Friday, February 23, 2007

the unofficial velvet underground

The Velvet Undergroundonce again bill has bestowed upon me a musical treasure trove, this time in the form of 12 CDs of "unofficial" velvet underground recordings. of course there is a lot of inessential material here, but i've begun going through it and can now report my initial findings. my suspicion is that the essentials can be sweated down to 2, maybe 3 CDs worth of stuff (depending, for example, on how many 20+ minute live versions of "sister ray" you need...) details on each of the following sets can be found at olivier landemaine's webpage.

in general i would say that the stuff breaks down as follows:
  1. live versions of officially released songs -- these naturally vary a great deal depending on performance and recording quality, and should be measured against officially released live material such as that on the live albums and the quine tapes;
  2. live material not otherwise officially available -- these vary quite a bit as well, but some of it (such as "the nothing song," see below) immediately strike me as being essential listening;
  3. demos and rehearsals -- much of this stuff has since been released on the 5CD peel slowly and see box set, but again some has not and is quite essential (see "loop" below);
  4. live, studio or radio broadcast performances of post-VU material -- lou reed solo, velvets reunions, etc. -- that is generally not essential;
  5. interviews -- some of this stuff is interesting but not necessarily worth listening to more than once; some producers of these unofficial releases have mixed interviews in with live performances in a way that does not make them very interesting or accessible.
NOTE: i've not gone through ALL this stuff yet, so there may be some live performances from category 1) above that i've not yet discovered, but otherwise here's the report.

The Velvet Underground, Searchin' For My Mainlinesearchin' for my mainline is a 3CD set that contains the following essentials. "loop" is a fantastic feedback drone/phase piece that was recorded and released in 1966 as the locked-groove b-side of a flexi-disc that came with the magazine aspen #3. of course, has the file here (scroll down). this recording is crucial to the history of feedback, far moreso than the beatles' "in my life" and perhaps second only to the "fontana mix - feed" of max neuhaus (also 1966). disc 1 also features an acoustic version of "heroin" credited to "rehearsal, paris 1/25/72" and is unlike any version i've heard before. disc 2 contains live versions of "what goes on" and "run run run" from the hilltop rock festival, rindge, new hampshire, august 2, 1969 (my second birthday!) that are absolutely smoking: "run run run" in particular contains some of reed's most blistering feedback-drenched guitar soloing ever, second only to his work on "i heard her call my name" which is of course one of if not the greatest rock guitar solos ever.

The Velvet Underground, Caught Between the Twisted Starsthe two middle discs of the caught between the twisted stars 4 CD set are most noteworthy. disc 2 features "the nothing song," a nearly 30-minute mid-tempo trance-jam soundtrack recorded at an exploding plastic inevitable show at the valleydale ballroom, columbus ohio, november 4, 1966. essentially during a typical EPI performance of the time, the VU would provide live instrumental accompaniment to the multiple andy warhol films that would be projected simultaneously before doing their own set (which of course also involved film projections, often of the band members' faces for example). like "loop," "the nothing song" taps into the lamonte young drone minimalism that john cale helped bring into the band's sound, in this case also featuring processed vocals from nico that float hauntingly over the proceedings and give the piece an eastern feel. disc 3 also goes in for extended jams, clocking in not only with a 25-minute "sister ray" but also with a 39-minute version of something called "sweet sister ray" which, as the title suggests, was performed as a mellower and (if i recall correctly) largely instrumental prelude to "sister ray" proper. all essential listening for a full appreciation of the VU's music.

The Velvet Underground, A Walk With The Velvet Undergroundfinally, a walk with the velvet underground runs 5 CDs. this set features what i believe are pop songs lou reed wrote for the pickwick label that were recorded by other bands before the VU formed, as well as the infamous songs "sneaky pete" and "(do) the ostrich" recorded by the primitives, an early reed-cale proto-VU. there is also a more complete (6:49) version of "loop" (still a shorter run time than the version on ubu but i've not compared the two). there are a lot of demos and mono mixes here that are either inessential or otherwise available. there are also recordings from EPI performances and warhol movies that, unlike "the nothing song," aren't recorded very well and have all the film dialogue mixed into the track as well, which makes for rather muddied and/or pointless listening. there are some nice versions of "loaded" material identified as "robinson's apartment sessions" as well as some post-VU live recordings, at bataclan (29/1/72) and fondation cartier (paris 15/6/90) but i don't know enough about these (except that the latter is obviously a reunion tour).

more to come...


William said...

Mr. O,

Informative and entertaining overview, as usual. I read threw the booklet in the Peel Slowly and See box set and came across some factoids that I didn’t know that I would like to share.

1. Lou had a radio show at Syracuse University, which was named “Excursion on a Wobbly Rail”, after the track on Cecil Taylor’s 1959 LP Looking Ahead.

2. Sister Ray was captured as one take as agreed upon by the band before recording it.

3. VU’s peddles and noise effects were stolen at JFK airport between the recording of White Light/ White Heat and on the self-titled third album. Many attribute this event to the cleaner sound of the self-titled third album, but both Sterling and Lou don’t defend this position. They want to change direction and not create another White Light.

4. The vocals on the initial and subsequent releases on the self-titled third album where too far back in the mix for Mr. Reed’s liking and the Peel Slowly and See corrected this with the “closet mix”. It was named this way because it sounded like it was recorded in a closet. It had nothing to do with Mr. Reed’s sexual ambiguity which followed him throughout his career.

5. Maureen Tucker did not perform on Loaded. Doug Yule’s brother and a session drummer recorded the album.

6. There is a fifth VU official release, called Squeeze. Doug Yule was the only personal carry over. Another note was that drummer Ian Paice from Deep Purple was on the record.

You must memorize all these facts to be a legitimate threat to Ken Jennings.


mark wallace said...

I'm still waiting with bated breath, as we all are, for the Tom Orange 2-CD compilation that sweats all this down to the essentials.