Monday, December 20, 2010

Reconstructing the Velvet Underground's Lost Album

Anyone who has listened through the standard canonical works of the Velvet Underground will probably notice the vast differences in sound between each of the albums (and each member's solo output). Perhaps the most glaring, but least obviously explicable, is the shift from melodic, sparse, subdued work of The Velvet Underground and the direct pop-rock of Loaded. A bit of research reveals that the band was beginning to stall in mid-1969 after The Velvet Underground was released and their label, MGM/Verve dropped them for being too subversive. Supposedly, they were not allowed to take their masters with them, so the album they had been working on was lost and had to be restarted from scratch. On top of that, by the time that Loaded was recorded for a new label, Atlantic, original member Moe Tucker was absent due to pregnancy and her unique drumming style was replaced by a more traditional approach from a set of revolving drummers.

What happened to the missing songs and the so-called "lost" fourth album? Many of the songs were re-recorded by Lou Reed for his early solo records, but the original recordings remained unreleased until the 80s and later. The first insinuation to the public that any such material existed came in 1974 with the release of 1969: Velvet Underground Live, which includes several hitherto unreleased songs and strikingly different early versions of several Loaded tracks, albeit in the form of live performances recorded with modest quality. Finally, a compilation of the best of the band's forgotten outtakes was released in 1985 as VU, and Another View followed the next year with another set of unreleased tracks. Between them, they include fourteen tracks from the lost album (and five from 1967-1968, when founding member John Cale was still present). The Peel Slowly and See box set from 1995 and the "Fully Loaded" reissue of Loaded from 1997 include several additional songs from this era, and The Quine Tapes, an "authorized bootleg" of live material from 1969 (released in 2001) also provides some interesting perspectives on much of this material.

The problem is that there is no singe place to get a cohesive idea of what this lost album would have sounded like. The Velvet Underground Web Page suggests a version that essentially just sequences the fourteen tracks from VU and Another View. (They suggest using Peel Slowly and See over the VU versions were applicable, but I think this is irrelevant, as the versions are identical.) That works, but then there are additional problems. How do we really know that those were the only songs from that period to be considered for the band's next album? How do we know that those are the versions that the band deemed best? The band re-recorded some of the songs for Loaded but still left them off the finished product, and there are live versions of several additional songs that either cannot be found elsewhere or that sound completely different. Perhaps some of this material should be considered as well.

Thus, I have compiled an arbitrary assemblage of songs that I deem as the best single-disc compilation of the "lost album" era. Many decisions must be made when constructing such a collection. I generally chose the best quality recording available, and thus live versions are only used when a studio version does not exist. The live versions are often fantastic in their own right, but in live performances the band would extend their songs often to two or three times their standard length. In compiling material for a single compact disc, brevity becomes preferred. I chose to remove any songs that ended up on Loaded to prevent redundancy, although any material later re-recorded by Lou Reed in his solo career I consider fair game, since Reed's versions are usually substantially different in terms of style, production, and arrangement. And of course, I generally only included songs I rather like, and so the few that I do not failed to make the cut. So, here is my version of the Velvet's "lost album":

01. We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together (Another View version)
02. Foggy Notion (VU version)
03. Countess from Hong Kong (demo version from Peel Slowly and See box set)
04. Coney Island Steeplechase (Another View version)
05. Andy's Chest (VU version)
06. I'm Sticking with You (outtake version from the 1997 reissue of Loaded)
07. I Can't Stand It (VU version)
08. It's Just Too Much (live 1969.09.19 in Dallas, Texas, from the Peel Slowly and See box set)
09. Over You (live 1969.11.25 at The Matrix, San Francisco, California, from The Quine Tapes)
10. One of These Days (VU version)
11. She's My Best Friend (VU version)
12. Lisa Says (VU version)
13. I Love You (outtake version from the 1997 reissue of Loaded)
14. Ride into the Sun (demo version from the 1997 reissue of Loaded)
15. Ocean (outtake version from the 1997 reissue of Loaded)

And because that still leaves room for more on a standard 80-minute CD, here are some extra tracks that don't quite make the first cut but are still quite good:

16. Ride into the Sun (instrumental version from Another View)
17. Love Makes You Feel Ten Feet Tall (demo version from the 1997 reissue of Loaded)
18. Sad Song (demo version from the 1997 reissue of Loaded)
19. Satellite of Love (demo version from Peel Slowly and See box set)
20. Rock & Roll (early version from Another View)
21. Sweet Jane (Live 1969.11 in San Francisco, California, from 1969: Velvet Underground Live)

Much like my revisionist Get Back compilation that I devised earlier this year, I'd like to explain my choices, in terms of what I included, what I excluded, what versions I chose, and why I picked this track ordering. Here goes!

01. We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together (Another View version)
Never originally released in a studio version, the general public first heard this on the 1969 live album, released in 1974. Patti Smith began opening her concerts in 1974 (and for several years afterward) with a great version of this song with her own additional lyrics. Lou Reed eventually released a studio version in 1978 on Street Hassle, but that version is full of tremolo and other effects and totally lacks the powerful drive of the Velvets version. The outtake heard on Another View has the same energy as the live versions but was recorded in much higher fidelity. When the Velvets reunited for a tour in 1993, they opened their shows with this song, and in that tradition, I think it makes a perfect opener.

02. Foggy Notion (VU version)
The live versions available on the Quine Tapes are interesting (especially the medley with "Sister Ray" recorded at Washington University in St. Louis!) but the audio quality suffers terribly. The outtake from VU rocks and captures some of the solid extended jamming that makes this song stand out.

03. Countess from Hong Kong (demo version from Peel Slowly and See box set)
A beautiful piece unavailable anywhere else. It sounds more like an outtake from The Velvet Underground, but it was supposedly recorded during the "lost album" era.

04. Coney Island Steeplechase (Another View version)
This isn't a particularly awesome song, but it does have a great charm, and if you've ever gone to Coney Island, you'll know how perfect the lyrics are. There are no other versions.

05. Andy's Chest (VU version)
A truly weird song, but I kind of like it, and it fits with some of the other slightly deranged pop songs like the previous and following tracks. Reed's solo version from Transformer is quite good, but the Velvets version is more bouncy and strange compared to Reed's more direct rock. (But hearing Bowie doing the background vocals is cool!)

06. I'm Sticking with You (outtake version from the 1997 reissue of Loaded)
This song is incredibly cute and I love the arrangement. Sung mostly by Moe Tucker, the ending where she jumps back behind the drumset is great. This is particularly cool in the live take from the Quine Tapes, but that version is too lo-fi and isn't as good of a take overall. VU also has a version, but the arrangement is too simple and the performance less impassioned. I recommend editing out the studio chatter at the beginning of the Loaded outtake version.

07. I Can't Stand It (VU version)
This song isn't great, but the guitarwork, particularly the noisy solo near the end, is good. The theme of weird lyrics continues here. The Quine Tapes and 1969 both feature live versions of this song with extended jams, but both are too unfocused and lo-fi. Reed released a version on his first solo album, but it is too overdone and lacks the awesome solo. The VU version captures the best of the solo without going on for too long.

08. It's Just Too Much (live 1969.09.19 in Dallas, Texas, from the Peel Slowly and See box set)
Just like the previous track, this song isn't the best, but the guitarwork is nice. The live versions from the Quine Tapes and 1969 are good, but are lo-fi and meander a bit too much. The 1969 version is featured in a medley with "Sweet Bonnie Brown", but there just isn't much there with that song. Since no studio version exists, the live version from Peel Slowly and See seems to match the best quality with a concise take.

09. Over You (live 1969.11.25 at The Matrix, San Francisco, California, from The Quine Tapes)
A simple but good song, it is also only available in a live form. The version from 1969 is comparable to the Quine Tapes version, but the latter features a slightly better performance and less noise.

10. One of These Days (VU version)
The country feel of this song makes it feel very much like a few songs that ended up on Loaded. It is unavailable elsewhere.

11. She's My Best Friend (VU version)
I like this song a lot, and this is the only version.

12. Lisa Says (VU version)
A bit slow and dramatic, but it works. The 1969 live version is really good but also really long, while the VU version is cleaner and more to the point. Reed did a version for his first solo album, but it suffers from overproduction and overdramaticism.

13. I Love You (outtake version from the 1997 reissue of Loaded)
A really pretty song, and the outtake version is rather loose but still strong. The emotion is much stronger than the demo version also included with the Loaded reissue, and that version suffers from sparseness and apparent incompleteness. Reed's version from his first solo record is good but totally different, based mostly around acoustic guitars.

14. Ride into the Sun (demo version from the 1997 reissue of Loaded)
This is a really cool song, and it's hard to pick the best version. I think the demo from the Loaded reissue is best, since the organ and vocal parts are so good. The instrumental version from Another View is almost as good; it features awesome guitarwork but has a very different feel, but the lack of vocals puts it squarely in second place. The Quine Tapes include a cool version, but it is way too long and too lo-fi. Reed also did a version for his first solo album, and it has some good parts, but it is far more rock-oriented and a bit too overproduced and overblown.

15. Ocean (outtake version from the 1997 reissue of Loaded)
This is probably my favorite Velvets song, and it makes a perfect dramatic closer. There are several versions, but the outtake version from the Loaded reissue has tons of great guitar and organ parts, and the ominous feel and slow tempo totally work in its favor. The demo version from the same reissue is also good, but just not as full and complete. (Supposedly John Cale guested on the organ for that version, but that's unconfirmed and the outtake version has a better organ sound anyway.) The VU version is also good, but the drumming is too cymbals-heavy, and the organ is far inferior. 1969 also has a good live version, but it's just too long and lo-fi. Reed's version from his first solo album is good but more directly rock-oriented and lacking many good parts.

And now for the "bonus tracks". They were all re-recorded and released on either Loaded or one of Reed's first solo albums, and although these versions are interesting, they just don't quite make the cut.

16. Ride into the Sun (instrumental version from Another View)
As I said above, this is a really great version. It's extremely pretty but just doesn't quite beat the demo version.

17. Love Makes You Feel Ten Feet Tall (demo version from the 1997 reissue of Loaded)
This song is pretty good but not awesome, but has a different, slower, and more drone-like feel that Reed's later solo version from his first album.

18. Sad Song (demo version from the 1997 reissue of Loaded)
Also not particularly awesome, but this version is far more focused and direct than Reed's overblown, overproduced, and overextended version from his first solo album.

19. Satellite of Love (demo version from Peel Slowly and See box set)
The demo from Peel Slowly and See is just barely better than the alternate demo from the Loaded reissue; this version is simply a better take (and lacks the studio chatter at the start). The Velvet's version might not top Reed's classic version from Transformer, but it is an interesting alternate version.

20. Rock & Roll (early version from Another View)
This is a nice alternate version, although it doesn't beat the Loaded version. This version has a very different feel – it's far more drone-like, and the verses almost sound like the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows". The demo from the Loaded reissue and the live versions from 1969 and The Quine Tapes are good but aren't as interesting (and are too lo-fi). This track is generally considered part of the "lost album" in full right (particularly by the Velvet Underground Web Page as mentioned above), but I think it's better to focus on material that didn't appear on Loaded.

21. Sweet Jane (Live 1969.11 in San Francisco, California, from 1969: Velvet Underground Live)
This is a really cool early version, and although it could never beat the full-length version from Loaded, this one does feature different lyrics and a much more laid-back style. The early version from the Loaded reissue is somewhat similar, but the annoying cowbell is just too distracting.

And that's all! There are a few notable exclusions that I'd like to point out. The most significant is probably "Ferryboat Bill", which appears on Another View and is often considered a necessary part of the "lost album", but frankly, the song is too weird and nonsensical and just plain not good. "Follow the Leader", released as a 17-minute jam on The Quine Tapes, is just too long and unfocused to consider. The version Reed later did for Rock and Roll Heart in 1976 is superior. "I'm Gonna Move Right In" from Another View is a contender, but that version is an instrumental and not that interesting. Bootlegged live versions from 1968 with vocals aren't that much better. "Oh Gin" and "Walk and Talk", both found as demos on the Loaded reissue, are not bad, but also not that great. They may be less overproduced and more focused than Reed's solo versions from his first album (where they were renamed "Oh Jim" and "Walk and Talk It", respectively), but that doesn't actually make them better.

There are also early versions of several additional tracks from Loaded available on the 1997 reissue (and extended early versions of "New Age" can be found on 1969 and The Quine Tapes), but none of them are all that particularly different than the final incarnations, with the possible exception of "I Found a Reason". Presented as a demo, it is done in a sort of country style with harmonica and Moe Tucker on drums. It's still just not interesting enough to make the cut. The only other tracks that I'm aware of that could possibly be included are the unreleased songs from 1967 and 1968 with John Cale that can be found on VU and Another View. However, since they were almost certainly not considered to be a part of the "lost album" that the other songs on those albums reconstructed, they do not really deserve to be a part of this discussion, no matter how good they may be.

As I've said before, I don't feel comfortable in breaking copyright laws to upload my mix for public download, but if you own the albums, it should be really easy to put this together on your own. If you have constructed your own version, please let me know! I'd love to hear some other ideas.

1 comment:

[feelfree] said...

Awesome analysis of the band and it's "lost" album. I've been playing music for years too and appreciate your post about Velvet Underground - a band that until now I've never taken the time to really listen to. I have to say, they are really good! I wonder if you would appreciate the band Alice of Chains, I saw their concert a while ago and thought it was great. Anyway, you should check my new blog out, I just posted an article about music.

http://feelfreeblogs.blogspot.com