Monday, August 18, 2008

Villains Always Blink Their Eyes: A 5 Song Intro to The Velvet Underground

If you are an enthusiast of great music, you need to pay attention. Please do yourself a favor, stop what you are doing, put on some really good headphones and listen to all five of the following songs. This is music that deserves your full attention.

New York City Art School students Lou Reed and John Cale formed The Velvet Underground in 1966. I’m not going to bore you with some half assed, fan gushed biography. That’s what Wikipedia is for. So instead I’ll just tell you the two reasons why I hold The Velvet Underground in the highest of esteem. They have the elusive combination of being both brilliant and weird as hell.

It’s not enough to be weird. Plenty of bands go that route. It’s a lazy approach to appear to be less mediocre than they really are. The Velvet Underground opt against the self consciously bizarre but they still factor in the degree of difficulty into their song writing. They stand on the diving platform (Imagine Lou Reed in a speedo. Go ahead. Do it.) and choose against the easy and obvious swan dive. Instead they perform their original dive, the triple roundhouse, jack knife, nuclear gainer. And they nail it perfectly. Man that was a lame metaphor. I think I stole that from a Sunday School lesson. Alright, no more lame metaphors from here on out. I promise.

Sweet Jane 1970 – Loaded

So I’m starting off with a song from Loaded, the fourth and last released by The VU. Their previous three albums had been praised by critics and musicians, but failed to have any serious commercial success. Sweet Jane, along with Rock and Roll, was Lou Reed’s attempt to write the most radio friendly top 40 song that he would still enjoy. The Cowboy Junkies recorded a slowed down, bluesy cover of this song in 1988 that is everything a good cover should be. It’s a new take, but still true to original song’s tone.

Heroin 1967 – The Velvet Underground and Nico

The VU are as effective at writing radio friendly, bare-bones rock and roll (see previous song) as they are writing experimental, artsy, dissonance. Which brings us to Heroin. Not a lot of subtlety in this song. No euphemisms here. This song is disturbing, deviant and at times unpleasant and yet when I listen to it on repeat, it makes me happy. Cale’s droning Viola, Reed’s expressionless vocals and Tucker’s accelerating drum beat create an atmosphere that engulfs the listener. Put on some headphones, close your eyes and shoot up. It’s entirely possible that you will hate this song, especially the last two minutes. But it’s just as likely that this song will change your perception of what pop music can be. Sometimes I watch movies to feel good. Sometimes I watch movies that will scare the crap out of me. The same is true with music. This song is the latter.

What Goes On 1969 – The Velvet Underground

If Buddy Holly has taught us anything, it’s that the definitive element of rock and roll isn’t the melody, or the lyrics, or the vocals or the hook. It’s the rhythm. The drummer and the bass player are the components of a band that compel you to move your neck in all kinds of funky ways. What Goes On is nothing but a rhythm section. There is a solo, (a tremendous one at that) but other than that, just a bass, organ, drums and guitar keeping the same hypnotic rhythm for about five minutes. Simplicity can be so fulfilling.

Sweet Nothing 1970 – Loaded

This song is almost eight minutes long, the lyrics are simple and repetitive and the chord progression never changes. In lesser hands this could be a boring song, but it’s one that I never get tired of. The final solo illustrates everything I love about rock and roll music.
After Hours 1969 – The Velvet Underground

After Hours is sung by the drummer Maurine Tucker. Lou said that the song was so “innocent and pure” there was no way he could possibly sing it himself. The self-pitying nature of the lyrics are juxtaposed by happy vaudeville guitar. It makes the song bittersweet, not just bitter. If you can listen to this song without relating to it just a little bit, you are a tool.

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