45 Years Ago: ‘The Velvet Underground’ Released
If any of the four masterpieces by the Velvet Underground could be said to unfairly lag behind the rest, it would the group’s eponymous third album, often known simply as ‘VU,’ which was released in March 1969. Its reputation is probably because it is the band’s quietest and least brazenly provocative work.
Not that there was anything remotely placid about the months leading up to ‘The Velvet Underground’’s recording, which witnessed the departure of band co-founder John Cale — precisely due to growing musical differences over Lou Reed’s desire to simplify the band’s songwriting. Into Cale’s vacancy stepped Doug Yule, whose presence was immediately announced with a lead vocal on the gentle opener, ‘Candy Says,’ written by Reed about transexual Warhol Superstar, Candy Darling (later the muse for ‘Walk on the Wild Side’).
From this point forward, Reed, Yule, Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker kept things largely laid-back and low-key, employing an easy swing on ‘Some Kinda Love’ and the folky ‘That’s the Story of My Life,’ delivering sweet and subtle songs in ‘After Hours’ (sung by Tucker) and the exquisite ’Pale Blue Eyes,’ then indulging in a pair of seemingly earnest spiritual numbers in ‘Jesus’ and the almost-hymnal ‘I’m Set Free.’ That peculiar sense of religious fervor carried into the transcendent, even euphoric ‘Beginning to See the Light,’ whose increased urgency was also matched by first single ‘What Goes On.’ But the only ‘VU’ song one could truly call “experimental” was the jarring ‘The Murder Mystery,’ which mixed conflicting poetry readings by all four band members against an ever fluid and unpredictable musical backdrop.
Finally, as if to further complicate the album’s rather confusing sonic approach and historical standing, ‘The Velvet Underground’ has at different times been issued with two, entirely distinct mixes — one by recording engineer, Val Valentin, the other by Lou himself — which have further split critics and fans alike, in the process (both versions are available on disc four of the ‘Peel Slowly and See’ box set). If anything, though, this added wrinkle helped contradict any effort to label ‘VU’ “conventional.”