February 5, 2016

The Velvet Underground


With four CDs and 42 songs, The Complete Matrix Tapes is a vital anthology of one of the finest rock bands at their best

by Richie Unterberger

On November 11, 1969, the Velvet Underground began a series of shows at the small Matrix club in San Francisco, playing there most nights over the next three weeks. Tapes made of their Matrix performances formed the basis of the 1974 double-LP 1969 Velvet Underground Live, which gets my vote for the greatest rock concert album of all time. With fabulous, committed performances of many of their greatest songs — many of which differ in substantial and fascinating ways from the studio versions — it could not be bettered as a document of the band at their onstage peak.

For years, it’s been known that much more material was recorded than appeared on that double album. With The Complete Matrix Tapes, it’s all here. Four CDs; 42 songs; four and a half hours. It’s a wealth of riches that was unimaginable back in 1974, when even the appearance of a double live LP by a cult band that never sold many records was something of a miracle. As much as John Cale gave to the band when he was in the VU from 1965-68, the late-1969 lineup (with Doug Yule in Cale’s place on bass and organ) was just as powerful in a more conventional rock fashion. The Matrix shows arguably represent the band at their best in a live setting, Cale’s time in the band included.

Like many recent box sets that seemed like fantasies in the twentieth century, The Complete Matrix Tapes nonetheless isn’t as overwhelming as it might have been had it appeared twenty or even ten years ago. Just nine of the tracks were previously unreleased in any form, with quite a few having first officially surfaced just last year on the super-deluxe expanded edition of the Velvets’ third album. It’s not quite an expanded version of 1969 Velvet Underground Live, either, since that double LP had a few songs recorded in Dallas on October 19, 1969 that don’t appear here.


The Velvet Underground, 1968

So it’s still an expensive pain to get everything from 1969 Live and The Complete Matrix Tapes if you’re building from scratch. Many VU fans who’ve been aboard their cult for years will already have well over half of the tracks. In this set’s favor, the six performances that were only previously available as part of Bootleg Series Vol. 1: The Quine Tapes boast significantly better sound quality here. (The documentation about these tracks, incidentally, is quite confusing; all but one were given entirely different dates on the track listings for The Quine Tapes.)

Of the nine previously unreleased performances, the clear highlight is “version 1” of “Sweet Jane.” Taken even slower and more deliberately than the quite exquisite 1969 Live version, it’s one of the tunes that benefits from new lyrics, introducing different verses about going down to the river; dallying with characters named Billy, Jimmy, and Miss Ann; and getting offered movie stardom by an orange-dressed lady driving a maroon car. It’s another testament to Reed’s abilities as a poet-preacher of sorts, making up stories as they come to him right at the mike.

Some of the other new cuts are merely similar or slightly inferior renditions of songs that were already out in Matrix renditions. It’s good to be able to hear the lyrics enunciated more clearly in versions 2 and 3 of “There She Goes Again,” though. And version 3 of “Some Kinda Love” has one of Reed’s always-entertaining introductions: “This is a song about two people who’ve been drinking for a very long time, and get into one of those conversations where you arrive at a fairly obvious thing… one of the premises they start from is that no kinds of love are better than others. You know, some people think that some kinds of love are better than others. But these two people don’t. And one of them’s boring.” Then he laughs along with the tiny audience.


Doug Yule (left) and Richie Unterberger, author of White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day, appeared at the Seattle Central Library.

Still, even if you’re a massive Velvet Underground fan, listening to all of this at once might leave you with an unexpected revelation. Which is: 1969 Velvet Underground Live, though only about 40 percent the length of The Complete Matrix Tapes, is an appreciably better listen. This isn’t the VU’s fault, but an inevitable consequence of recordings that add up to 42 tracks, but feature just 23 songs. So almost half of them are presented in multiple versions—two, three, and (in the cases of “Some Kinda Love,” “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together,” and “Heroin”) even four times. Sure, no two performances were exactly the same. But some were fairly alike, and four discs at once clogged with multiples doesn’t allow as much space for savoring each song.

In addition, The Complete Matrix Tapes also, probably unintentionally, makes it striking how astute Mercury A&R man Paul Nelson’s selection of versions for 1969 Velvet Underground Live (with some help from singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy) was. By my reckoning, no mistakes were made in the choices of best versions; if they weren’t clearly the best, they were at least ties. Take, for instance, the two versions here of “White Light/White Heat.” The slightly longer one (tagged as “Version 1”) is just too fast and jittery, though cool to hear if you’re used to the one that’s been around forever. The one familiar from 1969 Velvet Underground Live (here identified as “Version 2”), however, is not only better from any angle, but about as good as anything they ever recorded, with a masterful balance between the sardonically sung verses and the long, edgy guitar solos.

Be aware, too, that as mentioned earlier, the 1969 Live tracks recorded in Dallas are missing. That means you don’t get the classic introductory rap to “I’m Waiting for the Man” about getting comfortable, staying up late, and having just seen the Cowboys maul the Eagles. Most keenly felt is the absence of “Femme Fatale,” sung by Reed with wonderful sensitivity on the Dallas 1969 Live version. For some reason, “Femme Fatale” was not performed or taped on these nights at the Matrix, and is not represented at all on The Complete Matrix Tapes. (Nor, in a lesser loss, is “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” sung by Yule in a too-faintly recorded vocal on 1969 Live.)
Let’s say, however, that you haven’t heard 1969 Velvet Underground Live or any of the material on this set. It still comes across as a significant collection, with considerably different arrangements of major songs from their debut LP, The Velvet Underground & Nico.

As for numbers that didn’t make it onto 1969 Live, it’s particularly exciting to hear “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and “Venus in Furs” with demonic swirling organ. Lou’s intro to “The Black Angel’s Death Song” is quite illuminating too: “This is a song we haven’t done in a really long time, ‘cause it used to empty clubs. As a matter of fact, when a club wanted to close for a while, they used to get in touch with us and ask us to play this song.” Then he warns the crowd that it “goes very very fast, so you probably won’t be able to understand any of the words.” By illustration, he speed raps a few spoken lines before the song actually gets underway. “So if you can keep up with it, we can too,” he concludes.

Their second LP, White Light/White Heat, is less heavily represented, though the title song is thoroughly reinvented from its much shorter, piano-based verse, becoming a guitar-powered tour-de-force that exceeds the comparatively threadbare studio version in every aspect. But at nearly 37 minutes, “Sister Ray” drags out more than it should. For all the effort they put into making it an in-concert epic—and there are quite a few long versions of this sort, if you count bootlegs—the razor-sharp 17-minute one on White Light/White Heat remains by far the best. The recording on The Complete Matrix Tapes, by the way, suddenly gets a lot tinnier four minutes before its finish. Did the tape run out, and was some splicing done with the Quine recording?

Over half of the songs from their third album (The Velvet Underground, released about eight months earlier in 1969) are here. As good as that record was, these versions are usually better, and certainly more energetic than the notably muted, restrained studio counterparts. “What Goes On” in particular becomes a powerhouse with the fiery, intense interplay between hypnotic rhythm guitar and Doug Yule’s fiery organ. “I’m Set Free,” which wasn’t selected for 1969 Live, is a major bonus, with an elegiac, almost spiritual feel featuring some of Reed’s best vocals on any recording.

Velvet_Underground-2015-Complete_Matrix_TapesA few songs from 1970’s Loaded were already in the VU’s set, and these performances are equal or better than the studio arrangements. That’s particularly true of “New Age,” which both has better, more appropriate lyrics and, unlike the Loaded version, Lou Reed on lead vocals, not Doug Yule. The slow ballad approach on the two versions of “Sweet Jane” might not be better than the familiar Loaded track, but they’re enjoyably different in meaningful ways, presenting it as a classy, reflective Reed composition rather than a raucous rocker.

On top of all this were some songs the Velvets didn’t put on the four studio albums they did with Reed, though Lou put a few of them on his early solo LPs. “Sweet Bonnie Brown” might not be up to the best of his writing, but it’s a terrific, slightly Chuck Berry-esque rocker that’s tremendously effective as a live piece. “I Can’t Stand It” gives the VU more opportunities for extended guitar pyrotechnics. “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together,” heard in no less than four versions (and considered by the Velvets for a single that never came out), is a marvelously taut proto-punker, highlighted by Lou’s command to “watch me” during the guitar solo. “Over You,” in a complete change of mood, is a tuneful sentimental outing of the kind that could have been done in the Tin Pan Alley era. “Lisa Says” is a major Reed composition that shows Lou at his most melodic and romantic, and this performance is far better than the clunkier studio outtake the VU cut in 1969 (or the tame approach he gave it on his 1972 debut solo LP).

The Complete Matrix Tapes, for all its repetitions and recycling of previously released tracks, is a vital anthology of one of the finest rock bands at their best. All significant rock acts should aspire to mix, vary, and reinvent their material as creatively as the Velvet Underground did in late 1969. For all the tinkering they did with their songs, they never lost sight of the assets at their core — their fusion of almost primitive energy with electronic dissonance, catchy guitar riffs, and the almost truth-serum-like honest emotion of Lou Reed’s vocals. As lesser 1970 concert and studio recordings would prove, it was an apex so high that it might have been impossible to maintain.


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