Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Velvet Underground

  • The Velvet Underground and Nico [Verve, 1967] A
  • The Velvet Underground [Verve Forecast, 1969] A
  • Loaded [Cotillion, 1970] A
  • Live at Max's Kansas City [Cotillion, 1972] B-
  • 1969 Velvet Underground Live [Mercury, 1974] A-
  • VU [Verve, 1985] A
  • VU: Another View [Verve, 1986] A-
  • Live MCMXCIII [Sire/Warner Bros., 1993] *
  • Bootleg Series: Volume 1: The Quine Tapes [Polydor, 2001] A-
  • Live at Max's Kansas City (Deluxe Edition) [Atlantic/Rhino, 2004]

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Velvet Underground and Nico [Verve, 1967]
This was hard to suss out at the time, which is probably why people are still learning from it. It sounds intermittently crude, thin, and pretentious at first, but it never stops getting better; even "Venus in Furs," Lou Reed's first recorded sadie-maisie exploitation, is held in place by the narcotic drone that identifies and unifies the LP musically. Nico's contained chantoozy sexuality works against the dispassionate abandon of Reed's chant singing for a vocal variety the band will never duplicate, although their ever-increasing mastery of electric noise and throwaway wordplay, will more than make up for it. How about that--they're gonna be famous more than 15 minutes. A

The Velvet Underground [Verve Forecast, 1969]
Contains another bummer experiment, some stereo mystery, but otherwise their best--melodic, literate, compellingly sung; Paul Williams loves it. A

Loaded [Cotillion, 1970]
The Velvets are to Manhattan what the Rascals are to New York--that is, they really make "Rock & Roll" (a title), but they're also really intellectual and ironic. Lou Reed's singing embodies the paradox even on beat-goes-on throwaways about cowboys and trains. Other subjects include drag, poverty, not loving nature, and the new age, mysteriously connected to an over-the-hill actress who would like her old age back. A

Live at Max's Kansas City [Cotillion, 1972]
If this is all that remains of the legendary 1970 engagement, I'll take my memories. The (mono) sound isn't bad for a record mastered from a Brigid Polk cassette, but that's not to say it isn't bad, and though I'm not one to cavil about out-of-tune guitars, this time I notice. Notable performance: Lou Reed's cover of the Maureen Tucker classic "Afterhours." B-

1969 Velvet Underground Live [Mercury, 1974]
It's nice to have a decent-sounding live record of the legend, especially one that adds a few new songs--notably "We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together"--and choruses to the canon. This is a more impressive testimonial to Lou Reed than any of his solo LPs. And if it's not as essential as any of the four studio albums, it does provide an overview of the band's music: deadpan, demotic, jaded, oddly sensationalistic, primitive both harmonically and rhythmically and all but devoid of flourishes, always hard-edged and usually quick, never slow and heavy at the same time. A-

VU [Verve, 1985]
Each of the Velvets' four official studio albums had a distinct personality, and so does this unofficial one, recorded mostly in mid-1969, right after The Velvet Underground appeared. It's goofy, relaxed, simultaneously conversational and obscure, an effect accentuated by the unfinished feel of takes the band never prepared for public consumption. As a result, especially given PolyGram's state-of-the-art remix, it's their most listenable record even if its friendliness is deceptive--the disarming straight-ahead rocker "Foggy Notion" has a lyric whose casual sadism beats any of The Velvet Underground & Nico's shock-horror perversities. If you ever doubt the VU's rightness, just compare the flashy compromises of the solo "Lisa Says" and "I Can't Stand It" (itself the making of Lou Reed) to the flat rush of the Tucker/Morrison-powered versions here. A Basement Tapes for the '80s. A

VU: Another View [Verve, 1986]
One objective part of me knows that these barrel scrapings are for fanatics and archivists. But another objective part of me knows that the barrel scrapings of a seminal, protean, conceptually accomplished band are their own reward. From the raw power of the instrumental "Guess I'm Falling in Love" to the dry lyricism of the instrumental "I'm Gonna Move Right In," from the tight studio "We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together" to the intense early "Rock and Roll," you don't have to know jackshit about the band to enjoy the music--on the contrary, you have to put aside your preconceptions. Because nobody experimented more successfully than these folks. A-

Live MCMXCIII [Sire/Warner Bros., 1993]
PSA: booklet notwithstanding, deprogram 4-6 to avoid John Cale singing "All Tomorrow's Parties" and "The Gift" ("Some Kinda Love") *

Bootleg Series: Volume 1: The Quine Tapes [Polydor, 2001]
I was cynical too, especially once I'd ascertained that the audio on these three discs was as faint as I'd feared. Played loud, though, the sound improves--not quite crisp or bright, but there. Note that this trick doesn't work with Live at Max's Kansas City and ask yourself if you wouldn't maybe like to hear the number three band of the '60s, after the Beatles and James Brown and His Famous Flames, without wearing out its tiny catalogue. No new songs, true. But over the two hours that aren't devoted to three long, distinct versions of "Sister Ray," no title is repeated, even though every one was recorded in a one-month span in San Francisco in 1969. That's pretty impressive. As is all the new guitar. A-

Live at Max's Kansas City (Deluxe Edition) [Atlantic/Rhino, 2004]
Recorded in notorious lo-fi from the table of Warhol hanger-on Brigid Polk in 1970, Lou Reed's last Velvets show until 1993 is one of the few collector's items to gain patina with the remastered, bonus-cutted, double-disc overkill of the CD era. Although the basic effect is still that of hearing a band from the back of a noisy bar, the audio is crisper and more forceful. Although John Cale and Mo Tucker are gone, Reed does sing songs performed in their official studio versions by Nico and Doug Yule. And although Live 1969 remains the essential document, it is kinda cool to hear Brigid's buddies chatting obliviously about Nixon and Tuinols as punk's forefathers go gamely into that good night. [Blender: 3]

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