2nd June 1993
I don’t think I am biased against American bands, although I do acknowledge even a very thorough scrutiny of the list to your left will bring up very few names from across the pond. Blondie, Meatloaf, The Cowboy Junkies (Canucks, I know) and Kid Creole are about it. There are a number of other US bands I have enjoyed over the years…..but not a whole lot: Joe Walsh, Steely Dan, Pavlov’s Dog and perhaps Talking Heads are all folks I would have gone to see had a convenient opportunity arisen. But for a country with such a weighty musical heritage, it puzzles me yet why so few American performers have caught my imagination.
The big exception is/was The Velvet Underground whom in my humble opinion are The Greatest Rock’n’Roll band to have come out of the Big Ole US of A. Read any blurb about the band and you will readily come across the words seminal, pivotal and influential and suchlike. You will also, like as not, be faced with Brian Eno’s comment about everyone who purchased the Velvet’s first album going on to form their own band, or some such.
Well I do not know much about that sort of stuff, and really do not care. The band’s music I feel stands up tall and proud by itself, without all the extraneous baggage.
Although the aforementioned debut may have burbled to a close with some decidedly self-indulgent nonsense, the songs which preceded Black Angel’s Death Song and European Son were just divine. Sunday Morning could break the flintiest heart, as could I'll Be Your Mirror. But the real jolt, back in those Summer of Love days must have been the jarring realism of Heroin, Waiting For The Man and Run, Run, Run with their drug-laced lyrics and, shall we say, rather challenging music. To say nothing of Venus in Furs which would have taken listeners places no-one had previously dared visit on vinyl. Certainly not in the Sixties anyway.
Their second release White Light/White Heat remains perhaps the most uncompromising recording of the period. The four songs on the first side are a diverse and at times perplexing bunch, but nothing quite compares one for side 2 (vinyl days). Lou Reed’s coruscating guitar solo on I Heard Her Call My Name is a mere aperitif for the eighteen minute aural mugging that is Sister Ray.
Hard core fan though I am, I am not ashamed to admit to have never managed to listen to the song(?) right through. My best compromise has been to chop the song into barely digestible 4-5 minutes chunks and scatter them throughout Velvet compilation tapes I would regularly compile.
The third self-titled album is a much more subdued almost pastoral affair, featuring some of Lou Reed’s most melodic compositions. The first eight tracks appear almost to form a suite of songs with the writer exploring love in its many aspects and forms (religion, adultery, lust etc.). Then just as things appear to be winding down towards a neat conclusion, we are pitched headfirst into the maelstrom of The Murder Mystery – a disorientating jumble of weirdness best experienced in the dark wearing headphones, I have found. Then with a final twist the collection closes out with drummer Moe Tucker’s plaintively innocent After Hours. I am sure the band spent more than a few mischievous hours setting those traps in the running order.
Although not released until some years later, the band next recorded their masterpiece: the live album 1969. Although a decidedly low-fi affair, and weighed down by a couple of songs which go on just a touch too long (The Ocean and New Age) it really is a beguiling recording. The replacement of John Cale with Doug Yule had released Sterling Morrison from occasional bass guitar duties (which he loathed), leaving him free to do what loved to do: play guitar. And it is Morrison and Reed's guitar interplay on this release which makes it all so wonderful. And if held down and tickled until I came up with an answer to my favourite rock ‘n’ roll song ever, I should surely plump for this album’s rendition of What Goes On.
By the time of the release of 1970’s Loaded, Lou Reed had left the band, leaving completion and mixing of the album in the hands of Yule and producer Geoff Haslam, but in Sweet Jane and Rock and Roll the collection contained at least two classics.
The band was long gone by the time I discovered them and I think like most fans, I had resigned myself to never seeing them live, having to content myself with Lou Reed’s capricious solo output. And yet, almost surreally, here was the original Velvet Underground line-up opening the European leg of a reunion tour in Auld Reekie, a long long way from Max’s Kansas City.
A bespectacled Lou Reed carrying some silly-looking sawn-off guitar looked disgustingly healthy, whilst John Cale by contrast had filled out more than a bit and appeared to have cut his hair himself whilst drunk. Mo Tucker was your favourite Primary School teacher, with Sterling Morrison (still the coolest member of the band) appearing slightly uncertain about being there at all – perhaps thinking back to his Houston Ship Canal tug-boat Captain days.
Without ado, Reed counted the band into Real Good Time Together followed by Venus in Furs; both renditions rather perfunctory and lacklustre, I felt. Things swiftly picked up with the little known Guess I’m Falling in Love, before to a roar of delight Mo Tucker stepped out from behind her drum kit to perform After Hours.
And this sort of set the pattern for the whole gig, with the better known songs generally disappointing, but the rarer gems delighting. White Light/White Heat and I Can’t Stand It were both messy and sounded (whisper it) just a tad under-rehearsed. Sweet Jane, however was superb, with Moe’s beautifully economic style propelling the thing along in a manner so many drummers in Lou Reed’s solo bands have singularly failed to achieve over the years.
John Cale took over the vocal duties on a couple of the songs performed by the late Nico on the original recordings - with mixed success. His monotone Welsh drone turned All Tomorrow’s Parties into a chore, although he did make a reasonable fist of Femme Fatale. Nevertheless some wag in the crowd shouted out “Where’s Nico?” to which a deadpan Reed responded “You’ll have to go some to accomplish that”.
Hey Mr Rain, a doo-wop sounding thing on the original 1968 recording, was transformed into an Eastern influenced thrash with Cale sawing away on his viola, whilst the rather twee Velvet Nursery Rhyme was given its first airing on the tour this evening. “Straight from sound check to you” announced Lou.
The other debutant was the final encore Coyote, which was, we were informed “exactly three hours old”. And although the lyric sounded as though it was more like three minutes old, the line
“Looks at the moon and he starts to howl”
had us all yowling along like dafties. To be fair, the lyric did evolve into something more structured as the tour progressed. The band stuck pretty rigidly to the set list throughout the tour, although I noted Pale Blue Eyes (which we definitely did not hear) was occasionally played as one of the encores.
I had initially been reticent about going along to this gig, as I knew a disappointment to some degree was inevitable. But afterwards I was really pleased I had. Particularly so when, after just 22 concerts of a European tour, Reed and Cale fell out again and consigned the Velvet Underground to history (once more).
Sterling Morrison, perhaps the most underrated and unsung guitar hero in Rock ‘n’ Roll history succumbed to cancer just over two years after this gig, and I like to think my attendance in some small way contributed to his wife and family’s benevolent fund.
Real Good Time Together
Venus in Furs
Guess I’m Falling in Love
All Tomorrow’s Parties
Some Kinda Love
I’ll Be Your Mirror
Beginning to See The Light
I Heard Her Call My Name
Hey Mr. Rain
Velvet Nursery Rhyme
White Light/White Heat
I’m Sticking With You
Black Angel’s Death Song
Rock and Roll
I Can’t Stand It
I’m Waiting For The Man