‘The Velvet Underground’ turns 50

The influential band’s third album celebrates a half century

The first two The Velvet Underground albums changed the future of rock music. The band’s debut in 1967, “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” and its follow-up, 1968’s “White Light / White Heat,” were dark, cutting-edge and streetwise records that mixed raw catchiness, experimental sonic gymnastics and primal poetry. Their influence is incalculable, with DNA scattered throughout the last five decades. It’s been often said they didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one of their albums started a band.

The Velvet Underground’s self-titled third record — which came out 50 years ago this month — marked a hard left turn in 1969. It’s a more subtle, less adventurous art-rock record that put the lyrics front and center. It was their first album without John Cale, the multi-instrumentalist wizard who added brilliant amounts of depth and vibrant weirdo textures to the band’s sound. Lou Reed’s lyrics are also notably different on “The Velvet Underground,”— less like someone who was at risk of an overdose and more like someone who was falling in love.

“My work goes from ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ to ‘White Light/White Heat’ and all stops in between,” Reed said in one of his more reflective moments during a mercurial 2008 Spin Magazine interview with David Marchese.“Generally speaking, you wouldn’t figure that one person is going to write both those songs.”

On the one hand, it’s odd that Reed establishes the boundaries of his range as the title track of “White Light / White Heat” to “Pale Blue Eyes,” the most well-known song from the self-titled record. After all, this is the guy who released the disastrous — and incredibly forward-thinking “Metal Machine Musicand the highly-underrated, sparse piano ballads about Andy Warhol’s life on “Songs For Drella.”

On the other hand, he had a point: “White Light/White Heat” is drug-inspired and wild-sounding, while “Pale Blue Eyes” is pop-leaning and contemplative. “White Light/White Heat” is an outcast anthem, “Pale Blue Eyes” processes love and relationships just like the rest of us. And that’s a reoccurring juxtaposition between the two records that were released just a year apart. One embraced chaos, the other reflected on it. 

That’s not to say the self-titled album is dull or less critical. Instead, it showed theycould completely change things up — dial down, stripping away their overarching, aggressive avant-garde storminess — and still make compelling, innovative music.  

The opener “Candy Says” is about trans icon Candy Darling, who was a staple in the Warhol Factory scene. Sung by Cale replacement and eventual Reed enemy Doug Yule, the stark, melancholy song is about bottled emotional pain. “Jesus” is a simple prayer that leads into the jangly and transparent “Beginning To See The Light.” “The Murder Mystery” is the closest in spirit to the oddball noise gambles on the earlier records, as its spliced spoken-word vocal work and twisting instrumentation have the sensibilities of a fever dream.  

Woven together, “The Velvet Underground” may not be as visceral as its predecessors, but it shows another side of the band, one that isn’t as flashy but could still dive deep into the raw aspects of life.

Losing Cale — a pivotal player in building The Velvet Underground’s groundbreaking sound — could have unraveled or shaken a lesser collection of musicians, but The Velvet Underground still exceeded the sum of their parts. Reed’s direct lyricism and unwillingness to try to live in or recreate the past were key, as was Sterling Morison’s sharp adaptability and Moe Tucker’s patient and impactful drumming, which always seemed to make every strike count. Yule adds a lighter version of Cale’s haunting creations.

With self-titled, The Velvet Underground made something more accessible that veered a little more into the mainstream without losing their idiosyncratic roots, moving on to the next phase and the next story in a cool and calculated way. They weren’t evolving or devolving — just flying at their own speed. It seemed the members had no expectations of what a The Velvet Underground record should sound like, only that it should something that was biting and boundary-pushing, which is exactly what makes them one of the most important rock bands of all time.

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