The Velvet Underground
Reviewed on this page:
The Velvet Underground And Nico - White Light/White Heat - The Velvet Underground - VU - Another VU - 1969 - Velvet Underground Live Volume 2 -
Desert Shore - Loaded - Live At Max's Kansas City - Transformer -
Rock 'N' Roll Animal - The End... -
Slow Dazzle - Lou Reed Live - Coney Island Baby - Rock 'N' Roll Heart -
Street Hassle - The Bells -
The Blue Mask -
I Spent A Week There The Other Night - Magic And Loss -
Walking On Locusts - Set The Twilight Reeling -
Ecstasy - Lulu
Ever since punk, it's become a ritual for new self-proclaimed "movements" in rock and roll to announce that their real artistic godparents were the Velvet Underground, not any of those pansy 60s over-achievers like the Beatles. Ironically, this has nothing to do with the Underground's music and everything to do with their fuck-you attitude and deserved reputation as the best commercially unsuccessful band of the 60s.
If you actually break out a few of the good Underground discs and think about what the competition was doing back then, you'll see what I mean. Compared to, say, their contemporary Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed and company were a quiet bunch of popsters who relied heavily on such unremarkable gimmicks as jangly rhythm guitars, cutesy harmony vocals, sparse three-minute arrangements, and all the standard lyrical topics - love, mostly, but also sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
But don't get me wrong: these guys were like nothing else - then or now. John Cale's wacky viola abuses might have been the weirdest feature of the early records, but Reed himself proved to be a total original. The band was set apart by his nihilistic, feedback-drenched guitar parts; erratic vocals - anything from a drawl to a shout to a stutter to a yelp; and most importantly, lyrics - from dry to playful to desperate to morbid.
With Reed, the Underground were a clear alternative to the money-grubbing, fad-jumping, gimmick-pandering British and West Coast acts that dominated the rock scene back then. Reed proved that you could say it all with a catchy, simple chord progression, some honest, heartfelt lyrics, and a sincere, straightforward performance. And you didn't have to be a Lyrical Genius Folk Artist to do it, either.
The Underground's first record was cut late in 1966 under the aegis of endless dabbler and self-promoter Andy Warhol, who paired them with the arty European singer Nico. After that, however, the group struck out on its own - all too literally. Their second record was a disaster, and by the time they cut a much more commercial, John Cale-less third record, they'd lost any mass audience they might have earned. So it's understandable, if pathetic, that the Underground's record company refused to release their fourth album later in 1969, leading to a switch of labels before the band cut its last, and arguably best record (Loaded). In fact, the Underground had recorded a pile of unreleased material up to that point, which naturally was released in the 80s on not one, but two excellent compilations that I've sandwiched into the discography.
I've left out one live disc that I don't have, and I also don't have the VU box set, which some fans swear by. I am trying to build my collection of solo albums by Lou Reed, John Cale, Mo Tucker, and Nico, so watch this space. Also, I have reviewed a performance from Reed's 1998 solo tour.
You might want to consult the only substantial Lou Reed/Velvet Underground web site I've been able to find, which includes a discography, interviews, and reactions to the recent, untimely death of Sterling Morrison. Unfortunately, Lou Reed's publishing company forced the site to remove album covers, lyrics, and tablature - what the hell is this, the Third Reich?
Special thanks to Michael St. John for helpful info on 1969, and to everyone else for similar help on other issues. (JA)
Lineup: John Cale (bass, viola, some vocals); Sterling Morrison (guitar, some vocals, some bass); Lou Reed (lead vocals, guitar, some keyboards); Mo Tucker (drums, some vocals). Cale quit, 1968, replaced by Doug Yule (bass, some lead vocals, keyboards, drums).
The Original VU Recordings
The Velvet Underground And Nico (1967)
Utterly different from the later records and anything else recorded in the 60s, it's a classic that you at least should give a listen to, even if you can't deal with the sloppy playing and excessive jamming. Nico's quavering, heavily-accented vocals are a head-trip unto themselves ("I'll Be Your Mirror"; "All Tomorrow's Parties"), but the main attraction is Lou Reed's daringly risque lyrics, screeching guitar parts, and rambling, improvisational arrangements ("I'm Waiting For The Man"; "Heroin") - and at this point Reed was already a competent pop balladeer as well ("Sunday Morning"; "There She Goes Again"). This is also the best place to look for John Cale's interesting contributions to the group, especially his viola parts. (JA)
Chelsea Girl (Nico: 1967)
Her solo debut.
I've been told that Reed, Morrison, Cale, and teenage songwriter Jackson Browne split the songwriting here, and that the band includes Reed on lead guitar, Cale on piano, and Browne on acoustic guitar. (JA)
White Light/White Heat (1967)
A disastrous mess. Maybe Reed rushed this out too fast after the debut record, or maybe he just thought he could continue to get away with releasing endless, noisy jam sessions and calling it "art" - after all, this is 1967 we're talking about. It's not clear if the low point is a tedious, juvenile spoken-story-meets-jam ("The Gift") or an even lengthier and more tedious cut called "Sister Ray."
The title track is a fine tune, but it's performed so weakly here you'd do better to hear the more energetic versions on several later live records; and the handful of other bona fide songs are consistently spoiled by the lo-fi sound and sloppy performances.
For example, Reed has Cale nervously half-talk his way through the lead vocal at the start of "Lady Godiva's Operation," but then gets impatient and turns it into a sloppy, overlong duet.
The Underground was capable of a lot more - as you'll on every other studio album they ever did. I should note that some people think this is a total classic, exactly because of the crazy experimentation. (JA)
The Velvet Underground (1969)
Having dropped both Cale and most of their experimental approach, the band concentrated on Reed's songwriting. They ended up with good performances of what must be Reed's best batch of songs ever, including classics like "What Goes On," "Beginning To See The Light," and "I'm Set Free," and near-classics like "Pale Blue Eyes," which does drag a bit. It's one clever pop song after another, and even the single major experiment works: "The Murder Mystery," VU's lengthy, but thoroughly listenable answer to the Beatles' "Revolution #9", with three voices simultaneously reading free-association poetry.
Not to mention the lyrics in general; Reed goes farther into the back alleys of sexual perversion than anyone else had yet dared ("Some Kinda Love"), and then turns around and croons a soothing hymn pure enough to satisfy Pat Robertson ("Jesus"). Unfortunately, there's a limit to what you can accomplish with what boils down to a set of four-track demos, and despite the great raw material, the record just isn't as memorable as the slightly more lavish Loaded. (JA)
The Marble Index (Nico: 1969)
The first of the John Cale-produced Nico records. (JA)
VU (recorded 1968 - 1969; released 1984)
This isn't exactly the "great lost Velvet Underground album," but who cares. Mostly recorded in 1969 with Doug Yule, the record is sparsely arranged and economically performed, like the contemporaneous The Velvet Underground. It's dominated by catchy, driving pop songs with crisp rhythm tracks, prominent keyboards, and characteristically wild guitar solos ("I Can't Stand It"; "One Of These Days"; "Temptation Inside Your Heart," which features a bizarre running dialogue between Reed and Morrison), although some of it's laid-back and tripped out (the original version of "The Ocean," later done by Reed on a solo record; Tucker's quaint, New Yawk-accented lead vocal on the cutesy sendup "I'm Sticking With You"). MGM Records refused to release the completed album this collection is based on, and then dropped the band, which proceeded to sign with Atlantic. p.s., thanks Jesse. (JA)
Another VU (recorded 1968 - 1969; released 1986)
The rest of the tracks from the aborted "fourth album," very similar to the preceding. There are a few cheap shots here - two versions of one song that features an admittedly fascinating John Cale viola part ("Hey Mr. Rain"), and a gratuitous early version of "Rock & Roll" - but it's mostly entertaining and any fan will want it. (JA)
1969 - Velvet Underground Live (1969)
A double album; unfortunately I've only got the second disc. It's more or less a bargain for true fans, as it includes a few good unreleased or obscure tracks ("Over You") and runs more than an hour. But mere mortals will find themselves disappointed - most of the running time is wasted on ten-minute retreads like "Ocean" and "Heroin"; the sound quality is mediocre to terrible ("I'll Be Your Mirror" - PolyGram is shameless); and the audience sounds like it was outnumbered by the band, giving the proceedings a depressing lounge lizard atmosphere.
Worst of all, the Underground's instrumental limitations outside of the studio dangerously expose their 50's rock 'n' roll roots, making them sound completely out of touch on lengthy workouts like "It's Just Too Much." And then there's the pathetic, exploitative album cover, which has nothing to do with the band and its work. I've gotten conflicting reports on the first volume; some say it's of much the same quality, some that it's marvelous. In any case, the track listing consists entirely of well-known Reed tunes like "Sweet Jane," with yet another take of "Heroin." (JA)
Desert Shore (Nico: 1970)
An intense, understated, classically-tinged experimental album that puts the focus squarely on Nico's creepy, haunted-house harmonium lines and icy, downbeat Teutonic vocals ("Janitor Of Lunacy"; "Abschied," where Cale duets on viola).
The lyrics veer among languages ("Abschied" and "Mütterlein" are in German; "Le Petit Chevalier" is a one-minute snippet of a little boy singing to himself in French), and half the tracks are all over the place stylistically: the quiet, melodramatic piano ballad "Afraid" is utterly Continental, with no hint of American influences at all; the stark, a capella "My Only Child" sounds like something out of the 16th century; and on "Mütterlein," Cale adds massed vocal harmonies, his own almost inaudible, rumbling piano, and some spaced-out, avant garde trumpet (the musician is uncredited) to Nico's swirling harmonium abstractions.
And the record ends strikingly with the Arabic-flavored "All That Is My Own," which matches a genteel 2/4 beat and Nico's folky playing to a bunch of squawking studio effects.
Uncategorizable and deadly serious, the record casts Nico as a mature artist owing nothing to the Velvet Underground or anyone else - but it's far from accessible.
Entirely written by Nico, and co-produced by Cale and (of all people) British folk-rock mastermind Joe Boyd. (JA)
Reed wasn't messing around by this point. Every track is solid and commercial, and the recording methods are more sophisticated than on any previous album back to and Nico, if only slightly. In addition to a couple of bona fide hits ("Sweet Jane"; "Rock & Roll"), Reed dishes out some frenetic, screaming rockers ("Head Held High"; "Train Round The Bend"), ballads ("Who Loves The Sun"), sendups ("Lonesome Cowboy Bill"), and rambling anthems ("New Age"; "Oh Sweet Nuthin'"), all of which are first-rate. The key thing here is variety, both in the lyrical subject matter and in the music; all the changes of pace add up to consistent entertainment.
Produced by Atlantic Records flunky Adrian Barber. Tucker was pregnant during the sessions, so both Yule brothers and a session player filled in on drums.
p.s., I've got the new two-disc Fully Loaded version, and it's a decent buy for diehard fans despite being dominated by alternate takes and demos - you'll still want to hear the half-dozen bona fide outtakes, and the liner notes are great. (JA)
Live At Max's Kansas City (rec. 1970, rel. 1972)
This is a hand-held tape recording of the Underground's final show in 1970 - Reed abruptly quit right afterwards. It features Doug Yule's brother Billy sitting in on drums for Tucker (she was "home sick," meaning pregnant; Reed sings her usual showcase "After Hours"). As on 1969, the sound quality is abysmal, the audience is lame, and some of the vocals are wretched ("I'll Be Your Mirror"). But don't let all that scare you off - the performance is positively ferocious, with Reed nearly losing the band as he charges ahead on song after song.
The track selection hits all the group's high points, and the cuts are all mercifully short, making it easy to discern Reed's brilliant song structures. Plus he throws in the odd lyrical variation ("Sweet Jane"; "Pale Blue Eyes") or amusing song introduction ("Femme Fatale"). Like the best bootlegs, Max's comes across as a vivid auditory souvenir: you won't want it to be your first VU album, but it makes a good companion to the studio records. (JA)
Solo Albums: Cale, Nico, Reed, And Tucker
I can't really do justice to Cale and Reed's long, productive, and largely successful solo careers, or the sporadic but intriguing solo efforts by Nico and Mo Tucker, simply because I'm missing so many of their records. For the moment, I'll list the ones I know about, add a few comments, and review the CD's I actually do have.
As for flaming me, don't waste your time; I've already had the ultimate insult levelled at me, i.e., that I'm really Doug Yule in disguise - and our site policy is never to write back to flamers. But if you still insist on writing, please read our flame FAQ first. (JA)
Vintage Violence (Cale: 1970)
Cale already had been working as a producer before releasing the first of his many solo albums.
I've got this one and I'm still mulling it over; after a few listens I can't escape the impression that it's a misguided, but still really interesting attempt at making a pop record. (JA)
Church Of Anthrax (Cale: 1971)
I've read that this is a modern classical record produced in collaboration with keyboard player Terry Riley. (JA)
The Academy In Peril (Cale: 1972)
I have this one but don't quite know what to make of it; it's mostly modern classical music and very peculiar. (JA)
Lou Reed (Reed: 1972)
Reed's solo debut.
The first of several albums recorded in London, this one features an all-star session player lineup including Caleb Quaye (Reed doesn't play a note on guitar) and several Yes members: Steve Howe, Tony Kaye, and Rick Wakeman.
Surprisingly, it was a commercial flop.
Not surprisingly, some of the material was recycled from VU's unreleased 1969 sessions - "Lisa Says," "I Can't Stand It," and "Ocean."
Produced by Richard Robinson. (JA)
Transformer (Reed: 1972)
This is probably Reed's most famous solo record, featuring his only Top 40 hit: "Walk On The Wild Side," which mutates Reed's nightlife character-sketch formula with a jazzy arrangement. It's also got the recycled "Satellite Of Love" and the fine proto-punk number "Vicious." And there's at least one more rerecorded 1969 number here, a funkified take on "Andy's Chest." The producers were David Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson, who with Bowie's bass player Herbie Flowers played most of the instruments. That's Flowers playing standup on "Wild Side" and tuba on a couple tracks; elsewhere Bowie sings a little, and Klaus Voorman plays some of the bass lines.
It really does sound like contemporaneous Bowie products, with occasional orchestration, cutesy backup vocals, Ronson's lush piano, and primitive, hedonistic rhythm parts; but Reed's songwriting and singing were still close to his VU peak, giving the proceedings plenty of emotional depth and big dollop of wacky humor (the hysterical joke tune "New York Telephone Conversation"). (JA)
Paris 1919 (Cale: 1973)
Some of the players here are borrowed Little Feat band members. (JA)
Berlin (Reed: 1973)
Reed's first serious concept album, this is a critic's favorite that didn't sell as strongly as Reed's other records in the same period.
Reed called in Alice Cooper producer Bob Ezrin and an impressive all-star band: Brits Jack Bruce (bass), Steve Winwood (keyboards), B. J. Wilson and Aynsley Dunbar (drums), and American guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, who went on to front Reed's live band on the next album and later backed Cooper.
The recycled VU tracks this time are "Oh Jim," "Sad Song," and "Caroline Says." After this, Reed stuck almost entirely with new material. (JA)
Rock 'N' Roll Animal (Reed: 1974)
This was Reed's biggest selling album, and the only one to go gold. It's a live record cut at one show in December, 1973, and consists mostly of big-time VU numbers with the only exception being Berlin's pompous metal ballad "Lady Day."
Oddly, despite Reed's enthusiastic hollering the disc's main attraction is the self-indulgent guitar interplay between Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner (Reed himself plays nothing).
Sporting the then-new chorus guitar effect, which they use on every song, the two of them do toss off some impressive solos and chattering funk riffs.
Hunter also contributes the memorable three-minute instrumental section that leads off "Sweet Jane."
But there aren't too many other points of interest here.
"White Light/White Heat" gets reduced to a frantic five-minute boogie-woogie, and the band labors endlessly on a thirteen-minute funk-rock power-ballad version of "Heroin," and on a similarly lengthy take on "Rock 'N' Roll" that ends up as an overheated rave up.
Loose and loud, this has some definite 70s nostalgia value but isn't essential by any measure.
The rest of the band is Ray Colcord (keyboards), Prakash John (bass), and Pentti Glan (drums).
Co-produced by Reed and Blood, Sweat & Tears guitarist Steve Katz (brother of Reed's manager Dennis Katz). (JA)
Fear (Cale: 1974)
Brian Eno guests; his association with Cale continued for another two decades. (JA)
The End... (Nico: 1974)
Nico and Cale returned to the studio after a hiatus of several years, during which time Cale had become associated with Brian Eno.
So it's not a surprise that the band consisted of Cale, Eno, and Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, plus two female backing vocalists (Nico drags out her usual mournful harmonium on several tracks).
The result is one of the most bizarre pop records of the decade, a swirling melange of imaginative synth textures, ethereral percussion, and jarringly mannered vocals that make the most of Nico's impressive range, unpredictable Germanic phrasing, and inscrutable melodies.
Most of the material is credited to Nico, and most of it is engaging if odd.
But the record falls apart with a minimalist, nine-minute reading of the Doors' "The End" - Manzanera's solo in the last two minutes is the only thing about it that isn't totally cringe-inducing.
And it's exactly because Nico does deliver it so beautifully - like a high church service - that her version of the Nazi anthem "Das Lied Der Deutschen" is so deeply disturbing.
Still, though, anyone who thinks that elaborate electronic music is a new thing in the 90s should get a good listen to this innovative, quarter-century old album. (JA)
Sally Can't Dance (Reed: 1974)
A studio album that was a major commercial success.
I haven't found a listing of the musicians other than Michael Fonfara (keyboards), who stuck with Reed for the next several studio albums.
Steve Katz produced once again. (JA)
Slow Dazzle (Cale: 1975)
A bloated, quirky glam rock record, very much of the times.
Cale overdubs multiple piano, organ, and clavinet parts, slathers several tracks with elaborate string arrangements and/or female vocal choruses, and lets guitarists Phil Manzanera and Chris Spedding veer gleefully from hard rock bluster to classy R & B to George Harrison-like slide work, while Pat Donaldson burbles away with disco-y melodic bass lines ("Rollaroll").
Cale's lyrics are interestingly freaky, and vocally he at best sounds like a gruff Ian Hunter - if at worst like a depressed Keith Moon ("Dirty-Ass Rock 'N' Roll").
But none of the tunes really fly: precious pop songs (the plodding, David Bowie-style "Taking It All Away"; "Ski Patrol," whose upbeat lyrics and melody clash woefully with Cale's grim vocal); sluggish 50's nostalgia (the sock hop number "Darling I Need You"); and bombastic rock opera mini-epics (the All Things Must Pass-style "I'm Not The Loving Kind").
The one straightforward rock song is just weak ("Guts").
So the only attention-grabbers are the failed experiments: an apocalyptic glam/metal rearrangement of "Heartbreak Hotel" with half-spoken vocals and Eno's nutty sci-fi synth; an overstuffed, unintentionally Elton John-like Brian Wilson tribute with oddly undermixed faux-Beach Boys harmonies and Cale's most athletic lead vocal ever ("Mr. Wilson"); and yet another reading of an Edgar Allen Poe-like short story over moody viola and Eno's humming synth lines ("The Jeweller").
Lou Reed Live (Reed: 1975)
More stuff from the same concert as Rock 'N' Roll Animal, and it sure sounds like dredgings from the bottom of the barrel. This time the material is all from solo records like Berlin and Transformer, apart from a brief and perfunctory "I'm Waiting For The Man." And it's all mediocre. Reed camps it up on "Walk On The Wild Side," which robs the tune of its requisite jazz-based coolness. He stretches out on the deafening "Oh, Jim" with a multi-guitar attack that's as unimaginative as could be.
He barrels through rockers like "Vicious" without adding anything to the studio versions. And throughout, the vocals are strained and the instruments overcharged. As for the well-practiced five-man backing band, it seems to have no artistic pretensions at all, sticking only with tried-and-true guitar rock bluster. There aren't any huge embarassments here, and the seven-minute "Sad Song" shows off some entertaining arena rock theatrically a la early 70s Who. But a set like this one is essential only for big-time Reed collectors. (JA)
Helen Of Troy (Cale: 1975)
Metal Machine Music (Reed: 1975)
Apparently this is a bizarre experimental double album consisting of four sides with exactly the same running times, each of which comprises a mess of feedback and the like (Neil Young's Arc was a similar project).
Although a predictable commercial and critical disaster, Reed's outrageous gesture was later seen as a key breakthrough by the leaders of the punk movement. (JA)
Coney Island Baby (Reed: 1976)
Quiet ballads this time, with stripped down production values that vaguely recall the Underground's more low-key stuff (the lengthy, nearly incoherent "Kicks") but are definitely in the 70s art rock mainstream ("Crazy Feeling," a relatively energetic and memorable pop song). Reed mostly just strums his guitar, the rhythm section thumps and bashes along unobtrusively, and the gimmicks are limited: a lot of slide guitar, a little piano, backwards percussion, and Reed's mannered and occasionally sloppy backup vocals. Thematically it's pretty much restricted to romance, unlike Reed's best records, and stylistically it's just as narrow: the big exception is the rambling, slow-dance pseudo-soul title track, complete with a slick R & B guitar part and some swaying female backup vocals.
Nothing here matches the overblown pomp of Transformer or the avant garde mania of the Underground's records, but the songwriting is mostly solid and there's nothing really offensive - except possibly the wearying six-minute remake of "She's My Best Friend," which doesn't have half the spark of the original.
Produced by Godfrey Diamond. (JA)
Rock 'N' Roll Heart (Reed: 1976)
The year of the punk eruption found the movement's godfather totally out of touch. Instead of hard-edged rock, Reed went with slick, smirking rock 'n' roll, 50's-meets-mid-70s style - and he headed straight to John Lennon's Rock 'N' Roll for stylistic inspiration.
Blaring sax, congas, prominent piano, and a warm fuzzy mix set the tone, and everything's super-professional ("I Believe In Love"; "Senselessly Cruel").
"Chooser And The Chosen One" even sounds like a jazzy instrumental movie soundtrack.
Some of it does veer towards the Underground's savage take on the 50's ("Banging On My Drum"), and there are nods to funk (the hyperactive "Follow The Leader"), swing ("A Sheltered Life"), and Reed's Bowie-influenced early 70s glam-rock phase (title track, which I believe was a moderate AOR hit). There are some mellow, half-spoken tracks that groupies will find profound ("Vicious Circle"); pianist Michael Fonfara is a wonder, flying along on "Ladies Pay"; and the album closer is a thudding, dramatic five-minute groove that keeps ringing in your head long after it's over ("Temporary Thing").
So the album won't win any new converts, but it won't lose any either.
The players may include Reed's Everyman Band: Fonfara, Marty Fogel (sax), Ellard "Moose" Boles (bass), and Michael Suchorsky (drums). (JA)
Street Hassle (Reed: 1978)
A cantankerous, neurotic avant garde rock record that's closer in spirit to the VU's experimental work than almost anything else in Reed's solo catalogue (the crawling, strung-out "Dirt").
Reed's voice growls and whines, and his urban street poetry lyrics are obscene and almost offensive ("I Wanna Be Black," a loose swing/rock 'n' roll hybrid).
Meanwhile, the band's loopy female backing vocals, chugging rhythm section, and bleary sax relentlessly drive home the drained, drugged-out ambience.
The title track is an impressive 11-minute experiment, with a lulling, circular guitar riff played by a string quartet in places, and with Bruce Springsteen blandly reading a few lines close to the end; the first half of "Real Good Time Together" (yet another recycled VU tune) is little more than a reverb-drenched guitar part and a creepy, deadpan vocal; and elsewhere he goes with grungey, plodding rock songs ("Shooting Star"; "Leave Me Alone"), leaving hardly a whiff of lightheartedness, apart from the odd early 60s-style sendup "Wait," and a self-mocking deconstruction of "Sweet Jane," which he works into the verses of "Gimmie Some Good Times."
Ugly, idiosyncratic, and rarely memorable, it's still artistically intriguing and packed with genuine angst.
Co-produced by Richard Robinson, and partly recorded live in Germany with overdubs added in New York; the band is Fonfara, Fogel, Suchorsky, and Reed on bass and guitar, with a couple of incidental guests. (JA)
Take No Prisoners (Reed: 1978)
This is a live double album with a few VU tunes like "Pale Blue Eyes" and "Sweet Jane," a few early solo hits like "Wild Side," and a few numbers from the last two studio records.
Recorded live at the Bottom Line in New York with the Everyman Band.
Unfortunately, it's almost unlistenable, with Reed indulging in lengthy tirades while the band chugs away directionlessly. (JA)
Sabotage Live (Cale: 1979)
This is a live record with Cale backed by a punk rock band. (JA)
The Bells (Reed: 1979)
A dull, uninspired effort that only intensifies the last record's dissolute, glacially paced, lyrically bleak, jazz-based musical formula (the sleep-inducing, whiningly autobiographical, six-minute ska/soul groove "Families").
Reed had stricken up a short-lived writing collaboration with Nils Lofgren (who doesn't play). So there's a handful of up-tempo, structured, half-way entertaining tunes ("Stupid Man"; "With You," sporting Reed's most nasal vocal ever; "City Lights").
The Everyman Band also sounds much more together here: the backing vocals are ditched, and Fogel's draggy, non-stop sax parts sometimes swing pretty hard ("Disco Mystic").
But Reed's melodic skills are at a low, and he plasters several tracks with pointless, avant garde production experiments: he mixes a randomly taped conversation over the forgettable "All Through The Night"; turns the band's tightest groove into a goofy, repetitive, four-minute glam rock vamp ("Disco Mystic"); and ends the record on a nine-minute Nordic head-trip with ominous sci-fi synth, crashing cymbals, spaced-out experimental jazz horns, and echoey spoken word parts (title track).
None of the tunes are keepers, and the closest things to high points are all on Side 1: "Disco Mystic"; "Stupid Man," a moderately entertaining disco-rock romp with Van Morrison-like jazz horns; the even more Van-like ballad "I Want To Boogie With You"; and the silly 50's sock-hop number "Looking For Love." It's not as obnoxious as his last record, but it's even more boring and tuneless.
Fonfara is credited as executive producer; ex-Ornette Coleman band member Don Cherry is on trumpet; guitarist Chuck Hammer was in the group by now but isn't on the record. (JA)
Growing Up In Public (Reed: 1980)
Honi Soit (Cale: 1981)
Cale's first new studio album in six years. (JA)
The Blue Mask (Reed: 1981)
A critically acclaimed record featuring ex-Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine, as well as the talented, jazzy Fernando Saunders (bass), who stuck with Reed for several years.
All of a sudden Reed is really charged up about playing guitar, so he plays a few interesting, semi-improvised art rock solos ("My House").
He even pulls off a dramatic display of feedback and power chords that of all things resembles live Jimi Hendrix (title track).
More importantly, the production is dramatically stripped down, so it's neither as dated nor as muddy as his late 70s work, and much more often recalls his early solo period ("Heavenly Arms").
Some of the tracks do suffer from frazzled, repetitive songwriting (the rambling guitar-and-vocal track "The Heroine"); but the record's ominous sound is intriguing ("The Gun"), and for better or worse it exactly lays out the roadmap for almost all of his later albums, especially on the mellower numbers ("The Day John Kennedy Died").
So a lot of the tracks are really pretty good, especially when he's just rocking out ("Waves Of Fear," which even has some dynamics).
"Women" has a nice sing-along chorus; the burbling, humorous "Average Guy" is almost danceable; and the growling, funky "Underneath The Bottle" is actually fun.
Co-produced by Reed and engineer Sean Fullan; the drummer is occasional Jethro Tull member Doane Perry. (JA)
Playin' Possum (Tucker: 1981)
Tucker's solo debut was an EP. She handled both drums and guitar; the track selection includes covers of "Slippin' And Slidin'" and "Bo Diddley." (JA)
Music For A New Society (Cale: 1982)
Do Or Die! Nico In Europe, 1982 Diary (Nico: 1982)
A live record. Nico died in a bicycling accident in 1988, so I don't believe I've overlooked too much of her solo catalog. (JA)
Legendary Hearts (Reed: 1983)
The Robert Quine band's second and last appearance. (JA)
Live In Italy (Reed: 1983)
Like the last live record, this is split about 50-50 between solo tracks like "Satellite Of Love" and VU tracks like "Heroin." The less predictable Underground numbers include "Some Kinda Love/Sister Ray." (JA)
Caribbean Sunset (Cale: 1984)
New Sensations (Reed: 1984)
Quine was dumped shortly before the recording sessions, so Reed handled all the guitars. (JA)
Mistrial (Reed: 1986)
A thoroughly generic, mid-tempo rock record whose unvarying tone is the fault of co-producer/bassist/drum programmer Fernando Saunders. Once in a while they use additional rhythm guitar (by Eddie Martinez), live percussion (Sammy Merendino), or drums (J. T. Lewis), but mostly it's a two-man show, and neither one of them seems to have any idea how to liven things up.
That goes for strident hard rock (title track); bland 80s funk-rock (the whiny, self-righteous "Video Violence"); pseudo-rap (the topical, unimaginative "The Original Wrapper"); down-tempo balladry ("Tell It To Your Heart"); and Stones-like blues-rock ("Mama's Got A Lover").
The only things that really stick out are Reed's edgy chord progression on "Spit It Out" and his attempt to recapture his 50's-retro sound with saxophone, doo-wop backing vocals, and massive tremelo on "No Money Down."
And lyrically it's tired-sounding, with a lot of generic romance, current events, slight witticisms, and New Yawk impressions that all seem predictable.
Just another interchangeable disc to add to your Lou Reed pile.
Guest appearances include backing vocals by Jim Carroll ("Video Violence") and Rubén Blades ("I Remember"). (JA)
MoeJadKateBarry (Tucker: 1987)
A second Mo Tucker EP. (JA)
Words For The Dying (Cale: 1989)
Brian Eno guests here. Most of the record is taken up by a symphonic piece. (JA)
New York (Reed: 1989)
Having decided to give up on making pop records, Reed went back to the concept album format. This and Reed's next two albums cemented his reputation as a Serious Artist. (JA)
Life In Exile After Abdication (Tucker: 1989)
Tucker's first full-length solo album. Reed guests, as do members of the Violent Femmes and Sonic Youth. (JA)
Wrong Way Up (Brian Eno and Cale: 1990)
Apparently more straightforward than most of Eno's work, but still experimental. (JA)
Songs For 'Drella (Reed and Cale: 1990)
This was certainly an odd project - a concept album tribute to Andy Warhol, a.k.a. "'Drella," who had recently died. It was the first serious collaboration between Cale and Reed since 1968, and it led to the 1993 VU reunion. (JA)
I Spent A Week There The Other Night (Tucker: 1991)
Who says middle-aged housewives can't rock? In fact, this low-fi, minor-label Mo Tucker solo album better captures the VU's 60s spirit than anything Lou Reed has done during his own solo career.
Not coincidentally, Reed, Cale and Morrison all guest repeatedly, and the whole original band shows up on the appropriately bizarre and plodding "I'm Not," ironically the record's least-crafted effort.
Morrison adds some effective 12-string to several tunes and solos on the chugging, sax-fortified "Too Shy"; Cale graces a super-innocent cover of "(And) Then He Kissed Me" with a nice viola part; and Reed solos on the thudding, first-rate proto-punk rocker "Fired Up."
Tucker's vocals are surprisingly competent, her lyrics are witty ("Lazy," with a Bo Diddley beat), and her grasp of grungy rock fundamentals is firm (the Television-style "That's B.A.D.").
So almost everything works: a tasteful and good-natured nod at country ("Stayin' Put"), a Stray Cats-like rockabilly tune ("S.O.S."), an authentic 50's-style rock 'n' roller ("Baby, Honey, Sweetie"), and a poetry rap that sounds like one of the Underground's more mellow experiments ("Blue, All The Way To Canada").
The only real misfire is a pointless, acoustic demo-like remake of "I'm Waiting For The Man," with Cale adding inaudible synth.
Produced by Tucker and released in this country in 1994; with Tucker playing guitar, the band is mostly Violent Femmes Brian Ritchie (bass) and Victor Delorenzo (drums), plus Daniel Hutchens and Sonny Vincent (guitar) and John Sluggett (drums). (JA)
Fragments Of A Rainy Season (Cale: 1992)
An entirely solo live record. Cale mostly accompanies himself on grand piano, although he switches to acoustic guitar on a few numbers.
The track selection features songs from throughout his solo career - even "Heartbreak Hotel" - but no Velvets stuff.
He also does a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (a good solo studio version by Cale was featured in the 2001 movie Shrek).
There's nothing going on instrumentally, but the stripped-down format does highlight his frequently interesting lyrics and melodies, and his vocal performance is unusually strong.
Full review to follow. (JA)
Magic And Loss (Reed: 1992)
A concept album about about death, dedicated to two of Reed's departed friends. Cremation, suicide, cancer, the afterlife, all those drugs doctors pump you up with... this isn't exactly the best soundtrack for a dance party, but it's the cleverest mid-life crisis record around. There's a lot of rambling spoken poetry over light, slow-paced jamming, mixed in with a few rockers and experimental jams like the title track. So it's consistently spare enough to highlight Reed's voice and lyrics, which fans will appreciate.
However, his monotonous, quavery delivery falls far short of his wilder VU vocals. The relatively up-tempo "What's Good," which the liner notes explain was in the interesting Wim Wenders film Until The End Of The World, is probably the best track; "Sword Of Damocles" and the raging "Warrior King" also rock. It's too bad they form a minority. Co-producer Mike Rathke helped write some of the tunes and added some guitar parts; the classy upright bass lines are supplied by Rob Wasserman, and the drummer is Michael Blair. Other than that it's very stripped down, with the only important guest being the screeching Little Jimmy Scott (backups on "Power And Glory"). (JA)
Live MCMXCIII (1993)
After nearly a quarter century, it finally happened - the original VU reunited for a tour and live album. The bad news is that it will never happen again, thanks to the untimely passing of Sterling Morrison and the well-documented feeling on the part of the other band members that Reed is impossible to get along with. I have this, and I'm not quite sure what to make of it: Reed's vocals are nearly unlistenable, so Tucker and Cale take earnest stabs at some of the lead vocals instead, which doesn't always work; the band rocks pretty hard but gets a little carried away on some of the jams ("Hey Mr. Rain" goes 15 minutes); and there's so little new material ("Coyote" is the only new tune) that it's hard to see how the set could appeal to anyone who wasn't already a diehard Underground fan. (JA)
Last Day On Earth (Cale/Neuwirth: 1994)
A weak, idiosyncratic duo album with folksinger and Friend of Dylan Bob Neuwirth.
I can't tell what Cale sees in Neuwirth: the guy can barely play any instrument (he dabbles with banjo and so forth); has an absolutely atrocious Dylan-esque voice, nasally reading his way through several lyrics; and seems to rob Cale of his usual intermittent rock 'n' roll energy. Still, the record does veer into interesting experimental territory in places. (JA)
Dogs Under Stress (Tucker: 1994)
Tucker's first solo album after the reunion tour - self-produced and mostly self-written - is even less ambitious than her 1991 LP, but similar.
This time the 50's rockabilly/roots rock/garage rock vibe is even more pronounced, most obviously on a calypso-flavored cover of "Crackin' Up"; and Reed, Cale, and the Violent Femmes are all absent.
But Morrison's lead guitar adds a graceful VU sound to about half the tracks, and Tucker's songwriting is just as solid this time, with cutting, understated lyrics (the Reed indictment "Me, Myself And I"), and hummable, if basic tunes.
The energy level is low - a rendition of "Danny Boy" is so mellow it's almost inaudible - but it's a heck of a lot more entertaining and accessible than most of Reed's recent discs.
Vincent (guitar) and Sluggett (drums) are back, with Hutchens often picking up the bass; numerous, mostly no-name guests including Don Fleming. (JA)
Walking On Locusts (Cale: 1996)
This is a mid-tempo pop record, tasteful and carefully done but conservative.
On the heavier numbers Cale aims to emulate the Talking Heads, not the Underground ("Indistinct Notion Of Cool").
His half-spoken vocals are like a calmer, deeper version of David Byrne's, and he recreates the band's perky, mid-80s blue-eyed funk/World Beat vibe - steel guitar, Latin and Middle Eastern percussion, spacey trumpet solos, intrusive female backing vocals, etc.
"Dancing Undercover" and "So What" are as good as anything on, say, True Stories or Naked.
So it's no coincidence that Byrne guests and gets a co-write on the shuffling, reverby dance number "Crazy Egypt," the disc's edgiest, weirdest moment.
But Cale clutters the record with stately, soporific ballads ("So Much For Love"; "Gatorville & Points East"; the aimless, Joni Mitchell-like "Some Friends") and never really rocks out - some of the material is downright bathetic ("Tell Me Why," with a gospel arrangement).
There are a couple of pretty melodies ("Set Me Free"; "Secret Corrida"), complex, eclectic arrangements ("Circus"), and capable pop songs ("Entre Nous"). But it's more often generically pleasant than avant garde.
The band is Cale (acoustic guitar, keyboards), David Tronzo (quiet but creative electric guitar), Eric Sanko (bass), Mo Tucker or Ben Perowksi (drums), a string quartet, and percussionists. (JA)
Set The Twilight Reeling (Reed: 1996)
A relatively unpretentious and mostly entertaining rock record.
Reed's relaxed tone, live-in-the-studio production, enthusiastic vocals, and unapologetic return to his 60s roots are refreshing.
His power trio delivers a surprising amount of stylistic variety (Fernando Saunders is on bass, Tony "Thunder" Smith on drums).
There's some fretless bass on the ballads ("Trade In"); the title track verges on arena rock; "Finish Line" runs with a galloping acoustic guitar groove and some piano courtesy of Roy Bittan; "HookyWooky" has a Chuck Berry sound; "Adventurer" is like a mellowed out Stones song; and a horn section turns "NYC Man" into a cool, Stax-Volt-flavored Transformer throwback.
He also gets in some devastating humor ("Egg Cream" and "Sex With Your Parents (Motherfucker) Part II," both slow-paced funkers with massive guitar distortion and memorable choruses).
But his vocals are so weak by now that only a determined fan could put up with it, and thanks to the rough-cut production, some of the material really drags - especially "Riptide," a sloppy, sputtering, wah-wah crazed Jimi Hendrix tribute.
There's nothing essential about the disc, but don't hesitate to pick it up if you're a Reed addict.
Laurie Anderson adds a synth vocal part to "Hang On To Your Emotions," and the record is dedicated to her (she and Reed were living together). (JA)
Perfect Night: Live In London (Reed: 1998)
A fairly well-performed and entertaining set, with a couple of tunes from the last record, very little from the Underground days, and everything else from a wide spread of albums covering his entire career.
The band is his usual 90s lineup: Saunders, Smith, and guitarist Mike Rathke. (JA)
Ecstasy (Reed: 2000)
A few good signs here: the rhythm section of Rathke, Saunders, and Smith is powerful; a gaggle of guest players adds some interest; and with 14 tracks Reed is at least prolific.
On his other recent records he's hardly been interested in song structure, getting into a heavy, repetitive groove and ranting away.
Indeed, he does do that kind of thing.
But even then there's sharp guitar playing ("Paranoia Key Of E") or interesting ideas like an industrial take on funk ("Mystic Child").
Elsewhere he's pretty together, delivering, say, a pretty respectable rock song ("Future Farmers Of America"), and showing some remarkable craftsmanship ("Modern Dance"; the down-tempo "Tatters") while delivering a lot of slower numbers ("Mad").
The only really catchy tune is the mid-tempo "White Prism," but there's a bizarre, buzzing waltz ("Rock Minuet"); the acoustic "Baton Rouge" is remarkably straightforward; the punchy, if overlong "Big Sky" is more commercial-sounding than anything else he's done over the last decade; and on the title track (with cellist Jane Scarpantoni) he gets a hypnotic, introspective sound (she's also featured on the instrumental "Rouge").
But often he's just dull ("Turning Time Around"), and he goes totally out of control on "Like A Possum," repeating the same distorted lick for 18 minutes solid.
Consider that a bonus track, call yourself a fan, and the album will seem like a big-deal comeback.
Guests include Don Alias (title track), Laurie Anderson, and a horn section led by Steven Bernstein.
Co-produced by Reed and Hal Willner. (JA)
Lulu (Lou Reed & Metallica: 2011)
It's too easy to join the unanimous chorus of opprobrious criticism of this supersized, endlessly boring album - based on two 19th Century plays - marked by grandiose delusions of profundity ("Dragon"). But it's too hard to find anything positive to say about the work, either the portentously declaimed and endlessly repeated, desperate-to-shock lyrics ("Frustration"); the made-up-on-the-spot vamps ("Pumping Blood," possibly the least awful); or
the precious, "how cool are we?" string arrangements ("Junior Dad").
So I guess I won't be writing up a full review any time soon.
You're better off with the Berg opera derived from the same material, and I say that as someone who strongly dislikes the tone-row composers of the Second Vienna School.
I can't stand it any more more...