This review was originally published Fall 1995 in
In the eighties, with the CD inextricably entrenched as the medium, the subindustry of the box set sprang up with innumerable tributes, collections, compilations. complete works of... just about everyone under the sun. Some were well deserved. others seriously questionable - Phil friggin' Collins had a box set at a time when he shamelessly shat and served anything and everything the market would bear.
Then in the early '90's, over a quarter century since there's been anything called The Velvet Underground, a little indie label from Australia called Raven Records had the audacity to put out a quasi-official 3CD set called What Goes On 1965-1990 which until now has been the only such animal. barring bootlegs compilations, repackaged sets, in existence.
Now, lo these 30 years since they first surfaced, The Velvet Underground have an official, legitimate, promotable, air-playable, beautifully packaged five CD box set chock-full-o' unearthed gems, which given the, ahem, thoroughness of some bootleggers, have unbelievably escaped previous release.
PolyGram Records set one Bill Levenson to the task of producing this gargantuan project. Lest we forget, Mr. Levenson has made quite the happy little careerette for himself vis the VU. He is the man responsible for what must be the only worthy recorded representations of The Velvet Underground.
The specs are staggering: 74 tracks, 25 previously unreleased (some have been booted), 12 demos, 7 'Loaded' outtakes, and 6 live tracks, an excellently annotated 88 page booklet with notes by VU-phile David Fricke, and many rare photos, and to top it all off the box has a banana on the front which actually peels!!
First of all, the four studio lp's are presented in their original versions, that is #1 is the mono version [note: it's actually the stereo version], #3 is Lou's original closet mix, #4 features restored, full length versions of Sweet Jane with the 'Heavenly wine and Roses' break, Rock-n-Roll in its unedited form - the final solo flows in rather than jutting out, and New Age gets its long lost coda back.
The 25 previously unreleased tracks need closer attention. One of the five discs is comprised of several takes of Venus in Furs, Heroin, All Tomorrow's Parties, Waiting for My Man, Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams, and Prominent Men. These were recorded in John Cale's Ludlow Street apartment in July 1965 along with Lou and Sterling. The set is all acoustic and sans drums. This is perhaps the most mystifying recording ever by the Velvet Underground.
The songs are treated very sparely; guitars, voice, viola, and something called a sarinda. What is shocking is how different they sound from any version ever heard. They share the same chords and lyrics with their more familiar live and recorded renditions but they are not the same songs.
For the fan, this disc alone is priceless. None of these tracks have ever been bootlegged. They offer a stupefying glimpse into the VU before their exposure to Andy Warhol and his world, before Moe's thunderous beat, before electricity. The performances are unpolished, a bit tentative though not at all self-conscious, and quiet. It's as if being drawn into the Warhol world liberated them and allowed them to play harder, nastier, louder.
Disc two opens with the single edit of 'All Tomorrow's Parties', boasting a punchier mix intended for the radio. Alas, the airwaves remained Velvet free in 1967.
An interesting little side note - for years it was thought that the 70's and 80's reissues of the first lp were the stereo mix. Well, yes and no. It's been recently discovered that some editions are actually the mono mix, verifable by attentive listenings and the V-5008 etched into the inner groove. Then some are a curious blend of one side stereo and one side mono, and others are all stereo. Always a twist and a turn with this band.
The banana year is further represented by some other interesting tracks. One, Melody Laughter, has been bootlegged often with varying degrees of sound quality from atrocious to so-so. The source for this track is an audience tape from November 11, 1966. It was recorded at an EPI performance at the Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus, Ohio and is part of the only known document, of the Velvet Underground and Nico live (unless you count the brief I'll Be Your Mirror rehearsal included in the Andy Warhol From Tapes CD sold at the Warhol Museum).
The third disc brings to light yet another never before heard song called There is No Reason. This song begins the demo suite which includes the 4 tracks credited in bootlegs as Sterling's acetate. They were recorded in early 1967 in John Cale's Ludlow Street apartment, which appears to have been the band's rehearsal/recording space. Along with There is No Reason, Sheltered Life with the goofy Cale kazoo solo, It's All Right (The Way that You Live), I'm Not Too Sorry (Now That You're Gone), and Here She Comes Now open up the White Light/White Heat disc.
Onward to disc four. What Goes On from the October 2, 1968 [note: it's really October 4, 1968] show at Cleveland's La Cave club, marks Doug Yule's first, appearance as a member of the band. He puts in an admirable performance after a mere three days of rehearsals. The real highlight of this live track is Lou Reed's razor slash guitar solo which cuts and cuts to the bone and then keeps going.
Summer and Fall of 1969 saw the band once again on the road and in the studio. The sessions at New York's Record Plant provide disc four's closing tracks, Foggy Notion (the only Velvet Underground song on which Lou Reed has no writing credit), I Can't Stand It, I'm Sticking with You and Lisa Says' all from 1985's VU collection. The October 28, 1969 gig at Dallas' End of Cole Ave yields It's Just Too Much which has only been available on bootleg [note: it was also available on the scarce CDEP given away with the 1990 French Polydor box set]. Providing a glimpse of things to come, the disc's final cut is the recently discovered Countess from Hong Kong on which Lou rediscovers the harmonica, and John Cale shares authorship. Cale will make a suprise appearance on the group's swan song Loaded.
The box closes as dramatically as it opened. The newfound gems of disc one are joined by disc five's revelations. Lou Reed has long disowned Loaded as a bastardized work, tampered with and but,chered in the studio. Well, Lou, this should molliffy things a bit. The Loaded disc is a joyous revelation for fans. As the VU's most popular record, Loaded is the only one which has always been in print and also the most maligned. Too poppy, blatantly commercial, diluted, claim some curmudgeons. The fact remains that for all it obvious attempts at hit singlesville, Loaded is still the home of some of the greatest Rock-n-Roll ever. It's easy to take Sweet Jane, and Rock-n-Roll for granted; they're the only VU songs which ever get any airplay, classics nonetheless! VU fans owe PolyGram a huge tip of the hat for restoring these classics to their original glory. On the previous CD editions of Loaded, the intro to Sweet Jane is somehow mastered at a much lower volume than the rest of the song. Here it's right up front. The edited 'Heavenly wine and roses' break is restored, although it seems that the vocal track is incomplete. The track notes do not acknowledge the restoration of the guitar chords which precede the final solo in Rock-n-Roll but they are there. Lou has commented that the solo was inserted and in fact the restored version allows the solo to flow in rather than stick out. New Age is finally allowed to fulfill its glorious finale with the coda restored. The real shockers on this fthal disc though, are the never before heard outtakes from Loaded. Looks like Lou had quite the little cache o' tunes on which to base a solo record or two. Satellite of Love, Walk and Talk, Oh, Gin, Sad Song, Ocean, Ride into the Sun, and I Love You were originally recorded by The Velvet Underground and as played by the VU they are far superior works. Ocean is not the version which was released on VU. This is from the Loaded sessions with one John Cale on organ and viola. Apparently, John was brought back into the studio by Steve Sesnik in a futile attempt to revive the band. What he did manage to accomplish is a majestic epic, beautifully performed and produced, featuring some of Sterling's most beautiful guitarwork ever. No way this should could not have been a major hit! There are many versions of Ride into the Sun out on bootlegs. The one here managed to escape release and is the most moving. Doug Yule's voice proves to be a major asset for the band once again on this lovely ballad. Walk and Talk, perhaps one of the weakest of all Velvet songs is transformed into a slower, funkier grind much more satisfying than any previous incarnation. The lyrics to Sad Song bear little resemble to the Berlin cut. it, remains a stately tale of castles, kilts, and Mary, Queen of Scots. Of the two final live tracks, Some Kinda Love, from the Live at Max's tapes but missing from that lp, proves that even in its death throes, the band remained a vital live unit, hard pounding and energized. I'll Be Your Mirror is from the Max's release, and the closer I Love You, which would first, surface on Lou's debut solo lp, offers solace from the turbulence of the Loaded sessions.
Peel Slowly and See is the first major label retrospective for a band which has gotten little or no attention from major labels. It is a work worthy of the band's legend and legacy, and a clinic on how to produce a box set. PolyGram and Bill Levenson have earned the eternal thanks and respect of Velvet Underground fans all over the world. By way of comparison, RCA's Lou Reed anthology - Between Thought and Expression, now pales in execution and presentation. At the time I found impossible to comprehend how a major record company like RCA could not come up with more than photos of Lou's album covers to include in the box's booklet! They did a fine job on the actual discs, technically. But box sets are about more than just the music. They are designed (or should be) with fans in mind. The accompanying 88 page booklet included in Peel Slowly and See, features many rare photos, some great ones of the band in the studio. Sterling Morrison made his extensive memorabilia collection available and we are treated to studio log sheets, posters, even handwritten directions to the Shrine Auditorium. None of this stuff is wasted on VU fans. We want everything! David Fricke, a true VU-phile in the rock journalism world, provides an excellent essaythistory of the band with loads of new commentary from Moe, John, Sterling, and Lou. His only real mistake is following the unfortunate tradition of Doug Yule bashing. There is no legitimate way to downplay Yule's importance and input in the post Cale years, he should be recognized as a vital contributor to the music. The Box is scheduled for release on September 26th. Go out and buy it, get your friends to buy it, and throw everything else out.
©1995 Fierce Pup Productions, courtesy of Sal Mercuri
by Olivier Landemaine