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October 31, 2015

Re-loaded

Velvet Underground

The 45th Anniversary Edition of The Velvet Underground’s Loaded

By Richie Unterberger

Recorded after leaving their original label (MGM) for Atlantic, Loaded was the Velvet Underground’s most determined—indeed, only—stab at conventional rock success. Multi-instrumentalist/sometime singer Doug Yule has commented that the mission was to make a commercial record, leader Lou Reed once claiming he gave Atlantic a record “loaded” with hits. While none of the songs actually were hits, at least two (“Rock and Roll” and “Sweet Jane”) should have been.

Those exuberant power chord-driven tunes remain the band’s most accessible classics. But Loaded had its share of other catchy tunes, whether verging on harmony pop (“Who Loves the Sun”) or doo wop (“I Found a Reason”). There was still kinky lyrical weirdness in “New Age” and “Sweet Jane.” There were also surprising turns into, with variable success, funky hard rock and even, on “Lonesome Cowboy Bill,” semi-country-rock. Compared to their MGM records, the production on Loaded was downright slick. The Velvets had finally turned into a relatively conventional band, their distinction lying mostly in Lou Reed’s songwriting rather than unusual or experimental arrangements.

So the Velvet Underground’s fourth and final studio album with Lou Reed might have been their most “normal” LP. But the conditions surrounding its production were hardly run-of-the-mill. Virtually all of it was recorded with substitute drummers, owing to Maureen Tucker’s pregnancy. Reed left the band after it was completed, but before it was released, helping to ensure its failure to chart. Interspersed with the studio sessions were the band’s first regular performances in their New York City home for three years in a summer residency at Max’s Kansas City, Tucker’s place taken by Doug Yule’s teenager younger brother, Billy. And there were oodles of outtakes, demos, and alternate versions that didn’t make the finished ten-song disc, not to mention a good number of lo-fi recordings of 1970 concerts prior to Reed’s departure.

There were so many extras, in fact, that there’s relatively little problem constructing a six-disc box set including and (mostly) around the Loaded album. The very thought of such an extravaganza would have been considered folly even ten or fifteen years ago, let alone when Loaded was released in late 1970. Similarly-sized deluxe box set editions of the Velvets’ first three albums in the past few years, however, have made such a package for their studio finale not just acceptable, but expected. Yet in comparison to those previous deluxe doorstops, there’s no denying that as much fine music as it contains, Rhino’s Loaded (Re-Loaded 45th Anniversary Edition) doesn’t quite measure up to the standards of the other expanded boxes.

One reason is that the extras aren’t quite as exciting this time around, and feature less prime material that’s previously failed to gain official release. The basic checklist:

Besides the original album in stereo (the bulk of disc one), including the full-length versions of “Sweet Jane” and “New Age” that first appeared on the 1995 Peel Slowly and See box, you also get the promotional mono version. That’s certainly rare, but it’s not as different from the stereo edition as the mono version of the third, self-titled VU album was from its stereo counterpart (and its so-called “closet mix,” also included in the deluxe edition of The Velvet Underground). The mono rarities are filled out by the tracks that appeared on the mono 45 with “Who Loves the Sun”/“Oh! Sweet Nuthin,’” as well as the mono single “Rock and Roll”/“Lonesome Cowboy Bill.”

What mono single of “Rock and Roll”/“Lonesome Cowboy Bill,” incredulous VU collectors are shouting? Well, that second 45, though assigned a catalog number, was never actually released. This isn’t the first expanded edition of a classic rock album to include a mono version of a disc that didn’t even get issued. But it does indicate how far down in the barrel you have to reach to come up with something new VU at this point.

The highest-quality extras are the aforementioned demos, outtakes, and alternate versions (here labeled “early versions”). Throw in some cuts tagged as alternate mixes, and you’ve got 25 such bonus tracks in all. Most are on disc three (titled “demos, early versions & alternate mixes”); four items noted, as “outtakes” are bonus tracks on disc one. Some of the “alternate mixes” are more interesting than you’d think from that term, adding longer beginnings and endings. (Note that “Ride into the Sun” is called an “outtake” here and a “demo” on Rhino’s 1997 two-CD Fully Loaded Edition of the album.)

But here’s the most important thing to know: most of these 25 selections were on Fully Loaded Edition. The only entirely unheard additions are quite peripheral: alternate mixes of “Cool It Down” (which does have an extra piano lick and count-in at the beginning), “Sweet Jane” (with a slightly longer instrumental intro), and “Lonesome Cowboy Bill.” So if your principal interest in Loaded is the studio material, you’re pretty well set with Fully Loaded Edition. And you don’t get David Fricke’s lengthy historical liner notes in the six-disc box. (As if it wasn’t enough of a headache keeping all of this straight, Re-Loaded is missing the “alternate demo” version of “Satellite of Love” that appears on Fully Loaded Edition, instead using the demo that appeared on the 1995 Peel Slowly and See box. It’s also missing a yet longer version of “New Age” that was on Fully Loaded Edition.)

Say you haven’t heard Fully Loaded Edition, however. Are these studio leftovers worth hearing? Sure, as they include quite a few songs that didn’t make it onto Loaded in any fashion (like the goofy Tucker-sung “I’m Sticking with You” and the languid ballad “Ride into the Sun”), among them a few that surfaced on early Reed solo albums (“Satellite of Love,” “Sad Song,” “Walk and Talk,” and the glorious “Ocean”). There are also significantly different (and sometimes ramshackle) arrangements of familiar songs, like the doo-wop vocals in the intro to the alternate mix of “Rock & Roll”; a country-folk-blues take on “I Found a Reason”(recorded in late 1969, prior to the actual Loaded sessions) with harmonica; a much shorter “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” with Reed, not Yule, on lead vocal; or a clunky early “Cool It Down” with New Orleans-style R&B piano.

Velvet Underground-LoadedThere was so much material floating around, in fact, that there could have easily been a good double album in the unlikely event Atlantic would have greenlighted such a thing. Something all these alternates reinforces, though, is that the Velvets didn’t quite pick the cream of their crop for Loaded, or always record the best possible version. Leaving “Ocean” off is a testament to their failure to quite nail the arrangement they wanted of this magnificent epic, and there were some songs they were already playing in concert (like the great ballad “Lisa Says,” as heard on 1969 Velvet Underground Live) that were markedly superior to Loaded’s lesser cuts. “Satellite of Love” and “Sad Song” were certainly better than some of those lesser cuts too.

As for some of the better tracks that did make the cut, “New Age”’s revised lyrics (compare it to the one on 1969 Velvet Underground Live) sound clumsy and awkward. “Sweet Jane” was inexplicably missing its divine bridge on the original LP, though it’s fortunately restored here. Only on “Rock and Roll” — their great hit single that should have been — did they really knock it out of the park, recording the best of the many existing live and studio versions.

Disc four goes outside the studio to present the Live at Max’s Kansas City album, recorded at Lou Reed’s last show with the band (barring their reunion gigs in the 1990s) on August 23, 1970. Though more a historical document than an excellent, significant concert recording (as 1969 Velvet Underground Live was), Max’s (originally issued as a 1972 LP) was fun in its own way, capturing the VU as a straight-out club band with Billy Yule bashing away on drums. It’s remastered here, though there’s only so much you can do with a tape made on a portable cassette recorder, complete with intrusive tableside chat.

It also has bonus tracks—but not as many as it should have. You see, in 2004 Rhino’s two-CD expanded Max’s had 17 songs. Re-Loaded only includes 15 of those, omitting “Who Loves the Sun” and “version 2” of “Sweet Jane.” Admittedly you couldn’t have put on all 17 tracks without splitting this into two much shorter discs or putting a couple cuts on a CD with non-Max’s material. But a six-disc expanded edition should get everything on there somehow. And again, the liner notes on the Rhino Max’s (with extensive quotes from members of the Velvets and associates) make for one more reason Re-Loaded doesn’t make that previous iteration redundant.

Disc five has the body of material that committed VU fans are most interested to hear — eleven live songs from a show at Philadelphia’s Second Fret on May 9, 1970, all of them previously unreleased (though they’ve long been bootlegged). It was, reveal the track listings, recorded by fan Bob Kachnycz “in glorious mono on a reel-to-reel at the back of the club (where the only electrical outlet was, by the soda machine), with about 15 people in attendance.”

And here’s the even more naked truth: it’s a disappointment, as the quality’s so hissy and lo-fi that it’s often heard to make out the lyrics. Yes, the quality on Max’s was no great shakes; even the original sleeve note to that LP declared, “in some ways, this record may be looked at as the first legitimate bootleg album.” But even by 1970 bootleg standards, the Second Fret tape is rough going — significantly rougher, in fact, than the valuable live recordings featured on the deluxe box editions of the VU’s first two albums.

Getting past the sound quality and treating this primarily as an instructive artifact rather than entertainment, this holds some interest for capturing, if faintly, the band as they sounded onstage in the early phases of Loaded’s production. There are live versions of seven Loaded songs, as well as renditions of “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Candy Says,” “What Goes On,” and “Some Kinda Love.” From what you can make out, the band plays with commendable energy, extending “Sweet Jane” to six minutes and, more unusually, “Train Round the Bend” to nine.

“Train Round the Bend” and “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” also benefit from some unusual tremolo guitar that gives the songs an idiosyncratic pulsing sound, almost as if the notes are sending Morse code from the basement. Yet the set is also handicapped by the absence of the pregnant Moe Tucker, the Velvets soldiering on as the trio of Reed, Doug Yule, and guitarist Sterling Morrison. That gives the set a ghostly sparse vibe, and though Yule gamely switches from bass to drums on four songs, most of the set is drumless, making this an even more peculiar relic.

Disc six, unavailable at press time, is an audio-only DVD with (to quote the track listings) a “96/24 Hi-Resolution Surround Sound Remix, 96/24 Hi-Resolution Downmix and 96/24 Hi-Resolution Stereo Mix.” Loaded might have been the Velvets’ glossiest studio product by some distance, but it wasn’t exactly Quadrophenia in terms of density and sonic layering. My vote would have been to lower the list price by limiting the size of Re-Loaded to five discs. Maybe that would have made room for longer and more detailed liner notes, here handled by Lenny Kaye (one of the first rock critics to give Velvet Underground albums lengthy, positive reviews) in an essay that’s as much of an overall VU appreciation as an historical analysis of Loaded itself.

Still, if this box’s mission is to document the Loaded era with as much thoroughness as possible, it very nearly succeeds, with those two missing Max’s tracks, one of the longer versions of “New Age,” and the alternate demo of “Satellite of Love” notable absentees. With this and Universal’s three recent multi-disc deluxe editions of the first three Velvet Underground albums, the band’s recorded legacy is enshrined with more near-definitive completeness than anyone could have imagined during their lifetime. In fact, it’s now preserved with more near-definitive completeness than has been granted almost any other comparably major rock act. The one missing link is an expanded box of 1969 Velvet Underground Live — but even that’s on the way, with a four-CD box of their ’69 recordings at San Francisco’s Matrix club that will be reviewed next issue.






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