Was there ever a band that had a sound so lovely or a vision so loving as the Velvet Underground in its prime? It's doubtful.
From 1966 until it broke up in 1970, the Velvet Underground made music of such unprecedented inventiveness and conceptual depth that it's yet to be equaled. The Velvets fused disparate elements of rhythm and blues, folk and avant-garde minimalism with intensely poetic, penetrating lyrics--Bob Dylan was its only competition on that count--into a product that was raw, yet canny; spontaneous, yet deliberate; visionary, yet 100 percent rock 'n' roll. It's still the standard that underground rockers measure themselves against. Artists as varied as David Bowie and Black Flag have proudly acknowledged the Velvets' influence.
Unfortunately, the band as a whole proved to be greater than the sum of its constituent members. Founder and songwriter Lou Reed, who was the lead singer with the group, has had the most commercial success on his own, but he's rarely matched the consistent brilliance of his work with the Velvets. Other band members, however, have been even more erratic--with the exception of John Cale, who performs with his new band tonight at the 9:30 club.
A cofounder of the group, Cale left after the recording of "White Light/White Heat," the group's second studio album. Over the past 13 years Cale, a Welsh expatriate, has recorded nine albums on his own; the latest is "Music for a New Society" (Ze/Passport, PB 6019). Although he made his name with such highly conceptualized, deliberately raucous outfits as the Velvets--and before them, the original Dream Syndicate (led by avant-garde recluse Lamonte Young)--Cale's solo outings have, for the most part, been conscientiously charming--lyrical, contemplative and intimate.
"Music for a New Society" is the least rock-influenced record Cale has made. The material has a beautiful, yet bittersweet, quality; it is a series of ballads and recitations dominated by Cale's powerful keyboards and soulful bear-hug of a voice. "Broken Bird," "Thoughtless Kind" and the stark, emotional remake of his own "Close Watch" are dark, delicate and delectable, with fluid rhythms and whimsical, classically flavored melodies. "Santies" is an abrupt, abstracted piece with shards of harsh noise swirling around a manic, improvised monologue describing marriage. "A marriage made in a grave!" Stern stuff. "Chinese Envoy" shows off Cale's skill on acoustic guitar; it's another lilting, reflective piece.
As for the other Velvets' alumni: Doug Yule, Cale's replacement, made a couple of country-tinged soft-rock albums in the mid-'70s; Angus Maclise, the original drummer, died a few years ago in Tibet; Sterling Morrison, another founding member, teaches in the Midwest.
The most active after Reed and Cale, ironically, has been singer Nico, who joined shortly before the first album was recorded and was asked to leave soon afterward.
Nico's current offering is a live compilation album (available exclusively as a cassette) called "Do or Die" (ROIR, A117), culled from her 1982 tour of Europe. None of the material included is new, and few of these versions are improvements on the studio originals. "Saeta" does sound somewhat stronger stripped down to essentials, voice and piano. The British group Blue Orchids provides a rollicking Velveteen racket on a couple of tracks. A whole album of this might have been a real treat. Instead there's some faceless post-punk rock 'n' rolling (truly dire takes of David Bowie's "Heroes" and Nico's own "Vegas") and Nico performing solo, accompanying herself on droning harmonium; festive it's not. Only the faithful need pick up this artifact.
Last, but not least, the Velvets' permanent drummer, Maureen Tucker, has finally been heard from again. After marrying, moving to Texas and raising her children, she decided to build a studio, buy some instruments and record "Playin' Possum" (Trash/Rough Trade, TPL-1001) by herself. Arrayed against the theoretical compulsiveness of the other Undergrounders, Tucker's genuine technical naivete' worked wonders, adding lightness and looseness to the proceedings. But extended to all the instrumentation for an entire LP, it comes off as plain old sloppiness. Only dilettantes need pick this one up.