Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground: an alternate history

1969: The Velvet Underground Live
The Velvet Underground Live at Woodstock, 1969 (Photo credit: thejcgerm)

It was said that when the Velvet Underground played Woodstock in the summer of 1969, that only the front 10,000 members of the audience could actually hear — but that a good 1000 of them were inspired to form bands of their own. The Velvets’ viscerally exciting set included the 11 rhythm-guitar-driven minutes of “What Goes On” as well as the just-written “Sweet Jane” and the haunting “Pale Blue Eyes”, all three of which found their way into the 3-hour Woodstock movie that followed. Following their set, a lot of the other bands present reassessed their entire approach.

Then it was that the Velvet Underground became a globally recognised b(r)and and their stripped-down approach to rock music completely transformed the early 70s music scene. Millions more people saw the film of Woodstock than were ever there. When “Pale Blue Eyes” turned up on the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy and became a hit single, it sealed the deal. “Pale Blue Eyes” reached #6 in the Billboard singles charts, and #2 in the Adult Contemporary chart. In Britain, it reached the top ten, but more importantly, became a staple of radio play. In the mid-2000s, according to industry figures, it had been broadcast more than 6.5 million times. In their celebration of 100 Years of Film, the American Film Institute placed it at #20 in their list of the “top 100 movie songs”.

The Velvets hastily recorded Loaded to capitalise on the success, and had further hit singles with the re-written “Sweet Jane” and “Rock ’n’ Roll”. Meanwhile, the late 60s Blues Revival died away, and a score of 4-piece guitar bands assaulted the charts with their “no solos”  or “punk” philosophy. When Eric Clapton imitated Reed’s chopping rhythm guitar solo on his minor hit “Layla”, it cemented Reed’s reputation as the musician’s musician.

Three more Velvet Underground albums followed, with former band member and avant-gardist John Cale sniping from the side-lines, before the tensions in the band resulted in Lou Reed’s first solo album, Coney Island Baby in 1975. The increasingly erratic Reed then toured the world for three years, with an ever-growing and ever-changing roster of musicians. This culminated in the infamous Live at Budokan set of 1978. Although only ever available as a Japanese import, enough people heard Reed’s on-stage meltdown for his conversion to Christianity the following year to seem less surprising. As harrowing as it was to hear, the stream of abuse directed towards the front two rows of the audience on Live at Budokan were leavened with sublime musical moments, as Reed “deconstructed the myth” and reimagined some of his best-known songs as soul, and indeed gospel numbers.

Meanwhile, Sterling Morrison and Doug Yule reunited with Cale to release the concept album Rashomon in 1978 (Mo Tucker refused to work with the others without Reed). That the title was borrowed from a classic of Japanese cinema was taken by many to be a sly dig at Reed’s problems. The multi-stranded musical narrative was no easy listen, but seemed to confirm that it was Reed who produced all the Velvets’ most commercial material, a notion that had been in some dispute.

Reed had considerable commercial success with his gospel material, which included the massive hit, “How Do You Speak to an Angel,” from the openly autobiographical album Growing Up in Public. “Angel” was a #1 in the US gospel charts as well as a #5 in the Billboard singles chart. Other tracks on Growing Up in Public, like “Teach the Gifted Children”, with its neat segue into Al Green’s “Take Me To the River”, became live staples for Reed in the 1990s and 2000s.

The inevitable Velvet Underground reunion took place to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Woodstock in 1989, though Cale wasn’t invited. The event met with mixed reviews, and the subsequent world tour divided opinion. One school of thought insisted that if you were charging high ticket prices, you owed it to the fans to deliver versions of the hits as close to the original as possible. The other argued that the unpredictability of the concerts proved that the Velvet Underground was still relevant. Their last appearance together, in 2005, was indeed a run-through of their best-known hits, which some saw as a sell-out. But that 15-minute Superbowl half-time show gained them a whole generation of new fans. If just a small percentage of the massive global audience were encouraged to seek out their original Woodstock set, or the 1968 self-titled album, it was probably worth selling out.

When asked in later years about that first Woodstock appearance and how they’d come up with that incredibly fast rhythm guitar style, Reed would say, “We were on speed.” He may have slowed down in his last few years, but the affection felt by his legions of fans held fast until the end.

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