THE VELVET UNDERGROUND White Light/White Heat (Verve)

A few brief words about my recently acquired vinyl pressing of this splatter rock classic (my mate Vic is gradually buying up armfuls of my CDs, enabling me to replace them with equivalents on a high quality format). The music should be familiar enough to render description unnecessary, but if somehow you've managed to avoid becoming ensnared in the Velvets dragnet of fuzz, feedback and distortion rest assured that "White Light/White Heat" is probably the heaviest album in the world ever. Never mind the likes of Metallica and their complex prog timechanges, here the VU stretch songs out to up to 17 minutes of bludgeoning riffage. Marvel as the entire psychedelic movement is burnt to the ground by the shuddering telekinesis the band demonstrate on the closing few seconds of the title track. And "I Heard Her Call My Name" contains, as Wayne McGuire asserted writing in Crawdaddy, "one of the most pregnant and highly-charged moments in music, a split-second pause of silence after the second "My mind's split open" foreshadowing the following feedback explosion". In short, this is as black as music gets, all packaged in the original none-more-black sleeve, decades before Spinal Tap and Metallica copped the idea.

The funniest thing about this reissue, which incidentally features smart authentic Verve labels circa 1968, is the presumably unintentionally hilarious stuffed-shirt spiel on the back cover. Under a RIAA logo it reads "This record has been engineered and manufactured in accordance with standards developed by the Record Industry Association of America Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to the betterment of recorded music and literature". Never a truer word, sir.


Well, did you really expect it to last? The latest (re)incarnation of the Velvets may have crumbled gracelessly apart, but we still have the inevitable live album to remind us...and the edited live album, and the video... Second time around they've certainly avoided their original problem of 'poor distribution', but looking at the evidence (the album came out on Lou Reed's record label, produced by Mike Rathke, responsible for Reed's 'comeback' (i.e. first decent record for fifteen years) album "New York", the booklet says "ALL SONGS WRITTEN BY LOU REED (except where indicated)) the possibility that they were just another of Lou Reed's backing bands becomes difficult to discount. Not that the music is without virtue, especially compared with some of the VU's original live work e.g. "Live At Max's". Complaints that Reed desecrates his songs here can be discounted on the grounds that he used to do that first time round as well, and it must be remembered that the Velvets then and the Velvets now(ish) are virtually two different bands.

Besides which, in places this is really good...mainly when John Cale is singing: "All Tomorrow's Parties" is great, as is "The Gift", where, unlike the original, Cale actually sounds as if he's awake. But elsewhere it's merely good enough...the Velvet Underground reborn as competent stadium rockers. Could you imagine Lou Reed singing, during "Sweet Jane", "And some people like us we like to go to a Velvet Underground concert"? Neither could I, but he does, unfortunately. The only new song, "Coyote", is passable, but not good enough to make you regret the fact that there won't be any more new songs. Elsewhere everything you'd expect is dusted down and given a modern, crowd-pleasing makeover (with the notable exception of "What Goes On"), but is that really what we should expect? The Exploding Plastic Inevitable this isn't.

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND The Velvet Underground (Simply Vinyl)

This was the first Velvet Underground album to be recorded following John Cale's replacement by the more pliable Doug Yule, on which the band moved away from the noise, fuzz and distortion with which they later influenced at least two generations of alienated suburban kids towards a folksier, more introspective, acoustic sound. It presaged the massive popularity of singer-songwriters such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Carole King by at least a year, as well as mapping out the rootsier direction later to be travelled by just about every band from Led Zeppelin to The Grateful Dead at some point during the early 70s. Lou Reed has claimed that "The Velvet Underground" marks the high watermark of his attempts to sequence an album of songs into a coherent story, and some critics point to the likes of "Some Kinda Love" as the beginning and end of the rock-lyrics-as-art debate.

Despite not wielding as significant a historical influence as their incredible debut, this is the Velvet Underground album I find myself returning to most frequently. Undoubtedly their most mature work, Reed's gaze had left the sex-and-drugs-addled underbelly of New York society and now focussed on subjects such as relationships, personal politics and religion. The baffling eight-minute double-tracked amphetamine-gabbled narrative of "The Murder Mystery" aside, this is a gently unfolding album of stark, solemn beauty punctuated by joyous revelation, and contains two of the bands greatest non-hits in "What Goes On" and "Beginning To See The Light". (Clueless to the last, their record company released the quiet, meditative "Jesus" as a single instead, which conspicuously failed to storm the charts).

Simply Vinyl have done more good work with this painfully overdue reissue, with the expected 180 gram virgin vinyl pressing and protective plastic outer sleeve. If there's less sonic delight to be found here than on their recent Nick Drake and Traffic albums it's probably more a reflection of the quality and condition of the original master tapes than any shortcomings on the part of Simply Vinyl.

VELVET UNDERGROUND 1969 Velvet Underground Live With Lou Reed (Mercury)

The more I play this double album, originally released in 1974 and culled from some eight hours of source material, the more it stakes a claim to being the ultimate Velvet Underground album, and with back-catalogue competition that includes arguably the most influential debut album in the world ever, that's no idle boast. But the 105 minutes of the clumsily titled "1969 Velvet Underground Live With Lou Reed" just about have it all: great swathes of material from all four of the Velvets' proper studio albums, including versions of songs from "Loaded" that are closer in spirit to Lou Reed's ideal than the butchered takes that appeared on that album, a handful of tracks that were recorded by the Velvets but remained unreleased during their too-brief career, later to prop up Reed's solo albums during the early 70s, and even some songs ("Over You" and "Sweet Bonnie Brown/It's Just Too Much") that have no equivalent in their official studio output.

Wow. But the tracklisting would mean nothing if "1969 Velvet Underground Live With Lou Reed" didn't admirably demonstrate the Velvets' proficiency as a hard-gigging, ass-kicking primal rock and roll band. Listen to what is possibly the ultimate version of "What Goes On" presented here, almost nine minutes long and entwined with Doug Yule's (or is it Stirling Morrison's? There's no relevant information in the sleevenotes, and these shows were taped at a time when the band's Band-like instrumental ambidextrousness reached a peak) swirling Bontempi organ crescendos, or "Ocean", surely one of Lou Reed's most unfairly neglected gems, or the surprisingly restrained take of "Heroin", rendered warmly comatose without the departed John Cale's sawing viola drones, for ample evidence. The sound quality of these tapes may be no great shakes - certainly better than the audience cassette-recorded official bootleg that is "Live At Max's Kansas City" but roughly distorted and compressed compared to the pindrop clarity of "Live MCMXCIII" - and there are still sufficient omissions to render the additional purchase of the rest of their catalogue mandatory, but this has rapidly become the one Velvet Underground album I can't live without.

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND Live At Max's Kansas City (Cotillion)

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes (Polydor)

On August 23, 1970, Brigid Polk took her little SonyTC120 cassette recorder into Max's Kansas City, the famed New York restaurant-club where her friends The Velvet Underground had been playing all summer, with the intention of preserving the gig for herself for posterity. When Lou Reed left the band later that week she negotiated the sale of the tape to the Velvets' record company, who later issued it as the first bootleg recording to be granted official release.

So, what does it sound like? I owned an Atlantic pressing of this album for almost a day at the turn of the last decade, and I can't recall the yawningly obvious edits that this Cotillion issue suffers from, most obtrusively during Lou Reed's audience-baiting spoken introduction to "Sunday Morning" - it's unnerving when the background atmosphere suddenly drops out, leaving the listener feeling momentarily deafened. But, by the same token, the overall sound quality of "Live At Max's Kansas City" is generally good enough: it's not hi-fi, it's not even stereo, and you have to withstand poet and future recording artist Jim Carroll barking out his drinks orders between songs, but it will serve.

Onstage Lou Reed sounds off-hand and wound-up, the band bashing through their back catalogue in casually workmanlike fashion. Doug Yule's brother Bill was deputising on drums for a heavily pregnant Mo Tucker, and his playing offered a degree more exuberance than these songs strictly required. There's little here that wasn't performed better on the band's four studio albums or the still-astonishing "1969 Live With Lou Reed" double set, and in recent times some doubt has been shed on the historical accuracy of the claim that this was Reed's final performance before he quit. Nevertheless, there are a few revelatory moments, such as the swinging savagery with which the band attack the introduction to "Sweet Jane", and Reed's response to audience requests for "Heroin", "We don't play "Heroin" anymore".

But what you get that nothing else in the band's discography offers is a night in Max's with The Velvet Underground, the view from the stalls, as near as makes no odds to what it would have sounded like had you been there on that or any other night of their engagement. And if it doesn't sound earth-shakingly momentous, or if Lou seems crabby (as if!), or if you can't hear the music above the chatter of the crowd then that's just further proof of its authenticity.

Thirty years after the fact, the freshly released three CD box set "Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes" boasts a similar genesis. Aspiring guitarist and self-confessed rabid Velvet Underground fan Robert Quine used to sit in the audience at the band's gigs with his recently purchased Sony cassette recorder (where would bootleg culture be today without Japanese miniaturisation?!). Quine gradually built up a relationship with the group, hanging out with them in the dressing room between sets and occasionally playing back highlights from his recordings at their request. (Much later, between 1981 and 1985, he would feature in Lou Reed's backing band.) These discs contain the highlights of those cassettes, music originally performed in San Francisco and St. Louis during 1969.

Sonically "The Bootleg Series" is good enough - alright, it's strictly medium wave quality, but as with "Live At Max's Kansas City" you can hear the words and it doesn't require a gigantic leap of faith and effort on the listener's part to fill in the gaps - after all, in effect, you're listening to the sound The Velvet Underground unleashed upon audiences thirty years ago, and with its major label seal of approval and the involvement of VU archivist Bill Levenson you can be sure that the music has been presented in its most user-friendly form.

Or can you? A niggling question mark hangs over "The Bootleg Series", in the form of the statement "All tracks previously unreleased, except "Rock And Roll" which appears, in a different mix, on Velvet Underground Live 1969". Now, although the "Live 1969" album eulogised about above isn't exactly the last word in airbrushed perfectionism, it's an easier aural ride than either "The Bootleg Series" and "Live At Max's", so the duplication of "Rock 'N' Roll" in this inferior form is mystifying. As other performances appear here from the same gig as the aforementioned, and the compiler of "Live 1969" claims to have cherry-picked from over eight hours of tapes, the tantalising prospect of great swathes of the material presented here mouldering in the Phonogram vaults in superior sonic form suggests itself.

Wishful thinking aside, "The Bootleg Series" contains over three hours of 1969-model Velvet Underground, which means in place of John Cale's maverick, spiky experimentation you'll find an air of almost West coast-y, laid-back relaxation. The studio rendition of "Sister Ray" that closed the "White Light/White Heat" album in a twisted mass of distorted sonic carnage was a direct result of Reed and Cale's sparring battle to carve each other up instrumentally: here the same song appears (in three different versions which close each CD, weighing in at 24, 38 and 29 minutes respectively) more akin to a Grateful Dead jam session, with long, modulated passages of telepathic, rather than psychopathic, improvisation. Equally, the two versions of "I'm Waiting For The Man" are more slouching than speeding. Undoubtedly "The Bootleg" series presents an honest, undoctored impression of what The Velvet Underground sounded like in concert in 1969, but compared to other, excellent documents from the period it's more a footnote than the definitive article.

John Cale

Lou Reed