UP FROM THE UNDERGROUND

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

Over the years, critical reverence for the Velvet Underground (celebrated in the new five-CD boxed set Peel Slowly and See, to be released by Polydor September 26) has become a bit of a joke among rock-scene observers. Sometimes it seems that a fondness for the group is a prerequisite for anyone interested in working in pop-music journalism--as if those who don't froth at the mouth at the thought of the act's early works are banned by statute from reviewing anything more trenchant than a Perry Como album. Artists recognize this quirk, too: When Wilco's Jeff Tweedy recently complained to Westword about the constant comparisons of his quintet to the Flying Burrito Brothers, he added, "It's like the Velvet Underground or Big Star. For rock critics, it's a reference point."

That's a polite way of saying that scribes often use the Velvets as a crutch: Too many judge any disc that features drones, feedback and obtuse lyrics in direct relation to the Underground's catalogue, with higher marks given to those artists who most effectively approximate the sound that Lou Reed, John Cale, Mo Tucker and Sterling Morrison (who died late last month) developed between 1966 and 1968. The band's influence has spread far and wide--artists as disparate as David Bowie and R.E.M. have covered its material--but a lot of us tend to forget that not everyone has spent long, late-night hours absorbing every note of this music. Far from it. The Velvet Underground never enjoyed a hit single, and even after nearly three decades of constant drum-beating by music connoisseurs, the sales figures racked up by its ventures remain anemic.

Polydor's latest contribution to the Velvet Underground legacy is unlikely to change that. A few boxes, saluting performers such as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix and the Beach Boys, have been across-the-board smashes, but most of the rest are snapped up by the previously committed--those aficionados who don't feel whole unless they own every single hiccup the objects of their affection have committed to tape. And that's too bad, for Peel Slowly is as impressive an overview of these musicians as we're apt to get. The set combines carefully remastered versions of the band's four studio albums (1967's The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat, 1969's The Velvet Underground and 1970's Loaded) with demos, live cuts and archival material that provides a fascinating window onto the Velvets' development. And while the project probably won't convince the mass of people who've so far been able to resist the outfit's unwashed pleasures, it should establish, once and for all, that there's no mystery why the tunes collected here cause critics to spew glowing adjectives like verbal lawn sprinklers. Simply put, it's good stuff.

But--and this is a key point--it's not always easy listening. Even considering the vagaries of Lou Reed's singing, which after all this time is still an acquired taste, cuts like "Rock and Roll" and "Sweet Jane" (on disc five) are so invigorating that it's hard to imagine any rock listener not being attracted to them on at least a basic level. But "European Son" and other elongated excursions into sonic mayhem make fewer concessions to accessibility. They require an intellectual engagement that makes many listeners (in particular, those who prefer music that can be used as audible wallpaper) profoundly uncomfortable. Lyricist Reed's predilection, especially during the Velvet years, for stories about drugs, addiction, sexual eccentricities and the dregs of society is similarly challenging. But while his self-consciously literary approach to songwriting is a prime reason he's beloved by reviewers--who as a rule find it far less abstract to discuss words than music--his seriousness makes mere voyeurism impossible. Either you get involved in the Underground's narratives or you don't--and involvement requires much more work.

For those willing to put forth the effort, however, Peel's first disc is an eye-opener. The Velvet Underground and Nico was such a departure from the rock norm in 1967 (even when equated to the offerings of innovators like Bob Dylan and the Beatles) that it seems to have sprung full-blown from the brow of Zeus. But demos put together in John Cale's loft during the summer of 1965, before drummer Tucker joined the group, clearly define the raw materials from which the artists made their masterpieces. "Venus in Furs" is present in a mammoth, fifteen-minute-plus rendition, with lead vocals by Cale and a relaxed, hushed arrangement that calls to mind an English folk lament. The thirteen-minute-long take of "Heroin" is just as startling. Without drums, extreme amplification or much else other than Reed's voice and guitar, the composition becomes a spare recitation that's not far from beat poetry. Previously unreleased demos of "There Is No Reason" and "It's All Right (The Way You Live)" (on disc three) are also unadorned: Instead of a musical revolutionary, Reed suggests a busker with a really bad attitude. By contrast, the loping "Sheltered Life," in which Reed portrays an inexperienced rube against a musical backdrop that includes a kazoo solo, is a pop ditty that proves these guys weren't entirely humorless.

Other rarities (obscure live workouts and so on) may not be as unexpected, but they offer additional perspective on the strengths of the band. This is particularly true of seven unreleased studio cuts recorded around the time of Loaded, the last real Velvets disc (Doug Yule, who joined the band after Cale was sacked following White Light, put out a widely reviled platter under the Velvet Underground name in 1973). Tucker wasn't part of these sessions--she bowed out due to her first pregnancy--but even with Yule's brother Billy playing the drums, the ineffable powers of the Underground were unmistakable. For example, the version of "Satellite of Love" is obviously superior to the one Reed cut on his own. Reed's solo career has been intriguing but erratic; Peel serves as a reminder that while he was a member of the Velvet Underground, the quality of his work was damnably, thrillingly consistent.

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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