Velvet Underground: Live MCMXIII
Dec 25, 1993
LIVE MCMXCIII, The Velvet Underground (Sire/Warner Bros.)
During their brief life as a band, between the mid 60s and early 70s, no one really imagined that the Velvet Underground would ever be anything more than a footnote to rock history. They never performed outside North America and even those shows were frequently performed to half-empty clubs. There were no “I have seen the future of rock’n’roll” pronouncements.
When Lou Reed and John Cale embarked on their motley solo careers and Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker quit the business, they left behind just a handful of poor-selling albums. But, as someone once observed, everybody who bought one of those was inspired to form a band.
Over the past 25 years their music has seeped into the collective consciousness, to the extent that without them rock’n’roll would be an entirely different beast. A few things we can either thank or blame the Velvets for:
White rhythm: If it weren’t for the Velvets white groups would still be trying to swing. The Velvets never even tried. They went against the tide of groups that aspired to imitate (however badly) black R&B and developed a monolithic, defiantly unfunky feel of their own.
Anti-singing: Again, in the 60s most white singers tried to sound black. But Nico’s Teutonic monotone and Lou Reed’s more deliberate disregard for the notes opened the door for anyone with a limited vocal range and an attitude.
Drug songs: There had always been supposedly “hidden references” to drugs, from “Mr Tambourine Man” to “Puff the Magic Dragon”, but no one had written as openly or clinically about narcotics as Reed did in “Heroin” or “Waiting For My Man”.
Flying Nun: The first generations of Flying Nun bands were all basically Velvet Underground fans who started bands. The Velvets albums were the yardstick for the dirty production, droning guitars and off-key singing that initially defined the sound of a Flying Nun record.
Black clothes: They may not know it, but the reason so many students wear black and covet their flatmate’s wrap-around shades can be traced back to early Velvets publicity shots.
Women in bands: Moe Tucker wasn’t there as a sex symbol or gimmick. She was a musician, like the rest of the band. She was the first.
Avant-garde meets rock: When Joghn Cale brought his Cage-and-Stockhausen-inspired ideas on composition and improvisation to Reed’s rock’n’roll he showed a way for later adventurers, from Can to Eno to Sonic Youth.
Sexual deviance: Sadomasochism, homosexuality, transvestitism… Reed’s songs suggested to smart appropriators like David Bowie how these images could be exploited in rock.
British punk: When the punks thumbed – no, pierced then blew – their collective nose at the bands that had gone before, the Velvets were excepted: they had created the blueprint for punk’s nihilism a decade before.
All this has meant that almost 25 years after they played their last dispirited club gig, the Velvets have been able to return and fill arenas. With a collective age of around 200, the four original Velvets hardly look like proto-punks anymore: more like the staff of a university English department.
Funnily, there’s little to say about Live MCMXCIII, recorded over three nights at L’Olympia Theatre in Paris last June. It sounds like – well, the Velvet Underground, of course. So much so that it almost makes itself redundant; just about everything here is already available on early albums. Still, the music doesn’t sound anachronistic. Bands like Sonic Youth may have gone further in sheets-of-sound experiments, but a modal jam like the 15-minute ‘Hey Mr Rain” (around since the early Velvets though only ever heard on the late-80s out-takes album Another VU) certainly doesn’t sound like a 25-year-old idea. Only the faster trscks – “Sweet Jane”, “White Light/White Heat” – make me wonder whether they ever really left rock’n’roll conventions very far behind.
It will be interesting to see whether they continue as a group to do anything new or if they return to their solo projects, families, universities or whatever. In the meantime, this project at least has significance and dignity, features that virtually every other rock reunion has lacked.