(dana) Tue 26 May 09 10:52
Next, we're happy to have Richie Unterberger join us in the Inkwell. Richie Unterberger is the author of several rock history books, including "Unknown Legends of Rock'n'Roll"; a two-volume history of 1960s folk-rock, "Turn! Turn! Turn!"/"Eight Miles High"; and the topic of our discussion, "White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day." His book "The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film" won a 2007 Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research. There's more information about his books on his website, www.richieunterberger.com. Leading the discussion is Bruce Umbaugh. Bruce Umbaugh is a philosopher. He teaches cyber-ethics, human rights, and philosophy of science at Webster University, and has been a member of the Well for more than a decade. His love of the Velvet Underground goes back even farther than his life online. In his hobbyist moments, he grows vegetables and plays guitar. Welcome!
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Tue 26 May 09 11:20
Thanks, Dana. Richie, it's great to have you back with us. Hearing that you'd done this book made me do a double take. VU is quite a change of mood from The Beatles, The Byrds, and unknown legends, first of all. Second, the day-by-day approach is an exhaustive departure. So, the obvious place to start has to be to ask: How did you come to do this book? Why the Velvet Underground as subject? Why the exhaustive chronology as your approach?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Tue 26 May 09 11:44
Hi Bruce and Dana, and thanks to everyone at the WELL for inviting me back to inkwell.vue to talk about my latest book. I first came up with the idea for the book in discussions a few years ago with the publisher, Backbeat Books in London (though the book appears on its Jawbone Press subsidiary). They've done "Day By Day" books for several major rock bands, including the Beach Boys, the Kinks, and the Byrds. Basically the idea is to do a kind of chronological overview of a group's career, going into detail on any event of interest -- recording sessions, concerts, record releases, press reviews, hirings/firings, etc. They were considering other major artists to feature in this series, and as I'd done a few other books for (the now-defunct) US branch of Backbeat that they distribute in the UK, they asked me for possible ideas. The Velvet Underground were my first choice because first, they're one of my favorite groups. Maybe that's not what people expect after my having done a book on the Beatles (albeit an unusual angle, with "The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film"). But I don't see it as a problem to love both groups, even though one (the Beatles) were both the greatest and most commercially successful band of the '60s, and the other (the Velvets) were the greatest commercially *un*successful band of the '60s. It may be exhaustive -- 368 pages in near-coffee-table-size, almost 300,000 words. But I hope it's not exhausting. A lot of these kind of reference books -- there have been others done by other publishers for artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan -- have a lot of well-researched information, but make for pretty dry matter-of-fact reading. My hope was to have that information, certainly, but also make it fun to read, and also inject a good amount of critical description and insight, not just facts and figures. Another appealing part of the project to me was that groups like the Beatles, as great as they are, have already been written about and researched in great depth. The Velvet Underground haven't been written about in book form nearly as extensively. That gave me the opportunity to do a lot of original research and dig up a lot of information that hasn't been published before, both from numerous rare archive print/audio sources and about 100 interviews I did specifically for the book.
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Tue 26 May 09 12:39
Definitely *not* exhausting! Actually easy-to-peruse, Richie. And there are boatloads of new things for me in the book, no question, and I've read all I can about the band for some time. This makes the obvious next question one about the surprises that turned up. But it's so un-Velvets to move on to the obvious next question. I won't do it. VU was no commecrcial success in their day, and they're surely far, far better known now than they were when together. Still, as you note, they're relatively unknown given their importance in the history of rock music. So, did you *think* you knew what the story was going to be when you set out on this project? What did you expect to find?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Tue 26 May 09 12:55
I *did* think I knew the basic story when I started the project. That's from having read very widely about the Velvet Underground in the 25 or so years between having first heard the band (at the age of 17, in 1979) to starting serious work on the book. It should be said that even finding out basic info on the group was pretty hard back in the early 1980s (and to some degree since then), much like even getting to hear the VU wasn't easy if you were a teenager in the suburbs. You really hard to search for both the music and the history. Much of what I expected to find was very apparent in my research. That includes critical neglect/scorn of the band in the first year or two of their career; some shocked/disgusted press coverage of their music in their early years; severe infighting among the band, particularly between principal singer-songwriter Lou Reed, co-founder John Cale, and occasional singer Nico; heavy interaction between the Warhol/Factory world and the Velvets; groundbreaking incorporation of the avant-garde/electronic music and busting of lyrical taboos in rock music regarding sex and drugs; unpredictable album-to-album artistic about-faces; and, after a sad end that saw little in the way of major commercial recognition, remarkable posthumuous validation as they were recognized as one of the greatest rock bands. These facets of the Velvets' career are fairly well known to enthusiasts, though as you note they're still pretty unfamiliar to the average popular music fan. So it might now be interesting to note some of the most surprising things I *did* find that didn't conform to the usual way the band are portrayed, which I'll do in the next posts.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Tue 26 May 09 13:13
In hopes of illustrating how I'd like the book to not just relay the information (fascinating as it is) of the Velvet Underground's career, but also perhaps provide some new illumination into their music and creative process, here's my favorite interesting surprise of my research. The book is titled "White Light/White Heat" as that's one of my favorite VU songs. That's particularly true of the version on the "1969 Velvet Underground Live" album, which is a tour de force of tension, teetering between all-out rock'n'roll and searing avant-garde experimentation. The song "White Light/White Heat" is often assumed to be about a drug experience, particularly about taking crystal methedrine. Reed himself said in a 1971 interview that it was about amphetamines. All this fits snugly within the stereotype of the group as celebrators of the sleazier sides of the drug-taking experience. But an equally likely, and perhaps more interesting, inspiration is Alice Bailey's occult book "A Treatise on White Magic." It advises control of the astral body by a "direct method of relaxation, concentration, stillness and flushing the entire personality with pure White Light, with instructions on how to 'call down a stream of pure White Light.'" And it's known for certain that Reed was familiar with the volume, as he calls it "an incredible book" in a November 1969 radio interview in Portland, Oregon. A Velvets fan I interviewed who would talk to Reed at the Boston Tea Party confirmed that Lou "was very interested in a form of healing just using light, projecting light." Like a lot of great songwriters, there are multiple meanings in Reed's songs, not just ones that are apparent from the surface. To me, this indicates that "White Light/White Heat" isn't just about a drug experience, though that might have been part of the fuel. On a deeper level, it's about transcendence and trying to break through to a new, more intense form of experience not accessible in everyday reality. That's something that almost any adventurous rock fan can relate to, whether they take crystal meth (or any drugs) or not. This also plugs into something I fervently believe about the Velvets that's a little contrary to much of the received critical wisdom. The group are often lauded and attacked for their supposed sensationalism of sex and drugs (though in fact a good part of their repertoire featured melodic romantic songs and upbeat joyous rockers). But that mere shock value isn't what makes the Velvets great or interesting. What really makes you respond to them is the emotions, passion, and honesty behind the music -- especially in Reed's songwriting and singing, of course, but also in the way everyone in the band plays. And "White Light/White Heat" is a superb example of how a song reflects multiple dimensions of on-the-edge human experience, which finding out that Alice Bailey's "White Light" helped inspire further validated for me.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Tue 26 May 09 13:46
Here are some interesting other surprises to me in my research: Nico must have had at least *ten times* as much press coverage as the rest of the band combined in VU articles while she was in the band (which actually wasn't that long; January 1966-May 1967). She might have only sang three songs on their first album and not appeared on anything else they did, but the media definitely latched on to her as the star. This could well have fueled some resentment from the other band members, especially Reed, who was writing virtually all of the material and singing most of it, but rarely singled out for attention in the early days. And Andy Warhol, in turn, got more press coverage than the rest of the band combined in 1966-early 1967 articles about the VU. That's not a huge surprise, perhaps, but the extremity of the ratio was such that it did take me aback. Warhol's involvement with the band and their stage show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, was a double-edged sword in a way. It got the band much more immediate attention than they would have otherwise, but had many critics thinking it the VU and the EPI were wholly Warhol's creations, with the Velvets being mere ornaments. Although the stereotype has it that the Velvets were universally reviled while they were active, in fact they were certainly more popular than is usually acknowledged, albeit on a cult level. Their first and second albums weren't reviewed too often or well (in part because rock criticism itself was in its infancy), but 1969's "The Velvet Underground" and 1970's "Loaded" usually got *great* reviews, all the way up to Rolling Stone. Too, the reviews were written by several of the top rock critics of the era, including Lester Bangs, Lenny Kaye, Mike Jahn, Richard Williams, Ben Edmonds, Paul Williams, Robert Christgau, and even a teenaged Jonathan Richman. Along the same lines, a lot of you have probably heard the line often attributed to Brian Eno that goes something like this (no one can seem to find the exact original quote): "Only a few thousand people bought the Velvet Underground's first album, but all of them formed a band." The spirit of the quote is correct: the VU's influence and legacy, especially among punk/new wave/alternative rock musicians, is hugely out of proportion to their commercial success. Actually, though, that first album had sold 60,000 copies in its first two years of release (I saw a royalty statement) -- not great, not the millions that the band and Warhol hoped for, but not too bad for a late-'60s album. If all 60,000 of those people formed a band, the Velvets certainly would have been more famous than they were. On a less facts'n'research level: some purists insist that the Velvets were only great when John Cale was in the group (he was fired by Reed in September 1968, shortly before they recorded their third album). I love the records with Cale and his contributions to the band, but I always felt this was nonsense. The third album, recorded with his replacement Doug Yule, is great, if very different to the first two; the "1969 Velvet Underground Live" album is my favorite live rock recording ever. I always felt Doug Yule was a very underrated if subtle contributor to the later phase of the Velvets; indeed, I think the last two years of their work (prior to Reed leaving in August 1970) might have been as good had Cale stayed, as Yule was more suitable to the direction in which Reed's songwriting was moving. I felt this way coming into my research, but it was heartening to hear that sentiment amplified by numerous people I interviewed, ranging from close associates of the band to plain old fans who saw the Yule lineup.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Tue 26 May 09 14:36
As for audio surprises, I unexpectedly not only found out about the existence of an unreleased Lou Reed demo tape of "Heroin" from May 1965 -- predating any other known version -- but was actually able to hear it (two complete versions, no less). (And no, I don't have a copy.) It's got more of a Bob Dylan-esque talking blues feel than subsequent versions, even the drumless one he, Cale, and Sterling Morrison did as a home tape in July 1965 (as later included on a VU box set). The words are virtually identical to the famous recorded version, which was a bit of a surprise as the official VU version wasn't recorded until almost a year later. The same guy who played me the tape, Bob Ragona (who worked with Lou Reed at Pickwick Records in the mid-1960s, where Reed was a staff songwriter), also had an incredible photo of the Primitives. This was the band in which Reed, John Cale, Tony Conrad, and Walter De Maria briefly played together around late 1964/early 1965, before Reed and Cale formed the Velvet Underground. Lou Reed almost looks like a Bobby Rydell-ish teen idol in the photo! It appears in the book, published for the first time anywhere. Another nice audio surprise was hearing some unreleased performaces (faded out halfway through each song, unfortunately) of the VU at the Matrix Club in San Francisco in November 1969. Tapes from this club and month formed the bulk of the "1969 Velvet Underground Live" album. These unreleased recordings, though, were of songs that didn't make that album in any form, like "Sister Ray, ""I'm Set Free," and "There She Goes Again." The sound is superb. There are about four hours of unreleased Matrix/November 1969 tapes, and I hope they come out officially eventually. I really think those late-1969 tapes capture the Velvets at their peak. At no other point in their career, or almost any band's career, do you hear a group so adept at improvising upon and changing such a strong body of core material in such interesting ways from performance to performance.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Tue 26 May 09 14:49
I was happy that this book, more than any of my previous ones, allowed the opportunity to use some pretty rare and interesting images. There are about 120 in all. In addition to the one of the Primitives described above, some of the ones that were most fun and exciting for me to find were: The Velvet Underground in the fall of 1968, relaxing onstage at...Beverly Hills High School! The damning evidence appeared in the Beverly Hills High School yearbook. They played because there were some hardcore fans in the student body that voted for the school to book them! A poster with a picture of Elektrah Lobel, a woman who played in a band with Reed and Cale briefly around the time the VU formed. I'd never seen a picture of her before, and only found this by accident at the New York Anthology Film Archives while looking for something else. A newspaper article about drummer Maureen Tucker from September 1967 headlined, "Spotlighting the Single Girl: She Gave Up Computers to Play in a Band"! A picture of a ghostly VU on a Lower East Side rooftop in mid-1965 with original drummer Angus MacLise. Jazz & Pop magazine contest ad from 1968 in which second prize is "complete set of the Velvet Underground albums." (They had only two at the time.) Poster for a rock festival on August 2, 1969 in New Hampshire (a benefit to buy the town a new fire engine!) in which they headline above Van Morrison. Handwritten draft of singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy's liner notes for the "1969 Velvet Underground Live" album.
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Wed 27 May 09 04:03
Oh, man, I LOVED that Moe Tucker article. Hers is a fascinating story in itself. And there's definitely a lot to love about the 1969 album. The band was very tight, they solo in interesting ways, the whole thing has so much energy. So, you came to the Velvet Undergound about the same time that I did. Loaded wa reissued not long after that -- it had been available as an import only in the late Seventies and early Eighties, I think. There was a resurgance of interest in the band in the Eighties, probably fueled in part by seing them in relation to punk/new wave music. For a time, it was easier to get a little beyond the basic info on them, though nothing like the wealth of detail you've managed to assemble. You half answered a question I wanted to ask, but I'll go ahead anyway to give you a shot at a fuller answer. 60,000 sales of the debut isn't bad, but given the mix of neglect and disdain shown VU's music, how in the world did they manage to release four albums? In the context of the business today, it seems there's no way they would be supported that long by a label. Were the times that different? Was it something about them? Did they have a fervent advocate at the record company?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 27 May 09 08:35
The record business was different forty years ago. Even some acts that weren't selling huge numbers of records, like the Velvet Underground, were given an opportunity to release LPs roughly annually. It's hard to say why, but basically it seems like they were under contract and MGM (who had *lots* of rock groups that weren't selling well, most much worse than the Velvets) were willing to just throw product out there and see if anything came of it. I do think that initially, MGM (who put three of the first four VU albums) was willing to put out VU LPs in order to capitalize on the Warhol association. (An infamous ad reprinted in the book has a picture of Warhol holding the first album under a headline, "So Far Underground, You Get the Bends!") The Warhol association probably accounts for how MGM were willing to pay for what was, at the time, a very elaborate gatefold album jacket with a peel-off banana (though as detailed in the book, the release of the album was inexplicably delayed for about ten months after most of it was recorded). Also, there was so much disorganization and internal turmoil at MGM Records in the late 1960s that it's likely no one was paying too much attention to the Velvets there, and willing to more or less let them get away with what they felt like. That was a positive inasmuch as, rather surprisingly, the label never interfered with or censored their music (with the arguable exception of when Tom Wilson asked them to record "Sunday Morning" as he saw it as a possible single). It was a negative, however, in that their promotion of the band was erratic at best, and few if any people working at the label seemed to have much understanding or affection for their music. Incidentally, one of the surprises of my research was that although MGM were/are often slagged for not doing anything for the Velvet Underground (including in some interviews with band members), actually the label did promote them more than one would guess. They took out a full-page ad for "White Light/White Heat" in Rolling Stone; for the third album, there were full-page ads in Rolling Stone, Creem, and the Village Voice. They even produced strange radio ads (which fortnately survive) for the second and third albums. But the fact that the third album didn't even make the Billboard Top 200, despite numerous ecstatic reviews in high-profile publications and much greater musical accessibility than the first two albums, seems to indicate that MGM was dropping the ball as far as basic nuts-and-bolts distribution and promotion. Maureen Tucker specifically remembered not being able to find the third album in stores, and being told by fans that it couldn't be found, when the group were touring in 1969.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 27 May 09 08:47
Also, though it might be surprising from today's vantage point that a group like the Velvet Underground got to release three albums in about three years on the same major label, they actually recorded an album's worth of material in 1969 that MGM *didn't* release. As all of this was recorded after the third album was issued, this would have been enough to comprise the group's *fourth* MGM album. It's still something of a mystery as to whether the Velvets were actually working on a fourth album, just laying down work tracks, or even stalling MGM by doing some recordings they weren't intending to release while they got ready to go to another label. Even the band members themselves, in interviews both at the time and since then, have widely varying memories as to the purpose of these outtakes. (Fortunately most of those outtakes were officially issued in the mid-1980s on the VU and Another View compilations.)
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 27 May 09 08:54
And finally, as for the Velvet Underground's brief stint on Atlantic Records (for their fourth and final album with Lou Reed, 1970's Loaded), that signing actually seemed to make commercial sense at the time. The Velvet Underground were becoming big favorites among many of the era's most widely read rock critics; their music was becoming more accessible; and Atlantic executive Ahmet Ertegun liked the band, though it's been said he cautioned them against putting anything too controversial or uncommercial on Loaded. Plus Atlantic would seem to have a much better idea of how to promote the band and distribute their records than MGM had at the beginning of the 1970s. But Loaded too failed to make even the Billboard Top 200, I think in large part because Lou Reed left the VU the month before it was released. I doubt that Atlantic wanted to heavily promote a record by a band whose chief singer/songwriter/frontman was no longer in the lineup. I doubt that Reed would have listened to such advice, but had I had the opportunity to give him any in mid-1970, I would have strongly advised him to stick with the Velvets for at least a few more months. He was apparently itching to leave, more out of dissatisfaction with the group's management than anything else. But being able to do at least one tour and put at few months of promotion behind Loaded might have been what that record needed to make the commercial dent the VU never accomplished. It also would have made his transition to a solo career easier, his name likely becoming much more familiar to the pop audience had Loaded had some success. I also think the song "Rock & Roll" off Loaded sounds like a Top Ten single, and am surprised Atlantic never issued that on 45.
(dana) Wed 27 May 09 11:42
(Note: Offsite readers with questions or comments may have them added to this conversation by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org -- please include "WL/WH" in the subject line.)
My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Wed 27 May 09 12:29
like the unreleased beatles, white light/white heat is a beautiful book. Lots of wonderful photos and you've organized and synthesized a tremendous amount of information. The VU were a band that I grew up hearing more about than hearing. The live versions of sweet jane and rock and roll were tremendously popular and got a lot of airplay, but during the mid to late 70s it wasn't that easy to find the earlier albums. I thinnk i finally purchased the first album at some point in the early 80s when it was reissued. I ended up knowing a lot about the band, but not with any depth. So, while I knew that Cale had spent time working with La Monte Young, I really had no idea what that might have been like. Also, i knew Lou Reed had been a stock writer for some tiny record company but, again, i didn't know anything more about that (and that fact by itself deserves some sort of explanation!). I've really enjoyed reading about cale's work with young and conrad and lou's pickwick experiences. How much of the information about the early years came from interviews you conducted for the book? Did you talk to Young, Conrad or others about Cale's work with them?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 27 May 09 12:46
There's some information about Reed, Cale, and Nico's pre-VU activities that's appeared here and there in other books and articles. But yeah, if you're starting from scratch it's a little hard to get a grip on, though I hope the first chapter of my book does that. I did a long interview with Tony Conrad about his and Cale's contributions to La Monte Young's group in 1963-65. Conrad also worked briefly with Cale, Reed, and drummer Walter De Maria in the Primitives before the Velvets formed, so he had something to say about that too. For Lou Reed's period as a staff songwriter for the budget/exploitation Pickwick label, I was fortunate enough to be able to interview the guy from Pickwick who hired him and worked with him as a fellow staff songwriter there, Terry Philips. Philips has not been portrayed too positively in other histories of Reed and the VU, so it was interesting to get his perspective. I asked him whether any other writer had ever bothered to track him down and ask about this, and I was pretty surprised when he said no one had before me. Also, someone I know doing general research about Pickwick Records came across someone who used to work in the label's promotional department, Bob Ragona. He had some interesting and fun stories about Reed and the Primitives, but that was a big break in a way I didn't anticipate when it turned out he had a Lou Reed demo from May 11, 1965 with two uncirculating versions of "Heroin." He also had the previously unpublished photo of the Primitives sitting in the trunk of a Chevy Impala that appears in the book. Ragona also revealed that Reed sang on some of Pickwick's children's records, including a slide show set to "Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" with a fife and a drum. There's something I'd like to find (he's not billed on the slide show, so that'll be a miracle to track down). Original VU drummer Angus MacLise is still a pretty mysterious figure, even to some people who knew and worked with him. I was able to track down his wife, who's only been interviewed once before to my knowledge. A lot of the other info about their pre-VU years had to be cleaned from various quotes and stories scattered across numerous books and articles, some of them quite obscure. I found out that Nico appeared in a late-1950s German documentary short, for instance, only because a friend in Paris happened to have seen it on an exhibit on a fashion photographer there in 2007. I did put in an interview request to La Monte Young, but didn't talk to him as he charges a fee to be interviewed, which isn't the way I operate.
My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Wed 27 May 09 13:25
this is just a minor question: somehow the knowledge that Reed played a guitar with all strings tuned to one note on his pickwick recording of the ostrich is petty well-known. I don't know where I first heard that, but it is part of the body of lore surrounding the band. My question is...ok questions are: what note were all the strings tuned to? where they all tuned to the same pitch, or were they tuned to the same note in different octaves?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 27 May 09 13:39
The strings were all tuned to A# [A sharp], in different octaves. To give those unfamiliar with this record some context, "The Ostrich" was a single that Lou Reed sang lead on and co-wrote in late 1964, credited to the Primitives. It starts off with some eerie, grating high plucked notes that are in some ways similar (though unintentionally so) to the kind of drone experiments La Monte Young's group was doing. Then it goes into a pretty ridiculous, if somewhat infectious, song attempting to launch a dance called the Ostrich, with a riff borrowing heavily from the Crystals' girl-group hit "Then He Kissed Me." The prodction's real crude, but Lou Reed's sing-speak vocal style is pretty fully developed and unmistakable.
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Wed 27 May 09 14:26
ONe of the things I enjoyed in the book is the descriptions of how things worked in the recording studio. Obviously, there were challenges for recording engineers everywhere trying to capture rock music to tape, but the Velvet Underground was such an overload . . . can you share a little bit about the recording process and what you learned?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 27 May 09 14:42
Compared to today, and even compared to the biggest bands of their era (like the Beatles), the Velvet Underground didn't spend much time on their recordings. In part, that's probably because they weren't so big that labels going to give them all that much time, as they eventually did with the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Also, the Velvets didn't use any additional musicians from outside the band on their recordings, except for some drummers at the very end to fill in for a pregnant Maureen Tucker during Loaded. They did, however, use their studio time in pretty interesting and constructive ways. As there's a lot to say about the topic, I'll note some interesting things about each of their four principal studio albums in separate posts.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 27 May 09 14:59
The Velvet Underground's first and most famous album ("The Velvet Underground and Nico," more often known just as "the banana album" because of the cover) was recorded very quickly even by the standards of spring 1966, when most of it was cut. The bulk of the sessions, in fact, took place over only about five days in April 1966. Those sessions in particular might have been on the hasty side because the group didn't even have a contract. The idea was to cut an album and sell it to a label, and in fact much (though not all) of it ended up on the banana album. These sessions were done in a Scepter Records studio that was apparently on the crude side even by 1966 measures, though Dionne Warwick recorded for that label. Fortunately I was able to interview at length Norman Dolph, who co-financed the April 1966 sessions with the VU's co-managers, Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey. For me, Dolph's most interesting observations were roughly calling Lou Reed the Mick Jagger of the band and John Cale the Keith Richards of the band in the studio. That's to say, Reed was essentially a performer, totally involved in the singing of his songs, and someone who didn't need (and likely didn't want) anyone advising him how to vocalize them. John Cale, however, was the most crucial in getting the musical arrangements together, being by far the most studied, learned musician in the band at that point. Though Nico was sometimes recalled in retrospect (including, on occasion, by other band members) as being peripheral to the group -- and she does only sing lead on three of their songs -- Dolph felt that the VU nonetheless treated her with great respect and realized how important she was. He told me, "If you imagine [jazzman] Les Brown and his band of renown, and Doris Day as their singer, you know what I mean -- it's as though when Doris Day came on, she was a special focus of what that orchestra did...[they saw] Nico "as a jewel in a setting. It was in no way slapdash or quick or 'let's get this broad out of here.' It was, 'Now we're gonna shift into a quieter gear, and we're gonna do Nico.'" As some VU fans reading this might know, an acetate of nine songs was made from these sessions that's been bootlegged. Six of the songs are the same takes (sometimes with notably different mixes), but three -- "Venus in Furs," "Heroin," and "I'm Waiting for the Man" -- are all different takes than the ones released on the LP. These takes aren't too different (and are all a little more tentative and inferior to the official versions). But Reed made an interesting change to the lyric between the acetate version and official version of "Heroin," opening the earlier acetate version with "I know just where I'm going," but changing it to "I don't know where I'm going." As small as the change is, it upset John Cale considerably. He thought it was kind of chickening out, making the drug trip of heroin seem less like something the singer was doing with full knowledge of the consequences. Here's how Cale put it in his autobiography: "The song is not about drug taking, its about a person who hates himself, and the reason he hates himself is not clear to anybody because theres this conviction in the first-person line, and you dont question it after that. It makes that song much more powerful and gives it more drive. When you say, I dont know where Im going it gives the game away in the first line. Something a little surprising Paul Morrissey emphasized in his interview with me was that "Sunday Morning," recorded months after the spring sessions, was kind of done as an afterthought because producer Tom Wilson (also famous for his work with Bob Dylan, the Mothers of Invention, Simon & Garfunkel, and others) wanted a single. The plan, Morrissey said, was for Nico to sing it. But in the studio, to his recollection, Reed demanded that *he* sing it, kind of on the spot.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 27 May 09 15:10
The Velvet Underground's second album, "White Light/White Heat," is the one most notorious for having the kind of "overload" mentioned a couple posts ago. Basically the group was, on most of the tracks (and certainly the 17-minute finale "Sister Ray"), cranking their instruments as loud as they could go. That wasn't as loud as they'd be today, because the instruments of 1967 weren't as capable of being as high-volume as today's equipment. But it was still really loud, probably louder than almost anyone else around, except maybe Jimi Hendrix and perhaps one or two other acts. The problem -- though actually I don't think it's a really huge one -- is that while that kind of extreme high volume worked really well in a concert setting (given the right venue and acoustics), you couldn't really capture that on tape without it being distorted. Here the VU were literally pushing the VU meters way into the red, especially on "Sister Ray." As a consequence, most of the tracks sound distorted (less polite listeners would say muddy) and don't capture all of the frequencies you would experience hearing it live in the studio. On "Sister Ray" itself, the band were recording it one take live in the studio and literally boosting their own instruments to try and play louder than anyone else in the band. That's especially evident when John Cale's organ solo surges to the front with a real whooshing blast. In retrospect, the band felt they were trying to play with a loud ferocity that couldn't be captured by the era's technology. In part because of their experience, they didn't realize there were going to be serious technical imperfections by playing so loud. The late Sterling Morrison stated about twenty years later that if you did it then (mid-1980s), equipment could capture this sonic range without distortion. He also said they could have worked around this by recording their parts individually, but much preferred to play live together, even in a recording situation. I know this will make some audiophiles and recording professionals, but really, I don't think the imperfections, if you want to call them that, matter too much. What all of this *did* help make possible was a great spontaneous *performance*, which I think is more important than gaining optimum sonic clarity at the expense of artistic expression. In particular, the studio version of "Sister Ray" has some of the greatest high-octane organ playing ever heard on a rock record -- better, in fact, than any other recording with Cale on the organ (and I've heard a good number, including several unissued live '60s VU versions of "Sister Ray").
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 27 May 09 15:21
When they recorded their third album (simply titled "The Velvet Underground") in 1968, the group were apparently able to spend more time on the sessions than they had for the first two albums. In addition, the material was more accessible, song-oriented, and straightforward -- even, in quite a few instances, extremely quiet and folky. That removed some of the challenges of "White Light/White Heat," where they were trying to capture themselves in the shrieking electronic "Sister Ray" mode. It might have been a coincidence of timing, but Doug Yule joined the band, replacing John Cale, just a month or so before the sessions started. This might not be an opinion welcomed by many VU fans, but I think his understated talents served the third album's material better than John Cale's more extreme and avant-garde, if highly imaginative, approach would have. A friend of the late Robert Quine (who played guitar in Reed's band for a few years) told me that "Lou told Quine that the reason why he had to get rid of Cale in the band was Cales ideas were just too out there. Cale had some wacky ideas. He wanted to record the next album with the amplifiers underwater, and [Reed] just couldnt have it. He was trying to make the band more accessible. The whole episode where Reed fired Cale is murky, but if true, that makes more straightforward sense than any other explanation I've heard. One big surprise in my research, which seems never to have been reported aside from one brief mention in a music gossip column back in late 1968, was that the Velvets did try to use an outside producer for the third album (though eventually they produced it themselves). Guitarist Vic Briggs, who'd only recently left Eric Burdon and the Animals, was asked to give it a try. But he only produced them for about three days before it was mutually decided it wasn't working out. Briggs admitted to me that he wasn't a good choice, as he didn't even like the Velvet Underground; he said it was probably the most negative experience in his recording career. Interestingly, Sterling Morrison recalled in several interviews that part of the reason the third album is so quiet is that a lot of the special gear the band used to create their more crazed electronic effects was stolen right before the sessions. Doug Yule, however, has no memory of this happening, and he and Briggs both pointed out that it wouldn't have been hard to rent replacement equipment for the duration of the sessions, which were done in Hollywood. The main reason the album's so much quieter than the previous VU LPs just seems to be a reflection of where Lou Reed's songwriting was going.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 27 May 09 15:33
When the Velvet Underground recorded Loaded in 1970, they probably had more time in the studio than they'd had at any point previously. That's part of the reason the record sounds slicker than the other three. Also, both the band and the label were consciously trying to make a more commercial record than the other VU LPs, which probably accounts to a large degree for the record's relatively radio-friendly sound. One of the most interesting things Doug Yule told me in our lengthy interview is that one of his biggest regrets about his time in the band is that the Velvet Underground did not use Maureen Tucker on drums for Loaded. She was pregnant at the time and unable to play the drums, but Yule wishes the band had simply waited however many months they had to until she could play again. Interestingly, he said he regrets this not just because Tucker was an important part of the group's sound. He also says it would have greatly eased the personal and musical tensions within the band just to have her around, because she made the group function so much better just by virtue of her easygoing but no-nonsense personality. I was also surprised to learn that Sterling Morrison's disenchantment with the way things were going at the time grew to the point where, according to Yule, he didn't come to some of the sessions, leaving Reed and Yule as the guys mostly running the show. And it was also interesting to hear from Doug Yule's younger brother Billy (Maureen Tucker's replacement on drums for that summer only) that he first played with the band not in their legendary two-month residency at Max's Kansas City that summer, but in the studio when the band were working on the song "Ocean." I hadn't thought about it much before writing the book, but in going over all the outtakes and live tapes from around the Loaded era, it's evident that there were enough good Lou Reed songs for not just one LP, but for a very strong double-LP. Some very good songs he later returned to in his solo career had already been performed by the Velvets (and were sometimes attempted during the sessions) that weren't included, like "Satellite of Love," "Lisa Says," "Sad Song," and "Ocean." There's probably no way Atlantic would have green-lighted a double-LP for the Velvets at that stage if that notion was even ever considered. But in my ideal world, they should have done a double LP at that point, with Tucker on drums.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 27 May 09 21:38
I was at the Vulcan Gas Company show here in Austin in '69, and it's certainly one of my greatest concert experiences. I'd been a fan since I bought the first album the day it arrived in West Texas, where I was living at the time. Because of the Warhol connection, I had expected it to be interesting but not substantial, and when I first played it, it seemed noisy. Then I noticed that I kept playing it over and over; the subtlety and power of it was sinking in. White Light White Heat was also a big deal for me and several of my friends who were also blown away by it. There was no way I was gonna miss the Vulcan show, though I was sorry I'd missed that Lou Reed was going to be a guest in Joe Kruppa's class while he was in town. I wasn't enrolled in that particular class but would've crashed it - it was "20th Century Literature and Electronic Media," as I recall. There's an account in a Sterling Morrison remembrance published in the Austin Chronicle: http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Issue/story?oid=oid:76343 The Vulcan show is part of the VU '69 live recording. I recall that they played some songs that came out later, on Loaded, and they played Ocean. I also recall that Mo Tucker kept her eyes on Reed throughout the performance, and she was really pounding the drums.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 27 May 09 22:42
Thanks for the memories of the Vulcan Gas Company show, Jon. Actually there's quite a bit about the shows they did there in October 1969 in the book, as I was able to speak with a couple people who were there. One of them, Gregg Barrios, actually interviewed Sterling Morrison while he was in town for an article in Fusion. Barrios had written one of the very first reviews of a Velvet Underground record when his review of their first single, "I'll Be Your Mirror"/"All Tomorrow's Parties" (issued in 1966 about half a year before the banana album came out), appeared in the local Austin underground newspaper the Rag in January 1967. Those Vulcan shows were advertised with an unusual poster by Jim Franklin (shown in the book) that was supposed to represent an underground, velvet-lined coffin. Actually the part of the "1969 Velvet Underground Live" album that was recorded in Texas was done the week before in Dallas. In his intro to "I'm Waiting for the Man," Reed specifically talks about seeing the Dallas Cowboys wallop the Philadelphia Eagles that very day, October 19. I know this gets into trainspotting research, but Doug Yule confirmed to me that the band actually attended the game in person in Dallas, which nails it down.
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