Bob Short's Complete History Of Rock and Roll returns with Episode 14 to wish you Merry Xmas and/or Happy New Year. Here's what the postman brought Santa Bob in the mail. Tracklist after the fold (click MORE)
I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico – Various Artists (Verve)
Tribute albums usually have their fair share of lowlights bordering on the "what the fucks". Worst still, their highlights usually rank at a mere meh. At best, someone will pull off a single worthy take of something and rescue the whole project from being a waste of time.
The first Velvet Underground album is now an unquestioned classic seen as a cornerstone of modern rock. It does this because of, not in spite of, its "dangerous" themes and avant-garde sound. Even the "pretty" songs seem to arrive from another world, twisted by low-fi audio recording.
Sir George Martin was not at the mixing desk. And that is why the first Velvet Underground album rules. Oh, that and genius players and songwriting. That didn't hurt.
It seems totally ridiculous to tell you how important the Velvet Underground were. What do you think I am? The god damn professor of punk? I know there are some squares who blew in too late but if you haven’t made this particular scene by now, you won’t be reading this. Keep sucking on that caffeine free soy latte and tell me reading about music is so 20th Century.
I’m writing this review for those who want to know why they should fork out big bucks for this top shelf item, a box of four CDs. Those who drink out of jars and buy LPs ironically need not apply. For those people, it’s time to start feeding a new habit. Shave off that frigging beard. Go out and listen to these CDs, one through four. Take some drugs. Bad drugs.
So on to "The Velvet Underground" (aka The Third LP). As Velvets fans know, this is the first LP with Doug Yule replacing John Cale.
Disc One is the more usually recognised Val Valentin mix (the mix used for the 1980s reissue onwards); Disc Two is Reed’s slightly later ‘closet’ mix (the mix used for the original 1960s LP), or or Peel Slowly) and, for the first time in any broader sense, the Promotional Mono Mix (with the two shorter songs from the single).
The Val Valentin mix is the one I grew up with, as did several generations of later fans and musicians; so both mixes are obviously essential in the same box set, as is the rarely-heard promotional mono mix - it was several years became stereo became the norm, rather than mono. Curiously, the mono mix reduces the length of several songs, but adds a few bare seconds here and there.
In 2014, Discs Five and Six here were revelatory, ensuring purchase (one of the reasons I forked out). Most of these recordings were unreleased in 2014, but today, in the light of the "Matrix Tapes", surely they’re surplus to requirements.
I mean, there’s nothing wrong with these last two discs in themselves, or the order in which the songs appear here; these discs present the band doing two very different gigs; they’re at their most ferocious and their gentlest. Me, I rather enjoy the different tracking (to the "Matrix Tapes") which the Deluxe Box provides here, so I’ll be returning to these discs myself. But you shouldn’t need this box for that reason if you already have the "Matrix Tapes".
Been thinking about death a lot lately. And, imminence.
Lou Reed’s death, Bowie’s, Cohen’s … they didn’t affect me a whole lot. I was more upset when Alan Vega went, but also, Victoria Wood and Benny Hill - somehow I just figured they’d go on forever, like Cab Calloway or Ken Dodd. What these folk left behind, though…
Probably the reason Lou Reed was always reluctant to acknowledge the Velvets in his later, hugely successful careers (despite playing their songs), was that for all his success, he could not - not ever - have produced anything like the Velvets on his own; and that to some extent that reduced his creative validity, that he’d created something far more lasting and significant with other people, than anything he’d ever created with his own outfits.
Paul McCartney is said to have been obsessed with his past with The Beatles, and went out of his way to make more money than the Beatles did…
I don’t know how he does his accounting, but chunks of money do not, not now nor never, equate to cultural and social impact and influence. We still hear echoes of The Beatles today. And the Velvets, in everything from soap commercials to supermarket music.
The Velvet Underground and Nico, Now - finally - we come to one of those albums that is insanely iconic (that peeling banana for a start), that you’re told is essential, but which so many people have and rarely listen to because - whisper it - they don’t really like it.
Characters like me, of course, love it (to put it mildly). Around about the time I first heard this LP (I was 12 or 13, my friend Paul had bought it in a chain record shop, filed in the comedy section) I recall talking to some older musicians in 1980, stalwarts of Adelaide’s piddly live scene. To them, the VU were “weird”, and therefore not worthy of examination. The Stooges, incidentally, were widely regarded as a joke, plunking, laboured plodders. The musicians I’m talking about were people who took Frank Zappa seriously (but dismissed Beefheart) and rejoiced when ELO came along (if I had a dollar for every bozo who forcibly showed me how super ELO sounded on their expensive new imported speakers …).
Is it possible that God doesn’t want Ozzy or Eric Clapton up there with Motorhead and Schubert, Bach, Bowie, Keith Emmerson and Bolan, and Robert Quine and Renestair EJ and Thelonious Monk and Charlie Mingus and Brett Smiley and Art Pepper and all the others … talk about spoiling the atmos …
So, let’s assume that you enjoyed the plunge into the Matrix, and are curious to hear more.
This will of course, naturally lead you to their fourth, and last, studio album, "Loaded"; the Super Deluxe six disc box set is "Re-Loaded", the two disc set from 1997 is "Fully Loaded".
Now, "Loaded" itself is an excellent, heavily industry-influenced, subtly smart pop album. But, after coming from "The Matrix Tapes", you’ll feel that this album is a little too shiny, starchy and … just doesn’t quite have the juice.
I remember first hearing this LP after having thirsted through their first three records and wondering, ‘What the fuck happened to this band?’, then discovering that Mo Tucker wasn’t on drums for these sessions, that Doug Yule sings on four songs, and that Lou walked away as soon as recording was complete. David Fricke’s article on "Loaded" in the December 2015 issue of Mojo provides excellent background to what is a not-fully Velvet Underground record.
Lou’s semi-lost period of the mid-‘70s - post-“Coney Island Baby” and before “Street Hassle” - gets a lot of bad wraps. Not without reason. A big part of why is “Rock and Roll Heart”, an album in the Reed canon that receives little love.
Why? Maybe it wasn’t seamy enough, maybe the production was so-so. The songs seemed weak. Lyrically, it was wishy-washy. The list could go on. Maybe Lou talked everybody out of listening to it when he thoroughly dissed “Coney Island Baby” for being commercially successful. My own take is a little of all of the above. Second-guessing Lou is pointless - and not just because he’s dead.
So you might approach this double CD live release from the esteemed UK label Easy Action with a degree of trepidation. Rest easy. It’s not the born-in-Detroit, Wagner and Hunter-fuelled thunder-and-lightning of “Rock ’n’ Roll Animal”, or the boozy, coked diatribe fest of “Take No Prisoners”, but it’s not without its own considerable merits.
If you don’t love Lou’s “Street Hassle” you’re deaf or a miscreant. Or both.
Like most Reed albums, it’s flawed. The sound is muddy. Lou was fixated with a process called binaural recording at that stage and unless you’re blessed with binaural ears, the result is sonically awkward. The occasional song, too, is misguided (I’m looking at you, “I Wanna Be Black”.)
It’s Lou stripped of glam make-up and back on the mean streets. Edgy as fuck. Grimy and grim, speckled with self-loathing, it tells stories like only Reed can. It’s one of his greatest works in a confused and often confusing catalogue.
“Waltzing Matilda” is the album of the 1978 US tour to promote said album and it’s a live radio broadcast, spread over two CDs. Allowing for its origins - those radio tapes are usually compressed to the shit - it packs an aural wallop. Reed’s band is first class.