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Velvet Underground: Loaded « Previous | |Next »
May 1, 2009

I picked up a CD of the Velvet Underground's most commercial sounding album Loaded a while ago. It was the last album (1970) they made before Lou Reed left in frustration and disillusionment and the band effectively broke up. Funny enough I haven't played it until just recently. A Rolling Stone review from the 1970s.

Loaded is a long way from the toughness and rawness White Light/White Heat (1967), which is an expression of avant-garde rock'n'roll. It is commonly assumed that the Velvet Underground were the cutting edge of rock music in the late 1960s.

Parts of the up-tempo rock'n'roll of the Loaded album presage Lou Reed's subsequent solo career---namely, 'Sweet Jane', "Rock & Roll" etc. Ironically, The Velvet Underground begun to acquire popularity and their iconic rock status a few years after they broke up. Despite Reed's strong songs (eg., "Cool it Down"). Loaded does fall short of the previous Velvet's albums in terms of musical accomplishment. An example is "Lonesome Cowboy Bill".

If the Velvet Underground were once an expression of the avant garde in rock music, then this album is not an example of it. The experimental impulse that emerged out of Warhol's staged theatrical multimedia happenings---Exploding Plastic Inevitable---has long gone.

I've been listening to the Second Disc of the Fully Loaded CD version, which has the rougher or alternative versions of the songs, where the Velvets sound much more like a garage band with its two-guitars/bass/drums lineup.The idea behind Loaded now comes more into focus: it both explores the form of commercial or pop song from the perspective of different musical styles and subverts the commercial song.

You can also hear Lou Reed the individual performer on these outtakes and demos. These were subsequently used by him for his subsequent solo albums such as Lou Reed, the Bowie produced Transformer and Berlin.

I have yet hear any of the live work of the band--other on YouTube-- or the lost album that is known as VU, which was based on previously unreleased tracks that were made between the third album The Velvet Underground (1969)-- after Doug Yule had replaced John Cale--- and Loaded (1970) --the last one.

Update 2
I have little knowledge of the texts about the Velvet Underground. The text, The Velvet Underground Companion, collects reviews, interviews with band members and critical commentary. I have no idea what is the best book on the group in the context of Warhol, music and image. Is it this one? The photography looks interesting.

One text that I do know is Mark Grief's review of Richard Witts' book 'The Velvet Underground' in the London Review of Books of Richard Witts' book 'The Velvet Underground.' It is entitled The Right Kind of Pain- and raises the avant garde issue.

Witt says that the 1960s Velvets manifested atavisms of the 1950s that had survived in the New York art-world. These fused a 1950s Beat-existentialist sensibility (acquired by Reed at Syracuse University) with a recycling of the 1910s and 1920s avant-garde (learned by Cale from Fluxus artists in New York). It was ‘the confluence of a songwriter imbued with 1950s existentialism’ and ‘an arranger attracted to the performative actions of neo-Dadaism’.

Update 3
In re-reading Grief's article I notice that Witt adds to the avant garde heritage by pointing out that John Cale was the main avant garde figure. Grief says:

Everything Cale brought to the band, technically and philosophically, was taken directly from LaMonte Young and his wife Marian Zazeela. Young and Zazeela were coterie-oriented avant-gardists who wanted to advance music and liberate minds through new instrumental means. It’s not unusual to identify Cale with the avant-garde, nor with Young, his teacher, but it’s pretty shocking to be told that Cale’s Velvets-era avant-gardism was really nothing but Young’s techniques.

The classical avant-garde even today is sometimes content to play down the pain, annoyance, boredom and nuisance of the willed adherence to dissonance, atonality, minimalism and extended settings which were hallmarks of many of its best effects over the last century. You are supposed to be a good and educated listener, which means listening through annoyance for transcendence.

The Velvet Underground, however (in Cale’s revision of LaMonte Young, and in his new partnership with Reed), was able to reposition avant-garde annoyance and aural pain as part of a thematics of being bad. They aimed to hurt your ears with the newly available techniques, and to match this effect to an ethos of pain in the lyrics so that it all made sense.

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| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 7:41 PM | | Comments (17)



FYI: there's a new VU book by Richie Unterberger coming out in America in June featuring a couple of photographs by yours truly (shameless plug).

And by the way, "Loaded" is held in very high regard by Velvet's fanatics.

True, John Cale's departure after "White Light White Heat" removed a lot of the La Monte Young/avant-garde influences on the band, but Cale's own initial solo efforts (i.e. "Paris 1919" and "Vintage Violence") weren't particularly concerned with the avant approach, either.

As far as "musical accomplishment" is concerned, I don't think most VU aficionados would agree with you. The beginning of "Sweet Jane," for instance, is one of the iconic opening strains in pop music history--rivaling Brian Wilson's introduction to "California Girls" in beauty and ingenuity.

Rocco Sole

The "review" is more negative than I'd intended as I had linked two tracks to two of my photos here on Flickr. See this pic and this pic. And I was planning to do more, but there was a dearth of material on YouTube. I'm actually listening to the album now -- Disc 2 of the Fully Loaded CD version, and I'm thoroughly enjoying its roughness or garage band style playing ever so tightly.

I had mixed feelings in the post would have been more accurate way of expressing my initial impressions. I really missed Maureen Tucker on drums--the rhythm sounded thin. I'll write an update to the post.

Best of luck with the VU book.


Thanks for the update and clarification.

One question:

If you thought "Loaded" was a significant departure from "White Light White Heat," then what was your initial reaction to the wholly unexpected and subdued tone of the almost-passive album that followed "White Light..."--the LP simply titled "The Velvet Underground?" At the time (1969), that was the REAL shocker for Velvets devotees.

"Jesus, help me find my proper place." That was a bit of a digression from WLWH's "I'm searching for my mainline. I said I couldn't hit it sideways."

Many Velvets fans (all 753 of them) were anticipating something wholly different. It took repeated plays to reveal how radical and somewhat perverse that LP actually was.


Rocco Sole

I attributed the change to the departure of the band's most committed avant-gardist, John Cale, in the fall of 1968 and the arrival of Doug Yule. I also thought the songs were stronger than Loaded and Maureen Tucker was still on drums.


Was that your thought at the time? Or did you discover the Underground subsequent to their demise?

I'm intrigued by listeners who seriously consider the band's work after-the-fact. I've often speculated that those who didn't follow or actually see the band during it's heyday may actually have a more objective understanding of their significance. Events and trends were moving so fast back then it was virtually impossible to get any perspective. Futhermore, Velvets die-hards are, like punks in the 70s, underdogs with a tendency to romanticize the era in which they were woefully underappreciated.


Rocco Sole

My situation is a bit different. I knew about and had the first two Velvet Underground albums when they came out. Then I left NZ and I didn't listen to rock music until just recently. Not did I buy CD's until a couple of years ago. I then bought the the two albums a year or so ago.


I saw the Velvets in '66 in NYC. I was 19. What seemed unorthodox at the beginning of that show, seemed oddly familiar to me by the finale. I left that gig thinking that any other contemporary rock 'n' roll, no matter how novel or unorthodox, ran a poor second to the VU. In retrospect, that's a bias, on certain days, I'm still willing to entertain.

Thanks for the give and take, Gary. Even though I'm infrequently in the comments section to chuck my usual hand grenades, I remain a regular reader.



what is the Velvet Underground's live work on CD like? Is it worth exploring--eg., Live at Max's Kansas City?


Frankly, the sound quality on the authorized releases leaves a lot to be desired and they don't feature Cale ("Live At Max's Kansas City" and "1969, Velvet Underground Live with Lou Reed," etc.). And as expected, most of the boots are rather poor. It's stuff best left to fanatics. But there's a "new" live recording circulating on the net from the Gymnasium in NYC (April 1967). It's not only very typical of how the band sounded at the time, it's also a great performance with good sound. 5 tunes including what is, to my ears, the definitive recording of "Run, Run, Run."



I gather most of the live recordings come from fans bringing along, with consent of the band, recording equipment to record a set. Most of the time, this would mean relatively simple hand-held recorders resulting in lo-fi audience recordings.Pity.

Was the Gymnasium a club in New York City that Andy Warhol owned and put on shows at, and the Velvet Underground had a couple of gigs there in April 1967. That is about the time the West Coast bands, such as The Grateful Dead, were experimenting.


Yes, the Gymnasium was briefly Warhol's venue.

It's interesting that Grieff would draw a parallel with the Dead, the band that raises the hackles of most VU fans (including mine). In VU circles, the Gratefuls would be dismissed as acid-casualty, faux-pastoral hippie piffle in stark contrast to the Velvet's noir, stilleto-sharp, urban street smarts.

Essentially, he's on target when he ignores "personal histories" and talks about both bands' dramatic break with tradition regarding improvisation and multi-media presentation.

But disregarding personal histories only makes sense in terms of bolstering Grieff's theoretical construct. It does nothing to reveal the zeitgeist of the times.

The Dead's origins were primarily in folk and roots music while Reed's early influences were Dion, doo-wop and NYC pop radio. Combine that with Cale's trained musicianship and interest in avant-classical and you get a decidedly different hybrid than a bunch of folkie retreads who just discovered electricity.

Grieff is accurate in remarking:

"In the musical-historical imagination – with its New York v. California, but especially its punk v. hippie oppositions – the Dead ought to be the exact antithesis of the Velvet Underground."

Correct. There was no "punk vs. hippies" NY-California rumble in the late 60s. Nonetheless the VU were the antithesis of the Dead.

The hippie ethos was the prevailing counter cultural position for anti-establishment types all across the States. That's precisely what made the Velvets a thing apart--they turned their back on the dominant mode and, unlike the groovy-vibed Dead, explored grim lyrical subject matter and a harsh musical atonality.

The Velvets were never tie-dyed and lysergic enough. And they paid for it with predictably rotten records sales and only cult popularity--an indication that the celebrated Sixties were unorthodox only within a carefully defined orthodoxy.

As rockcrit. Lester Bangs put it:

"Modern music starts with the Velvet Underground."


The San Francisco/New York hippie /punk thing is a red herring in 1967. That's when the Grateful Dead produced Anthem of the Sun and then Live/Dead

There is nothing here about one being better than another nor I prefer one to the other. You have two avant- garde impulses in rock music that cast aside the once-accepted demands of the short, self-contained pop song--- which then died ---eg, with Workingmans Dead and Velvet Underground's third album--The Velvet Underground

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band are the third avant garde impulse---eg Trout Mask Replica 1969-- that was also connected to the art world.


You're absolutely right about one not being better than another. That's a subjectivity and taste issue. I was trying to make two points (evidently very poorly):

1. A Sixties "hippie vs. punk confrontation" was a convenient fabrication to bolster
Grieff's revisionist history comparisons between the Dead and the VU. That dust-up simply didn't exist until the mid Seventies.

"Kill 'em 'cause their hair's too long, kill 'em 'cause they're views are wrong." ("Kill Hippies" The Deadbeats 1978)

"Hippies are just squares with long hair" ("Master Race Rock" The Dictators 1975)

2. What the Velvets did when they "cast aside the once-accepted demands of the short, self-contained pop song," was quite different and, arguably, more remarkable than the Dead. Hippies gave us the wretched excesses of "progressive" rock--a pretentious, cultural wrong-turn that virtually eradicated the primal energy that once defined rock 'n' roll. The Velvets' avant-garde experiments expanded the boundaries of r&r while RETAINING that fire and vitality.


I'll leave you to explore the pros and cons of the historical conflict/differences between hippies and punk. My concern, as I indicated above, is more with the possibilities of avant garde in rock music. Is there such a category? How useful is it? What is its significance?

As noted above 1967/69 was one moment of that---I would revise the dates of this moment to include Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited Maybe Bowie's Berlin Period in the late 1970s is another such moment.


We can leave behind anything you'd like. But was it one of Grieff's central premises and you, evidently, thought it was important enough to direct it to our attention. If it's no longer useful to you we can move on to other things . But I will say this, intent and perspective produce very different results. While the Dead and the VU may have had similarities in method, the music and the message were something wholly different.

As for the existence of avant garde in rock--I think the answer is "yes." To my mind, the more intriguing question is whether it's credible to continue calling it "rock." Does Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten, The Residents, Robert Wyatt, Half Japanese, Beefheart or (fill in the avant-darling of one's choice) really deserve such a restrictive categorization? Or is it time to move on and examine the music in the same way we would appreciate the work of Harry Partch, John Cage or any other musical maverick?

As for whether avant-rock is "useful" or discussing "it's significance," I will, in turn, leave that to you. I think time sorts out such distinctions better than the most astute critics or theorists.

For example,very few people understood the enormous influence the VU would have while they were extant. Amongst most academic types, too busy diligently attempting to interpret Dylan's ever gesture, they were considered something of a joke band--fraudulent and too primitive to be taken seriously.

So, Gary. You're of theoretical bent. Your conclusions? Is there an avant garde in rock? Is it significant? And if the answers are either "no" or "yes" what would that reveal about the music or its listeners? Most importantly, you seem very interested in whether a band "subverts the commercial song" or not. In your view, is that rock's test of artistic credibility or is it just historically intriguing?


I raise the avant garde issue because Mark Grief in his article-- The Right Kind of Pain-- in the London Review of Books does so whilst reviewing Richard Witts' book 'The Velvet Underground.'

According to Grief, Witt's claim is that:

the Velvets be seen in light of the 1950s, not the 1970s and 1980s. For Witts, the Velvet Underground were a backwards-looking band. It was their eccentric untimeliness, he argues, that accounted for their commercial unsuccess (despite the remarkable publicity launch with Warhol) and floated them free of their time to become so iconic later. The 1960s Velvets manifested atavisms of the 1950s that had survived in the New York art-world. These fused a 1950s Beat-existentialist sensibility (acquired by Reed at Syracuse University) with a recycling of the 1910s and 1920s avant-garde (learned by Cale from Fluxus artists in New York). It was ‘the confluence of a songwriter imbued with 1950s existentialism’ and ‘an arranger attracted to the performative actions of neo-Dadaism’. Their untimeliness furnished an odd sound, but also a special credential, by which later bands looking to overthrow the Flower Power generation could assert allegiance to an alternative musical paternity.

It is this is this contention of untimeliness that Grief disputes.He explicitly rejects the musical signifance of punk v hippe cultural war to hightlight two things the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead had in common.First
Yet when you look at the state of both bands at their contemporaneous founding moments in 1965-66, you find that the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead started out, in an odd way, as basically the same band. In fact, both bands started with the same name in 1965: the Warlocks. And both were quickly taken up by other cultural movements and artists from other genres to furnish ‘house bands’ for collective projects.
The most striking fact is that, like the Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground started out as a platform for extremely long, wandering, repetitive, live improvisations, appropriate to multimedia events. It’s eye-opening each time the Velvets’ principals insist in interviews that they were far better as a live band than in anything captured on record. Yet they all do.

Both bands originally imagined themselves as the ‘Warlocks’ essentially because each had a vision of enchantment, underlaid with darkness. (They both had to choose a different name because it turned out that a third band had already put out a record as the Warlocks.) Both bands offered a particular kind of alternatively experienced rather than danced-to or sung-along-to pop music, whose relation to the audience would be primarily hypnotic.

Grief goes on to say that The Velvet Underground, however (in Cale’s revision of LaMonte Young, and in his new partnership with Reed), was able to reposition avant-garde annoyance and aural pain as part of a thematics of being bad: of being, that is, a ‘good’ listener who could know the joy of vicariously being ‘bad’. Aural pain went with lyrics about willed pain to produce an ‘avant-garde’ musical correlative to squalor, masochism, sexual deviance and drugs – and an experience for listeners that today’s lifestyle gurus might call ‘aspirational’.


Thanks for the summation, Gary.

Grieff is correct in disputing Witt's contention that the VU's " eccentric untimeliness, ...accounted for their commercial unsuccess."

Witt is simply not accounting for the temperament of the era. At the time of the VU's emergence, people hadn't heard anything more challenging in popular music than "Revolver," an album which, in the scheme of things was easily digestible--primarily because people were predisposed to swoon over anything the lovable Moptops bestowed on an adoring public. It was an LP that, as you might put it, didn't significantly "subvert" the primacy of the pop tune.

With the Velvets, you had a relatively unknown band who had just released a record so noir and discordant, most people though it wasn't listenable. There was simply no point of reference.

As for the "remarkable publicity launch with Warhol," Witt ignores something which, in hindsight, is easily forgettable.

At the time, for the individuals you refer to as "cultural conservatives," Warhol was still considered to be a charlatan. He'd taken all that introspective, joyless, and doctrinaire Clement Greenberg stuff and thumbed his nose at it. Pop Art was still for many die-hards, an affront to the dead-seriousness of Abstract Expressionism. Andy just wasn't credible to a lot of people who still wielded an enormous amount of power and influence. He was an oddball and an upstart that made everything in American art seem old and stodgy overnight. There was still a good deal of resentment towards him--even as late as 1967.

And as far as the majority of the rock 'n' roll audience was concerned, the Warhol association barely mattered. His name had more sway in the world of the visual arts than the domain of popular music.