❉ 43 live performances capturing the band’s legendary stand at San Francisco’s fabled club.
With rock now being a heritage industry, and any variety of experimental music you could think of being available on a limitless digital tap, it’s now almost impossible to have a sense of how odd the Velvet Underground must have been in the late Sixties: a group with only a tiny and dedicated following even in the years of the Beatles magpie pillaging and psychedelic drugs and Jagger’s sanitized rebelliousness. With the subsequent approval of David Bowie and a million indie/alt-rock chancers, they’re now as accepted as vital and influential as the bands who routinely sold millions, with their records receiving canonization via the deluxe reissue treatment.
The latest accolade for the band is 2015’s The Matrix Tapes making the transition from CD box set to a lavish eight disc LP set. For the target audience of hardcore fans, the material will be familiar not only from the CD version but from the 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, The Quine Tapes and other bootlegs, and bonus material from other previous deluxe reissues.
So why indulge rock’s zombie perpetuation of its totems? The obvious answer is that it’s never sounded better. The music equivalent of Stockholm syndrome means the hiss of the previous versions is like the absence of an old familiar friend, but such is the price of an obsession with sonic fidelity. It is, as ever, a case that the Velvets were one of the great live bands, willing to alter songs to the point their meaning is fundamentally altered: the jitteriness of Waiting For My Man turns it from a junkie’s sleazy confession to a lover’s ode to their narcotic muse, the other side of the story. Reed and Yule harmonizing about feeling sick and dirty, more dead than alive might well be as close as anyone in music’s ever got to expressing why an addict keeps reaching for that high time and again. Live, What Goes On extends to nine minutes driven by almost call and response interplay between Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison: even at this distance it sounds almost impossibly thrilling and makes the case that Morrison’s role in the VU isn’t talked about enough. Here he can cut free in a way he couldn’t in the studio.
Morrison’s inventiveness is a reason the band never fall into the very Sixties trap of self-indulgence when they inevitably fall into jamming – I’m more tolerant of band excesses than most but a forty minute version of a song (here, Sister Ray) is something to fill even me with dread. What the Velvet Underground understands, and what the Grateful Dead’s plethora of live albums and bootlegs often don’t get across, is that the extra time builds atmosphere for the gig. By this stage their lack of commercial success has seen them make what money they do get through touring and by this point, with newest member Yule into his second year, they’re a well-honed outfit with a sense of what does and doesn’t work live. Contrarian as Reed in particular could often be, they give the audience what they want and need. There’s even some deadpan comedy introductions which suggest Reed might have made a decent stand-up. In some ways this album’s most important reason for existing is in demystifying the band and demonstrating why their following was so devoted.
It’s impossible to regard any of the Velvet Underground’s studio albums as definitive, such is the evolution of the band across them. They can’t possibly cover the journey from the queered-up pop music of the first album to the almost begging to be loved Loaded. That’s why The Matrix Tapes deserves your attention: it’s a band at the mid-point of their career encompassing the best of all they were from their days as Warhol’s house band to the near mainstream band that’d be their final incarnation under Reed’s leadership. There might be songs with several airings, but repetition for atmosphere’s sake was always the band’s hallmark so it’s not unwelcome, even though Cale’s trademark drone has been replaced. The replacement of Cale with Yule unmasked Reed’s faultless pop songwriting, something that eventually reached its apex on the Bowie produced Transformer. Perhaps the recordings don’t do the power of Mo Tucker’s drumming justice, but it’s a small price to pay and one easily rectified by revisiting the studio albums. As it is, it’s as good a demonstration as you can find of the greatness of Reed and Morrison and what Yule could bring to the band. Like all the best live albums you won’t mind the inevitable flaws of human performance, but you get the atmosphere and thrill of the gigs and end up desperately wishing you could’ve been there.
❉ The Velvet Underground: ‘The Complete Matrix Tapes’ (limited edition, eight-LP, 43-track box set) out now from Polydor/UME and available worldwide through shop.velvetundergroundmusic.com.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jon Arnold is the author of three volumes of the Black Archive series and co-editor of ‘Me And The Starman’, published by Chinbeard Books.