Tag Archives: the velvet underground

Acclaimed Albums – The Velvet Underground by The Velvet Underground

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 152/250Title: The Velvet Underground
Artist: The Velvet Underground
Year: 1969
Position: #186

It feels like a weird milestone to be at the last album by The Velvet Underground. I know there are many other bands on here that I have completed (like The Beatles) or are yet complete (like The Rolling Stones), but The Velvet Underground did something that the others didn’t – completely subvert my expectations.

I’ve spoken previously about how growing up helped me like The Velvet Underground & Nico and I can say that, with a re-listen, I came to like White Light/White HeatIt actually feels like everything has come full circle with The Velvet Underground as it is the first of their albums where I have enjoyed it on the first listen.

Then again, The Velvet Underground is very different from their other albums on this list. For one thing it is more ballad-driven, which was a welcome development seeing how I started listening to this at 11 o’clock at night. This doesn’t make this album any less interesting – the penultimate track ‘The Murder Mystery’ attests to that – it just means that this feels like an album where the band had started to become comfortable.

I would pick out some favourite tracks but, being the unoriginal person that I am, I actually liked the singles (plus ‘The Murder Mystery’) most. One of them that particularly struck me was the closing song, which just did not feel like a Velvet Underground song. Maybe it’s because of the clean female lead vocals of Maureen Tucker instead of it being another Lou Reed song, but I liked that they chose to end on a song that had a different feel to the rest of the album.

In two albums time I will be done with the 1960s. Cheap Thrills is in a precarious position at the bottom of the list, but it’ll still be worth hearing. Right?

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Acclaimed Albums – White Light/White Heat by The Velvet Underground

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 143/250Title: White Light/White Heat
Artist: The Velvet Underground
Year: 1968
Position: #184

Just to start off, I have put off listening to White Light/White Heat for a few years because of how low it is on the list. It’s fairly precariously placed near the bottom and, as I write this, there is a decent chance that it will have fallen off by the time this is posted (in the end it didn’t, it actually went up by a lot)

Now, The Velvet Underground were a band that was all about experimenting. With their debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico they made an album that was experimental then, but due to it’s influence feels almost accessible to modern ears. Their follow-up, on the other hand, is a bit of a different story.

Where their debut album had a lot of beauty in their arrangements (see: ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’) there is none of that in White Light/White Heat. Beauty and calculation have been traded in for distortion and improvisation. I guess this was a reaction to their firing of Andy Warhol as a producer and they decided to move in an opposite direction. It would make sense and explain where the nuance has gone.

It feels like it’s been too long since I last listened to an album where I physically and mentally had to exhale at the end. I’m not entirely sure if I liked it what I heard, but I know that this is something I want to give another listen to. Maybe it’s because of the sheer boldness to release this album that is pretty much based off of two days of jam sessions or because I want to see why an album that’s nearly off the cuff is higher than most other albums ever produced.

1001 Songs – 1967: Part Two

List Item:  Listen to the 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die

White Rabbit – Jefferson Airplane

Necessity is the mother of invention and Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane is one of those mothers. ‘White Rabbit’ is one of the first songs that managed to sneak drug references onto mainstream radio.

How? The entire thing is disguised by references to Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland which, to be honest, feels like it was one long drug fuelled piece of prose anyway.

The way that this song is just one big build up to the conclusion reminds me of how ‘Heroin’ tried to do a similar thing with how they paced their music.

Also, a female lead singer on a rock song. About bloody time!

Purple Haze – The Jimi Hendrix Experience

It’s been a while since I did my Jimi Hendrix album posts. It sounds like another drugs song, even though Hendrix describes this as a love song. You can write a love song about cars so why not about drugs right?

‘Purple Haze’ is a song where a lot of the impact has been lost to normalisation. We are used to a more metal sounding guitar and the chords that made Hendrix famous. This doesn’t sound like much that came before it so there is a lot to appreciate there.

I’m a Man – The Spencer Davis Group

Ah the Hammond organ, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard one of these for the songs list. Began to think that we had moved through this weird period of music. Nope, but soon!

I think that this is the first time in this list where I am completely colourblind with a song. The assimilation of blues and RnB into white music is now complete with songs like ‘I’m a Man’.

Venus in Furs – The Velvet Underground

It feels like a lot has happened in my musical development since I did The Velvet Underground & Nico for the albums list. The more I listen to tracks from this album, the more I see how exceptional they are.

‘Venus in Furs’ feels like a sexy song (I mean it does contain references to bondage, so it’s meant to be fairly sensual). Like you are walking into one of those sex parties from The Great Gatsby or Eyes Wide Shut.

Interesting blend of instruments in this too. You have that viola constantly screeching and then Lou Reed on a guitar where all the strings have been tuned to the same note. Weird.

Fire – The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Speaking of interesting blends, here is a song that is just a mishmash of all the big musical trends at the same time. You have rock, psychedelia, some soul and a whole lotta funk.

I guess that’s what Hendrix was good at. A song that sounds like a lot of fun to perform, even if it started out over a comment of an actual dog wanting to be warm by the fire.

Waterloo Sunset – The Kinks

Okay this is actually a beautiful song. I’ve heard this song a few times before, but this is the first time I have properly listened to it.

It’s hard to get romance right in lyrics. You can be too schmaltzy, too overt or just get things wrong. This gets the balance perfect with its wistful lyrics.

What I love most is how this wasn’t about him in love, it’s about someone looking out of a window and seeing the same couple walking around Waterloo and romanticising them to the point of giving them names.

It’s the song that encapsulates the joys of people watching.

Ode to Billie Joe – Bobbie Gentry

Well this song took a turn. I had to pause the moment she sang the lyrics “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”.

Yes, this is a country song that tells of a family who are sat around the dinner table discussing the suicide of Billie Joe. Well most of it anyway. We end the song a year later where the narrator (Billie Joe’s sister) recaps the events after the suicide.

This is not the song I was expecting; a Southern Gothic tale of a family dealing with suicide. The throaty by Gentry is ideal for this yarn of a song. Wow.

The Dark End of the Street – James Carr

A song about a couple who are having to hide their love. Maybe they’re cheating on their spouses. Maybe they’re from families that wouldn’t approve of the match. The song is never explicit about this, but I would go for the former (I’d like to throw in a gay romantic interpretation of this… but I think that’s stretching it a bit).

You feel sorry for this couple who are clearly in love but are not allowed to be together. They may be cheaters or they may not be. In any case there is a lot of pain in this song and that’s what makes it good.

Suzanne – Leonard Cohen

I mentioned with ‘Waterloo Sunset’ about how hard it is to do a romantic song right. ‘Suzanne’ is another example, but this case it’s an unrequited love.

Suzanne was a real person that Cohen had a platonic relationship with. You listen to the lyrics and it sounds so much that he was in love with her, but could never act upon those feelings.

Something about her really touched him. Beautiful and sad.

Respect – Aretha Franklin

Ending on one of the most recognisable songs from the 1960s here. This has seriously been one of the best sets of songs that I have so far done from the 1001 list.

The fact that this song of female empowerment started out as a song about a desperate man wanting some respect from his wife just floors me.

Aretha Franklin truly made this song her own and the rest, as they say, is history.

Progress: 238/1021

1001 Songs – 1967: Part One

List Item:  Listen to the 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die

1967. For many appreciators of rock music this was a banner year. It saw the release of Sgt. Pepper, The Velvet Underground & Nico, two Jimi Hendrix albums and Forever Changes to name but a few.

Psychadelic rock was reaching the top of its game and I think this will end up being shown in the three song posts where I go through the 30 songs on the 1001 list that came out in 1967.

The End – The Doors

We start the year with one of the longer songs on the entire list, as well as being a song from I covered not too long ago.

When I looked at The Doors’ eponymous album the 12 minute closing track ‘The End’ didn’t exactly feature on my radar. Instead I preferred tracks like ‘End of the Night’ and ‘Break On Through’.

As a piece of work it’s impressive that this is meant to be one continuous take. However, I know the edited version used in Apocalypse Now and the context that cast it in probably stopped this song from connecting with me. It feels just so pleased with itself and that just turned me off.

Electricity – Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band

I maintain that this is one of the best names ever for a band. They are epitome of what happens when you take the conceit of psychedelic rock that bit too far and then add a hit of peyote.

It’s definitely more entertaining than the 12 minutes of The Doors I just listened too. Even more so when you read the story of when Captain Beefheart himself stopped a performance of the song because he saw a girl in the crowd turn into a goldfish.

Also, I need to talk about the use of a theremin. It’s hilarious and I don’t think it was meant to be.

Corcovado – Frank Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim

Meanwhile down the Brazilian way and in the smoke-filled nightclubs we still had the bossa nova music playing. In 1967 Frank Sinatra released a Grammy Award-nominated album with Antônio Carlos Jobim, one of those at the forefront of bossa nova, and this is one of the songs that came from such a partnership.

Sinatra’s smooth voice works perfectly with the smooth beats of bossa nova. We are so used to him delivering songs with a big band, but honestly this is one of the best recordings I have heard from him. It’s a nice palate-cleanser between all this psychedelic rock.

Heroin – The Velvet Underground

This is the first of two songs from The Velvet Underground & Nico. Whilst this is not one of my favourite two songs, it certainly one of the most notable.

Firstly, we have the title of the song: heroin. No album had featured a song with such a blatant title. You have the lyrical content of the song which neither condemns nor condones the use of heroin. It just talks about the use of heroin and the dependency.

The big thing of interest is the structure. The song is intended to mimic the initial rush (the increased tempo) which is then broken by the comedown (the screeching viola). It’s just a really clever song that’s also very interesting to listen to.

Chelsea Girls – Nico

Oh the flute. That infernal flute. Poor Nico was right about the flute and the strings. She wanted more guitar and some drums, which would have totally helped this song.

Okay so Nico doesn’t have a voice that you can get into straight away. It works with the instruments you hear on ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, just not with this wistfully awful production.

Poor poor Nico.

For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield

The moment that the chorus started with “Stop, hey, what’s that sound?” I knew that I knew this song. I don’t know where from, probably from The Muppet Show if I know my own frames of reference.

A song like this gives an interesting insight into what the world was like in 1967. Just as you listen to it off the cuff you quickly realise this is a protest song.

What was it protesting? A curfew that was put in place on the Sunset Strip that young people felt was specifically targeting them. This lead to rioting by the young people of Hollywood and so this song was born.

The Look of Love – Dusty Springfield

The second of three Dusty Springfield songs on this list, and one of the select few that were nominated for an Academy Award.

This song started out as an instrumental piece for the James Bond film Casino Royale (the spoof 1967 version, not the serious 2006 version) with lyrics being added in later.

Whilst the smooth bossa nova beats would have worked as intended in the film, the addition of lyrics sung by the wonderful Dusty Springfield just elevates this song and, as is the tradition of James Bond, makes it sexy.

I’d Rather Go Blind – Etta James

It feels like it has been a long time since we last had a soul song and we get two in a row. I know that with it being a song about a woman who would rather go blind than see her lover leave her.

It’s a sad premise, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t find this delivery as effecting as I could have. Oh well.

(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher & Higher – Jackie Wilson

This is one of those songs everyone probably knows from an advert on the TV or because it’s regularly used as a piece of background music in tv programmes and films set in the late 1960s.

It’s a song that was originally intended to be a ballad, but the producer thought it would better as a more upbeat song. He wasn’t wrong. It just worked this way because it is a happy song and that would have been lost if it had been crooned.

Strawberry Fields Forever – The Beatles

This will have to rank as one of the more unusual singles ever released by the Beatles. It’s a song of nostalgia about the fields John Lennon used to play in as a child and it is weird.

It’s hard to put a finger on this song. At all. It’s just this weird melange of tempo, instrumentation and John Lennon murmuring ‘cranberry sauce’ in the background.

I can see why reviewers at the time might have been slightly perplexed by this song. I cannot, however, see how this song was able to contribute towards the downward spiral of Brian Wilson.

I still prefer ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and I don’t think I am alone there.

Progress: 228/1021

Music Monday: The Velvet Underground & Nico by The Velvet Underground & Nico

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 37/250

Velvet_Underground_and_NicoTitle: The Velvet Underground & Nico
Artist: The Velvet Underground & Nico
Year: 1967
Position: #4

I am a firm believer that, when it comes to music, there are some albums that you need to work your way up to understanding. Some things (like ‘Pluto‘ by Bjork) are different enough and can be understood and enjoyed almost immediately. Then there are albums that are equally outside the radar but it can take years before you are musically ready to understand it. The Velvet Underground & Nico falls completely in the latter camp.

In 2005, when the book 1001 Albums You Must Listen To Before You Die, I went on a bit of a listening spree. I saw so many albums by artists that I had heard of and not heard of, and I sought to devour them. Through this book I was able to uncover some of my favourite artists of all time. Bjork, Beck, PJ Harvey, Nina Simone, M.I.A. and Fiona Apple. All in my life because this book provided a good introduction. However, for every breakthrough were a number of moments falling flat; The Velvet Underground & Nico being one of those moments (others including Nico’s solo album Chelsea Girls, The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady by Charles Mingus and OK by Talvin Singh).
Here’s the thing; The Velvet Underground & Nico is a very grown up album. Songs about addiction and sado-masochism really don’t say much to a fairly sheltered 14 year old. Granted I don’t have experience in either of those things (and as such am still fairly sheltered) but now that I have listened to a larger variety of music I am able to appreciate the atmosphere in songs like ‘Heroin’ and ‘Venus in Furs’. ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is by far the stand-out for me… with ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ being a song that, nine years later, I still don’t get.
To summarise: I get it now.