The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground – [Record 111]
The Velvet Underground is the third album by American rock group The Velvet Underground. It was their first record to feature Doug Yule, John Cale’s replacement. It was recorded in 1968 at TTG Studios in Hollywood, California. The album’s sound – consisting largely of ballads and straightforward rock songs – marked a notable shift in style from the group’s previous recordings. In 2003, the album was ranked number 314 on Rolling Stone’s “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list.
1. Candy Says.
2. What Goes On.
3. Some Kinda Love.
4. Pale Blue Eyes.
6. Beginning to See the Light.
7. I’m Set Free.
8. That’s the Story of My Life.
9. The Murder Mystery.
10. After Hours.
Background: Lou Reed, the group’s main songwriter, said of the album: “I really didn’t think we should make another White Light/White Heat. I thought it would be a terrible mistake, and I really believed that. I thought we had to demonstrate the other side of us. Otherwise, we would become this one-dimensional thing, and that had to be avoided at all costs.”
Maureen Tucker said, “I was pleased with the direction we were going and with the new calmness in the group, and thinking about a good future, hoping people would smarten up and some record company would take us on and do us justice.” Doug Yule said the album “was a lot of fun. The sessions were constructive and happy and creative, everybody was working together.”
The Velvet Underground was the band’s first album for MGM Records, its first two albums having been issued on Verve, an MGM subsidiary. The previously strong Andy Warhol influence is diminished, with the most notable ties to The Factory being the cover and back photographs taken by Warholite Billy Name, and the opening track “Candy Says” about Warhol superstar Candy Darling (who reappears in Reed’s 1972 song “Walk On The Wild Side”). The song was sung by Yule at Reed’s insistence.
“The Murder Mystery” featured all four band members’ voices. During the verses, Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison each recited different verses of poetry simultaneously, with each track panned strictly to the left and right. For the choruses, Maureen Tucker and Doug Yule sang different lyrics and melodies at the same time, also separated left and right.
The record was produced by the band themselves, and issued in two different stereo mixes. The more widely distributed mix is the one done by MGM/Verve staff recording engineer Val Valentin. The other mix was done by Lou Reed, boosting his vocals and guitar solos, and thus reducing the rest of the music from the album’s soundscape. Therefore, it was dubbed the “Closet Mix” by guitarist Sterling Morrison, because it sounded to him like it had been recorded in a closet. The most dramatic difference between mixes is that “Some Kinda Love” is an entirely different performance from the same recording sessions. The LP sleeve was designed by Dick Smith, then a staff artist at MGM/Verve, with Billy Name’s photo of the band sitting sedately on a couch at Andy Warhol’s Factory.
Music and lyrics: The album was a radical departure from White Light/White Heat. Music critic Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune characterized it as folk rock, and Rolling Stone magazine’s Troy Carpenter said that it focused on mellow, melodic rock. According to music journalist Steve Taylor, The Velvet Underground is a pop album because of its more accessible songs and “has been called Lou Reed with a backing band due to the emphasis placed on songs rather than experimental sound work.”
Apart from the forceful rockers “What Goes On” and “Beginning to See the Light”, it largely features more subtle and restrained sounds with reflective, melodic songs that are about various forms of love, including “Pale Blue Eyes”, “Some Kinda Love”, “Jesus”, “I’m Set Free”, and “That’s the Story of My Life”. Without Cale’s penchant for experimenting, Reed and Morrison’s twin-guitar playing became the band’s most prominent sound, and the album had spare arrangements that lacked distortion. The only song that exhibited the band’s avant-garde roots is “The Murder Mystery”, which incorporated a raga rhythm, murmuring organ, overlapping spoken-word passages, and lilting counterpoint vocals.
Release history: Early copies of the album were released on MGM, but re-issue versions are on Verve.
The first U.S. version contained the Lou Reed “Closet Mix,” although the track times listed on the first U.S. issue more closely match the Valentin mix. This may indicate that the Reed mix was issued by mistake or that it was substituted after the covers were printed. The original U.K. release used the Valentin mix.
All CD versions, as well as the 1985 vinyl re-issue, are copies of the Valentin mix. Other LP re-issues vary but most also use the Valentin Mix. The “Closet Mix” is available on disc four of the 1995 CD box set Peel Slowly and See.
Critical reception: In a contemporary review for The Village Voice, music critic Robert Christgau viewed it as the band’s best album and found it tuneful, well-written, and exceptionally sung, despite “another bummer experiment” in “The Murder Mystery” and some questionable stereo recording. Lester Bangs, writing in Rolling Stone magazine, felt that it is not on-par with White Light/White Heat and has missteps with “The Murder Mystery” and “Pale Blue Eyes”, but ultimately said that its combination of powerfully expressive music and profoundly sentimental lyrics will persuade the band’s detractors into believing they can “write and play any kind of music they want to with equal brilliance.” In his ballot for Jazz & Pop magazine’s annual critics poll, Christgau ranked it as the sixth best album of the year.
In a review of the album’s 1985 reissue, Rolling Stone’s David Fricke remarked that both The Velvet Underground and its predecessor lack the diverse range of the band’s 1967 debut album and the precise accessibility of Loaded (1970). However, he felt that the album is still edifying as a tender, subtly broad song cycle whose stark production surprisingly reveals the essence of Reed’s more expressive songwriting. Fricke cited the “ironic pairing” of “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Jesus” as the best summary of “the hopeful warmth at the center of the Velvets’ rage.” Colin Larkin, writing in The Encyclopedia of Popular Music (1998), said that the album showcased a new subtlety because of Reed’s larger role in the band and that it “unveiled a pastoral approach, gentler and more subdued, retaining the chilling, disquieting aura of previous releases.”
In 2003, The Velvet Underground was ranked number 314 by Rolling Stone on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. NME magazine named it the 21st best album of all time in a similar list. In The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), Rob Sheffield wrote that after Cale’s departure, the band became “acoustic folkie balladeers” and that Reed was unexpectedly charming on the album, whose “every song is a classic”. Q magazine called the album “a flickering, unforgettable band performance”.
Sputnikmusic’s Nick Butler felt that, although it is not as good as the band’s debut album, The Velvet Underground is “still a brilliant album.”