Towards late September 1968, Lou Reed called a meeting of The Velvet Underground at the Riviera Café in Greenwich Village. John Cale, the group’s electric viola player, bass monster and mischief-maker, wasn’t invited, because Reed had an ultimatum to deliver: either Cale goes or The Velvet Underground folds. Neither drummer Maureen Tucker or guitarist Sterling Morrison were happy about it, but on September 28, Cale left the band he’d formed with Reed three and a half years earlier. His departure marked the most significant break with the Velvets’ Pop Art past, one final act of defenestration after Nico’s departure in late May 1967 and the loosening of ties with group mentor Andy Warhol soon afterwards. Locked horns weren’t entirely to blame. Reed, whose early songwriting (notably Velvets demo Prominent Men) and mid-’60s style owed a considerable debt to Bob Dylan, had grown tired of the band being little more than an Abstract Expressionist backdrop at somebody else’s Pop Art happening. The third Velvet Underground album proves Lou Reed’s desire to rouse his inner Old Master.
The record was as measured as White Light/White Heat had been unhinged, as themed and integrated as the ‘Banana’ debut had been eclectic. It was also the first Velvet Underground LP that failed to make the Billboard 200. Perhaps their original audience sensed treachery. Or did Warhol’s lingering spectre plant a seed of distrust in a record that had been critically well-received and crafted with storyteller precision?
It can’t have been the quality of the writing, not with songs as sweetly subversive as Candy Says, as wistful and lovely as Pale Blue Eyes, as joyfully hyper as Beginning To See The Light, or as near to the nub of Reed’s wearying highs and lows as I’m Set Free. When Moe’s cymbal crash rudely punctuates the chorus or when Reed picks out the saddest guitar break in the world, we are transported to the perfect centre of his imperfect universe.
The Velvet Underground is that kind of record: spirituality grounded. Raw, intimate and with moments of epiphany every bit as powerful as a Cale-injected Sister Ray, it brings us as close to Lou Reed as we’d ever get during his five decade career. No silkscreen depersonalisation, no blue mask, this was Lou eager, wise and largely unguarded. That’s probably why he rejected engineer Val Valentin’s conventional first mix for his own so-called ‘Closet Mix’, with vocals pushed up front.
“It brings us as close to Lou Reed as we’d ever get.”
The Velvets’ past threatens to disrupt Reed’s candid questing on just two songs. The Murder Mystery is as long as White Light/White Heat’s The Gift and, with all four voices competing simultaneously over two contrasting musical backdrops, more disorientating. Reed later regarded it as a failure, though here on the ‘promotional mono mix’ (a disc of dubious provenance, for most insist there was no mono mix in 1969), it makes a lot more sense. Album opener Candy Says, meanwhile, has always been in a class of its own. Launching a string of Lou’s ‘Says’ songs, it throws the very notion of identity into a tizz. Lyrically, it spins out from Factory face Candy Darling’s struggles with gender. But Reed’s masterstroke was to insist that Cale’s replacement, Doug Yule, handle the vocal, lending the song a generous fragility while at the same time fooling listeners into believing the singer was Lou. Warhol couldn’t have faked it better himself.
Despite the album’s later rehabilitation, accelerated during the early ’80s by a generation of British semi-acoustic indie-pop strummers, three different (but not that different) mixes of the same album would never justify the ‘super deluxe edition’ treatment. That’s the job of three additional discs, one of 1969 studio outtakes (potentially ‘the lost fourth album’), and a pair recorded live at the end of the decade. Neither truly belongs here; genuine outtakes from the November ’68 sessions or a more contemporaneous live recording would have sat much more comfortably alongside the original album.
Those reservations evaporate with Disc 4. Much is familiar, via the archive releases VU and Another View. But with all traces of ’80s remixes removed, the performances now sound as they should – less like a rock band and more like The Velvet Underground. Upbeat rock’n’rollers like Foggy Notion and I Can’t Stand It (with its wayward solo restored in a sympathetic new ’69-style mix) are newly vibrant. Lisa Says and Rock & Roll are strong examples of Reed’s emerging, end-of-the-decade style. By contrast, Ocean and Ferryboat Bill stray into uncharted territory. A genuine ‘lost album’? Probably not. Reed was writing furiously but not with any particular direction in mind.
The two discs from The Matrix, San Francisco, in part reprise the old 1969 double live album – though again drawn from new source tapes, they sparkle. Taped in November 1969, a year on from the third album sessions, they reveal a group no longer certain who their audience is. The Matrix, after all, was a venue rich in psychedelic associations, enemy territory for the hippy-baiting Velvets.
The smattering of applause and small club ambience hint at a band down on its luck. But, since mid 1967, the out-of-town underground scene had become the Velvets’ natural habitat. They still went where the mood took them: spellbinding (Venus In Furs), casual (Over You), intense (What Goes On), crowd-pleasing (We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together) and, as a near-37-minute version of Sister Ray attests, defiant.
“Thank you very much, we’ll see you in a little bit,” says Lou after a phenomenal Heroin. The commercial failure of The Velvet Underground hit him hard. For a brief time in his career, Lou Reed was grateful of the applause.