The release of "The Velvet Underground and Nico" in March 1967 -- like so much of the band's prescient career -- now seems a conceptual masterstroke. The Summer of Love was dawning and the Day-Glo San Francisco bands were performing paeans to peace and love, marijuana and LSD. The Manhattan-based Velvets, who preferred black and white, sang matter-of-factly of sex and violence, amphetamines and heroin. With a sound that was part Brill Building pop, part European art song and part a modal thrash all their own, the Velvets provided the sound track for Andy Warhol's Factory and its trend-forging inhabitants.
If the Velvets' accomplishment seems less startling today, it's chiefly because they've been so widely imitated, especially since the rise of new wave. Lou Reed's elegant, unsentimental lyrics and the band's stark, dynamic music -- frequently characterized by the tension between taut, minimalist song structure and the anarchic squawks of Reed's guitar and John Cale's electric viola -- echo still in the records of such influential chart-toppers as David Bowie, the Cars and Roxy Music, as well as a host of lesser-known performers. Though initial sales were stalled by a lawsuit over a cover photo, the first Velvets album has remained in print and sold steadily for most of the subsequent years. The second and third efforts, "White Light/White Heat" and "The Velvet Underground," disappeared from the racks much more quickly, though they've remained available as imports. Now Polydor, heir to the MGM/Verve catalogue, has reissued remastered versions of all three, accompanied by an album of rare outtakes called "V.U."
"The Velvet Underground and Nico" is famed for the propulsive "Waiting for My Man" and the controlled chaos of "Heroin" and "Venus in Furs," but it also contains such achingly pretty ballads as "I'll Be Your Mirror," rendered all the more haunting by the liquid-nitrogen voice of Warhol actress Nico. From the simple rocker, "There She Goes Again," to the trance-dance, "All Tomorrow's Parties," the range and assurance of this largely self-produced debut are still astounding.
"White Light/White Heat" chiefly showcases the band's experimental, improvisational side. Besides the careening title song, the album includes the landmark 17-minute "Sister Ray" and "I Heard Her Call My Name," which ends with a Reed guitar freak-out so convulsive it makes Jimi Hendrix sound like a Windham Hill artist. The third album, however, is a quiet, late-night sort of record; at its heart are the ballads "Pale Blue Eyes," "Some Kinda Love" and "Candy Says," which include some of Reed's most graceful lyrics. Even rockers like "Beginning to See the Light" and "What Goes On" have an intimate feel quite unlike the raging torrent of "Sister Ray."
Unhappy with MGM/Verve, the Velvets then moved to Atlantic Records, leaving behind an unreleased fourth disc. Atlantic got the band's most commercial record, "Loaded," home of "Sweet Jane" and "Rock 'n' Roll," two of the Velvets songs most often recorded by other artists. "Loaded," which has stayed in print since its 1970 release, was the band's last studio recording. As the Velvets' reputation and influence has burgeoned, the missing album has been the topic of much speculation. Last year, Polydor A&R manager Bill Levenson, preparing the three MGM/Verve albums for rerelease, pulled some Velvets tapes from an uncatalogued area of the label's warehouse. Ten songs from those tapes became "V.U."
Though not the fourth Velvets album (it includes two songs recorded in early 1968, before Cale left the band), "V.U." contains many of the songs intended for that record. These recordings come as no revelation to Velvets devotees; all but one of them (and a few more not included here) have circulated on tape for more than a decade, and have recently surfaced on bootleg discs. In addition, many of the "V.U." songs have turned up on Reed's solo albums, though sometimes in rewritten or even retitled forms.
After careful restoration and remixing, however, these tracks are substantially crisper than the bootleg versions. One Velvets leftover that Reed, inexplicably, has never claimed for a solo record is the legendary "Foggy Notion," a seven-minute rhythm-guitar romp that's easily the equal of such inexorable ravers as "Waiting for the Man" and "White Light/White Heat." It opens side two of "V.U." with a jolt powerful enough to justify the entire project. Paced by "Foggy Notion," "V.U." is about half a great album. "Ocean," "Lisa Says" and a rollicking "I Can't Stand It" are all improvements over the versions on Reed's solo debut, primarily because the Velvets' ensemble playing is more organic and distinctive than that of the faceless sidemen on the later versions. "Stephanie Says" (recast as "Caroline Says II" for Reed's concept album, "Berlin") is exquisite, with lilting viola counterpoint by Cale.
Two of these songs, however, sound unfinished, and another pair simply worked better in the subsequent versions. The jokey, practice-tape version of "Temptation Inside Your Heart" and the half-facetious, half-lovely "I'm Sticking With You" are both endearing, but seem somewhat out of place; the fey "Andy's Chest" proved more at home on "Transformer," Reed's David Bowie-produced album, while post-Cale bassist Doug Yule's "She's My Best Friend" vocals areinferior to Reed's "Coney Island Baby" rendition.
According to Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison, the band's fourth album would have included, in addition to many of these tracts, an early version of "Rock 'n' Roll" and two songs that remain unreleased, "Mister Rain" and "Sad Song" (the later was reworked for "Berlin"). Perhaps Levenson, who says he might release a Christmas-time Velvets "Compilation-Plus-Bonus-Tracts Collection," has these up his sleeve.