(This remarkable article by Lance Loud was originally published as 'The Velvet Underground: A Skin-Deep View' in Hit Parader magazine, June 1975, five years after the Velvets broke up. See below for the story of the article's publication on Litkicks today.)
Right from the start, Lou's first band was labeled a "non-stop horror show", a "three ring psychosis" and a "sadomasochistic frenzy". They were rebels, their cause was the musical documentation of the 60s American Pop era. Their style and method of getting this message across knocked the wind out of a lot of people. "Not singe the Titanic ran into that iceberg", quivered a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, "has there been such a collision". All of this was an attempt to describe the three men and a girl that Lou had formed to play his songs. They were named after a tawdry porno book. The Velvet Underground.
Most people believe that the Velvet Underground was some creation of Andy Warhol. It is true that the Velvets DID become famous during their stint, in the mid sixties, with Andy's traveling disco/happening/pop art circus: The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, but the music that the Velvets played, like 'Heroin' (the smackers national anthem) 'Venus in Furs' (fetishistic S&M sex) or 'I'm Waiting For My Man' (pusher oh pusher, wherefore art thou?) was all a creation of Lou Reed and his Velvet band long before Andy caught up with them. They were the natural house band for the American Amphetamine A Go Go scene. Lou liked to say that both he and Andy were very much alike in purpose but Andy dealt with Art while Lou made his statements with music.
Lou Reed was nearest to being the center of the group. He wrote most of the songs and played a tremendously chaotic lead guitar, slashing his pick over the steel strings as if he were flailing a razor blade over his wrist. John Cale was his close friend and co-member. From Wales, John was well versed in bass, piano and an electric viola -- something that had not been used in rock before and gave a fuzzy whining effect. Sterling Morrison was the solid down to earth rhythm guitarist whose job it was to keep everyone within the brackets of the basic songs, and Maureen Tucker (Moe, to her friends) was the female drummer who played with kettle drum mallets, standing behind the drum set like in an orchestra, all the time staring hypnotically at Lou. You woulda thought he was Charles Manson by the way she looked at him.
They were a product of the Pop culture that was, at that time, the rage in America. A time when soup cans were art and 'the mod look' (remember Peggy Moffit?) was fashion. Drugs played a heavy part in their music too, just as they were then quite the "in" thing to live on and die from. The Velvets inadvertently created a whole style of music to help convey the mood of their times. This styles was knighted by one rock critic as 'Heavy Metal' ... the title stuck. People like David Bowie, Roxy Music, Blue Oyster Cult, Sparks have all tried to dabble in a bit of the electrically elegant agony that the Velvets first brought into being, but it was the Velvets who always did it first, and best.
Heavy Metal was the resulting thunder from a mixture of energy, frustration, pills, electric guitars and a rage to live ... not just the will, but the raw RAGE! There was a natural brutality that the Velvets spawned in their music. It did not care about the listener, it was for its own sake, no matter what you thought or cared. At the same time, the Velvets brand of Heavy Metal had a way of making their impact on the listener as personal and stunning as a hard, back-handed slap across your face. It was music to dance by or die by, your choice: One thing that was for sure though, they would NEVER play Caesars Palace.
The Velvet Underground was one of my reasons for living. Being a teen in California was plain getting me down. I was born there, and raised there, but I knew that I wasn't mean to be alive there! I felt like I was just hanging around until the scene changed and I could get out. I could think of nothing more thrilling than to cut school for half days and listen to the Velvets.
To me, that band was like a bunch of harpies calling to me off in the distance. I wasn't hoping for a safe landing if I could ever really follow them to where they were calling from. The way I understood their songs, half the fun of living was dying -- dynamically of course! With pavement below your feet, ravaged and wasted. I listened to their records over and over again, close closer, trying to hear and pick of every possible innuendo. I was taking direction from every note that they played.
Nico, the icy blond billed as 'chanteuse' on their very first album, was never really part of the group, only singing a couple of songs because Andy thought it would be nice to have a girl up there to sing a little too. On that first album she sang 'Femme Fatale' and split everyone's hearts with her low, lonely voice. Everything you could do on a gloomy, barren moor, you could do on Nico's voice. The rest of the album with 'I'm Waiting For My Man' and "Heroin' was the initial blockbuster. I could never play it if my parents were around. After a long wait, they finally released their second album and I was sure then that their first had not been a fluke.
'White Light/White Heat' was its name, it sounded like it had been recorded on a cassette machine on the far end of a gym as the Velvets played through two garbage trucks full of amplifiers and feedback. It sounded racy and unpredictable, the element of chance that your record player may blow up the next time you were half way through the record. The title song 'White Light/White Heat' was a long song to methadrine, a space shot in itself. Then there is the mondogodzilla perverso epic 'Sister Ray'. Whatta crusher! I used to put it on, over and over again, just to get off on the final amplifier hum that comes to the end of the 19 minute saga. It was shades of Pop Opera in that tune -- New York decadent style (Tommy could have learned a few things) complete with sucking drag queens, a murdered sailor, Lou frantically "searchin' for my mainline" and then further blemishing his reputation by suddenly moaning out "whip it on me Jim, whip it on me Jim, whip it on me Jim' as he whanks away at his guitar. It as surely food for thought in those moments when the mind strays into moister bodily zones.
'The Gift' is a poem that John Cale reads over a slithery instrumental. The Velvets recorded it so that on one speaker you could only hear the music and on the other you could hear the story. If people got bored with hearing the story again, they could switch it off and listen to the music. It is a tale of a boy and a girl separated by lack of funds. The boy begins to worry about her and mails himself to her in a box. The box gets delivered to her and she can just not imagine what is in it. Being inept, she also can't get it open and has to get a pair of cardboard cutters, plunging them "through the cardboard, through the cushioning and (at this point you can hear a knife whack through something) RIGHT through the center of Waldo Jeffers head!" In my High school drama class I gave this as my recitation at the end of the year exams. Everyone else was doing bits from Shakespeare, it was all dead, so I thought this would spice it up a little. I snuck a large butcher knife in my jacket, to class, producing it at the crucial moment, whacking it through a tomatoe I had placed on the chair next to where the Creepiest Girl in Class was sitting. This flash action had the desired effect on the rest of the class members who were, as usual, in several states of unconsciousness. The Creepiest Girl barked with fright (now I know which end of the leash she was one), everyone else donated -- at the very least -- one gasp apiece (if not a total array of hands thrown over gaping mouths) and eyes wide-as-saucers! I still got a low grade, though, because I had used an unscheduled 'prop' and because that prop had made a gash in the chair that the PTA had given my drama teacher.
The next album 'The Velvet Underground' introduced Doug Yule. John Cale was now gone, leaving over some dispute with L. Reed. Doug looked like Lou's younger brother and acted like a rock and roll Eve Harrington ('All About Eve'). Yes friends, seemed like Lou slowly became a jewish Bette Davis on meth crystal and lead guitar as Doug, at first bashfully playing the understudy, tried to take over the show.
When I first heard that it was released, I was walking with several friends through the high school ground on my way to a class when someone came up and gave me the news. If I had been wearing a wig, I would have flipped it right then and there!!! I threw my books up in the air and ran right out of the grounds to the nearest record shop in hopes that it might be easy to ... ahh, shall we say, lift? It wasn't. Still I did buy it later that afternoon ("Please Dad I have GOT to have 6 dollars to buy a new pair of gym shorts!") By that evening, I was crushed. It was a real blah album. I played it and it grew on me because it had to, haven't you felt like that? It was the only new thing of theirs around. Ho-hum it made me feel down in the mouth but I did not let it completely dill my pickle. I was in love with this band FOREVER!
In 1969 the Velvets released their equivalent to 'Abbey Road'. It was their last studio album and their best, not quite so heavy metal this time out but it did show that the band was progressing somewhere rather than being satisfied to try and do 'White Light/White Heat' over again (which would have been a great temptation to want to stick with). The album was called 'Loaded'. "Yug!" I though, what a corny title, and the drawing of the subway station on the cover was wretched. What was worse was that there was no picture on the album of the band. This was probably because you couldn't get them into the same room together; at that time they were not the friendliest towards each other. It was no real secret that they were on the verge of breaking up but if they did, I figured after listening to this record, this album was a beautiful last note.
"Do the DOOOG!!" Lou shrieks in the first song on side two. This bo' means it, too!! This album is all wall to wall danceable. It is the type of album that, next to the song titles should be the suggested dance style. Like, "Here Comes the Song" ... Hully Gully, this album sets your barkers a burnin'! It is also the album where the Velvets attempted to harness the raw unruly electric energy and formulate it into something new. That's right, now that they had done Heavy Metal they were out to start something new again ... this was even before so called 'heavy metal groups' like Black Sabbath had really caught on to the action (that is not saying that when they did, they did it right). On 'Loaded' the Velvets expanded their views of the city too. It had always been the prime topic of their music, but now they went beyond drugs and drag queens, they were 'jes plain city boys' singong of the bogus joys ("Head Held High") and fathomless mediocrities ("I Found a Reason", "Sweet Nothing") of city life. Sometimes they were very tongue in cheek about it all, most of the time they were just down right A GoGo!!
'Train Comin' Round the Bend' is my personal pick fave. They take the forboding whine of feedback and place it in context of the song, not letting it just screech around but really sobering it up and giving it a big role in the music. Add to this a feverish organ and a very rhythm and blues piano hit and you have: Beatles a la Americana! For you kids who had never heard Lou before he boasted his yearnings to 'walk on the wildside', you should get a load of Reed in this record. He hoots and hollers and whines and complains, his vocal is street-slung slang and when he is discontent with living in the country (in 'Train') he shouts out "take me away from the country ... I'm SICK of the trees, take me to the city, train comin' round the bend ..." You can tell this kid is s-i-c-k of all the Euell Gibbons naturalness. Of course there are many, many, many of us out there would probably 'not get it'; why, you ask, would he want to leave the groovy country to get back into the split level bummers that line up every avenue in a vustling berg full of Pig-schmucks? 'It's a stone bummer, man!' But wait! To some of us, this is not true, in fact, it is the other way around. The Velvet Underground loved the city, they ended their career with 'Loaded' as a tribute to the metropolis that spawned them. It is just too teasing to think of what the Velvets could have done after this (have you ever thought about what the Beatles could have done after 'Abbey Road'?) Unfortunately Fate was lurking in the wings to give the Velvet Underground the hook!
Well, Doug wanted to be the Velvet Underground. Lou wanted the Velvet Underground to be Lou Reed -- both these plans could not fit onto one band, there was fuming and fussing, ego was the order of the day, gritting teeth and squinty glares were frequented by everyone in the band and dusk was at hand. Lou developed a chronic case of Diana Ross-itis and so left his band to go off and become a dupe for Ziggy Stardust (or was he Zig all along?), Doug went on to cut his own album under the name of the Velvet Underground but it was only released in England because: 1. It was so very bad, 2. It wasn't the Velvets at all. Maureen quit being the greatest rock and roll drummer ever (if those of you who love rock and roll but have never seen her only knew how great and unrelenting she was -- like a pneumatic drill on 33 1/3) and went home to live with her parents and Sterling went to Texas and became an English teacher. Then there were none.
Nowadays you can't find 'Loaded' in many record stores, in fact it is almost a collectors item now because it was discontinued by the record company (Atlantic). The album you should really get -- and it is just release this year for those of you who don't like to buy OLD records - is 'The Velvet Underground Live - 1969' (Mercury). WOW! WOW! and SOS! This record is an emergency case of rock and roll. It is well recorded, Lou's presence is all black leather and snarl, danger runs up and down the guitar strings like quicksilver on this one. It offers a perfect look at the band when they were at their peak, the same year that they broke up.
It is a real shame that they broke up like that. Sometimes I allow myself to wax a little philosophical on the subject. Just think, I tell myself, if they didn't break up, perhaps they would have gone down hill, I mean, could even the Velvet Underground have spunked up Lou Reed's 'Berlin' -- n-o. Many stars, from all walks of life meet tragic deaths but perhaps they were just like Cinderellas being called home at midnight -- just in the nick of time before old age of past popularity set in. Can you imagine if the Velvets stayed together tooo long and eventually came out with things that no one would be able to accept as being the Velvets? I can just see some wretched titles like: The Velvet Underground - Mellow Moods' or 'Transcendental Velvet' ... thank God they left us with their polaroid picture of perversion. I rest my case.
The Story Behind This Article
by Levi Asher
When I was a morose young adolescent, I bought a copy of the June 1975 issue of Hit Parader magazine, probably because Led Zeppelin was on the cover, and heard of a now broken-up band called the Velvet Underground for the first time.
The article was so joyous and fetchingly composed that I read it over and over again. I became obsessed with the idea of this band called the Velvet Underground, even though I had no way of finding a Velvet Underground record (they were all out of print in 1975) or even hearing one of their songs.
I gradually figured out that the former lead singer of the Velvet Underground was the same Lou Reed whose awesome song 'Walk on the Wild Side' sometimes got played on FM radio, and I was able to buy enough of his records to become a serious Lou Reed fan. A couple of years later, I started hanging around Greenwich Village punk clubs like CBGBs and Max's Kansas City and became obsessed with a band called the Mumps. I went to many wonderful Mumps shows, but I was oblivious to two things.
First, I didn't know that the lead singer of the Mumps whose name I roughly heard as "Lance Loud" was the same Lance Loud who had caused a national television sensation years earlier as the wild gay son of the Loud family in the first-ever reality television show, An American Family. I eventually figured out that the charismatic, funny, hard-rocking lead singer was the same Lance Loud -- but it was only after that that I suddenly put the pieces together and realized that Lance Loud had also been the author of the brilliantly written Hit Parader article about the Velvet Underground that originally opened my eyes to the New York City music scene that had now become a big part of my life.
The Mumps soon broke up, sadly and without much glory -- as the Velvet Underground also had broken up without much glory five years before Lance Loud wrote that Hit Parader article in 1975 -- and Lance Loud died of AIDS in December 2001. This weekend, Lou Reed died on a quiet Sunday morning. I still think that Lance Loud's 1975 article about the Velvet Underground must be the best article about the Velvets ever written. It shimmers with vivid description and exuberant expression -- "electrically elegant agony" -- "Lou Reed played a tremendously chaotic lead guitar, slashing his pick over the steel strings as if he were flailing a razor blade over his wrist" -- "and this bo' means it!!". I think I picked up a few stylistic prose tricks of my own from this excellent piece.
This humble Hit Parader article was also apparently one of the first calls in the mid-70s pre-punk era for a revival of interest in the then-forgotten Velvet Underground. The article is also a couple of years ahead of its time for its emphasis on gritty urban values over hippie back-to-earthdom as a cultural touchstone for the emerging punk rock revolution.
Looking back on how the Velvet Underground was described in 1975, a few things stand out as surprising, like the fact that the music might ever be described as "heavy metal". Well, okay, but have you heard 'I Heard Her Call My Name'? Heavy metal it is. It's also ironic that Lance Loud misses one big call in this article. The third, self-titled Velvet Underground album that he bemoans as "blah" is now recognized as one of their stone-cold masterpieces. It's amazing to realize that Lance Loud was disappointed in the record album that gave the world "Candy Says", "Murder Mystery" and "Pale Blue Eyes". Well, Lance Loud was a rocker. He didn't go for that quiet wordy stuff.
I do not own the copyright to this article and have no legal right to run it on my blog. But it's not available in plain text anywhere on the Internet, and Lance Loud is dead and I don't think Hit Parader magazine will mind that I've taken the trouble to type the whole thing in from a dusty paper copy. I'm doing it in memory of Lou. There must be somebody else out there still who has never heard the legend of the Velvet Underground, and needs to.