Monday, 28 October 2013


Let's not start pretending now he was a particularly likeable person. Many who worked with him found him unbearable. But he changed the face of music to a remarkable degree, not just a member of the massively influential Velvet Underground but probably the most influential figure in the band. He managed to take influences, both musical and literary, that were then well outside the sphere of popular music and run with them. And the results were never affected or self-consciously artsy but powerful and gutsy. (His maxim was “one chord is fine, two chords is pushing it, three chords and you're playing jazz.”)

He made music truly rooted in the place that spawned it, downtown New York. (Brooklyn-born, Reed was the native New Yorker of popular song.) It kicked off the Seventies years early, when most were barely able to keep up with what was happening in the Sixties. And, though in their brief and tempestuous history the Velvets only made four albums, they were so wildly different from each other that subsequent bands have made whole careers out of copying just one of them. I love the Beatles and (in their heyday) the Stones, but most of the music I listen to now has more of a Velvets influence than both of those put together.

His subsequent solo career was admittedly uneven. Perhaps due to his drink and drug habits, though I also suspect he was enough of an egoist to imagine whatever he did must be great. But the highlights among them... well, not much is higher. Consider - 'Berlin', 'Metal Machine Music', 'Street Hassle' and 'New York.' (Curiously, spaced out fairly evenly rather than coming in a block.)

There's no point pretending I can throw up something quickly that could do all of this justice, because I can't. Should I ever get the time to pursue my inclination to write something about my all top 50 albums, it will almost certainly include a Velvets and one of his solo albums.


  1. More influential than the Beatles takes some believing ... but I will withhold any actual disagreement till I've listened to the Velvet Underground albums, which I admit I've never done.

    More influential than the Stones is not hard to believe, in fact it's hard to imagine a more derivative (or overrated) band than the Stones. Anyone influenced by them is really being influenced at one remove from everything that before them and that they reproduced.

  2. Huh. Inspired by your post, I thought it would be rather jolly to do arguable Lou Reed's best-known, and most acoustic-friendly song Perfect Day next time I'm at the folk club. I looked it up and found that Mr. Three Chords Is Jazz has written a song where all SEVEN of the chords of the verse are different; and the chorus begins on a different chord again and then introduces two more.

    So is it still jazz if you play ten chords?

  3. ”More influential than the Beatles takes some believing ...”

    “The music I listen to now” was probably an important qualifier there. I wouldn't doubt that the Beatles and the Stones had a wider and more pervasive influence, but that includes on whole sections of music I've no interest in.

    “...but I will withhold any actual disagreement till I've listened to the Velvet Underground albums, which I admit I've never done.”

    I'd say start with the third. The fourth is the most accessible, but by the same token the least unique. The first is the classic, with the best-known tracks and the heavy-duty drone sound and the unapologetic lyrics about junkie life. I was entranced the very first time I heard it, but others need a little acclimatising. And the second... well, even I don't find that one particularly accessible! (That one's the source of the stories about the engineers refusing to be in the studio when the band were going for a take.)

    ”Anyone influenced by them is really being influenced at one remove from everything that before them and that they reproduced.”

    Mike, your blind spot over the Stones continues to astound me! I'd imagine when you talk about “everything before them” you mean blues. But I think the Stones were one of the main bands who pushed the British blues revival from mere folk-copyism into it's own thing. Even one of their more trad-blues tracks, like 'Little Red Rooster', sounds like something other than the original, rather than just a paler photocopy of it. Besides, just like the Beatles, their best and most original music was made after that point.

    ”So is it still jazz if you play ten chords?”

    Of course he was a big fan of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman! If you'd have said that to him I suspect he'd have responded with something along the lines of Whitman's “very well, I contradict myself.” Only probably more vehement. He was notoriously acerbic.

    I think that quote just means he wasn't interested in music that was self-consciously twiddly or affected cleverness. I don't think the counting chords was some prescriptive rule in his mind. As said only recently in my AK/DK review, I think it's about very smart people being unafraid of seeming dumb.

  4. Point taken on the music you listen to. On the whole, its overlap with what I like is pretty small, so perhaps it's not too surprising that we disagree about influences.

    As for what to listen to: your recommendation of the third Velvet Underground comes a little too late, as I am right now listening to Transformer -- I figured that was a good bet, as I knew I'd like at least one of the songs! Hope that meets with your approval.

    As for the Stones: blind spots trouble me. I think I've mentioned before that I have one concerning Dylan that bothers me much more. Also, I can't read poetry -- my eyes just slide off it. Also, all the kinds of modern art that don't involve any technique. I'm quite prepared to accept the possibility that I am just plain wrong about some or all of these things, but my failure to grasp them is disturbing. I must blog about this.

    That said, the Stones are just rubbish. They just are. They're rubbish.


    On number of chords -- I very much like the "smart people being unafraid of seeming dumb" take. It's true that a few of my favourite songs have only three chords: Ride On, Money (That's What I Want). But now I come to think of it, those are the only ones I can bring to mind. I'm all for working within deliberate limitations -- it can produce superb work -- but three chords: that's hardly enough to express an idea.

    Still, I take his comment in the way it was intended.

  5. As if on cue on the Velvets-influencing-all-the-music-I-like front.

    Back when I was first getting into music, you weren't allowed to like the Beatles and the Stones. It was just somehow outside the rules. And seeing as the Stones were at the time releasing bad records, and the Beatles were circumventing that problem by not releasing any, I despised the Stones. Give it up and give someone else a chance! But in time, and via listening to their records that are actually worth hearing, I got into them. There's still hope for you, Mike!

    Similarly, you weren't allowed to like both 'Transformer' and 'Berlin.' Like driving on the left. Just the way it was. And maybe I've never managed to slip the grip of that one, but 'Berlin' remains my favourite among his solo albums and I still don't take to 'Transformer' much. 'Berlin' just had so much punch, so much depth, while 'Transformer' just felt like a series of cartoony vignettes. Mind you, that's all 'Walk On the Wild Side' is, and of course I make an exception for that. ('Perfect Day' of course being the other exception.)

    Opera and dance, especially contemporary dance, must be my biggest blind spots. Closely followed by jazz. Or the early novel.The Babbage Engine may be historically interesting, but I wouldn't want to be typing out this on it. So why bother with the early novel?

    But there's exceptions to every rule. As has come up previously, I feel much modern art escapes the bind of technique. Yet when Anthony Caro died (also recently) it brought back to me the times I've stood in galleries, thinking “but isn't it just a load of old metal shoved together?” And wondering whether I'd become a Daily Mail reader...

    Google now insists I sign in to my own blog using some Google ID, presumably connected to Google Plus or something else I don't use. But not my e-mail which I do use, so e-mail alerts now seem to be a thing of the past. Thanks, guys! Well done on dodging all those tax liabilities too...

  6. I have lots of experience liking unfashionable music -- it's never bothered me, right back to when all my schoolmates were listening to Duran Duran and Culture Club and I was listening to early Genesis. Honestly, is there anything stupider than musical fashion? I can't remember who said "there are only two kinds of music: good and bad", but that's spot on.

    That being so, I've never really known or cared when it has or hasn't been OK to like the Beatles. So I've just got on with absolutely loving them, consistently for the last 33 years. (It's amazing to think that when I was first aware of them in 1980, they were only as distant in time as 2003 now is: the year of Radiohead's Hail to the Thief.) Their songs sound absolutely timeless while those of most of their contemporaries have aged. I have eleven Beatles songs in my folk-club repertoire: no-one else has more than five.

    Contemporary dance ... sheesh, don't get me started. But jazz I could easily have become completely immersed in if prog and singer-songwriter folk hadn't got me first.

    Google do seem to be on a crusade to incrementally (or should that be decrementally?) wreck every one of their previously superb services. As a researcher, I dread the day when they kill Google Scholar, like they did with Reader.

  7. Well in 1980 I too was convinced the Beatles were the greatest band ever! It may have been around then they put all the Beatles movies on the telly in sequence. Except I wasn't allowed to watch 'Let It Be' as they looked “scruffy” in it, and in fact have never seen it to this day.

    My schoolmates just considered music to consist of whatever was in the charts, and told me I was weird.

    A couple of years later I annnounced I had a new favourite band. “Who?” they asked suspiciously. “Hawkwind”, I replied proudly. “You're still weird”, I was told.

    A couple of years later, I was back with the Velvet Underground. “Still weird.”

    By about 1984 I told all new my new acquiantances at Uni my favourite band was the Fall. “You're weird,” they replied.

    Actually I think some Beatles songs have dated, especially the earlier stuff. But surprisingly few, I'll grant. It's more the opposite problem. In particular their model of a band, writing your own songs, not sticking strictly to one narrow style of music, was all stuff that at the very least was popularised through them. And now it seems so natural you wouldn't question it...

  8. Of course some of the earlier Beatles songs have ages somewhat -- especially the covers. (That said, even something as cheesy as Mister Moonlight has a certain joyful swagger in the Beatles version that rescues it from infamy.)

    But it's an extraordinary feeling, 47 years on, to listen to Revolver, and realise that every song sounds fresh and original. (I realise this is not a novel observation, but I keep being surprised by it.)

  9. 'Revolver' may round be the most varied Beatles album as well, and I think that's important in it being something you can keep going back and listening to.

    What's kind of weird is that 'White Album' must be the next-most varied, but that always feels like a weakness. There the album seems to lack cohesion, like you're listening to an iPlayer on shuffle.

  10. You are absolutely right about the magical coherence of Revolver and the relative incoherence of The White Album. I'm completely at a loss to explain it.

  11. Not sure I could either, fully. But 'White Album' doesn't seem to have exactly come at a high point for group cohesion, and at points sounds like people trying a whole load of different styles because they're not sure which one to go with. By comparison, pretty much every song on 'Revolver' sounds realised.

    It may also suffer from the common affliction of double albums. A bit of judicious pruning would have left us with 'Dear Prudence' (did you see what i did there?), but disposed of 'Honey Pie.'

  12. I guess you're right: the songs on The White Album are mostly solo projects, whereas those on Revolver -- even though mostly written by one person -- are the result of the whole band working on them.

    ... but the thing is, I like Honey Pie. I wonder how differently different people's ideal White Alums would be?

    Something else for me to blog about.

  13. "I wonder how differently different people's ideal White Alums would be? Something else for me to blog about."

    It is done!