The Velvet Underground can’t have invented everything. Even though sometimes it seems a bit like they did.
They can’t have because they only started putting records out in 1967 and, by that time, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had been released and The Beatles had already invented everything. Well, not everything maybe, but more than most. Certainly more than four white boys with guitars and a song had or would in future. And yet, and yet…
I’m a pop kid, really. Man, I mean. A pop man. And The Velvet Underground aren’t really seen as a pop band, even though they are. Were, I mean. They were a pop group. A pop group like The Monkees, except instead of mainly being aimed at that lucrative under ten market, they’re seen as a sort of art band for callow, bohemian youths with at least the remnants of acne on their alabaster faces. A bit like Sonic Youth, I suppose. I don’t like Sonic Youth but I do like The Monkees, and I really like The Velvet Underground.
If Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party ever come to power – and I hope they do – and it turns out that The Daily Mail is correct that the UK will instantly turn into post WWII Soviet Russia and we’re all queueing up for bread for weeks and all that, and maybe we’re only allowed to own one group’s albums – my first reaction would be to grab hold of my Beatles records and clutch them to my chest as I pretend to know the words to the presumably compulsory The Red Flag singalong in our now black and white and significantly colder new world. And I probably would, regardless of that sort of thing being fairly unlikely to happen. However, I do like to consider my options and, perhaps oddly – even to me – the first alternative that springs to mind is The Velvet Underground’s albums.
The reason for that is because, even though The Fabs are my favourite and most likely always will be, I don’t really like any of their albums all the way through. Not that I’d edit them or anything – I’m not one of those people who think that The White Album should be edited down to a single album, if anything, I think it should have been longer. At least another record. Possibly two – but it doesn’t mean that I’m wholly uncritical of their output. I’m not into quite a lot of their early covers – Anna (Go To Him), Chains, Boys, Roll Over Beethoven, Mister Fucking Moonlight etc. Although I do like Twist & Shout, Money, Please Mr Postman and A Taste of Honey. I’m not mad on some of their earlier stuff that sounds a bit churned out such as, There’s A Place, P.S. I Love You, Not A Second Time, most of the second side of A Hard Day’s Night and about half of Beatles For Sale. And that’s before we even start getting to the proper crud, like all of George Harrison’s songs, except Taxman; Savoy Truffle; Long, Long, Long; Something and Here Comes The Sun. Not that Lennon or McCartney’s later stuff can be absolved either: Run For Your Life, I’ve Just Seen A Face, Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite (although it’s a lot better on the 2017 remix), Lovely Rita (apart from the introduction which is bloody lovely), and so on. I know a lot of people dig a lot of those records, except probably Mr Moonlight, and they are what they are. The albums wouldn’t be the same without them. I’m going to talk about Queen a bit later, who I don’t like at all, but think of Freddie Mercury without his teeth. Maybe he’d be better looking without those calamitous gnashes intercontinentally poking their enamel to all points, but he’s also a bit tied up in them – would Freddie Mercury be Freddie Mercury if he’d had normal teeth? I don’t know, but I suspect not. That’s what I mean about The Beatles’ songs that I don’t like.
Anyway, my point is that even though The Fabs put out a lot more albums than The Velvets did – maybe because they put out a lot more albums than The Velvets did – The Velvets albums have hardly any songs on them that I don’t like.
Maybe it’s cheating. I mean, The Stone Roses’ debut album is entirely great, even if Second Coming is entirely crap. Of Love’s albums, I quite like the first album (only in mono though, cheers), the first half of Da Capo and almost all of Forever Changes, I don’t really like anything else much. Maybe Gather ‘Round. But that’s it. Even that’s not brilliant.
What I’m going around the houses to say is that I can’t think of another band whose entire recorded output is as consistently appealing to me than The Velvet Underground’s. Even The Beatles’. Oooh. Yeah, I know. Get me.
Part 1 – The Music of The Velvet Underground.
Depending on who you talk to, the response you get from people if you mention The Velvets ranges from “The Velvet who, now?” to “Oh, Lou Reed’s band,” to people being very into them or not really digging them at all. The last 25 years have had quite a marked effect on people’s thinking about them.
I’ve already said that I didn’t even realise you could buy records until I was well in my teens so I’m not going to pretend that I was into them when I was eight or something because I wasn’t. However, once I’d realised that anybody was allowed to go into a record shop and buy what they wanted, it didn’t take very long before I had some of their records. No credit to me, incidentally. Yet again. It was The Smiths that turned me on to them first. Johnny Marr specifically, when he was asked about the recording of the song, The Queen Is Dead.
“I became infatuated with the song I Can’t Stand It. I loved Lou Reed’s vocal and was particularly taken with a few seconds of Sterling Morrison’s scratchy rhythm guitar that comes in just before the singing. Sterling Morrison had been a big influence on me in the early days…” Johnny Marr, (from ‘Set The Boy Free).
Erring on the anally retentive side, as I do, I now needed to hear The Velvet Underground, in particular I Can’t Stand It. As it turned out, that song had only been released fairly recently (1985) on an outtake collection called VU and it was in Syd Scarb’s cheapo bin. So that was my introduction to them – typical me – the last one on the bus.
I Can’t Stand It‘s the first song on the first side, so I put it on and, to be honest, I was mildly underwhelmed by it as is often the case. The next two songs were amazing and the rest of it, I wasn’t that arsed about but as Johnny Marr was my first guitar hero, I decided I ought to stick with it and look into some of their other albums when I got the chance. Also, shallow as I am, I was very taken with the photograph on the back.
Here it is.
Back in those days, record shop shelves weren’t exactly groaning under the weight of The Velvets’ back catalogue. Not in Hull, anyway. I found a compilation in the indoor market’s second hand record stall (Spin It – still there, unusually for places I like) with Andy Warhol pastiches on the cover.
It was a double album and, to be honest, it was a lot better than VU. What it had on it were songs from their first three albums, with emphasis on the first album – The Velvet Underground & Nico.
Like on VU, there were some pretty pop songs that I dug straight away but unlike VU, there was also my first introduction to the noisy, atonal weirdness that they were big on, on their first two albums. I shouldn’t have liked them, based on what I’d previously liked, but I found that I did a bit. Not as much as I liked their pretty songs, but they weren’t horrible. Well, no, they were horrible actually, but apparently I didn’t mind a bit of horrible now and then.
As far as The Smiths went (and go) I didn’t know any boys who were into them. Or at least, any boys who would admit to it. Girls? Yes. The Velvets, on the other hand, seemed to mainly appeal to boys. To the extent that they appealed to anybody. Cool boys. Not that I was cool. I was well aware of that and had given up trying to do cool things by that point because I was pretty much incapable of getting anything right that had rules. Like fashion or music. In school at any rate. The kids who were into The Velvets weren’t 1980s cool, but a different sort of cool that I also didn’t understand, even if it turned out that I was it. I was like a little kid stuck in a fridge on a rubbish dump. One that was plugged in, yeah.
Diversion – (Poor) Sweet Jayne.
When I came home from university in high dudgeon after three years of being a dick, I found out that the girl I’d been going out with for that time had been shagging virtually every lad I knew – and several more – and everybody knew all about it except me (I wasn’t much better, and I deserved it really so put your hankies away), I decided that I couldn’t cope with that and had a word with myself. About quite a lot of things that I won’t go into here but the gist of it was: I was heading down a road that led nowhere good and I needed to sort myself out.
The girl whose floor I tended to occupy when I hadn’t sorted any accommodation out in York (Jane) told me that there was a girl who’d started work at The Odeon recently who struck her as being quite groovy and, in all probability, right up my street. This girl was Jayne, with a y, who was groovy. She went to Spiders too and had recently broken up with her boyfriend.
So, that Saturday night, we all piled in Jane’s boyfriend’s car and went to Spiders. Once there, Jayne and I hung around together. Well, Jayne came and hung around with my mates and me. Even though I’d realised what a dick I’d been recently and had decided to work at not being a dick, it didn’t go especially well because I realised very early on in the night that Jayne was quite taken with me and, to make things more interesting for myself, I sort of intimated that I was gay and Ploggy was my boyfriend. Ploggy went along with it because he probably realised how stupid it was to behave like that and I was the only one who was going to create problems for himself by doing it.
Anyway, by about six o’ clock next morning, sat on the wooden zebra in Pearson Park, our hangovers being stoked by doobies outside the Victorian conservatory, I’d finally managed to convince her that, actually, no, I wasn’t gay. And no, Ploggy wasn’t actually my boyfriend, and had managed to change the subject enough so that she had given up asking me what the hell I was playing at, pretending I was both of those things when I could have been getting off with her, who was tall, slender and very good looking.
I say she was good looking (she was – still is, actually. We met up again when it turned out that our children (not together) went to the same dance class on Saturday mornings about fifteen years later – she was horrified and didn’t quite manage to keep the look off her face at first) even though she was a ginger and, if you asked me which famous person she most closely resembled, I’d have said Gonzo off The Muppets, but that was more to do with the way she moved when she was excited than any real physical resemblance. I told her that, naturally. Equally naturally, she thought I was a dickhead for saying it, which is right, isn’t it? See how far I’d come? Yeah. Well done me. Again.
Anyway, we went back to her flat which was on Victoria Avenue – not far from Pearson Park at all – and did the jumping about and hair pulling thing until I realised that my parents would be awake by now and wondering where I was.
Back home, they were eating their breakfasts but not overly bad tempered about my disappearing act. I told them I’d met this Jayne and that’s what I think swayed their lack of bile in my direction. Because they really couldn’t stand the girl I’d been with through university.
Now I had somewhere else I could more or less move into, I gradually did. Jayne was happy with this. In fact, she was almost more than happy about it because the girl with whom she shared her flat was starting to get on her tits. This girl was called Katie.
Katie was also very good looking but, crucially (as far as Jayne was concerned) quite a lot cooler than she was. When I say cool, I mean in the teenage sense of the word, which isn’t really all that cool. I mean Katie could be a little bit green vinyl. A tiny bit snide, maybe. Not into sharing her cool wisdom with Jayne, at any rate.
It turned out that, quite by accident, I’d become slightly cool too. I’d given up trying to be cool and just enjoyed what I enjoyed. By that point, miraculously, what I enjoyed had become cool. Despite my being into it, yes. Astonishing, really.
At Jayne’s flat, there were quite a few cool things around. In my estimation at least. And Jayne’s. They also all turned out to be Katie’s things. I wasn’t arsed. I liked Jayne, she was lovely and, even if she wasn’t all that cool (as far as she was concerned, not me) that was alright because I needed somebody with some idea of where the ground was and how to put her feet on it so she could show me what to do. The cool things that Katie had were: a copy of A Clockwork Orange on video (which I’d not seen by that point), several David Bowie biographies (which I’d not read by that point) and, some Velvet Underground records. She also had a double video of David Bowie’s Glass Spider tour (which I knew wasn’t cool, so extra bonus cool points to me, eh?) Jayne didn’t really possess much in the way of cool items. To give you some small idea, she had more than one Frank & Walters 12″ singles (remember them? Who does?) and a pair of leather trousers, which I hid behind her chest of drawers as soon as I got chance. Jayne didn’t know what she was supposed to do to be cool and she wanted to be. Oh, the best record she had was Street Life, the Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry greatest hits double album which I didn’t know about, but enjoyed listening to a lot, sat in front of the open fire in her bedroom.
One night, possibly after watching Katie’s A Clockwork Orange (which was a disappointment because it was mainly green and distorted through being a millionth generation copy), Jayne asked me if I’d tape her some Velvet Underground records because Katie wouldn’t. Jayne wanted to be cool and her cool mate wasn’t interested in diluting her own sense of inherent coolness by letting Jayne in on her fridge, so to speak. I suppose.
Wanting to make Jayne happy, I did her a C-90 of the prettier songs and one or two slightly noisier ones, in case she went for it. I also told her that the only reason Katie knew about The Velvets was because she’d obviously been into David Bowie first and he’d led her to them. You know, all that on the back of Hunky Dory and White Light/White Heat on the Ziggy Stardust live video. You know, just to show her that everybody gets it from somewhere. Nobody’s born knowing about all this obscure stuff. You just find someone you’re into and listen to what they listened to. Nobody tells you that though, do they? I told her that The Smiths had gotten me into The Velvets, so I wasn’t making out I was any better. Jayne wasn’t into The Smiths. Not even Louder Than Bombs, unusually for girls.
She enjoyed the tape. We’d listen to it in her flat, which was a great flat. I realised that the vibe of the place was totally compatible with the album, Chelsea Girl, by Nico, ironically and gave her my copy. She was chuffed with that because Katie didn’t have it or know about it.
We broke up because I’d decided that going out with someone normal like Jayne was a bit boring in comparison to being driven round the bend by Clare (who I went back out with again) I made a dick of myself yet again because I asked for Chelsea Girl back. It was expensive and like rocking horse shit and I’d given her my copy. Actually, I’ll just tell you what happened, it’s easier. Sort of…
What happened was this – and it’s well down to my usual standards: I was getting a bit sick of the normality and the lack of household objects flying at my head, and anyway, she had started to talk a lot about us getting a flat together – just the two of us – and I wasn’t convinced. I occasionally slept at my parents’ house and, one night, having re-read the Johnny Rogan book “The Severed Alliance” about The Smiths (I had to buy a paperback copy because Iain from university who I always felt sorry for, had borrowed my first edition hardback and fucked off with it, the bastard) and there was a quotation from Johnny Marr (again) that resonated with my passed brain. I’m paraphrasing, but basically, everything in The Smiths was going to shit and “…I went to bed and thought to myself, ‘I’m not in The Smiths anymore’ just to see how I felt when I woke up. And when I woke up, I felt great…”
So, I thought, I’ll do that, but with Jayne instead of The Smiths. And when I woke up, I felt great too. Or, I think I did. I might not have. I might just have been into being Johnny Marr, but on a ten year old’s level, it wouldn’t surprise me.
I was due to go to Jayne’s the next morning, but instead of heading straight there and telling her about my Johnny Marr inspired revelation, I went in town to a record fair where I bought bootlegs of The Beatles doing acoustic demos for The White Album and one of The Beach Boys’ SMiLE. Because I was cool, you see.
Then I went to Jayne’s and, like a nasty bastard, told her exactly what had happened in my brain. She cried as I gathered up my books, records, clothes, shoes (she’d bought me a pair of desert boots with a relatively chunky sole because she was taller than me in her boots when I wore my customary cardboard soled deck shoes and she didn’t like that – I wasn’t arsed) and guitar. When I mentioned Chelsea Girl, she really got upset. I didn’t take it but, let’s face it, I would have if she’d not been quite so upset, so no brownie points for me. Again.
The thing is, Jayne was cool. She just wasn’t cool like her flatmate was. You know what it’s like when you’re young – other people look like they’ve got everything sorted out and you know that, even if you look like you have, you haven’t really. It takes a while. Well, it took me a while and I think it did with Jayne, too. The only thing about Jayne that wasn’t cool (apart from her leather trousers) was that she wanted to be cool in a more obvious way. A more Velvet Underground way, I suppose. You don’t realise that until you’re a bit older though, I suppose.
End of Diversion.
Not long after I’d found that compilation at Spin-It, I found a tape of Loaded, which really slapped me in the chops. Now they were talking. This was it. First, I’d not heard any of the songs on any of the compilations I already had and they were all great. Even the ones that the cool kids said were shit (Lonesome Cowboy Bill, mainly) were good.
Talking to the cool kids about the Velvets was an eye opener for me full stop. I’d learned to keep my mouth shut quite a lot of the time by then and what I learned from shutting up in front of them were the following things:
i) Everything to do with The Velvet Underground was cool, but there was a definite hierarchy of coolness.
ii) The first two albums (The Velvet Underground & Nico, and White Light/White Heat) that featured John Cale were much cooler than the two that followed (The Velvet Underground (otherwise known as ‘Third album’) and Loaded). In that order. By the time of Loaded, Mo Tucker had also left and it was ‘a bit poppy‘.
Therefore, while being into The Velvets was cool full stop, it was even cooler to be into the noisier, avant-garde stuff. Possibly because your mam and dad might dig Sunday Morning if they heard it, but they were hardly likely to beat your door down to join your listening to European Son. Classic teenage stuff. You know. Striking out on your own, so your parents had better not be into it so you can sneer at them. The squares. Ptcha.
I’d avoided The Velvet Underground & Nico because I had all of it on that compilation except All Tomorrow’s Parties. With White Light/White Heat, it was similar: it was all on the compilation except The Gift and Lady Godiva’s Operation.
I wasn’t cool. Even though I quite liked the noisy stuff, I’d listen to them maybe once for every five times I’d play the pretty stuff. The third album? There were seven songs I’d not heard on that, so that was what I kept my eyes open for. Again, I had it on tape long before I found a record of it. And guess what? The third album was mainly pretty songs that I liked more than the noisy ones.
I got hold of the first two albums and found that All Tomorrow’s Parties was sort of pretty and noisy and I didn’t like The Gift or Lady Godiva’s Operation much straightaway either. On the other hand, Sister Ray – which was on the compilation was really good. I found it funny. Plus, if we’re going to dig even deeper into the cooler kids’ estimations of what the coolest Velvet songs were, Sister Ray came out pretty close to the top. So, I kept quiet about being into Jesus and Pale Blue Eyes and periodically blurted out, ‘Too busy sucking on my ding dong!’ in earshot of them. Cool, huh? Pfff. I know. I know.
Later, I found 1969 – The Velvet Underground Live cheap and I really liked some of the versions on that, especially What Goes On and Beginning To See The Light. And I hate live albums.
So, that’s how I got into them which, as usual, took a trip around the houses.
But what I really intended to write about when I started this was the songs and, well, everything else that I’ve so far not bothered writing about. Here goes…
- The Songs.
I’ve suggested that there are two main types of Velvet Underground song and I can dig that, but actually there’s more to it than that. I’m going to consider them in groups as I see fit.
i) Noisy, atonal, viola bothering feedback slabs of kinkiness.
Or, the stuff the cool kids make a point of listening to in public.
Venus In Furs was on an advert for tyres in about 1993, which shows you how things changed in the 90s. I taught a kid called Dale Trever and used to sing, ‘Shiny, shiny, shiny mister Trever,’ when he asked me a question which probably tells you that being a dick isn’t something I ever managed to shake off entirely. A few years after he left school, he was on the front page of the local paper because he got sent to prison for going through confidential patient records at a hospital to look up kinky things about them, so maybe that was my fault as well. I was into Venus In Furs because it still doesn’t sound like anything else. It’s not even that noisy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s pretty, but it’s not without its charm. Like Dale Trever, it’s kinky alright, but most of the time that doesn’t really matter. Regal is what it sounds like to me. It sounds like the sort of music that’d be played in some Eastern prince’s tent. It sways like a howdah over sand dunes. (Howdah, incidentally, is one of my favourite words, being the proper term for those castle things that they used to put on the back of elephants.
You know, it’s Eastern and exotic. Slippery. Spot on. You might not like it and that’s allowed, but I don’t see how could it be any better than it is.
To the extent that The Velvets have any famous songs, I suppose Heroin is probably one of them. Infamous is more like it, I suppose. I’ve written already about how Balf used to sing it – or a version of it at least because he’d improvise lyrics around it. It’s good fun to play. I’ll be honest. I don’t ever need to hear Heroin again because I liked Balf doing it better and there aren’t any copies of that. Probably for the best.
The Black Angel’s Death Song and European Son end the album. TBADS isn’t even that noisy really. Because it’s mainly John Cale’s viola, a quietly strummed electric guitar and Lou Reed doing his talking thing. As there’re no drums on it, the rhythm is carried by the viola and that rhythm is, to me, pretty much the rhythm of those nodding dogs that some people have in their cars. It’s not too frightening. European Son is different matter. For a start, it’s long. Secondly, I don’t like it. The reason I don’t like it is because it just feels for the sake it which Heroin, say, doesn’t. It’s twitchy and brittle sounding. Like a pasta cat on a washing machine. In a way, it’s fair enough because it’s the first album and anyway, who’d done anything like that before? Providing you can get on board with that, you’ll be alright. I struggle with ideas like that. You know, nobody’s done that before – woo! There’s lots of things that nobody’s done before and, as far as I can gather, it’s because most of them are crap ideas. European Son is a crap idea as far as I’m concerned. Which is unusual for The Velvets because ideas, as I’ll talk about later, were their thing really. Nobody’s perfect.
By the time of White Light/White Heat, they sound like they’d got the hang of it, the noisy stuff, even though they hadn’t.
Diversion – Lester Bangs.
Just as Johnny Marr turned me on to The Velvets, The Velvets turned me on to Lester Bangs. Lester Bangs was a pop music journalist from America in the 1970s. He’s alluded to in the film Almost Famous, as some sort of mentor figure to the kid who goes on tour with for-copyright-reasons-not-Led-Zeppelin which I don’t know about. Maybe. It’s hard to tell with Lester Bangs because, as far as I can tell, he made quite a lot of stuff up.
He’d been dead for a good few years by the time I’d heard of him, but I got a collection of some of his articles in a book – Psychotic Reactions and Carburettor Dung – which are great. Or at least they were when I was 18, I don’t know about now. Probably it would be to me, on account of my not really having made much intellectual or emotional progress since then.
One of the articles was about The Count Five who were a sixties garage band whose song Psychotic Reaction was on the ‘famous’ Nuggets compilation that I lapped up at about the same time I was getting into The Velvets. Most of the bands who were on Nuggets only brought out one single or so and then disappeared into obscurity again. No internet then, of course, so all I knew about most of those bands was the single they had on it and had no way of finding out anything else. Anyway, Bangs wrote a long article about all these albums they put out and how amazing they were. I spent a good few years vainly combing the racks in second hand shops for any of them until I finally worked out that he’d just made it up. Just fantasised about what might have happened if they had made of aloud of records. Different times, as Lou Reed might have said.
Anyhow, there was a whole section of the book devoted to his writings about The Velvets and Lou Reed, which really are funny. Even though old Lester probably would have given his eye teeth to clean Reed’s claggy shreddies with his lips, all they did was bicker and rile each other – but entertainingly.
One of the things that stuck in my mind from that book was Lester Bangs explaining about how he liked to look through people’s record collections and not only see what records they had, but check out what got played a lot and what didn’t. He must have known some relatively cool people because he wrote that everybody he met all had The Velvets’ records and the third album and Loaded were always worn out and White Light/White Heat was always in pristine condition as if it’d never even been played all the way through. Unless he made that up as well. I don’t know. Maybe that’s where the cool kids I knew got their information from as well. Even if they didn’t, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that fewer people are going to be into WL/WH than Loaded because it sounds enormous and sludgy. It’s like it’s been recorded onto treacle and played with a stylus made out of liquorice allsorts.
End of Diversion.
There’s quite a bit of this sort of stuff on WL/WH: Lady Godiva’s Operation, which is a sort of gory story about brain surgery that doesn’t go so well; Sister Ray, about which Lou Reed said, “Sister Ray’ was done as a joke—no, not as a joke, but it has eight characters in it and this guy gets killed and nobody does anything. It was built around this story that I wrote about this scene of total debauchery and decay. I like to think of ‘Sister Ray’ as a transvestite smack dealer. The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear.” The riff was speeded up by Jonathan Richman on his Roadrunner, but without any of the lyrical content. I’m into it. It’s my favourite of their noisy songs. Also, there’s I Heard Her Call My Name, which is pretty noisy all the way through until the guitar solos which are, more or less, my favourite guitar solos of all time. Well, the start of them at least. I’m not a big fan of guitar solos on the whole. When I was in bands, I always did my best to avoid them as much as possible for two main reasons. 1. I don’t like them. 2. That’s what people’d talk to you about and I hated it. “Oh man, that guitar solo was fucking ace, blah, blah…” Of the solos I did play, my favourite one was exclusively feedback. I was into that: just bending down in front of my amp, waggling my arse at the crowd as I tugged on the Bigsby (tremolo arm) of my guitar, making it howl and whine. Mind you, people were really into that, so maybe I wasn’t doing myself any favours by avoiding them as a rule. Anyway, Lou Reed did it better on I Heard Her Call My Name than I ever did and the opening squark is fantastic. I find it funny as much as anything. Give it a listen. He sings, “…and then my mind split open,” and it begins, like an enormous sentient factory standing on an electrified nail and vomiting sound forever as a result. Twice. Spot on. Brrrrroooooooppppppppeeeehhhhhhh! Ooh-wee!
To be honest, that’s about it for those songs. however, the next broad type aren’t very different except…
ii) Noisy, atonal, viola bothering feedback slabs with someone telling a story over the top of it.
I don’t count Sister Ray as one of these, even though it is a bit. It’s too songy in comparison, although I doubt my mother would agree. The sort of songs I mean are The Gift on WL/WH and The Murder Mystery on the third album. The Gift is a shaggy dog story and, in general, I like a shaggy dog story. The problem with shaggy dog stories is that you only want to hear each one once. It’s alright, it’s about this kid who wants to surprise his girlfriend who lives a long way away, so he posts himself to her in a big box, but when she gets the box, she opens it by ramming a big knife into it, killing her boyfriend. The Murder Mystery is, if anything, even worse. The best thing I’ve ever read about it was in Uptight, an early book about The Velvets and someone in there says something like, “The Murder Mystery is totally groovy, man. You can dial the sound to one speaker and have a groovy story, man. Or you can dial that baby the other way and have some cool hang out music. But what the really groovy people do – and this is what I do because I’m rilly groovy, is to dial the sounds in the centre and so you listen to both at the same time, man…” What a pile of shit. Imagine being the sort of person who says things like that. As the second to last last song on the album, what I do is turn the fucking thing right off and put the first side back on again because, twat as I undoubtedly am, I’m not that kind of twat. I’m the kind of twat who misses out on After-hours because I can’t stand The Murder Mystery, so yay for me, eh? No. Not really.
iii) Perky, exuberant, lively songs extolling the pure joy of the relatively mundane.
These are the least cool Velvets songs to admit to listening to and, naturally, they’re also my favourites. While type i) and ii) songs appear on the first three albums only – and The Murder Mystery sticks out like somebody who pisses about with the balance control on the stereo at parties because the third album consists mainly of type iii) and iv). Loaded only consists of iii) and iv). However, let’s not forget that all The Velvets’ albums had iii) and iv) on them…
I’m Waiting For The Man; Run, Run, Run; There She Goes Again – these are the first album’s perky songs. Personally, I can take or leave Run, Run, Run, but the other two are great. Even though lyrically, I’m Waiting For The Man sounds like it should be on the list of iv), the way Lou Reed sings it makes it sound exciting and the sort of thing that you’d quite fancy doing and, to me, that’s his biggest gift. That’s what I love about Lou Reed when it comes down to it: his expression of unfettered joy in the mundane. Never mind all the junkie reportage, mean streets of Noo Yawk stuff – this is the real deal. I don’t think anybody I’ve ever heard has sounded as jubilant and, well, just that happy on record. Except Stevie Wonder, maybe. There She Goes Again nicks the syncopated introduction from Marvin Gaye’s Hitchhike – as done by The Rolling Stones – and re-nicked again by Johnny Marr on There Is A Light That Never Goes Out – also on The Queen Is Dead. He said later that he knew people’d think he took it from There She Goes Again, but he wanted to be that bit cooler and know that he was getting it from the same place The Velvets got it from. See? Even Johnny Marr was a competitively cool than thou kid at some point. Lyrically, it’s a bit 1960s street hep cat jive slang, so the line, “You’d better hit her” could mean one of several things, none of which are too super sounding to the 21st century’s ideals. Well, almost none of the possibilities.
There are only a couple of this type on WL/WH: White Light/White Heat, Here She Comes Now and the impression I get is that Lou Reed was mainly thinking about the noisy stuff and how to record it better because there’s not too much progress made on his type iii) songs on this album, unlike the next one, where he went berserk with them. The first one’s extolling the virtues of the drug experience and, you know, fair enough especially if you’re about 16 and thinking about becoming a drugz bore. The second one is bordering on folky and, at first listen, belongs in type iv) but good ol’ Lou just can’t keep his dander down. It’s the, “…ooo-wooah, and she’s made out of wood!” bits. The oooh-woahs in particular. Maybe it’s about the female orgasm, or maybe it’s about Lou’s guitar. I don’t know, maybe it’s neither – but the jubilation is there and, on the next album, that’s where he really went.
The third album – a bit of a dark horse in some ways. For me, it’s not exactly where Lou Reed grew up because he sounds much younger in places than previously, but it’s certainly where he began to get really good at writing these sorts of songs and type iv, too. Again, there are only two of them, but they’re as good as it gets. Also, What Goes On is on 1969 – Live and it’s even better on that than on the third album. What Goes On and Beginning To See The Light are both fast and exciting records that explore opposite sides of the same idea which are, basically, self-evident from their titles. I can’t do them justice by typing about them, you’re going to have to listen to them because it’s not the lyrics, the chords or the groove (man), it’s the feel. Feel is something that’s spoken about a lot in terms of pop groups, playing musical instruments and the like. The point of feel is that you can’t quantify it because then you wouldn’t have to call it the feel. I don’t watch The X Factor in general, but I have seen the odd one – under duress. The only bit I remember was during the early auditions in which you get the deluded simpletons who sing like I do but don’t realise it caterwauling away a cappella to strained expressions from the equally deluded halfwits who judge them. This one kid was standing in front of them and Simon Cowell asked him, “Do you think you’ve got the X Factor?” and the kid said, yeah, he did think he had the X Factor and Cowell shot back, “Oh yeah? what is the X Factor, then?” The kid just looked at his shoes and mumbled while I was shouting at the telly, “The fucking concept of the X Factor is that it’s unquantifiable, hence it being called the fucking X Factor, you dick.” Which I am absolutely certain I would have had the wherewithal to have instantly come up with had I been on telly instead of that kid, as the following anecdote will beautifully illustrate.
Diversion – Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns.
Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingram were psychologists in the 1950s and they came up with the Johari window.
Without going into any depth about it, it’s about trying to get to know yourself better in order to feel better. Which is something that I, at least, can get on board with being, as I am, very bad at it.
The basic concept that they posited was that there are things you know you don’t know – for instance, I know that I don’t know what colour your front door is – and unknown unknowns – of which we don’t know anything because for some things, we don’t know what we don’t know.
I was in meeting with my last Headteacher but three – this is years ago when I foolishly decided to accept the role of union representative at the school I taught at because nobody else wanted to do it. I soon realised why nobody else wanted to do it. It was because, as I’m sure you’ve already worked out, all you do is piss the headteacher off by telling him that you’re not going to do anything he tells you unless it’s really, really reasonable.. Or, alternatively, you don’t piss the Headteacher off because you just go along with everything he says and piss off all the members of the union whom you’re not representing. I went for the first option.
In teaching, there’s more than one union at a school usually. Unfortunately for me, the representatives of the others two unions had chosen to go for the second option. Union meetings consisted of the Headteacher laying out how he wanted everybody doing a load of stuff for free in their free time and getting shouted at for doing it. He was a cunt, frankly. Worse than that, after he’d laid out what he wanted and the other two agreed with him, the rest of the meetings always went exactly the same way, which was, basically, three people shouting at me for being a belligerent twat who was too busy rocking the boat to sell my members down the river so the Headteacher could look good.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been in that situation – where everybody in the room is telling you what a dickhead you are and pressurising you to just go along with everything they say – I was already fairly used to it in my private life, but not really professionally. After so long, I began to doubt myself and start thinking that maybe they were the reasonable ones and I was the dickhead. When it got to that point, I’d usually say something like, “Look, I don’t know anymore. I think the best thing I can do is to go back to my regional boss, explain what you’re suggesting and get back to you, based on my union’s stance on the matter,”
The reaction was always the same. The other reps would throw their arms up in the air and shout, “Oh, well, we can all do that, can’t we? We can all ask our unions what their policies are, can’t we?”
And I’d always say, “Isn’t that the concept of what we’re doing? Representing? Should we not be doing that? Is that what you’re suggesting?”
And then they’d go back to telling me what a spanner in the works I was and how I should just do what they told me to do. Which I didn’t.
On one occasion, I was trying to explain to the Head why I couldn’t sign up to one of his new initiatives because it was dead wooly and vague and tried to tell him about known knowns and unknown unknowns and he said, “Well, can you give me an example of these unknown unknowns?”
I said, “Of course I can’t.”
“Well, they don’t sound like they exist to me,”
“No,” I said, “If I could tell you what the unknown unknowns were, they would cease to be unknown unknowns and become known unknowns, wouldn’t they?”
There’s no way you’ll ever guess what he said to that. In fact, there’s no way anybody is going to believe it because it came from the Headmaster of a school. He said, “Ah, you’ve just got that from a book,” He spat it. A bit. It was derisive.
I told him I’d read it at university and here comes the proper lunacy. The moment at which I realised that whatever I said or did, I was fucked.
He said, “I read a book once. It did nothing for me,”
I’d now like to tell you how I dismantled him and his ludicrous anti-intellectual stance with eloquent rhetoric, but I just gawped at him with my mouth open.
Later, he attempted to sack me by making some load of nonsense up which blew up in his face because I had a letter from him that stated the opposite. I kept quiet about it until we were in a meeting with a woman from County Hall. He made his claim and she asked me about it. I told her about the letter. He denied it existed so I showed her it. He spent the rest of the day at County Hall and then rang me up to tell me that it turned out that someone had made a mistake and he was pleased I wouldn’t be getting the sack.
Realising that I may have won the battle but I wasn’t going to win any wars, I moved on. Happily for me, the bastard had a heart attack the next summer. I sent him a card. It said “Thinking of You” on it. He had to retire through ill health. I was disappointed because I was hoping for something a bit more painful and terminal for him.
End of Diversion.
So, no, I don’t think I would have had enough about me to put Simon Cowell straight, no.
Anyway, What Goes On and Beginning to See The Light.
The best line in Beginning To See The Light is, “…There are problems in this time, but woooo! None of them are mine!” Delivered, as I say, with utter, utter joy. There’s no-one to beat him on his day.
By the time Loaded came along, he’d decided that this was what he was doing: Sweet Jane; Rock ‘n’ Roll; Cool It Down; Head Held High; Lonesome Cowboy Bill; Train Round The Bend. All of them are this type of song. To be fair, you’re not going to compete with Sweet Jane or Rock ‘n’ Roll on the same album and, good as the other songs are, they pale in comparison to those two.
Sweet Jane, in particular, is one of those rarest of songs in that people like to hear it played as much as people in bands enjoy playing it. I love playing Sweet Jane and it’s to my eternal regret that I can’t sing it and play it at the same time. Without blowing my own trumpet too much, I make a pretty good job of playing it. I can do it properly. Unfortunately, very few people know the words, so it doesn’t get brought out at parties too often. Again, who sounds as happy about a girl called Jane dancing to modern music on the radio at home? Jesus. It kills me, it really does. Holden Caulfield would have been into it. Maybe it would have made him happy, too. Rock ‘n’ Roll‘s more fun to play than listen to because it’s got some dead sly chord changes. Not big changes, like Oasis choruses, subtle ones that nonetheless feel great to play. To be fair, people don’t know it like they know Sweet Jane, and most of them don’t know Sweet Jane all that well but those people who do, really like it.
Diversion – Party sing songs.
This summer, I got roped into a band to play a couple of weddings, sitting in for their regular guitar player and they went nicely. Naturally, after you’ve played, they tend to play records for a bit and then it stops. At that point, when the records have stopped, what happens is, if you’re still sat around chatting to people, you find somebody thrusting a guitar into your hands and telling you to entertain people with that because they don’t want to go to bed just yet. They’re not arsed if you can’t sing, which I can’t really. I tell people I sing like a burning pet shop because, in comparison to the kids who sing in bands, I do. People tend not to mind when they’re a bit pissed up and you’re just sat on the floor doing your best.
I can handle it, doing the acoustic singing at parties thing because I know quite a lot of Beatles songs, Stone Roses songs, Rolling Stones songs, sixties soul songs – stuff like that.
At the first wedding we played, everything had happened as I’ve just suggested it would and I’d gone through most of the bands’ repertoires I’ve suggested, and a bit of ska, too. Rudy, A Message To You always goes down well…
So, I’d done all those and the mother of the groom’s boyfriend – who I don’t really know too well nudged me and my heart sank because what that means is they’ve got a request and the requests tend to be Queen or some metal band’s ballads neither of which I have any idea of how to play nor any inclination to find out. But it wasn’t.
He said, “You don’t know any Lou Reed, do you?”
This bloke used to be a policeman, which naturally makes me a bit twitchy, but I wasn’t expecting that.
“What do you fancy?” I asked him, knowing a fair few Velvet Underground songs and one or two songs off Transformer.
“Do you know Satellite Of Love?” he asked, evidently not expecting I would. But I do, so I played that and, oddly enough, it’s popular song.
Then he asked, “I don’t suppose you know any Velvet Underground do you?”
And he sang Sweet Jane, What Goes On, Beginning To See The Light, Who Loves The Sun. Which went down decreasingly popularly, but I didn’t give a shit.
“Do you know Andy’s Chest?” I asked him.
“I was going to ask if you knew that but I thought, there’s no way he knows that! You don’t do you? That’s my favourite.”
So we finished off with Andy’s Chest. The ex-policeman and me and I thought, ‘I could be friends with a policeman, though the medium of Lou Reed,’ which isn’t a thought that had ever occurred to me in the past.
Then he said, “Do you want some gak?”
And I said, “Nah, you’re alright,”
I’ve not seen him since.
End of Diversion.
I’ve mentioned that my introduction to The Velvets was VU and on that, the song She’s My Best Friend is another of these type iii) songs. It’s one of those songs that’s a bit like a Peanuts cartoon record. It’s a bit like Andy’s Chest, too – although I like Lou Reed doing that solo, I’m not into the Velvet’s version of it. It would have been a fantastic direction for Lou Reed to go into after The Velvets split up and he went solo. he should have written songs for little kids, with the sort of psychedelic yet mundane imagery that so naturally strikes a chord with them. Instead, he turned into a bit of a dick. An entertaining dick, but a dick nonetheless.
iv) Pretty, sympathetic songs about sad people being lonely and disliking their lot in life.
He did a lot of these songs too. I’m not going to go into every single one of them, but I’ll pick a couple to blather on about. Here’s my list: Sunday Morning, Femme Fatale, All Tomorrow’s Parties, I’ll Be Your Mirror, Candy Says, Some Kinda Love; Pale Blue Eyes; Jesus; I’m Set Free; That’s The Story Of My Life, Afterhours; Who Loves The Sun, New Age, I Found A Reason, Oh, Sweet Nuthin’, Stephanie Says.
First, I suppose there are a couple of mildly contentious inclusions. I’m Set Free sounds sad, so I include it, even though it’s not about being sad, really. Well, a bit. That’s The Story of My Life, Who Loves The Sun and New Age sound happy, but aren’t, so I include them.
The pretty songs on the first album with Nico are – almost – all sung by her too. Sunday Morning‘s the odd one out and, it turns out, she was supposed to sing that one too. Lou Reed, never the most affable of people, seemed to not get on too smoothly with too many people and Nico was one of them.
As I’ve mentioned, I had the Chelsea Girl album – Nico’s first solo lp that she hated because it had flutes and shit on it. Not a problem for me, I thought it was a beautiful album unlike all her other, later records which would be a stretch for anyone to describe as beautiful. Unless you’re the sort of person who finds much loveliness in misery and death. At least songs about such things. Perhaps I’m being uncharitable.
My favourite story about Nico is at a time when she’d left the Velvets – or been kicked out by Lou – and she was going to do a tour, singing some of the songs that would appear on Chelsea Girl and her Velvets’ tunes. She’s in some room, with Lou Reed, and they’re recording their rehearsal on a tape recorder. It was on Youtube – I’ll have a look. Ah well, it doesn’t appear to be there anymore, ne’ermind. Still, Lou’s playing the guitar and Nico’s trying to sing along but she’s not getting it right and growing more and more pissed off about it. Lou, unusually for him, is being encouraging and talking to her in that sort of gravelly chipmunk voice of his, “Come on Nico, you can do it. You’re a great singer. Just sing ’em like you can,” But she can’t and she gets on this bum trip she just can’t get off and is reduced to just responding to everything Lou says and does with her fantastic deep, Germanic baritone droning, “I can’t doooooo iiiiittttt.” I’m into it, anyway.
Ah, yes. So she sings these pretty songs and there’s an element of iciness to her singing – probably stereotypical because German’s her first language and she sings with quite a heavy accent which makes a big difference to their delivery because these songs are sympathetic and, whatever else it is, German doesn’t immediately lend itself to sounding all that sympathetic. Barking orders? No problem. Sounding ruthlessly efficient? Step right up, Klaus. But gently sympathising? You’d be better off nipping off in any direction but east from Berlin. Still, it works. They’re such good songs, I suppose that they lend themselves to lots of voices, which impresses me at least. When Lou Reed sings them on the live albums later on, he really does have a kind side to his voice and that works beautifully too.
There’s nothing really of the type iv) songs on WL/WH – although you could argue that Here She Comes Now is a bit. Apparently Nico was lined up to sing that one, had she not got the boot after the first album. By the third album, Lou’d really hit his straps with this sort of song and there are a lot of them on it. He claimed that they had all their fuzzboxes nicked on tour and therefore had to make a calm, quiet sort of record but I don’t believe him. You’re telling me that The Stooges could afford a fuzzbox and Lou Reed couldn’t in 1969? Yeah, alright then… These were the songs he had; John Cale had been ejected and it was Lou’s baby now. What Lou wanted to do was sing pretty, sad songs and he does a great job of it.
When I first started getting into The Velvets, I didn’t realise that Doug Yule, who’d been brought in to replace John Cale on bass and keyboards sang quite a few songs on the third album and Loaded. To be fair to the younger Middlerabbit, Lou’s and Doug’s voices aren’t a million miles apart and they even look a bit like each other too.
On the third album, Doug sings the opening Candy Says, about Warhol ‘superstar’ and trans trailblazer, Candy Darling – who later featured in Walk On The Wild Side too. It’s Lou’s first released “(Girl’s name) Says” song, too. He wrote variations on these throughout his life: Caroline, Lisa, etc. This isn’t my favourite “…Says” song, though. That goes to Stephanie Says, which was on VU and recorded before this one because it’s got John Cale’s viola on it and it’s his best performance too. Candy Says is about what a pain it is being trans: all that shaving, shoving your bits and pieces between your legs and all that. It’s melancholy and it’s beautiful without ever really feeling that you’re smiling sadly at the furry corpses of recently slaughtered woodland creatures. It’s not cheap-sad either, which a lot of slow, sad songs can be. It’s a small song – a tiny little song about the tiny little things that grind people down and make them slowly give up on themselves and they just fade into themselves until there’s nothing left but somebody’s vague memory that even they’re not too sure about.
Stephanie Says is similar, although it’s about – as far as I can gather – a girl who’s a telephone operator in Alaska who people have to go through in order to speak to the people they actually want to speak to and it’s about the effect it has on her, being nothing much more than an employed conduit – a relay, I suppose. Lou Reed was a literary type. I mean, he knew about writing and books and all that. While I don’t think that means that some things might slip through his consciousness and show us the real Lou, I tend to look for some sort of intention behind his lyrics and the bit that sticks out to me is the line, “…it’s so cold in Alaska,” which sounds innocuous enough, but part of my brain wonders if it’s not a bit of a dig about her, er, woman’s area. You know? Like she’s a bit cold in bed. I don’t mean because she lives in Alaska, I mean she’d be a bit cold on the equator. Who knows? It’s probably me. Lovely song though, one of my favourites of his.
Jesus, I’m Set Free and That’s The Story of My Life are similarly small sounding songs. A bit meditative, maybe. Jesus sounds pretty straight to me, a pean to Jesus to help him. Not that I believe he went through some sort of religious conversion like Bob Dylan did in the 1970s, my suspicion is that, as the lyrics explicitly state, it’s about recognising your own weaknesses and feeling helpless to do anything about it by yourself. It’s also related to Some Kinda Love, also on the third album, which I quote to kids I teach when anything homophobic crops up in class. The line is, “…no kinds of love are better than others,” and I believe that. Providing we are actually talking about love and not somebody taking advantage of somebody or something. And this is just another kind of love, isn’t it? What is love? It’s a good question and I don’t have the answer, but I suppose an element of most kinds of love is putting your faith in somebody else, which can be a bit scary. I think I’ve understood that for quite a long time, even if I’ve not been very good at actually doing it. I used to put it quite crassly: if you don’t let anybody near your delicate bits and pieces, you’re not going to get kicked in them, but nor will anybody be able to do anything pleasant with them either. Which is more about sex than love, isn’t it? The Velvets were seen as a kinky sex band in the early days, mainly because of Venus In Furs and the book from which they took their name. They were always more about love than sex though.
After-hours is sort of an oddity, what with Mo Tucker doing her schoolgirl singing voice about, basically, being lonely and on the outside, looking in. That was used on an advert, too. As I’m one of those plebs who can’t be arsed with The Murder Mystery and tended to take the needle off the record when that came on, I’d miss out on After-hours quite often. Also, Mo’s voice is fragile and you don’t want a lot of it. If I’m going to listen to Mo Tucker singing, I want to hear her and Lou duetting on I’m Sticking With You, which is another of those children’s songs that I think Lou should have written more of.
That’s what I get from the third album though, the musings of somebody who’s pretty confused about a lot of things and far too uptight to be especially open about it. Weakness, love for different people, Gods, whatever, it’s all love and they’re all alright. Which is pretty sympathetic, isn’t it?
Loaded’s type iv) songs continue very much in this vein. Who Loves The Sun, the opener, sung again by Doug is about how nature just carries on, even if you’ve had your heart broken. In a way, it’s a bit like No Milk Today by Herman’s Hermits, in that it’s how everyday, normal things can reduce you to a blubbering mess on the kitchen floor after you’ve begun to associate them with somebody you love and they’re not there anymore. From New York to Manchester, I suppose we’re not all that different is the message there. It could be yet another kids’ song. At that wedding I wrote about in a diversion up there, I played and sang it to a bunch of under fives while we were waiting for the bride to get ready and they weren’t too fussed about it, but you want to hear what you already know in front of people, don’t you, so I didn’t hold it against them, which is big of me, isn’t it?
New Age isn’t all that different in that it’s looking back with sadness on the past. The end is lovely though, suggesting that chewing the wet kitchen lino won’t last forever and the new age is coming. It’s a bit tainted for me because I associate New Age with shops selling tat with rainbows and unicorns that smell of patchouli oil. And panpipes, which are right down there with accordions if you ask me.
Oh, Sweet Nuthin’, to me, is the song that invented the late period Echo & The Bunnymen. Songs such as Bring On The Dancing Horses and even Nothing Lasts Forever from their Britpop comeback. Slow, sympathetic and sad. Yearning, I suppose. Not quite so small as the sadder songs on the third album, but hardly lighters aloft in the enormodome either. Or mobile phone screens now, I suppose.
It’s a great way to finish their last album, with Oh, Sweet Nuthin’ though. Four albums down the line and what’s the parting statement? What did it all mean? It meant sweet nuthin’. Oh, Lou.
To conclude, in terms of their records – which is at best only half the story – I think there’re four main types of Velvet Underground song, maybe only three and I like almost all of them. I’d happily never listen to European Son and The Murder Mystery again, but that’s about it. Even lesser records like Run, Run, Run and Train Comin’ Round The Bend have their charms and I don’t bother lifting the needle and moving it along when they come up. So, yeah, I probably could be just as happy in some sort of hypothetical Daily Mail reader’s dystopian fantasy of Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist vision of the future with those four albums if I couldn’t have The Beatles’ output.
I never intended to write this much – I never do – about the songs and recordings of The Velvet Underground. I thought it’d take up a couple of thousand words because I was going to write about everything else that I think about them as well – and I’m going to do that underneath, so I’ll finish this – part 1, I suppose – with…
Diversion – Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground’s Children’s Record:
“Take a Walk In The Park With Laughing Lou Reed and Friends.”
If you’ve got the inclination, here’s my compilation of Lou Reed’s songs that I think would have made one superb kids’ record.
- She’s My Best Friend
- What Goes On
- Beginning To See The Light
- Andy’s Chest (Lou Reed solo)
- That’s The Story Of My Life
- Who Loves The Sun?
- Sweet Jane
- Lonesome Cowboy Bill
- Stephanie Says
- Sunday Morning
- Vicious (Lou Reed Solo)
- Satellite of Love (Lou Reed solo)
- I’m Sticking With You
Yeah. That’s right.
End of Diversion
Part 2: Everything You Wanted To Know About The Velvet Underground But Were Afraid To Ask.
Not really, but sort of…
The Velvets, as I’ve said, were (maybe still are, I don’t know because I’m too much of an old fart to know anymore) the perfect band for teenagers who wanted to be super cool to get into. A bit edgy. And there are quite a lot of reasons for that.
- Their (relative) obscurity – although that’s been lessened since tyre adverts and, especially, Trainspotting and that BBC charity multi singer cover version of Perfect Day that followed it. As it goes, I don’t really mind it. I don’t love it and, being honest, I like it on a comedy level. My highlights are: Gabrielle singing, “I glad I spent it with-a yew,”; Dr. John doing his deep South gravelly baritone on, “Just a poyfict day,” and Apache Indian’s supercool, “Yeah,” at the end of his line. It’s stupid, but there’s a place for stupid, isn’t there? I suppose it might have pissed off some kids who were just getting into Lou Reed in order to be a bit obscure, but it’s good to deal with adversity. Especially fairly unimportant adversity like that.
- The drugz – The Velvets, if they’re known for anything, are know for being smack heads, even if they weren’t. I don’t know if they were or not. I suspect Lou Reed was from time to time. Maybe John Cale too but not Sterling Morrison and not Mo Tucker either. And definitely not Doug Yule. Maybe it doesn’t matter, the image is the thing, isn’t it? The Velvets’ image is smacky and there’s no getting away from that. As I’ve said, there’s no bore like a drugz bore. To be honest, apart from Heroin on the first album, there’s not too much overtly druggy referencing going on in their songs. I think it might be the kids who get into them who like to emphasise that relatively minor element of their output because of how it reflects on them.
Diversion – Queen Fans.
I don’t really like Queen. I was thinking about why I don’t like them and the best I can come up with is that the music of Queen feels – to me – like walking around a really expensive furniture shop in which you can’t actually afford to buy anything that’s there. It’s not the best analogy in the world. What I mean is, it all sounds pristine and immaculate and I can see why it’s good and I can see why people like it, but it just makes me feel like I’ve got a tie on too tight. Some people can work it, but I can’t.
But the thing that really puts me off Queen is people who are really into Queen. I don’t mean I think they’re rapists or cruel to animals or anything. Or even fascists. The ones I’ve met are all nice and that, but maybe, to be a bit snarky, a bit basic. If you wanted to pick fictional character who’d be into Queen, even if he’s not, I’d pick Alan Partridge because he’d recognise the craft that went into what they did and that’d be the important thing to him. I work with a woman at the moment and she’s always telling me about her house and her car. She was telling me that her car projects the BMW logo on the floor when you open the door and she likes that.
Diversion Diversion – BMWs
The best thing I’ve ever heard about BMW drivers – to be stereotypical – was from another person I used to work with. This chap was getting pissed off and ground down by being a teacher, understandably so and he asked me, “How do you cope with it?”
I told him that I tried not to think about it too much. I said, “When I go home every night, Mrs. Middlerabbit asks me, ‘how was your day?’ And I always say the same thing,”
He said, “What do you say?”
And I said, “Futile,”
And he said to me, “Whenever you feel like your work’s totally futile, you should remember that there’s a person who works in the BMW factory, putting indicators in the cars and you should feel better about yourself because that’s a futile job,”
We laughed about that because the joke is that BMW drivers practically never use their indicators. Mind you, most drivers don’t indicate anymore so far as I can gather.
End of Diversion Diversion
The woman with the BMW also used to give me regular updates on the progress of the house that she and her husband were having built for them – they’re pretty rich, I gather. she once told me that they’d knocked down a load of ash trees – knocked down, not cut down – in order to make the most of the land they’d bought. And, in tribute to these brutalised trees, they were going to call their new house, “Ash Trees”.
“Ash trays?” I asked, a bit taken aback.
“No, Ash Trees. Like the trees we knocked down,”
“Don’t you think it sounds a bit close to ash trays, though?”
“No,” she said, indignant, “I don’t think it sounds anything like that.”
“Oh, right,” I said, and left it.
I don’t know if this woman is into Queen or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she was. She’s quite Alan Partridge and that sort of blinkered, “Well, maybe it is horrible, but look at how expensive it is,” attitude is how I view Queen fans. The sort of people who aren’t confident enough in their own opinions to decide what it is that they like and they need an expensive label to wave at people. Or a price tag with lots of zeroes on it. Or nines.
So, it’s not so much Queen the band who put me off as the people who are into them, which isn’t very fair of me, I realise but I can’t be arsed to do anything about it because I just don’t give enough of a shit.
I have, I hasten to add, absolutely no evidence to support this idea at all.
End of Diversion.
3. The clothes.
The Velvet Underground’s fashion sense was pretty straightforward – it was a reaction to the hippy era. If any band didn’t look like hippies, it was them. Hippy clothes were loose and colourful – flowery. The Velvet’s clothes were tight and black – leathery.
There’s a book of photographs of British indie kids in the 1980s called A Scene In-between and realistically, you could take most of those photos and tell people that they were Velvet Underground fans from 1968 and I don’t think they’d have too many questions about it.
The Jesus & Mary Chain were, to all intents and purposes, a Velvet Underground tribute band. The hair, the clothes, the feedback, the attitude, the upturned drums without any cymbals – you name it, they took it from The Velvets.
As I’ve said in another post, as far as I’m concerned, The Stone Roses killed indie as we knew it, but all they did was bring back the hippy clothing to indie – loose and colourful, except it was called baggy, which is a bit shit.
No, The Velvets didn’t invent it and they certainly weren’t the first band to put it on a record on purpose (that’d be The Beatles at the start of I Feel Fine), but they certainly took it and ran with it. I’m quite pleased that I’ve so far managed to avoid using Brian Eno’s overused quotation about The Velvet Underground, which is something along the lines of, “Hardly anybody bought the first Velvet Underground album, but of those who did, they all formed bands.” I very much doubt that’s true; it’s a bit glib (says me) but I know what he means. And the musicians who were influenced by them were, themselves, enormously influential. David Bowie’s the big one – as Jayne’s flatmate might attest – and let’s not forget The Stooges – with Iggy Pop getting plenty of help from Bowie along the way, too; Joy Division and New Order certainly drank from the Velvet’s well – New Order used to cover Sister Ray live; Talking Heads copped a few Velvet’s riffs along the way (I hate the word riffs nearly as much as I hate the word licks); Nirvana took the pop songs disguised with noisy guitars thing and ran with that; Sonic Youth were more or less The Velvet Underground pt. 2 except they forgot to write any songs, thus missing the point; My Bloody Valentine focused mainly on feedback and volume and then there’re all the second and third division British indie bands who did what The Mary Chain did and took the whole caboodle: Galaxie 500; Dream Syndicate, Pere Ubu, Ultra Vivid Scene and so on and so on and doobie doobie doobie. As Sly Stone might have said, but didn’t.
All those bands dressed in tight black clothes, wore leather jackets and sunglasses inside. Winkle pickers too.
Diversion – The Doors.
I’ve been putting off writing about The Doors for a couple of reasons. First, in terms of 60s bands that are a bit alternative that are perfect for teenage kids to get into, the only real competition for The Velvets is The Doors, who are their west coast equivalents, really in several ways. The clothes, the drugz, the kinky sex angle, the fixation on death and those sorts of things, there’s not a lot in it. The second reason that I’ve put off writing anything about them is because, after all these years, I still don’t really know what I think about them. I don’t know whether I like them or not.
Like many people, what puts me off is that Jim Morrison comes across as such a prick. Obviously Lou Reed had his moments, but I sort of let Lou off a bit because I think he was just too sensitive for this world – you only have to listen to his lyrics to realise that his interview persona was mainly a defensive shield because he sang with sympathy, kindness and total and utter joy. Jim Morrison just strikes me as an entitled, spoilt little brat who needed someone to give him a slap long ago. Some friends of mine are quite adamant that he’s a poet – a brilliant poet and I just don’t see it. I don’t really think Bob Dylan was either, but he’s a lot closer to being one than Morrison ever got. I’m not going to do the selective let’s-pick-out-some-clunky-lyrics-and-debunk-Morrison-as-a-poet-thing because it’s cheap and you can do the out of context snide thing with absolutely everybody. What I will say is that I find a lot to love about Lou Reed, despite his best efforts to put people off and I find much less to love about about Jim Morrison, despite his best efforts to get people onside in terms of Jim ‘The Poet’ Morrison thing.
Here’s Lou Reed chucking his bag over the side of a bridge on purpose in case he drops it in by accident interview thing.
The Doors are seen as psychedelic – which they are, really – it’s the organ and the extended fucking jamming, but you don’t tend to hear people describing The Velvets as psychedelic, but they were. and they didn’t need that crumby organ bubbling away for ten minutes on every other song they recorded. What’s psychedelic anyway? Mind expanding? Take your pick, I suppose – or don’t.
End of Diversion.
So, in terms of my opening gambit – The Velvet Underground can’t have invented everything, even it sometimes seems a bit like they did – I think it’s easy to make an argument for it, but maybe it’s not true anyway.
I’ve heard it said that The Beatles popularised more than they invented and I think there’s quite a lot in that. The Beatles were, above all else, tasteful and so were The Velvets, even when they went out of their way to provoke by pretending to be tasteless – at least in terms of the prevailing attitudes of the day.
The Velvets’ influences weren’t really from pop music, although Bob Dylan’s preparedness to wring what he could out of the language might have given Lou Reed the impetus to do something similar in the pop music format. The Velvets’ influences came from the world of the avant-garde: La Monte Young and Satie’s experimental piano forms have been cited, although they don’t sound anything like The Velvets. Ornate Colman and Cecil Taylor’s free jazz experimentations might have flicked on a light bulb in Reed and Cale’s heads in terms of how they too could be unrestrained by pop music conventions of the time. However, Bo Diddley obviously sold more than a few records to Mo Tucker and, in all likelihood, to Lou Reed too.
The bottom line is that The Velvet Underground brought together a lot of ideas from the worlds of art, jazz and literature into pop music and made them palatable to people who would otherwise not have had any opportunity to find them. Which is what popularising means, isn’t it?
Maybe they’re not a million miles away from each other, The Beatles and The Velvet Underground. And maybe that’s one of the reasons why, when I’m giving consideration to the pointless question, “Who is Middlerabbit’s favourite band of all time?”, I struggle to come up with a definitive answer. Because what they’re both really about is ideas. And I like ideas, probably better than I like most other things.
And whatever you might think about either of my favourites, it’s hard to argue that either of them were short on ideas.