymore is that he wants "Shelley" to come back to him. Bonus cut: 'Metal Machine Music' (1975) OK, admittedly, not strictly a Velvet Underground 'song' at all, the band would be long gone by the time Reed got round to releasing this assault on the general public, but it does neatly fit into the band's oeuvre. The origins of the band had grown out of their associations with the avant garde composers, most notably with Cale performing with La Monte Young in his Theater of Eternal Music and the band were far from adverse to indulging in their more experimental side in recordings such as 'Noise' and 'Loop'. Now, in 1975, it was Reed's turn to cite his 'serious' musician credentials. Usually cited by critics as one of the most unlistenable albums ever made, 'Metal Machine Music' is a double album of endless guitar noise and feedback. Western notions of 'music', such as tempo, melody and rhythm are jettisoned for caterwauling noise. Reed had two guitars with unusual tunings stuck and then placed up against the amps and the ensuing feedback recorded and then played back at different speeds. Whether or not the album was just an in-joke for Reed to piss the fans off who only screamed for him to the likes of 'Walk on the Wild Side' or just done for record company obligations as a big 'fuck you' does not really matter. Certainly it is a challenging listen, no doubt about that, but one that is highly rewarding if anyone can last the endurance test.

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