Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: The Velvet Underground
Why it’s daunting: Few bands in history have seen as wide a gulf between acclaim and accessibility as The Velvet Underground. Or at least that’s long been the consensus. The truth is, the massively revered and influential group—formed in 1965 by future icons Lou Reed and John Cale—is far more approachable than its legend might indicate. Granted, the band’s music can be morbid, perverted, and aggressively avant-garde. At the same time, much of that edgy aesthetic has since been absorbed into subsequent genres—particularly punk, noise, goth, and every imaginable strain of indie-rock, but also by certain segments of the mainstream—to the point where even the nerviest fringes of VU’s catalog have become an integral part of today’s musical fabric.
And then there’s The Velvet Underground’s unapologetic pop side. From its inception until 1970, when Reed left, the group pioneered an organic, idiosyncratic hybrid of rock, folk, and psychedelia that embodied the band’s—and the time’s—simultaneous straddling of lightness and darkness. It’s often been said that VU’s music offered some twisted, sordid, S&M-fueled antidote to the peace-and-love movement, but really, it’s just an unflinching embrace of every low and high of that tumultuous era. That mix of confrontation and escapism, of severity and sentimentality, varies wildly from album to album, and not always linearly. But VU’s erratic eccentricity only amps up the band’s intimidation factor. Of course, all those unhinged, feedback-stabbed songs full of drugs, sodomy, and the lash still have a little to do with that.
Possible gateway: The Velvet Underground & Nico
Why: VU’s 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, is its most scattered and eclectic. What it lacks in coherence, though, it makes up for in scope. Its 11 songs—each indispensable in its own way—mark the parameters of Reed and crew’s ambition throughout their next three albums. Under the guidance and patronage of Andy Warhol, the group was left to gestate away from the concerns of the mainstream; Reed’s garage-rock snarl is welded to Cale’s refined abstraction and the primitive, impressionistic drumming of Maureen Tucker—not to mention the droning, detached vocals of Nico, the German chanteuse shoehorned briefly into the band for commercial appeal (despite the fact that her alienating allure was one of the least marketable aspects of VU). And yet, each of these neat pigeonholes is overly simple. Even when writing his most affecting melodies, Reed remains deadpan and morose. Cale is as adept at tender beauty as he is droning atonality. Tucker’s seemingly Neanderthal drumming isn’t just primal and powerful—it’s full of sympathy and subtlety. From the narcotic aggression of “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting For The Man” to the eerie delicacy of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Sunday Morning,” The Velvet Underground & Nico is the strongest, most singular statement the band ever made—precisely because of its friction, both internal and external.
Next steps: The band’s third album, The Velvet Underground, came out in 1969. And while it isn’t the next VU album chronologically, its flirtation with more conventional rock sounds makes it a good album to follow the dope-sick rollercoaster that is VU’s debut. That said, the self-titled album has its harrowing moments. “The Murder Mystery” dips in and out of dreamy discordance and choruses of garbled, layered vocals that evoke chaos and multiplicity as much as anything on the first record; “Candy Says” paints a soft-focus portrait of Warhol’s transsexual muse, Candy Darling. Both feature vocals from Doug Yule, the young bassist who replaced the departing Cale. With Cale gone, Reed and the rest of the group were able to more credibly and comfortably explore their pop urges—although those urges took the form of lunging rockers like “What Goes On” and the sparse, haunting classic “Pale Blue Eyes.”
It’s a good idea to get acclimated with The Velvet Underground & Nico and The Velvet Underground before diving into White Light/White Heat. The group’s 1968 sophomore album is utterly uncompromising, and remains one of the most notoriously challenging albums in the rock canon—particularly because of the disc’s opus, “Sister Ray,” a 17-minute leviathan of a song that ushers the album out on exponentially disintegrating waves of two-chord distortion, seismic pounding, and Reed’s horny delirium. The song’s well-earned infamy, however, belies its sheer, gleeful release—not to mention its revolutionary descontructivism, a distended, Burroughsian self-consumption that doesn’t buck psychedelia so much as skull-fuck it. The remainder of the disc is rife with treasure, too, including the lurid, Cale-recited nightmare of “The Gift” and the album’s sole concession to (sort of) niceness, “Here She Comes Now.”
Reed acrimoniously quit VU in 1970, not long before his final album as its leader, Loaded, was released. It ended up yielding two of the band’s (and his) most beloved songs: the exultant, anthemic “Rock & Roll” and the wry, downright groovy “Sweet Jane.” But Loaded has plenty to offer—just not noise. By the time of Loaded’s recording, VU had begun to attune itself to the laidback vibe that had begun to overtake rock. Then again, Reed always had a soft spot for such things, although no one could have predicted the lushness of “I Found A Reason” or the sweetness of “Who Loves The Sun.” There’s not a single track, though, that doesn’t harbor a stinging barb or two, either lyrically or instrumentally. Ironically, the album that essentially ended the band became its most overtly commercial. (Not that anyone bought it at the time.)
VU anthologies abound, up to and including Peel Slowly And See, a box set that’s far too exhaustive to be an ideal introduction. Other anthologies range from best-of discs to collections of outtakes; of the latter, 1985’s VU is one that’s required listening for a newcomer. None of the album’s ten tracks had been previously released, and together they form a stunning, sustained narrative of the band that mirrors The Velvet Underground in both tone and quality. It’s hard to believe that tracks like the blistering “I Can’t Stand It” and the whimsically morbid “Stephanie Says” were almost lost to history (although some, like “Andy’s Chest,” wound up being recycled by Reed on his solo albums). One of the disc’s most arresting tracks, “Ocean,” is a dark, breathtaking lullaby that builds and whispers and churns like its namesake.
Where not to start: After Reed quit The Velvet Underground in 1970, Yule—a latecomer to the band who wasn’t present during its volatile baptism by noise—was pressured into keeping the band going in the wake of Loaded’s relatively positive critical reception. With Tucker the only member of the classic lineup still in the loop (and even she was technically VU’s second drummer), the more-or-less imposter band wound up shambling along for three more years. Tucker didn’t even play on Squeeze, not that it would have matter if she had. Cushioned with Yule’s tidy, workmanlike songwriting, it’s a VU album in name only, and it’s definitely the worst of the group’s studio albums. Remove the name and all its baggage, though, and you have a decent, early-’70s rock album. And on “Dopey Joe,” Yule at least tries to channel some of VU’s former subject matter and fury.
Reed and Cale are the two members of VU that went on to have significant solo success. They wouldn’t officially reunite until 1990, when—spurred by Warhol’s death—they eulogized their former mentor with the concept album Songs For Drella. It’s not a VU album, but it is a ragged, poignant masterpiece, as much of a tombstone for VU as for Warhol. The only other ex-VU solo album that skirts the edges of the group’s canon is Chelsea Girl, Nico’s 1967 debut. After appearing on The Velvet Underground & Nico, three of her former bandmates—Reed, Cale, and guitarist Sterling Morrison—contributed to Chelsea Girl. And while the songs written for her by Bob Dylan and a pre-fame Jackson Browne are gorgeous, gilded cages for Nico’s otherworldly voice, it’s the tracks that feature some combination of Reed, Cale, and Morrison that inch enticingly close to VU territory.
Few bands are best introduced via live albums, and VU is no exception. Of the group’s many live recordings that have been officially released, none make a particularly great entry point—especially considering that VU was wildly inconsistent in concert. That said, they’re all of interest, and some positively sparkle; even Live MCMXCIII, a document of the group’s ill-fated reunion in 1993, is worth hearing. But only after getting acquainted with the studio staples.