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When I first came to the music of the Velvet Underground, I couldn't understand why some people seemed so devoted to this band; it was certainly a cult following. Now, a few years later, other people surely look at me the same way I used to look at the others, as I've grown to be such a huge fan of this band. I've already written a few things for the Soul of Rock 'n' Roll about the Velvet Underground and I even wrote a piece on their work with Andy Warhol during college, but there always seems to be more I can say about this group. This time I thought I would take a slightly more direct approach with 5 reasons to listen to their music in the form of 5 of my favorite songs.
Although there is a limited amount of material from the Velvet Underground, that doesn't mean I didn't have a hard time choosing. I tried to pick 5 songs that I like for 5 different reasons, and say why, the thought process being that maybe a few other people will be inspired to check this band out and that maybe people who are already fans might see them in a new light.
Some are probably obvious choices to some, while others not so much, but they're all some of my favorites... then again, I like everything the band did during the Lou Reed era for one reason or another...
1: "Sunday Morning" from The Velvet Underground and Nico
From the soft tinkly opening of this song it sounds unlike anything I'd heard before when I first listened to it. Both stripped down and dreamy at the same time, it sounds like a pretty straight up pop-eqsue dreamy track, but there is a realism that comes out because it's so rough. There is also a sharp contrast between the sound scape and the lyrics on this track. The music is swaying and has a touch of the psychedelic sounding vaguely in the same vein as the west coast scene of the same time, but not quite... The lyrics have a paranoia about them that makes this song less dreamy and more grounded, but also more cerebral, capturing some very authentic thoughts and portraying them in this dreamy pop complete with haunting background vocals and vocal effects. It's a great song on it's own but as an opener to this now infamous album, it works all the better, setting the mood in it's subtlety for an album that would wind it's way through the sexually kinky, underground drug scenes and reality like no other.
2: "Sister Ray" from White Light/White Heat
Saying White Light/White Heat is an easy album to listen to is about akin to saying a porcupine is easy to swallow. It is one of the roughest and most abrasive albums of the band's works, including odd spoken word stories, delves into free form expression and a 17 minute, feedback infused, almost hypnotic frenzy called "Sister Ray." One of those tracks that I might describe as "not for the faint of heart," this song is full of gritty rough edged guitar from the very get go and it only gets rougher as the track progresses employing feedback, screeching guitar solos and some moments that can be best described as noise rock. All of those things are great, but what always stood out about this track for me was it's hypnotic pulse and cryptic, but very real, lyrics that seem to capture a bit of the drug culture the band was a part of, as well as just the gritty, steamy underbelly of rock and roll, life and society without being blatantly about those things. This is also a track that seems to capture the earlier vibe of the band perfectly with it's fuzzy guitar experimentation, solid rhythm section, abrasive realism and a dedication to making their own style of music. It's a 17 minute rock and roll explosion, completely unpolished and unrelenting.
3: "What Goes On" from The Velvet Underground
Although it's a pretty straight forward rock song, I'm partial to this song for a couple of reasons. By comparison to other tracks from the band's earlier career this sounds far more mutes, although not nearly as much as some of the other tracks on this album, but there is something more to it that really makes this song memorable. There is something about the mix that seems to add a special mystic flair to the track, especially with the quasi progressive lead melody arching above the more muted background rock and roll. It's just is hints at something deeper, but also is minimal enough to really put the emphasis on the lyrics . This is a track that has some great introspective lyrical lines that make this more than just your average rock track.
4: "Sweet Jane" from Loaded
I've found that there are some mixed opinions on what was technically not the band's last album, but is the last in my mind (Lou Reed went solo shortly before it's release). Loaded is certainly far more produced and polished than any of their other records and doesn't have nearly the same steamy side as some of the band's earlier songs. Still, I think it contains some of their best songwriting including this track, "Sweet Jane". A pop rock track with light guitars and layers it's lyrics and songwriting are really what make it stand out. A cryptic, but grounded depiction there is so much realism and honesty in the lyrical lines that they seem to paint a picture of real life that are both upbeat and happy, and a little sad at the same time. A great song that really hits home with it's telling lyrics and sing along vocals. Although the more pop influences textures might be either a great addition or a little disappointing depending on your viewpoint, I don't think anyone can argue that this isn't great songwriting.
5: "Oh Sweet Nothing" from Loaded
Also from the band's more mainstream influenced work, Loaded, this song sounds little like the band did a few years earlier with it's subtle southern flavored guitar licks and soaring vocals, but it is definitely one of the best songs they ever wrote. A subtle slow burner that results in a massive rock and roll climax, sounding like proto punk meets arena rock. It's both stripped down and minimal, but epic and anthemic at the same time; a track where swaying and lighters are almost mandatory. One of the best examples of walking the line between deep philosophical artistic rock and the more mainstream flavors, but wraps it up in a massive epic anthem that is just incredibly catchy. It also contains a subtle, but expressive guitar lead that really pushes the song just that much farther and there are definitely some great lyrical lines flowing sweetly between the choir inspired choruses. This, along with just about every track the band recorded, are for me, proof that Lou Reed is one of the greatest songwriters of all time.
It's amazing to think that the Velvet Underground existed for really only 3 years and resulted in only 4 (if you don't count Squeeze, and the live albums), major albums. I think that these songs are all good examples that they were making some great music in that short time whether it be the rough edged screeching experimentation, the more subtle songs, or just the great rock and roll.
If this is your first experience with the Velvet Underground, I can only really encourage you to take the plunge. It will probably be jolting on first listen as I know my first listen was, and you'll might even think you made a horrible mistake, but it grows on your and you get past that initial jarring feeling. These are songs, albums and a band that have grown on me so much that I know consider them up there with the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd as one of my favorite bands of all time.
They might be viewed as more of a cult favorite to some, but the Velvet Underground are truly rock and roll royalty to me. Check out and of the songs I've mentioned and see what you think. You might find yourself joining the cult.