Wednesday, October 30, 2013

velvet six feet underground

I suppose I'm bound to have heard Walk On The Wild Side on the radio a few times as a child, but my first conscious exposure to Lou Reed (who died earlier this week) was at my aunt and uncle's house in Pangbourne in what I suppose would have been the mid-1980s. Not that my (at the time) fiftysomething aunt was heavily into the New York art-rock scene, you understand, but my cousin Martin had a copy of a Velvet Underground album (I think it was the out-takes and unreleased stuff compilation VU) which he was playing almost constantly.

It was a painful childhood rite of passage for me to realise that my (sadly now deceased) slightly younger cousin was cooler than me in almost every respect, but there it was nonetheless. I recall Martin being heavily into The Smiths as well at around the same time and driving everyone to distraction playing What Difference Does It Make? incessantly. I think I was probably still mostly listening to Queen and Dire Straits and ZZ Top at the time - much of which I stand by, but it's squarely in the box marked "mainstream" rather than "alternative", inasmuch as those descriptions have any meaning.

Anyway, it wasn't really until I got to university and discovered the record library in the student's union building that I decided to sample some Velvet Underground stuff for myself. One of the things crazy young people do is test out the boundaries of their own and others' musical tastes by having the most "out there" music in their collection, whether by virtue of having really long songs, being impenetrably noisy, or just being plain bonkers. The Velvet Underground's second album White Light/White Heat (the first record of theirs I ever owned) ticks most of these boxes - I Heard Her Call My Name features some ear-bleeding feedback, Sister Ray is 17 minutes long (and pretty noisy), and The Gift is a bizarre spoken-word piece (read by John Cale).

The Velvets only released four official studio albums, and you probably want all of them. Personally I can take or leave the stuff featuring Nico on the first album, but the rest of it (I'm Waiting For The Man, Heroin, Run Run Run, Venus In Furs) is terrific. The self-titled third album is easier on the ear, but not smearing everything in feedback obliges the band to get some stronger songs together, and What Goes On might just be my favourite Velvets song of all. To paraphrase myself from a few years back, if you don't get a head-nodding atavistic thrill from Reed and Sterling Morrison's lengthy jangly guitar outro, you basically probably just don't like rock music very much. Fourth album Loaded is fine too, not least because it's the one with Sweet Jane and Rock And Roll on it.

Other things you ought to have are the aforementioned VU compilation and also the two-CD live album from 1969 (the one with the green cover with the woman's arse on it). Worthwhile live rock albums are like hen's teeth, but I reckon this is one of them. I can't speak for the 1993 live album, but I can say that I saw them play live on the same tour from which the live album was taken, as they played at Glastonbury at the end of June 1993 (the live album was recorded in Paris, so don't bother trying to hear me in the crowd).

Reed's solo career was considerably more patchy, and I'm not the biggest fan of 1972's Transformer, but you probably ought to have it for Rock Significance alone. The other solo album you really should have is 1989's New York, which I think is the best non-Velvets thing he ever did. Some would argue for 1973's Berlin and 1982's The Blue Mask as well. I've never listened to the notorious Metal Machine Music, so you're on your own there. I do have a copy of the wide-ranging compilation NYC Man from 2003, which cherry-picks the (supposedly) best bits from the rest of his output, though as with any compilation there are those who quibble with the song selections.

It was rumoured around the time of New York that anyone wanting to interview the legendarily curmudgeonly Reed would have to endure an hour-long discussion about the minutiae of guitar amplifier set-up and miking technique before being allowed to proceed to actually being able to ask any proper questions. Reed was probably at least partially taking the piss, but the results of his devotion to getting the guitar sound just so can be witnessed in the terrific clean chunky sound of Romeo Had Juliette (the opening track of New York), and the (by contrast) blissfully buzzy and distorted sound in the otherwise very silly Egg Cream from 1996's Set The Twilight Reeling.

[alternative blog post title: "white light white sheet"; take your pick.]

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