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UP FROM THE UNDERGROUND

WHY THE VELVET UNDERGROUND MATTERS, WHETHER YOU'RE HIP TO IT OR NOT.

This last observation might seem strange given the stylistic disparities of the Velvets' LPs, but the pieces themselves support the conclusion. The band's bow, featuring the frigid Germanic warbling of vocalist Nico as a counterpoint to Reed and Cale, runs the gamut from the gentleness of "Sunday Morning" to the agonies of "The Black Angel's Death Song." White Light was considerably more extreme; it contained "The Gift"--in which grinding music accompanies a Cale-read short story--and the epochal "Sister Ray," which Reed, quoted by writer David Fricke in Peel's extensive, informative liner notes, says was so jarring that the session's sound engineer actually left in the middle of its recording ("He just said, `Let me know when it's over'"). By contrast, The Velvet Underground was considerably more sedate, yet just as moving and memorable, thanks to the presence of "Candy Says" and "Pale Blue Eyes." And while Reed and Tucker both speak disparagingly of Loaded, its enhanced commerciality didn't diminish its smarts and spark.

Not everything here is exceptional; for proof, check out "Lady Godiva's Operation," a contribution from White Light that stands out primarily because of silly vocal intercutting between Cale and Reed. It sounds dated in ways that their best songs don't. But the bulk of Peel comes across as unnervingly contemporary. It's not that the sounds of Luna, Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth and countless other bands that are regularly likened to the Velvets are musty. Indeed, the Underground is still on the cutting edge even though (with the exception of a 1993 reunion) it has been defunct for around a quarter of a century.

Of course, Luna, Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth haven't logged many hours on Top 40 radio; the Velvet-influenced acts that have had the most financial success (U2, Nirvana, R.E.M.) are those that use this influence as seasoning, not its main ingredient. Thus, just plain folks may well continue to feel that critics who laud the band suffer from elitism--and there might be something to that. But that doesn't mean that the shadow cast by Reed and his comrades will vanish anytime soon. Producer/performer Brian Eno once said that only a handful of people bought Velvet Underground albums but that everyone who did started a band. And you'll be hearing from them for a long time to come.

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