Velvet Underground

Rock & Roll: An Introduction to The Velvet Underground

Motion Picture Soundtrack is a column that explores the soundtracks of music documentaries and biopics. Using songs featured in each respective film or series, the column offers readers a primer on artists and bands worth loving, revisiting, and discovering anew. This week, we look at Todd Haynes’s gritty, kaleidoscopic documentary on the second most important band ever, The Velvet Underground.

In 2001, my parents—bless their unprepared hearts—bought me my first record player. I had gone to visit family back in the Homeland™, and for my birthday, my folks asked me what I wanted. I requested the aforementioned device, filled my suitcase with my parents’ old records (which were still scattered between the two grandparental households), and upon my return to these balmy Toronto shores, I was greeted with a Stanton STR8-50 resting comfortably in the den.

Up until this point, I had never gone “record” shopping. Of course I’d been buying CDs for years, but most of these had been purchased at generic, big box or mall-based stores like HMV, Sunrise Records, and Futureshop. But now, I was ready for some record shopping…and snooty (snotty?) record store employees be damned!

Unfortunately, I don’t remember where I got this first record. It was 2001, and I was 13, forgive me. I’d heard only one song from this album, and I’d seen that banana before, online, in the “INDIE” section of CDNow/Music Boulevard, where I scoured the depths of this music store-slash-review website, in hopes of finding something new. It’s where I heard The Smiths for the first time, so clearly, this was a formative place.

This is also where I first heard The Velvet Underground, and saw that banana.

Mixing intimate and rare archival material, as well as newly recorded interviews with band members, Factory alumni, and various auxiliary players, Todd Haynes’s new film about the second most important band ever, The Velvet Underground, is not a generic, talking head glorification of the band. The film is jarring, kaleidoscopic, and “The Art,” replete with split screens, gonzo editing, and an unorthodox structure that suits the droning discord of the titular band’s music. Haynes places particular emphasis on New York itself as a kind of muse, and on the city’s music and art scenes, the parties, Warhol’s Factory, and the influence (and persecution) of queer culture.

It takes an hour for The Velvet Underground to form, a bold choice on Haynes’s part. Dark and insightful, much like the band itself, the film is deeply indebted to Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970) and to the films of both Warhol and Jonas Mekas, who is interviewed throughout, and who the film is dedicated to (he passed away in 2019). The various other interviewees are delightful, passionate, and in love with the band (or, more likely, in love with what they did and what they represented), but no one is more infatuated or excited than Jonathan Richman, singer-songwriter extraordinaire and one of rock’s most sincere and endearing characters.

Please listen before proceeding.

But back to 2001, and that first encounter with the banana. At the time, the cover was, to me, unremarkable. That Campbell’s Soup guy did it, but who the hell Andy Warhol was beyond that, I had no idea. As for the album’s content, I’d heard “Sunday Morning” late one night on MuchMoreMusic, and it was really serene and pretty and sounded like Belle and Sebastian, so I decided to buy it. And I did. What came next, I was completely unprepared for.

I hope you enjoy this short list, either before or after watching Haynes’s film. I highly recommend turning out the lights, and turning these songs way the fuck up. There will be shivers, and you’ll wish you could have been there too. How in the world were they making that sound? Well, that’s easy: they’re The Velvet Underground.

What’dya think?



Sunday Morning (from The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967)

The first song I heard from The Velvet Underground is also one of their least representative, especially when it comes to their early period. It is gentle, cute even, although I’m pretty sure he’s hungover. With its folksy jangle, it was easy to love, and is the reason I purchased the album in the first place, with my own money, made from flyering cars for a family friend. Young Capitalism at its finest.

The Velvet Underground and Nico will always be my first. Its music, its aesthetics and message and power, all that violence and beauty, it’s all a part of me, and “Sunday Morning” serves as a plaintive introduction to the torrent that is this album, and this band.



I’m Waiting for the Man (from The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967)

You wanna know where punk came from? You’re looking at it.



Heroin (from The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967)

Todd Haynes knew his documentary could never follow a traditional rock-bio formula. And so, The Velvet Underground actively looks and feels different than most other musical documentaries simply because it must. The band sounded different, looked different, were different, still are different, and so the film isn’t simply about four people who made music. It’s also about a city that birthed a scene that birthed a sound that spawned a movement. A very particular city at a very particular point in its sordid history, when culture and commerce collided on its trash strewn streets in a cacophony of art, sex, drugs, and fame. And “Heroin” is the sound of that city.

The album’s contradictory centrepiece, “Heroin” mimics the warm bath that is opioids, before crashing into a hellish soundscape of scraping, clanging, squealing instruments meant to signify withdrawal. It is an earthquake of anxiety, as it should be. Never (and I mean NEVER) listen to it while tripping…



White Light/White Heat (from White Light/White Heat, 1968)

Getting back to his rock n’ roll roots, Reed wrote this spiritual successor to “Heroin” about intravenous methamphetamine use (music that’s fun for the whole family!), and named an album after it. Although Reed himself claims that the song is based on Eastern and occult metaphysical concepts, a lyric asking us to “watch that speed freak” makes me suspect. A perverse take on RnB, the song’s syncopated, clanging piano and down-stroked guitars are further proof of the band’s influence on punk and hard rock.

Somewhere, Jim Osterberg and David Jones were most certainly listening and furiously taking notes.



Pale Blue Eyes (from The Velvet Underground, 1969)

By the time the band released their self-titled third album (also known as The Grey Album), Lou Reed’s ego had flourished to unparalleled proportions, which lead to band dynamics that bordered on the tyrannical. This is a story we’ve heard many times before. Cale had been kicked out, and Doug Yule entered in his place. Gone were the drones, the screeching strings, the discomfort. Instead, balladry and driving rock-pop took their place, with Reed’s desire for fame and validation manifesting itself in some rather beautiful ways. It wasn’t innovative, but it was really listenable.

“Pale Blue Eyes,” a love song filled with bitterness and longing (it couldn’t be all nice), is the album’s most enduring cut, and has been used in films, television shows and cartoons to signify everything from unrequited love to nostalgia. It’s ironic lyrics—paired with a gliding guitar line and a lullaby melody—will remind you of “Sunday Morning,” but that might be the point. “Remember when we wrote pop songs?” it asks. “Well, here’s one for the ages.” Best served after a breakup while driving around aimlessly. Add rain to taste.



All Tomorrow’s Parties (from The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967)

Nico was brought into The Velvet Underground because Andy Warhol wanted her in the band. From what I can glean from the documentary, the rest of the band was either ambivalent or disturbed, but they let it happen. Her vocals grace three songs on the band’s debut LP—Femme Fatale, I’ll Be Your Mirror, and All Tomorrow’s parties—with the latter being the most obvious choice.

The song’s title, a cryptic, somewhat elegiac phrase, is mimicked in the songs musical structure and composition: Nico’s ghostly, double-tracked vocals, Cale’s chiming prepared piano (paper clips between the strings…on a pop song! How are they not the best?), and the return of Reed’s ostrich guitar give the song its decidedly psychedelic (ew…) flare. But this is most certainly NOT a west coast flower power anthem. Its lyrics describe a girl constantly longing for the next party, the next rush, the next moment, forever chasing a dream that seems to have disappeared. Listening to it in retrospect, its ability to accurately describe a whole generation lost to Vietnam and LSD is shocking, its abrupt ending (the party is over…) that much more prophetic all these decades later.



Sister Ray (from White Light/White Heat, 1968)

17+ minutes of punky, distorted dread, “Sister Ray” features a delightful cast of characters performing fellatio, shooting drugs, killing sailors, whippings and chainings, a pigpen, and a police raid, all wrapped up in a jagged blanket of improvisational noise. More disturbing for its grainy production and delivery than its content (although it’s still wild to think this was released in 1968), “Sister Ray” is not so much a composition as a test, an exercise in experimentation that I doubt most people will get through…or will even want to. There is melody somewhere in there, but suddenly, the pounding rhythm gives way to noise and detachment, and you’re on your own: instruments drop out and reappear; an organ—played by John Cale—squelches in the distance; the track howls, growls and groans, pleasure and pain experienced in equal measure by both the characters in the song, and the listener. Closing out the band’s darkest, most challenging album, it’s the last song to feature Cale’s avant-garde contributions. And what a way to go.

As for you? Best of luck.



After Hours (from The Velvet Underground, 1969)

In The Velvet Underground, Maureen Tucker describes her apprehension at having to sing this song, both on record and live. Bandmates laughed at her. Assholes, because her voice, in its thin naïveté, is perfect for Reed’s gentle composition. Over the barest accompaniment (Reed on acoustic guitar and Sterling Morrison on bass), the final song on the band’s third album is a darkly comic (maybe just dark?) ode to meeting the right person who will make all the bad stuff go away. It would sound sarcastic coming from Reed, but Tucker’s bright, earnest delivery offers a sincerity often missing from the band’s Lou-fronted material. Reed always sounded sad. Here, Tucker sounds hopeful, a glimmer of respite in an otherwise sinister catalogue.



Venus in Furs (from The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967)

The Velvets were a New York band to the nth degree. Like Charlie Parker, CBGB’s and hip hop, they are quintessential to the history of music in that city. The influence of their cosmopolitan surroundings—the experimentation, the drugs, the sexuality—certainly played a part in their music, and this darkness manifests itself chillingly in the decadent masterpiece that is “Venus in Furs.”

Based on a novella by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the song details a sado-masochistic relationship between Severin von Kusiemski and his dominator, Wanda von Dunajew. Employing Reed’s “ostrich guitar,” where every string is tuned to the same note, Tucker’s pounding, minimalist drums, and John Cale’s screeching electric viola, the song is an atmospheric, droning Piece, more akin to modern classical music than anything the radio would have played in 1967. Reed’s detached delivery only adds to the depravity, the coolness of his vocals contrasting the wall of sound drifting behind him. It is perfect.

It is also my favourite song by The Velvet Underground. What that says about me is up for debate. I welcome all hypotheses.



Sweet Jane (from Loaded, 1970)

You want a riff, you got it. Everyone else, eat your damn hearts out.

Sweet mothafunkin’ Jane, indeed.

 

The Velvet Underground is now available for streaming on Apple TV+. It will have only one in-theatre screening (seriously!) at Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto in late November. For more info on how you can attend this singular event, click here, and check out Jason Gorber’s review of the film from sunny Cannes earlier this year.

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