Music: Loaded, The Velvet Underground

One of the earliest seminal records I claimed ownership of was The Velvet Underground’s, Loaded (1970, Cotillion/Atlantic). I say “claimed ownership of” because my memory of actually purchasing the album is a bit hazy. It might have been a downtown record store bargain bin find (common in 1985) or it might have been one I pilfered from my parent’s existing collection. (A collection I inherited once I also “claimed ownership” of the old Garrard hi-fi receiver and turntable, moving them and all the records into my crowded bedroom.) Loaded came out on Cotillion Records (at least here in Canada) but so did a few other artists in my parent’s collection, including Young-Holt Unlimited – although the album I distinctly remember was, 1969’s Just A Melody, which came out on the Brunswick label… You see, my parents had a penchant for soul and jazz. Still, the inner dust sleeve of Loaded prefigures in my memory well before the The Velvet Underground does, so Mom and Dad must have had other Cotillion releases… Anyway, this inner sleeve, which I wondered at for hours, was basically a catalogue for Cotillion circa 1971; featuring album cover thumbnails for such artists as Lord Sutch (always wondered about him), Quill, Fairport Convention, and Herbie Mann, the aforementioned Velvet Underground, and Young-Holt Unlimited, as well as Woodstock and Woodstock 2 (both soundtracks of the film). The cover of Loaded, in miniature, looked evocative: strangely pink whipped-cream-like steam floating out from a Manhattan subway entrance.

My copy of Loaded by the Velvet Underground

My copy of Loaded by the Velvet Underground

Beyond the Cotillion catalogue, I first really heard of (or read about) the Velvet Underground (henceforth, affectionately the Velvets) in the Dossier section of the April 1985 issue of Heavy Metal magazine. Larry “Ratso” Sloman had done an interview piece with former Velvets member Sterling Morrison. The feature’s title, Sterling Says, was in itself a grammatical homage and easily detected by fans of the band (for obvious reasons that went over my head at the time!). In the mid-80s Sterling Morrison was a hermit of sorts, living in student housing at University of Texas in Austin and finishing his PhD in medieval literature. In the interview, he says:

I don’t know what people liked about us, particularly. I could see people liking some of the heavy-metal portions of what we did. And the sense of rebelliousness in the lyrics. We did what we felt like doing, so maybe people admire that. Some people see us as S&M freaks, but obviously that’s ridiculous. People saw us as a group willing to do what they felt like doing, people who obviously only cared about making the kind of records they felt like making with no attempt to manufacture an image, no attempt to ingratiate themselves with the media, no attempt to ingratiate themselves with the public. Half the stuff we did is probably repellent to a mass audience. So what? Some bands are designed for a mass audience and some aren’t. We weren’t.
(Heavy Metal, April 1985)

The Nat Finkelstein photo of the Velvets (featuring Sterling in the centre) looked really cool – almost proto-gothic – so I was intrigued. The photo was taken from the Velvet’s Factory period, when they were working with Andy Warhol.

The Velvet Underground as pictured in the April 1985 issue of Heavy Metal.

The Velvet Underground as pictured in the April 1985 issue of Heavy Metal.

After reading the story, I quickly dug out Loaded (because it was, quite mysteriously, already there in my bedroom). I took in the strange cover in all its 12-inch, clouds of pink whipped cream, glory. I examined the back cover. It has that really dark studio shot (taken from the control room looking into the studio) showing what looked like, to me, a state-of-the-art of album production environment, and a tiny solitary Doug Yule sitting at the piano with his back to the camera. Despite not getting the symbolism there, I was mesmerized by the photo. The studio is Atlantic Studios, NYC: a legendary room, and the birthplace of hundreds of hits, where Tom Dowd basically invented modern recording by ushering in and standardizing multi-track and stereo techniques in the early 1960s.  The photo probably figured highly in my career choice as an adult (having worked in and owned several recording studios for nearly two decades, myself).

The Back Cover of my copy of The Velvet Underground, Loaded and inner dust sleeve featuring other Cotillion releases.

The Back Cover of my copy of The Velvet Underground, Loaded and inner dust sleeve featuring other Cotillion releases.

little_doug_yule

Detail of VU’s Loaded back cover: Doug Yule sitting at the piano

One of the strangest things about the back cover are the credits. They are quite detailed. Strangely, Doug Yule is listed first, followed by Sterling Morrison and then Lou Reed. This is strange considering Reed was the Velvet’s principle songwriter and Doug was a relative newcomer (being John Cale‘s replacement after his departure in 1968). Moe Tucker is listed last as part of “The Line Up,” but considering she’s not even on the album it’s amazing she’s there at all (more on that later). Some of the drums where actually recorded by Doug’s younger brother, Billy (“Lonesome Cowboy Bill” and  “Oh! Sweet Nuthin'”) while the remaining tracks were handled by Adrian Barber, Tommy Castagnaro, and Doug himself.  Incidentally, Adrian (a Beatles-era, Liverpoolian expat) was also the primary recording engineer. Doug, Lou and Sterling are all given “song composition” credit, among many other things. Only Doug and Lou are credited with lyrics. Almost everyone is credited with multiple instruments (except Moe) but Doug plays the most instruments: organ, piano, bass, drums, lead guitar, acoustic guitar, and vocals.

The album has three producer credits: Geoffrey Haslam, Shel Kagan and the Velvets themselves. There’s also a pretty odd special thanks to Geoffrey:

The Velvet Underground wishes to thank Geoffrey Haslam for his help in putting this album together.

OK. So that’s a lot of info. Even as a kid I got the feeling that this might have been a difficult album to make, or at least the band was really going for broke. Turns out, after reading up on the album many years later, both guesses were right. Loaded was born during a very nebulous period for the Velvets. This is now well-documented Velvets-lore. You can look it up. To sum it up, Loaded was recorded during the tail-end of an 8-week residency at Max’s Kansas City – which was the first gig the band had played in their home territory (the Island of Manhattan) since 1967.  Moe Tucker was absent from both the residency gigs and the recording sessions because she took a maternity leave. Doug Yule’s younger brother, Billy Yule, was hastily recruited to fill in.  It’s been said that Billy was a decent drummer, but he was no Moe Tucker. To make things even stranger, Lou Reed, the founding member of the band and principle songwriter, quit before the residency was up and the album was mastered. (And, much to his chagrin, quite a bit had been chopped out of his songs post-editing, including the entire bridge of Sweet Jane.) Yule sings lead on several songs (“Who Loves the Sun”, “New Age”, “Lonesome Cowboy Bill”, and “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’).

Yule himself has admitted that the previous Velvets album, 1969’s eponymous album, may have been a stronger and the recording process was “more organic” than Loaded, which felt more like a “studio record.” He admits, in retrospect, that they should have waited for Moe and that without Moe the Velvets did not “feel like a band.” Indeed, Loaded is by far the slickest Velvets album in terms of production and performance. Much of the noise, dissonance and edge is gone. I remember reading, somewhere, that Loaded was the only Velvets album not to be deleted (that is, allowed to go out-of-print). Of course, all those early records have since been lavishly re-released.

Because he was a newcomer to the band, put there to replace the very talented-yet-esoteric John Cale, and because he carried the Velvet Underground name after Lou Reed’s departure, (mostly under pressure from the band’s manager, Steve Sesnick) Doug Yule is often viewed as a sort of interloper among a number of the band’s fans. He is poignantly missing from the famous reunion tour of 1993. (where several songs from Loaded were performed) Often sited in this respect are the post-Reed album Squeeze (in which Doug was the only original member), and the gigs without Reed; including the notorious 1971 Alpine, North Conway, New Hampshire Ski Resort residency . For these reasons, many see Loaded is the last true Velvet Underground Album and a death knell for the highly influential and groundbreaking band.

Despite this, Loaded is undoubtedly a classic album. For one, it contains two of the most iconic and influential Lou Reed masterpieces ever put to tape: “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll.” When I first heard those songs, they sounded like nothing else – somehow simultaneously retrograde and modern. They were retrograde in terms of sonic quality. Yes, the mixes are good, but Loaded seemed to lack the same sheen of other records from that era (like the Beatles, Let it Be, for example). Basically, less sonic information in the subs and the ultra highs. In retrospect, I’ve really learned to appreciate those mixes because they’re warm and gritty. They’re informed by Rock n’ Roll in the 1950’s-American-Tradition sense. Like early rock, Reed’s dry, slightly distorted, vocals are pushed to the front of the mix, often to the point of overshadowing the backing track. The drums, although tight, are somewhat buried and flat sounding. Chiming double-tracked rhythm guitars (both acoustic and electric) provide the main propulsive force.  And yet, these songs sound absolutely ahead of their time. There’s none of the 60’s schlock here. These are stark, hard and gritty (they are very NYC), especially Reed’s lyrics and vocal performances. There’s something in the waver of his voice – a mixture of tough and vulnerable, deadpan and dramatic.  At times Reed’s vocals verge on being over-the-top. You can really hear every lip-smack, snicker and chuckle of contempt in Reed’s voice when he sings:

Now, Jack, he is a banker,
And Jane, she is a clerk.
And the both of them are saving up their money…
When they come home from work…
(Sweet Jane, 1970)

Later I would discover that Loaded is the Velvet’s least experimental album – starting with the drums. Moe Tucker is famous for her pulsating and primitive style. She hardly ever played a snare drum on the off-beat, or a hi-hat for that matter. There was no “swing” or “pocket” but rather she stood over her drums (primarily a floor toms and bass drums) and just pounded, using dynamics for dramatic effect. Heroin (from their 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico) is a prime example. From the reviews I’ve read, people often cite Moe’s drumming style as the most riveting aspect of a Velvet’s live performance.  There was something very 60s, IMO, in Tucker’s early drumming and John Cale’s experimental bent. By 1969, Cale was out and their eponymous album, although still filled with the very odd, seemed more focused and pop-oriented as evidenced by their single “What Goes On” which featured some of Moe’s most conventional work (a track that would not have seemed out of place on Loaded).

Head Held High” is another Lou Reed standout. A song about parental advice (or maybe disfigurement), it has a certain grit and toughness to it and shares many of the same tight sonic characteristics as “Sweet Jane” or “Rock and Roll.” The instrumental breakdown when Reed sings “Watch out, Yeah, Do the dog, Oh, watch out,”  just rocks!

Cool it Down,” is Reed at his tongue-in-cheek best. The groove of this songs is just great.  And Lou Reed is both laid back in the verses and heavy in the choruses. The lyrics are subtle but evocative and carries a bit of that sexual edge from earlier albums. You can fill in the blanks:

But me l’m down around the corner
You know I’m lookin’ for Miss Linda Lee
Because she’s got the power to love me by the hour
Gives me double you L-O-V-E…
(Cool it Down, 1970)

However, not all the songs on Loaded managed to rid themselves of that 60s schlock. “Who Loves The Sun” (sung by Yule), despite being more clever than it sounds, is too paisley-flower-power and reminds me too much of the Archies or some other bubblegum group from the era. On Loaded, Yule’s voice is the polar opposite of Reed’s. While Reed is often hard and in-your-face, Yule is vulnerable and wistful and quite reminiscent of Reed’s style on the Velvet’s first-ever 1966 single, “Sunday Morning.”  (With the exception of the campy, pastiche throw-away, “Lonesome Cowboy Bill“). On the previous, eponymous album, Yule sang the very-touching, “Candy Says” and I wasn’t aware of this until I did some research for this review. In fact, for years I thought many of the Yule-sung songs on Loaded were actually Lou Reed being soft a la “Sunday Morning.” So for the most part, Yule’s vocal style works for me. The Yule-sung “New Age,” has a charming “lost bohemian” vibe and actually tells a story: a tale about a tryst between a washed-up film star and a fanboy that ends in post-modern disillusionment:

Can I have your autograph
He said to the fat blonde actress
You know I’ve seen every movie you’ve been in
From Paths of Pain to Jewels of Glory
And when you kissed Robert Mitchum
Gee but I thought you’d never catch him

Over the hill right now
And you’re looking for love…
(New Age, 1970)

Chock-full of throwaways, but also containing some pretty iconic works, Loaded is a mixed bag. It’s no White Light/White Heat – an album I would discover and come to appreciate much later (and a midwife to so much future music). Regardless, over the years I’ve really come to appreciate Loaded‘s no-nonsense and direct production values and streetwise lyrics, which seemed to have aged well compared to other albums of the same vintage. This could be due to the very inspirational role the Velvet Underground continues to play with new generations of rock musicians. (The Strokes immediately come to mind, but they are no longer the new, are they?) The album’s explicit pop sensibilities make it an easy listen and since the lyrical seediness is subtle I can safely play it around my 4-year old.  It’s since become a favourite around the household.

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About centralmeaner

Born many years ago, Dean Marino is a bandleader, songwriter, record producer, guitarist, writer and sometime visual artist. He is the former co-owner of Chemical Sound Recording Studio and Echo Valley Recording Studio and fronts the band Papermaps. Dean is always busy.
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