The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) and The Velvet Underground & Nico 45th Anniversary Edition (1966-67). I picked this up with the Verve reissues in 1987 because of Kurt Loder praising it on MTV. I'd also read about them in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, which quoted the familiar line about how only 5,000 people bought this album when it came out and they all went on to form influential bands. And my mind ripped open. There was so many types of music! But they all were served up in a drone-y faux-primitive style. The songs were perfect. The Super Deluxe 45th Anniversary Edition has versions of the album in stereo and again in mono, then a copy of Nico's Chelsea Girls, which the album rightfully claims is pretty much a VU album, then a bunch of demos, then a cleaned-up copy of the 1967 Valleydale Ballroom show from Columbus OH, which is also a part of the Caught Between The Twisted Stars four-disc bootleg set, reviewed below. You already know if this is something you must have. I'm sure everyone reading this has heard "I'll Be Your Mirror," but there's never a bad reason to listen to it again. Even the most emotionally direct country song can't light a candle to this: "I find it hard to believe you don't know the beauty you are/but if you don't, let me be your eyes/a hand to your darkness/so you won't be afraid." I mean, dammit, that's gorgeous.
White Light/White Heat (1968), White Light/White Heat Super Deluxe (1967-68), and Live At The Gymnasium, NYC (bootleg, 1967). Just as legendary as the first one, WL/WH is a blast of noise that takes the screech of "European Son" and amps it up. Or, at least, part of it is. The opening song is really more of a boogie song built on John Cale's piano rolls. "The Gift" is a fusion of the instrumental track "The Booker T," which is a grungy take on Memphis soul, with Cale's chilly-comic tale of poor Waldo Jeffers. "Lady Godiva's Operation" is not too different from the two-chord drone-art of "Venus In Furs." "Here She Comes Now" is utterly gorgeous, showing the way to the dreamy third album. Then side two, with the frenetic and loud "I Heard Her Call My Name" and the furious 17-minute bashathon "Sister Ray," is where WL/WH gets its reputation. The Super Deluxe version adds both stereo and mono mixes of the album, a bunch of single mixes and outtakes, most of which appear elsewhere, and a cleaned-up version of the 1967 Live At The Gymnasium bootleg. It's a killer bootleg, and the cleaner version well worth the price.
The Velvet Underground (Valentin Mix) (1969), The Velvet Underground (Closet Mix) (1969), and La Cave 1968: Designs In Urban Living (bootleg, 1968). The two mixes of the VU's third album are significantly different in places. In fact, I've worked up a long blog post about them, which I'll append below instead of leaving a separate piece. While all four of the VU's proper albums are essential, this is my favorite. It's not perfect - I mean, after about a million listens, "The Murder Mystery" gets on my nerves a bit now - but that may be why I love it more. I assume that whenever they make the Super Deluxe version of this one, the La Cave bootleg, which is pretty good and features early versions of these songs, will be included. See below for lots of videos.
Loaded (1970), Loaded: Fully Loaded Edition (1970), and Live At Max's Kansas City (1970). Loaded with hits, in Lou Reed's words, but still unable to find a mass audience, the VU's last proper album gets short shrift from some fans, but I think it's fantastic. The Fully Loaded Edition adds a bunch of outtakes, demos, and alternative mixes, many of which appear elsewhere. Max's Kansas City is a great live show from the period.
Peel Slowly And See (1965-70). This five-disc box set came out in the 90s and included all the album (with the Closet Mix of The Velvet Underground) and a bunch of demos and outtakes from all the way back to a very early practice tape of Lou and John with their first drummer Angus MacLise. Many of the outtakes were from VU and Another View, and few of the other tracks don't appear elsewhere. When I bought it back in the 90s, I had all four of the album on vinyl but no digital copies, so this helped out, but I can't see any reason to own it if you already have the other stuff. The early recordings are interesting to hear once, but that's about it.
Squeeze (1973). Ugh. This is the rightly-reviled rock album made by Doug Yule and three other people after Lou left the group. Anyone trying to tell you this is good is a contrarian who is trolling you and you should feel free to ignore that person thereafter. Consider:
VU (1985) and Another View (1986). VU consists of a bunch of tracks that might have been the follow-up to WL/WH. Even though it's more garage-y than their eventual third album, it is freakin' excellent. Another View is a bunch of other demos and outtakes that's pretty rough outside of "Hey Mr. Rain" and the extraordinary "Ride Into The Sun."
Caught Between The Twisted Stars (bootlegs, 1966-91). This is an odd four-disc bootleg box set that unfortunately mixes up recordings for no clear reason. Disc one is mostly the Valleydale Ballroom show, but the final "Nothing Song" is too long, and is moved to the start of disc two, while the rest of the tracks are a grab-bag of bootleg tracks from many different sources, such as La Cave and The Gymnasium, plus--oddly--a few from the ill-fated 1993 VU reunion tour. Then there's a couple of remixes and "A Short-Lived Torture Of Cacophony," which is "Melody Laughter" backwards. Weirdly chosen.
Notes On The Velvet Underground:
I bought a vinyl copy of the 80s Verve re-release with the mix by engineer Val Valentin mix when it came out, and this was the version that I became intimately familiar with as a teenager. Then I bought the VU's Peel Slowly & See box back in the mid-90s, which came with the so-called "closet mix" by Lou Reed himself, so named because Sterling Morrison quipped that it sounded as if it had been recorded in a closet. Since I had a digital copy of that, it was only recently that I got around to picking up a digital version of the Valentin mix.
This is a track-by-track comparison. I knew going in that each has a completely different version of "Some Kinda Love," and that "What Goes On" had vastly different mixes. I didn't appreciate that every song except "That's The Story Of My Life" has different mixes that subtly (or not-so-subtly) affect the listening experience.
"Candy Says": Each version has a vastly different drum mix, not to mention that the tonality of the guitars is also different. The closet mix uses brighter, more trebly filters on the whole track, so the snare snaps more in the left ear, giving the song more movement, and while both guitars are louder and clearer on the closet mix, this is especially true for Sterling's guitar on the left, which is quiet enough to be barely distinct through parts of the song on the Valentin mix. The backing vocals are also louder. The Valentin mix, though, rides more on the bass and, by muting the snare, gives the tap-tap-tap of the high hat more emphasis, which is also appealing.
This is the closet mix. I can't find a copy of the Valentin mix on youtube.
"What Goes On," of course, is all about the organ. The Valentin mix pushes it and Lou's guitar into the red and rocks significantly harder. The closet mix has the organ much quieter and Lou's stellar rhythm guitar with a less-trebly filter. However, the drums on the closet mix sound great, maybe the best that Mo ever sounded. Notice the snare in your left ear in the closet mix below.
Here's the Valentin mix for comparison:
"Some Kinda Love," as I mentioned, has two different versions of the song. The Valentin version has a great performance from the whole band, but Lou's vocal performance is maybe a little too cool. The closet mix has only one guitar rather than the killer interlock of the Valentin version and Mo's drums are about as minimalist as possible (hitting on each beat of the 4/4 with a bass drum and woodblock and that's it), but Lou's vocal may be a career best. Here's the Valentin mix version:
And here's the closet mix version:
"Pale Blue Eyes": The closet mix again turns the treble up. Mo's playing a tambourine that is brighter and mixed all to the left in the closet mix, making it more snare-like. The Valentin mix has her darker and in the center, which gives the song more propulsion. In the closet mix, Lou's guitar is almost inaudible, as is the organ. This pushes Sterling's guitar part - one of my all-time favorites - further out front, which is a lovely effect. The more muddled Valentin mix has a better band sound, though.
This is the closet mix:
And this is the Valentin mix:
"Jesus" has the bass much louder in the Valentin mix. Sterling's guitar (the one with the high part) is quieter in that mix, though, and Lou's acoustic guitar pushes the song along. In the closet mix, Lou and Doug's vocals switch sides, and Doug's vocals are much louder in the closet mix, which sort of dampens how shockingly well Lou sings this song. No, I take that back. Lou's performance is a different in each take. His voice cracks more in the closet mix, and he goes falsetto more often in the Valentin mix.
Here's the Valentin mix:
And I think this is the closet mix:
"Beginning To See The Light" switches the pan on the guitars for some reason and does the familiar treble filter. On the Valentin mix, the acoustic rhythm guitar is on the right and the electric is on the left, but the closet mix reverses them and cranks the electric. I could be convinced that the closet mix is a completely different take on the electric because the bassiness and thicker tone on the Valentin mix suggest humbuckers or P-90s while the closet mix sounds thinner and more pointed like a Strat. Both guitars are quite loud in the Valentin mix. The closet mix pans the drums all the way to the left, making it sound less like a conventional rock song. I could be convinced that Lou's vocal is different on each, too. There's little subtle differences that might be my mind playing tricks on me at this point.
Here's the Valentin mix, but I can't find the closet mix on youtube, unfortunately:
"I'm Set Free": GodDAMN, what a song. The Valentin mix has drums and Lou's vocal in the center and both guitars panned all the way out on either side. The closet mix turns up Sterling's guitar a lot on the right and moves Lou's rhythm to the center, but turns it down a lot. Mo's drums are panned a little left, but she's almost inaudible until about a third into the song. Both vocals are louder in the closet mix. The solo is treated differently in both. In the Valentin mix, the solo is a little muddier with medium-dark reverb. In the closet mix, it's pushed up in the mix, brightened considerably, and the reverb is different - more small-room than dark-ampitheater. Both versions are absolutely fucking brilliant.
Unfortunately, again the only one on youtube is the Valentin mix:
"Story" is the same in both.
"The Murder Mystery" is different only in that the Valentin mix pushes the drums and rhythm guitar and dampens the vocals. There may be other differences, but I have a maximum of two listens per day on that song.
I think this is Valentin. They're very close:
"After Hours" puts a little more reverb on Mo's voice and turns the bass down a lot while panning it to the center. It's very loud and distinct (in the left ear) in the Valentin mix and so quiet in the closet mix that I thought it was a bass drum through most of the song. The closet mix also puts those neat deep reverb echoes on Mo's voice when the song rests, while the Valentin mix has a short repeat reverb instead.