Tag Archives: Velvet Underground

Proto-Punk? Yes. Post-Punk? Yes. Punk? Eh, Not So Much

When I was a teenager I discovered The Clash and with them, punk-rock. There was a certain immediacy and urgency that appealed to my teenage self. Everything was vast, loud and angry. Even if I didn’t exactly understand what they were referring to (this was the case for many Clash songs in my younger years) it didn’t matter. It was exciting and visceral.

Sometime later, a friend of mine took me to an Anti-Flag show about ten years ago, and I found the whole experience completely boring. Sure, the songs were played at break-beck speed, but they mostly stuck to their studio incarnations and seemed lackluster. I also didn’t enjoy being shoved every which way as the kids around mossed themselves in oblivion. I couldn’t understand why no one paying attention to the band – they only seemed intent on bashing each other.

Punk-rock it seemed, didn’t fit my personality after-all.

This isn’t to say that I totally dislike punk. I still rate both The Sex Pistols and The Clash among some of my favorite groups. The Clash and Nevermind the Bullocks are some of the most exciting and classic albums of rock and roll. It seems to me that no matter how hard any punk has tried subsequently they’ve never been able to better those two albums. There’s a reason why The Sex Pistols imploded, and the Clash moved on embracing other musical styles. The standard three-chord attack of punk only offers so much for a song.

I however, have a huge fondness for proto-punk and post-punk. Readers of this blog will surely know my affinity for Iggy Pop and The Stooge and of course, the Velvet Underground. The blue-print for punk was more or less created with these artists. As the 60s closed and the 70s began, mainstream rock became a little stagnant with the advent of prog-rock, bands whose names sounded more like law-firms, and other bands who took their names from cities and other locations.

In come The Stooges with their abrasive sound and Iggy’s legendary antics. It should also be noted that their first album also updated early rock and roll, giving it a more aggressive and wild sound complete with tightly controlled feed-back solos. Iggy seemed to be attack the “golden god” singers of the era when he declared, “Your pretty face is going to hell!”  Both the Stooges and The Velvet Underground’s proved that any one could make rock and roll. You didn’t have to be an expert or a virtuoso to get attention.

Punk of course, took that philosophy to the extreme. Naturally, the next groups of artists to emerge would combine punk’s do it yourself freedom, but not completely sticking to its three-chord ethos. Elvis Costello wasn’t strictly a punk-rocker at the beginning, but his first two albums – My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model – combined punk’s punchiness with a songwriter’s mentality. He also looked and acted like Buddy Holly who could punch you in the face and have no trouble stealing your girlfriend in the process. The Police managed infused their punk with tinges of reggae and in the process became one of the world’s biggest bands. The Talking Heads took avant-garde to a mass audience without ever forgetting their roots as a bar-band in CBGBS.

There are dozens of more bands I could list as favorites who were influenced by punk’s attitude, but not so much its sound. For me, punk has always been about freedom and too often a lot of “punk” bands seem stuck in one mode.

 

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Literature in Music: “Venus in Furs”

 

Over a primitive drumbeat, alternate tuned guitars, and John Cale’s screeching viola Lou Reed weaves a tale of sexually and a submissive servant named Severin.  Even 40 plus years since its debut, The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” remains one of the most shocking songs from a band known for pushing musical and lyrical boundaries. It’s so explicit in its detail to sadomasochism that it’s hard not to wonder if Reed actually participated in some of these acts.

In actuality, the character of Severin was directly inspired by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella, Venus in Furs. Published in 1870 Von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs is equally disturbing as the song.  The narrator dreams of a conversation with Venus (wearing furs) about love. Looking to break his lust, the narrator seeks his friend Severin for advice.  Severin, in turn reads him Memoirs of a Suprasensual Man.

In this story, Severin von Kusiemsk is in love with a woman named Wanda.  When Severin requests to be her sex-slave, Wanda at first laughs at him. She eventually changes her mind. Later, Wanda beats Severin and brings in three women whose slaves he will also become. At the end of the book, Severin becomes jealous by Wanda’s new lover, Alexis Papadopolis, and becomes disenchanted with his sex-slave status.  He then laments that “she can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion.”

Venus in Furs tale of perversion proved to be a source of inspiration for novelist James Joyce in his novel, Ulysses. In the Circe Chapter, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus stumble into a Dublin brothel.  During a mock trial for his perversions, one character recounts Bloom referring to her as a “Venus in furs” among other accusations. During a lengthy erotic hallucination Bloom is feminized and becomes dominated and tormented by the brothel’s madam. Bloom’s hallucinations are induced by a guilty conscience and also an erotic fulfillment.

Both Severin and Bloom realize these desires can quickly escalate into darker territory and eventually attempt to atone their sins.  Severin ends up leaving Wanda while Bloom rectifies several situations including payment to the prostitutes for a lamp which Stephen had broken earlier.

For The Velvet Underground, there is no sense of remorse for these acts. The moves slowly, but quickens which only adds to its creepiness. “I am tired, I am weary, I could sleep for a thousand years.” Reed sings several times, as if he is at his breaking point. Reed’s confession and the scratching guitars that close the song confirm a person can only take so much.

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Songs About America: “Coney Island Baby” – Lou Reed

 

Bono once claimed that Lou Reed was the James Joyce of New York City.  While that might be a bit of hyperbole the former Velvet Underground leader is synonymous with New York City.

Breaking musical and social barriers, Reed showed the dark under belly of the city. Much like Joyce did with Dublin in Ulysses.  Theirs was the version of a city that not everyone got to see, or even cared to acknowledge.  But like it or not, they captured the spirit of their surroundings in descriptive detail.

Reed’s songs were with drugs and sexual deviants.  Sometimes the characters did both activities at the same time.  If the lyrics weren’t shocking enough for the late 60s, crowd there was the music.  The Velvets provided a mountain of noise and attack that has rarely been equaled.  By the time Reed went solo in the early 70s, the music was toned down slightly, perhaps in an attempt to invite a wider audience into the party.  “Take a walk on the wide side,” He encouraged the listeners. There will be things that will blow your mind, but craziness never sounded so fun.

So it must have come as a shock to hear Reed take off his mask, and reflect with a rare sense of sincerity with 1976’s Coney Island Baby.

The song itself tells the story of Reed’s teenage years in Long Island.  The song sums up teenage confusion.  Which is the right path?  Is it Acceptance by peers or following one’s own path?  It’s clear which road Reed ultimately took, but “Coney Island Baby” makes it’s clear that, at least initially the choice wasn’t easy.

His admission of “wanting to play football for the coach” makes this clear.  For many, football is the ultimate form of acceptance in high school.  Not many things are more American than Football.  It’s a sport filled with acceptance, popularity, and brotherhood.   It’s a far cry from commands to “taste the whip”.

The song begins slowly with tasteful guitars and Reed’s soft voice.  Even if you don’t believe the story about Reed wanting to play football, it’s very affective.  As the song moves along, the dream of being on a team is shattered – “All your two-bit friends have gone and ripped you off,” He laments. “They’re talking behind your back.”

The song reaches its emotional climax mid-way through.  A group of singers appear in the background, offering a heartfelt harmony as Reed announces, “the glory of love, might see you through.”

Coney Island Baby is the type of song Lou Reed could write. There’s a sense of youthful innocence lost, and the trials of growing up.  It’s full of heartbreak and hope.  Ultimately this life isn’t meant for Reed. When he describes the city “as something like a circus or a sewer”, you know he’s found his true calling.

“Coney Island Baby” isn’t strictly about America.  But is an American tale.  The line between acceptance and self-worth can sometimes be blurred.  And for many in the 1960s, New York was one of the few places were those who were not considered to be “normal” could find like-minded individuals.  Like those who came to New York from oppression overseas, New York offered a sense of security and possibility to those who chose to follow a different path than the mainstream.  After struggling through his teenage years, it would be Lou Reed would bring this world into the mainstream.

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5 Rarity/Unreleased Collections

Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series 1-3


The Basement Tapes had already proved that Dylan had a tendency to leave some of his best material in the vaults – which I’m not including because I could write an entire post on the subject.  This is certainly true on this first installment of his famous Bootleg Series. “She’s Your Lover Now”, “Talking John Birch Society Blues” rank among with some of his work from the 1960s.  Elsewhere, “Blind Willie McTell“, “Foot of Pride”, and “Series of Dreams”  show that no one could write a song like Dylan, despite decent but not earth-shattering albums such as Infidels and Oh Mercy. But for me, the real revelations comes from alternate versions of familiar songs.   The original version of “Tangled Up in Blue” opens up like a novel becomes even more poignant and devastating than the original.  “Idiot Wind” loses some of its bite from the scathing version found on Blood on the Tracks, but the sting is worse.  Dylan seemed more wounded here than the possessed.  “If Not For You” gets some extra help from George Harrison – who would later take this arrangement for his own cover of the song on All Things Must Pass. Many artists would kill to have songs Dylan just seems to leave on the cutting-floor.  And this isn’t even my favorite installment of the Bootleg Series – that would go to Volume 8 – Tell Tale Signs.

The WhoOdds & Sods


I admit to not having listened to Odds & Sods in a few years until the other day since I’ve come out of my Who-phase.  This was one of the first of these collections that I bought.  In high school, I was obsessed with The Who – they’re the perfect soundtrack for teenage angst.  The original material is interesting and worthwhile for Who fanatics.  The kid’s story of “Little Billy” is a  anti-smoking ditty with some of Keith Moon’s best drumming.  The Lifehouse center-piece “Pure and Easy” has border-line pretentious existentialist lyrics, which is saved bv the music which contains some of the Who’s best 1970s harmonies and a pretty awesome fade-out.  But the real highlight of the set comes from the early R&B covers including frenzied versions of “Baby Don’t You Do It” and “Leaving Here”.  With these versions The Who rightfully secure their infamous “maximum R&B” tag.

Bruce Springsteen – The Promise


I don’t have Tracks, so I can’t comment on that particular set.  But The Promise, unlike a lot of similar collections is a full-realized work albeit in different ways then its spawn, Darkness on the Edge of Town.  While there is some of the bleakness on The Promise (particularly the title track) many of the songs show Springsteen’s affection for early rock and roll and pop songs from the 1960s.  The backing vocals on “Gotta Get That Feeing” recall some of the early Phil Spector singles.  “Wrong of the Side Street” is rocking fun in the best possible E-Street Band way.  The inclusion of Springsteen’s version of “Fire” and “Because the Night” are a nice addition, but Patti Smith’s version of the latter remains the definitive version.  What is most interesting about The Promise though is that Springsteen ditched some of his most accessible work here in favor of the more challenging songs found on Darkness. What would his stature be like if he had released some of these songs between Born to Run and Darkness?  It’s hard to say.

Pearl Jam – Lost Dogs


Lost Dogs is a collection that won’t bring any converts to Pearl Jam.  But it does contain some stellar material that showcases Pearl Jam taking on a wide variety of styles thats not always apparent on their proper albums.  The Howard Zinn inspired “Down” is one of their catchiest songs.  “Alone” is Ten-style rocker that should have replaced “Deep”.  Surprisingly for Pearl Jam there are a lot of songs that are pure fun.  Guitarist Stone Gossard takes lead vocals for the crunchy rocker “Don’t Gimme No Lip” which has very few words outside of the title.  “Whale Song” contains some cool guitar effects to recreate the sound of whale calls.  And then there’s “Dirty Frank” a ridiculous ode to one of their bus drivers.

R.E.M. – Dead Letter Office


By no means a great collection and Peter Buck admits as much in the liner notes.  But I have a soft spot for this collection since it was one of the first ones of these I owned and it introduced me to the Velvet Underground with three covers – “Femme Fatale”, “There She Goes Again” and “Pale Blue Eyes“.   Like Lost Dogs, R.E.M. show their playful side here with the surf inspired “White Tornado”, and the hilarious “Seven Chinese Brothers” alternate take, “Voice Of Herald” which finds Michael Stipe singing lyrics off of an old Christian LP.  A must!  Worth having because the CD version contains their first LP Chronic Town.

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The White Stripes Are No More – Revisiting “Elephant”

Today, The White Stripes announced that they are breaking up.  While I admit that I’ve gotten tired of them (I thought both Get Behind Me Satan and Icky Thump were lukewarm at best and the live show I saw remains one of the worst I’ve seen for various reasons – check back later in the week for an explanation and my list of worst concerts) Elephant, was and remains a brilliant record.

I didn’t know much about The White Stripes prior to Elephant, but the pre-release buzz surrounding the album seemed to suggest it would be special.  Most critics concluded that the album might as well come packaged with a sticker on the sleeve with the words: “instant classic”.

I was a junior in college when Elephant came out.  At the time, my campus seemed divided on those that opposed the war, and those in favor.  Elephant not only provided an escape, but it demanded it.  The guitar-blast after the second verse of  “Seven Nation Army” was like a flood-gate. It was old-school blues, but contemporary.  Past and present seemed to collide as the song faked a bass-line, that was actually a guitar. That wall of noise provided said more than any protest song could at the time, no matter what Conor Oberst thought.  On “Black Math”, Jack White may have sung like Robert Plant, but the blistering guitar solo was more akin to the Velvet Underground’s noisy jams on such songs as “What Goes On”.

That summer when I went to Italy, I probably burnt a hole in my copy of Elephant from listening to it non-stop as we took weekends bus trips.  “You Got Her in Your Pocket” is one of the quieter moments on the record, but its also one of the few times where Jack White puts lays off the noise, and reveals a haunting ballad thats akin to  The Rolling Stones “Under My Thumb”.  The rest of the biting lyrics I’ve always been partial to the line, “And in your own mind you’re lucky just enough to know her”.

Long live Elephant.

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Bowie Collaborations Week: “Under Pressure”

A friend of mine has this theory about the Velvet Underground: what type of songs you like by them, determine what types of music snob you are.  If you like the noisy songs like  “Sister Ray” for example, you probably list Joy Division as one of your favorite bands. If you like  the softer songs such as “Femme Fatale” or Stephanie Says” you probably worship the old R.E.M. records.  I list “Sweet Jane” among mine for what it’s worth.

The Velvet Underground might be the ultimate music snob group.  But I also have this theory that in order to get to be a music snob, you have to like David Bowie.  He’s the gate-keeper to all things weird in music.  Bowie is poppy and melodic enough to attract a mass audience, yet extremely eccentric.  Without David Bowie, I probably would not like The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Roxy Music, etc.  Brian Eno’s music makes a lot more sense after you listen to Bowie’s Low.

This week’s posts are going to be devoted to Bowie’s collaborations with other artists.  Some times this might include him appearing on other records, or other appearing on his records.  Either way, Bowie’s presence lights up a song.

Queen & David Bowie: “Under Pressure”

For me, this song should not work.  (I rank Queen among the Eagles as one of the worst bands ever.)  There’s also the fact that both Freddie Mercury and Bowie, are two of the most excessive figures in rock.  For both of these guys, every single thing they did was bold, and over the top.  Bowie created Ziggy Stardust, and as “Bohemian Rhapsody” was an entire opera put into a 6 minute song.  Every single move they made was an event.

Until recently, I didn’t know that “Under Pressure” was recorded in 1981.  I just assumed that it was made in 1976 when Bowie was all coked up – why else would he make a song with Queen?  “Under Pressure” is perhaps remembered most for its famous bass-line, which Vanilla Ice may or may not have taken liberally for “Ice Ice Baby”. Ice famously suggested that there was a half-note difference between the two bass-lines.

What amazes me about “Under Pressure” is how it’s become a de facto party anthem.  In spite of (or perhaps because of) the familiarity of Ice’s song, “Under Pressure” has become a song that gets people up.  Everybody knows it, and everybody enjoys it.  Even me, the music snob, who hates Queen.

“Under Pressure”:

Two Kermits Singing “Under Pressure”

 

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