Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Music Progenitor: The Velvet Underground
There are a few things certain in life: the Beatles are likely the best band to ever exist in rock and roll, but the Velvet Underground were likely the most influential band to ever exist in rock and roll. Now "hold on!," you might say. I admittedly have only recently come of this opinion. I still am of the belief that the Beatles invented most forms of popular music today. But a lot of their territory is gone in my mind because the Velvets simply did it better. Because, let's be frank: the Beatles were master popsmiths. If it didn't have a good melody, it wasn't worth it to them. And thank God for that, because they had a fucking ear for melody. But the seedy underbelly, the counter-culture, the reverse flow of music, that oft-forgotten side...that was the area the Velvets held tightly in their grasp.
If you thought the Beatles were already sort of counter-culture, boy, you're in for a surprise. The Velvets, with their first two records, pushed every boundary imaginable. No topic was left untouched as a lyric. "Heroin" was a literal description of, well, doing heroin, while the cryptic "Venus In Furs" documents a tale of sexual deviance. "The Gift" was a spoken word tale of a boy mailing himself to his girl only to get killed waiting to get out of the box. This wasn't your normal stuff...no way. This was 1967, and even the Beatles never dared to venture this far with their lyrical exploration. The Velvets initially got a lot of crapola for their exploration of social deviance, but in retrospect it sincerely opened the door for virtually any artist to explore deviance in a meaningful way.
But on the music side, they pushed the envelope in many ways. The most striking thing about the Velvet Underground & Nico is the use of the viola. John Cale's experimentalism really drove the band forward within the first two records, and on the first record, it's through that viola. Instead of crafting elegant lines or whatever most people think a nice old viola should do, John Cale used the viola to create drones and a prickly bed of thorns for the rest of the band to play over...on the aforementioned "Heroin" and "Venus In Furs," those drones set the tone for the music and bring an intensity that could not have been constructed otherwise.
On White Light/White Heat, their experimentalism came from what John Cale had once called a quest for "anti-beauty." On the 15+ minute epic "Sister Ray," the apparent goal was to simply play louder than each other, with John Cale's organ fighting with Lou Reed's and Sterling Morrison's guitars, Moe Tucker's drums, and Lou's vocals, all the pieces (sort of) eternally locked in a battle to be the loudest. Previously mentioned "The Gift" is a spoken word piece, with the voice panned to one side and the instruments to the other, and in its strange way if you wanted to listen to an audiobook, you listened to the left channel, but if you wanted a jam, put in the right channel. Or you could, you know, put in both and enjoy it. But it was those little bits of experimentalism that made the record.
But the noise, oh, the noise. "I Heard Her Call My Name" is the prime example. Lou Reed's guitar runs wild like a depraved animal, squalling, sometimes off-key, deranged and self-destructive. But that was the point. It's so visceral, it rips you and forces you to listen, to be as raw as they were then. The sort of "guitar squalling feedback crazy weird solo" pops up time and time again in rock music, and it started here. You know, though, no one ever exerted less restraint with their solos than the Velvets did, and for that they proved to be the most dangerous and perhaps the most affecting.
I have vouched for the Velvets for their experimentalism, but they were not to be completely outdone on the pop front. Lou Reed knew how to write a good song, with catchy hooks aplenty. He just never indulged in it. They're seen early on in the Velvet Underground & Nico tunes "I'll Be Your Mirror" and "Sunday Morning," but until their third self-titled, it was never apparent. The Velvet Underground is a disarmingly quiet record, with not even a bit of feedback in sight. Every song except for "The Murder Mystery" (which is strikingly similar to "The Gift" but with many more interacting parts in it) is a bona fide pop masterpiece, from the mantra-like "Jesus" to the Factory-dedicated "Candy Says."
And then there's Loaded. Finally recognized for his pop sensibilities, Lou Reed was given a budget to sound like a pop star, and finally given a bit of production muscle, the record is, well, loaded with (potential) hits, with "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll" actually becoming quite popular. It's a classic pop record, meaning that the Velvets were actually quite impressive pop auteurs...they just chose to not take the beaten path to get there.
Those familiar with Velvet lore know that Cale left the group ("ushered" out, whatever, it doesn't make much of a difference) after White Light/White Heat, thereafter replaced by Doug Yule. The word on the street is that this change from an experimentalist to another pop auteur changed the balance in the band. No one knows if this is true, but if it is, so what? The Velvets were an all-around damn good band regardless of form (mostly). Take it for what it's worth. They paved the way for experimentalists with the first two records and showed how anyone can write a good pop record with the last two...and no Squeeze IS NOT, IS NOT IS NOT a Velvet Underground record. It's just not. Don't even bother.
The argument then is that Lou Reed was the heart and soul of the Velvet Underground...and I'd have to agree.
But on their influence? The Velvets were proto-punk. See how "I'm Waiting For The Man" churns along, with Lou's sort of sneer-ish voice providing a groundwork for the nihilism of early punk. Their lyrical exploration empowered punk to do the same. While in a sense with all the instrumental experimentalism brought forth by the Velvets was dismantled by the punk bands, the point is still there. Post-punk titans Joy Division covered "Sister Ray" in some of their shows (not as long as the Velvets' original version, sure, but still a daunting task regardless). David Bowie loved the Velvets (and Lou Reed) so much that Bowie single-handedly revived Lou Reed's solo career with the Transformer record (a damn good one, when you think about it).
And the Velvets' influence is still around today. The Strokes have cited the Velvets as a key influence, and you can hear Casablancas do his best Lou Reed impression on their debut album, Is This It. The raggedy guitar solos done by Reed back in the day show up now and again, in works by Neil Young (his guitar-playing style is highly Velvet-ish, I would argue) to even Wilco (the cacaphony that surrounds the postlude to "At Least That's What You Said," with it's scraggly guitars and tense atmosphere can be traced to the Velvets at its core). Though they were decidely left-field, it's pretty obvious that the Velvets had a most widespread impact, creeping in and never letting go.
Convinced yet? I would hope so.