Attempting to rank songs by the Velvet Underground — the ’27 Yankees of rock-music catalogs — is almost inevitably going to end in tears. Upon hearing of this assignment, our dear friend and fellow Stereogum contributor James Jackson Toth chuckled over our fate and dared us to submit a list that was “everything but ‘The Murder Mystery.'” We thought about that, but actually “The Murder Mystery” is pretty great. The Velvets were short lived, but also brilliant to the point of short-circuiting everything previously thought to be known about the limits of the rock and roll genre.
There were four official releases, each one distinctly amazing in its own way, and roughly two studio albums of unreleased recordings. There were two of the greatest live albums ever recorded, and any number of estimable bootlegs. Forty-something years after the fact, we have the full picture of the Velvet Underground and the verdict is near incontrovertible: This was probably the best rock band that ever was, one which fulfilled Neil Young’s better-to-burn-out-than-fade-away doctrine, while somehow still managing to vouchsafe the “I was saved by rock and roll” sentiments expressed by Wilco.
No one argues much about the genius of the Velvet Underground these days, but that was far from always being the case. From the gate the band was far more perplexing than popular, and never were they commercially successful in their own time.
Provided a sort of instant cachet at their outset through their affiliation with Andy Warhol, who ostensibly “managed” the group and made them the house band for his Exploding Plastic Inevitable multi-media events, the Velvets had enough initial entre into the music industry to secure a record deal from Verve and a small amount of funding to record their first album. Playing his accustomed role as weird impresario, Warhol insisted the band add the German model Nico to a lineup that included the creative doppelgangers and frequent rivals Lou Reed and John Cale, the brilliantly inventive guitarist Sterling Morrison, and drummer Maureen “Mo” Tucker, whose simplistic, nearly primal approach to percussion was the band’s secret weapon. Nico was largely there to look at — her monotone, broken English lead vocals on a few of the band’s early classics like “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” are wonderful time-capsule oddities in retrospect, but not objectively good performances. It is not difficult to imagine even sympathetic audiences regarding her presence (and separate billing) on the debut Velvet Underground & Nico with a what-the-fuck-is-this sort of puzzlement. Of course the entire first album was baffling: vacillating between the romantic and degenerate, the avant and populist, the poetic and the plainspoken. It is an ingenious, anarchic hodge-podge that could really only happen by accident — it is simply impossible to imagine that anyone could actually contrive to make an album so utterly insane. One of the great debuts in all of rock and roll — and one of the greatest albums ever made — seems mainly like the result of a few towering geniuses going very crazy, very quickly, all at once.
Ironically, the far more abrasive follow up White Light/White Heat seems almost entirely deliberate — a muscular demonstration of the band’s willingness to take catchy songs and crush them to dust beneath an overwhelming storm of distorted guitar, pounding drums and droning organs. Having excused both Warhol and Nico from their service, the Velvets took the gloves off and busted the place up. No one — not Sonic Youth, not the Jesus & Mary Chain, not Dinosaur Jr. — has ever outdistanced White Light/White Heat in terms of the sheer magnitude of guitar-driven war-of-attrition gutter fighting. This was music with precedent in free-jazz artists like Albert Ayler and to a lesser extent modern composers like John Zorn, but never had this level of flagrant in-the-red soundscapes been brought into a rock and roll context. One could argue that this was the Velvets’ most influential record overall, signaling a sort of no-holds-barred war on fidelity that brought to the fore questions that were always in the DNA of rock and roll, but never fully examined previously. In an era where compositional filigree and unwieldy concept albums had begun to fully take hold, White Light/White Heat dared to connect both with the avant-garde and the cheap, slapdash recording techniques of Folkways-style traditional American music. It is no surprise that both David Bowie and Ralph Stanley have tackled cover versions of the title track.
Both The Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/White Heat fared poorly commercially, and tensions between Lou Reed and John Cale became unbearable, leading to Cale’s departure from the band.
Typical of The Velvets’ unpredictable nature, the change in personnel begat an utterly remarkable rethink in terms of musical direction. The third album, The Velvet Underground, is equally as sedate in musical terms as White Light/White Heat was extreme. Having replaced Cale with the profoundly misunderstood and absolutely great singer and multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule, this is a quiet and profound album of moving spiritual contemplation whose few analogues include Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Here we find the worshipful and profane juxtaposed together in a disorienting but ultimately transcendent gathering of yearning songs.
Yule’s role was even more prominent in the Velvet’s valedictory effort Loaded — certainly their most straightforward rock record, but also one replete with sideways maneuvers and peculiar digressions. It also contains some of the best and most popular VU songs and is a fitting end to their legendary output, one which tends to end at the beginning, with touchingly weird takes on Tin Pan Alley, doo-wop, and straight early-’60s-style rock and roll.
Folks wonder why these periodic reconsiderations of vital bands and their catalogs are important. The crucial reason, of course, is that the context of art changes over time. In 1987, Rolling Stone magazine printed a 20th anniversary issue celebrating the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, then considered perhaps the greatest rock and roll record ever released. Some 25 years later, few would consider Sgt. Pepper’s as even a top five Beatles’ album. One of the initial outliers on Sgt. Pepper’s was Lou Reed himself, who hated the record.
For all of the depth of their work and their extraordinary influence over time, the Velvets remain a phenomenon uniquely unto themselves — so weirdly gifted and protean in approach that there seems no plausible way their legend could ever be equaled. James Toth was probably right the first time when he advised we recommend everything. But here are 10 of the best of the best, to be argued and enjoyed.
10. “White Light/White Heat” from White Light/White Heat (1968):
The title track to the band’s brain-busting freakout of a second album, “White Light/White Heat” sets the template for the ensuing 40 minutes of guitar-driven panic that would change the face of rock and roll forever, even if it took rock and roll another decade or so to figure it out. A hugely catchy song overdriven by heavily distorted guitars and a pounding boogie piano, Reed sings about various states of severe mental confusion in a bemused monotone, adding yet another layer of cognitive dissonance to the entire affair. What does Reed seem to find so funny about his own personal immolation? Indeed, he sounds so utterly giddy about the sonic and lyrical madness surrounding him, it is difficult not to laugh along, all the while sensing that this is probably the wrong trip to be on. No one does frightening and funny quite like the Velvets.
9. “What Goes On” from The Velvet Underground (1969):
One of only a couple unabashedly uptempo numbers from the band’s third album, “What Goes On” is one of those unmistakably great grooves that only the Velvets seem to be able to manage. At first blush this is a seemingly simple song, not that compositionally different from the Beatles track by the same name that had surfaced three years earlier on Rubber Soul. It turns out, on closer inspection, it is in fact an infinitely better track than the Fab Four’s. The VU’s “What Goes On” is a sophisticated melding of chugging guitars, clever chord changes, and sublime arrangement. Countless bands have covered “What Goes On” (possibly every band?) and it is not hard to listen today and hear the then-future of pop music unfolding over the course of this 4:30 minutes — Yule’s lovely harmonies on the chorus anticipating R.E.M., the great organ break that Yo La Tengo would one day feature so prominently in their playbook, the terrific double-tracked guitar solo sounding for all the world like Stephen Malkmus at his “I refuse to make this sound like a rock and roll guitar solo” best and most inventive. In addition to being a great listen, “What Goes On” is practically the entire textbook on pop music songcraft.
8. “Femme Fatale” from The Velvet Underground And Nico (1967):
The gorgeous, noir-ish “Femme Fatale” is a fearsome warning of the most frightening sort, acknowledging the controlling powers of a woman of surpassing beauty. Nico sings the original, but Reed does her one better on the amazing double live album 1969. Perhaps the definitive version, though, lays on Big Star’s Sister Lovers, where Alex Chilton provides a reading so humane and moving that the song never felt more beautiful and chilling.
7. “Stephanie Says” from VU (1985):
Originally recorded for a planned 1968 album that was never released, this recording surfaced formally in 1985. “Stephanie Says” is a winsome, melancholy classic and yet another instance of the almost implausible eclecticism that is one of the band’s most important hallmarks. How is it even possible that this sublime piece of carefully arranged chamber pop could emerge from the same band, in the same year they released the world-destroying White Light/White Heat? What manner of men are we dealing with here?! In any event, with its irresistible descending riff and pitch-perfect narrative representation of a lonely outsider, this is one of Reed’s finest character studies in miniature. His is an uncanny gift for giving voice to the alienated and forgotten, and here a number of terrific phrases nimbly explain the interior world of a what becomes a fully formed entity: “Stephanie says / that she wants to know / why she’s given half her life / to people she hates now.” It is no insult to Belle & Sebastian to say that this is probably the best Belle & Sebastian song ever written.
6. “Rock And Roll” from Loaded (1970):
For a band that, in its first iteration, made its bona fides out of subverting every last convention of contemporary rock music, “Rock And Roll” can feel like anything ranging from a capitulation to a sincere pledge. Or, perhaps, this is just a band that, in spite of all of their experimental leanings, have always been rooted in the great songs of the tradition, dating back to Reed’s early experience as a writer on Tin Pan Alley. Whatever, Reed’s enduring and earnest tribute to the classic radio he grew up on is one of Loaded’s inarguable highlights, a testimony to the power of music to change lives from the mundane to the vibrant. On “Rock And Roll,” Reed imagines a young girl trapped in a suburban hell, finding her own voice through the sounds of the radio. “Two TV sets and two Cadillac cars” ain’t gonna help her at all. But goddamned if her life, like so many of ours, isn’t saved by rock and roll.
5. “Pale Blue Eyes” from The Velvet Underground (1969):
Lou Reed’s stirring lament, “Pale Blue Eyes,” is perhaps his greatest love song. “Sometimes I feel so happy / Sometimes I feel so sad” Reed sings, in a voice half prayerful/half wondering if deliverance can ever be possible. Where White Light/White Heat makes a virtue of excess, here we see the band achieving the same level of greatness by exercising restraint — stripping the instrumentation down to beautifully understated guitar, tambourine, and Reed’s mature and meditative reflections. A wonderfully adult and sophisticated consideration of a complex love affair conducted in a moral gray area: “It was good what we did yesterday / and I’d do it once again / The fact that you are married / only proves you’re my best friend.”
4. “Sweet Jane” from Loaded (1970):
Another one of the Velvets’ most covered songs of all time, “Sweet Jane” is a stone-cold pop gem with an unforgettable riff, and surprisingly optimistic lyrics from the usually dyspeptic Lou Reed. Like “Rock And Roll,” “Sweet Jane” shares the theme of music as a kind of liberation — Jack and Jane are corporate types, caged in their suits and predictable lives, while Reed’s narrator feels free as a bird because he gets to be in a band. But Lou isn’t making fun of workaday types here; he’s celebrating the fundamental decency of anyone who can lose themselves in the joy of music, fiction, or art. The lyrics “But anyone who ever had a heart / they wouldn’t turn around and break it / And anyone who ever played a part / they wouldn’t turn around and hate it” — present a picture of the frequently cynical Reed with his guard down and his head held high.
3. “I’m Waiting For The Man” from The Velvet Underground And Nico (1967):
In the long-standing tradition of songs about scoring drugs in New York City, “I’m Waiting For The Man” is a nonpareil amalgam of piano boogie, straightforward rock, and vérité-style narrative that ranks as the very best of NYC’s degenerative set, laying the table for everything from the Ramones to Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers. Combining the fear, humor, and pathos of an addict in the most extreme need, Reed remarks after a troubled negotiation: “Then you got to smoke it / ’cause you got no time to waste.” The urgency of the instrumentation makes clear that the lyrics are no lie. No one has ever fully represented the hellish rush and sublime relief of foreign substances quite like the Velvets.
2. “Candy Says” from The Velvet Underground (1969):
Doug Yule’s wondrous and strangely androgynous vocals on the self-titled album’s opener “Candy Says” represents one of the most intense moments in rock history, evincing a vulnerability reminiscent of nothing so much as the great Chet Baker. The song relays the tragic tale Warhol Factory fixture Candy Darling, a beloved but tortured transsexual who later died at the age of 29. Yule brings a deep subtlety to his reading that wrings an almost unbearable amount of emotion from one of Reed’s greatest-ever sets of lyrics. From the opening lines “Candy Says / I’ve come to hate my body / and all that it requires / in this world,” the level of grief and resignation are nearly excruciating. The Velvets at their most moving and elegiac.
1. “Sister Ray” from White Light/White Heat (1968):
If you had to choose only one three-chord, 17-minute-long fuzz-driven sonic walkabout through a drug-fuelled binge brimming with sailors, junkies, drag queens, bondage sessions, random pistol shots, questionable police behavior, and many, many uses of the term “ding-dong,” you’d probably choose “Sister Ray” — and you’d be right! It’s the best song ever. The legend of “Sister Ray” occasionally threatens to overwhelm the song’s utter brilliance — it was recorded in one take, without overdubs for the White Light/White Heat album, and so exhausted producer Tom Wilson that he allegedly left halfway through the recording and instructed the band to tell him when they were done. When they were done, they had created their masterpiece. With Cale on organ, and Reed and Morrison trading off squalling guitar riffs, the simple, chugging repetition of the G/F/C progression begins as catchy, turns hypnotic, and by the end is utterly mesmerizing. Buried deep beneath the layers of fuzz, Reed’s lyrics can be difficult to make out, but that only adds to the fun — bringing about a real-life experience of being trapped in an utterly crowded and debased maze where only the random weird bit of degeneracy can be heard through the din. So hold on — Miss Rayon is busy licking up her pigpen? Cecil’s got a new piece?? And now he shot that guy from Carolina?! Did you just ask me for a dollar?? What the fuck?? Am I hearing this correctly??? Oh, we’re afraid you are. And it just keeps getting better.