Velvet Underground & The Story of the VU Album

Velvet Underground &

The Story of the VU Album

The Velvet Underground album VU is the binding agent in a career of releases that differ so dramatically one from another as to be almost artistic reversals. VU has the dark majesty of The Velvet Underground & Nico, the neurotic strut (if not the head-wrecking dissonance) of White Light/White Heat, the tenderness and emotional insight of The Velvet Underground, and the pure pop sensibility of Loaded. In its 10 tracks, it contains refined versions of what the band did well during the four years they lasted. The irony is that VU wasn’t released until more than a dozen years after the Velvet Underground disbanded. 


Recorded primarily in 1969, after the ouster of multi-instrumentalist John Cale, and later cannibalized by principal songwriter Lou Reed for his solo career, the recordings that make up VU were shelved for 16 years. 


Velvet Underground's Scepter master tapes (and 100 bananas) at The Warhol |  Andy Earhole

They stayed in the MGM vaults, mostly unmixed, until discovered during the process of reissuing the band’s catalog in the early 80s. As a result, VU benefitted from much improved audio technology and was released to a world not only better prepared for the Velvet Underground, but one that had largely absorbed its lessons. The album made a beautiful tombstone for the band’s career, at a time when all the members were alive to see it.

Between May and October 1969, the band recorded an album’s worth of material in the Record Plant in New York. “That was basically pre-production stuff,” Yule once said. 'It was done to studio quality but not with that intent. It was all done in the daytime. Which to me is, like, when you’re working on an album in the studio — you know it gets dark at like five p.m.. This was all done at ten in the morning.' 

It’s not clear that the band had the resources to record releasable “pre-production” material, so I would disagree with Yule on this point. Also, however one believes these recordings fit into the canon, they were definitely intended for release. The proof is that MGM reserved a catalog number: SE-4641, which labels only use for official releases. This is most of the material that makes up VU, considered, rightly, to be the great lost Velvet Underground record. 

"The process stretched over several months of desultory sessions, short enough to only allow the tracking of one song per day. What’s clear from the recordings — and something that could only have happened in Cale’s absence — is the intricate interplay of Reed and Morrison’s guitars. On I Can’t Stand It, they mesh and intertwine and begin to lose individuality in a combination of itchy rhythms and menacing drones, anchored by Yule’s steady bass lines.

Meanwhile, the band’s relationship with MGM was deteriorating. They didn’t believe the label was giving them much support. Conversely, MGM was cleaning house, moving in a direction to get rid of provocative bands as well as acts that weren’t selling. The Velvet Underground satisfied both those requirements, so MGM terminated their deal." (All Music)

The band signed with Atlantic Records almost immediately. Danny Fields, a publicist at Atlantic, has said that the label wanted to do a record right away, and hoped to rescue the MGM material. That was never going to happen, so the Velvet Underground made what became their fourth album, Loaded, in Atlantic’s New York studios, mostly without Tucker, who was at home with her newborn daughter.


The Velvet Underground: The Complete Matrix Tapes box set review –  fascinating sound of a band stretching out | CD box set reviews | The  Guardian

“When we went to do Loaded the push was for FM hits and FM jingles which was hot in those days,” Yule remembered. “There was a lot of time spent ‘pep-talking’ Lou about hits and singles and like, three-minute songs, stuff like that. So when we went into to do Loaded there was this pressure on Lou and he started cranking up the heat on the tunes.” 

But the isolation that Reed struggled against had caught up with him. “I gave them an album loaded with hits and it was loaded with hits to the point where the rest of the people showed their colors,” he said in a 1972 interview. “So I left them to their album full of hits that I made.” And so it was that Reed left his own band, one he wrested from Cale. He worked as a typist in his father’s accounting office for the next two years.

Popular music continued to evolve in the coming decades, in interesting and often unpopular ways. Punk appeared a few years after Lou Reed quit his own band, then post-punk, then new wave. The Velvet Underground’s music inspired all of it: in the confrontational material, the amphetamine tempos, the nervous anti-hero vocals, the unadorned queerness, the population of beautiful losers, the fully formed subculture, and the complete absence of blues licks (a band rule), heroic guitar solos, and swing rhythms. They were the architects, the Cassandras. They prophesied the coming world, and no one believed them." (

Sensing the band’s continued and growing relevance, Polydor Records began reissuing the Velvet Underground’s back catalog in the early 1980s. It was then that they discovered boxes of tapes of unissued recordings.


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Once the shelved recordings were discovered in 1984, Reed had reservations about their being issued at all. “They got in touch with me to come out and listen to the tapes,” he said in Rob Jovanovic’s Seeing the Light: Inside the Velvet Underground. “It sounded pretty good at first and they said I could be involved in the production of it. Then after listening to the whole thing, I said, ‘I don’t think it should come out.’” He could have felt this way for any number of reasons, but it should be remembered that, by 1985, Reed had recycled most of the songs on VU for his solo career, rerecording I Can’t Stand It, Lisa Says, Ocean, Andy’s Chest, a retitled Stephanie Says, and She’s My Best Friend


The Rebel Kind: The Velvet Underground: Loaded

The shadow of the Velvet Underground might have loomed a little large. In later interviews, both Morrison and Tucker stated that they made songwriting contributions, but let Reed claim sole authorship to keep the peace. 


Another View - Album by The Velvet Underground | Spotify

Because Reed chose not to be involved, Morrison was called in to help assemble two album’s worth of material, VU and Another View, an album mostly comprised of demos and outtakes. Producer Bill Levenson oversaw the mixing.  In an interview with Billboard magazine, Levinson stated that 'The tapes were in terrible shape; You could only play them backwards, and since they were recorded on 12-track, we had to modify a 24-track machine in order to transfer them up to 24 and get more tracks to work with.'



Once the tracks were cleaned and mixed, Levenson was able to change Lou Reed’s mind about their release. 



VU came out to a popular culture ready to receive it. College radio held sway, and what media culture would call indie rock was only a few years off. The idea of being underground was respectable; selling records was not. “I didn’t start singing or playing till I was fifteen and heard the Velvet Underground,” Modern Lovers’ singer Jonathan Richman once said. “They made an atmosphere, and I knew that I could make one too!” Indeed, by the time VU was released in 1985 there were dozens of taste-making bands around who owed their careers to the Velvet Underground, with a dozen more who had yet to even form. The improved sonic quality of VU caused it to hold its own, at a time when most of its peer recordings sounded hopelessly dated, in both artistry and production. The album was marketed to college rock and alternative radio, two avenues of promotion that simply didn’t exist in 1969. 



Benefitting from the advantage of hindsight, Cale makes a return on VU, appearing on two songs cut at New York’s A&R Studios in February 1968. “Stephanie Says” features his legato viola and bell-toned Celeste. “Temptation Inside Your Heart,” recorded the next day, features an unedited vocal take, with Reed, Cale, and Morrison joking and laughing in the background in between their vocals. There is no apparent tension in the track at all, even though this would be Cale’s next-to-last recording session with the group. For a moment, the two bulls appear in the pasture once more. 

VU peaked at number 85 on the Billboard 200 chart, becoming the band’s highest charting release.


The Velvet Underground's Loaded at 50: How being ignored birthed a classic  album | The Independent

Disillusioned with the lack of progress the band was making, and facing pressure by manager Steve Sesnick, Reed decided to quit the band during the last week of the Max's Kansas City shows in August 1970. Although Reed had informed Tucker, who was attending the show but not playing with the band because of her pregnancy, that he planned to leave the group on his last evening, he did not tell Morrison or Yule. 

In a 2006 interview, Yule said Sesnick waited until one hour before the band was scheduled to take the stage the following night before notifying him that Reed was not coming. "I was expecting Lou to show up, I thought he was late." Yule blamed Sesnick for Reed's departure. “Sesnick had engineered Lou's leaving the group. He and Lou had a relationship where Lou had depended on him for moral support, and he trusted him, and Sesnick basically said ‘screw you.’ It must have been hard for Lou to hear that because he depended on him, so he quit.” 


In Memoriam: Remembering Lou Reed |

While Loaded was finalized and mixed, it had yet to be mastered and was not set to be released by Atlantic until November of that year. Reed often said he was completely surprised when he saw Loaded in stores. He also said, ‘I left them to their album full of hits that I made’.

In the early 1970s, all but Dough Yule left the band. Yule led an abortive UK tour in 1973, and released a final album under the Velvet Underground name, Squeeze (1973), recorded mostly by Yule with session musicians, before the band dissolved shortly thereafter. The former band members collaborated on each other's solo work throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and a retrospective rarities album, VU, was released in 1985. Reed, Cale, Tucker and Morrison reunited for a series of well-received shows in 1993.







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