Expansive ‘Velvet Underground’ reissue leaves much to be desired
“The Velvet Underground & Nico” was released in 1967, a year before the birth of my parents and when Iggy still jammed with the Iguanas. 45 years after its release, it’s been cited as a reference point for countless musicians of varying genres and still ranks high on lists of all-time greatest albums. The album dropped a nihilistic bomb on the “Summer of Love” and served as a heroin-fueled testament to unconventional behavior that culminated into a quintessential work of art. But profiteering executives and copyright battles have caused this album to undergo a tumultuous release history, and the latest notch in the board is a six-disc box set that, while a gem for must-have collectors, fails at providing valuable insight.
Produced by Andy Warhol and primarily penned by Velvets ringleader Lou Reed, the album garnered a devoted following despite its initial commercial failure. In the mid-90s, the album was selected for inclusion into “Peel Slowly and See,” a retrospective set that also featured demos taken from Ludlow Street recordings. After undesirable extras appeared on a 2002 “deluxe edition” release, any additional tracks seemed to be little more than purchasing ploys. But it was this lull that made the idea of a true reissue all the more appealing.
Sparing a handful of alternate and single-oriented mixes, the first two discs contain the original album in newly-remastered stereo and mono versions. Nico’s first full-length solo album, “Chelsea Girl,” makes up the entirety of disc three in its final form. For those owning “Peel Slowly and See” or later remasters of the two albums, there’s nothing new to be learned; only when the fourth disc is reached does it begin to get more enticing.
Disc four contains recordings from sessions at New York’s Scepter Studios in 1966. These demos were originally found in 2002 by collector Warren Hill and purchased for a mere 75 cents at a New York flea market. Four years later, the tapes sold for over $25,000 after an intense eBay bidding war and though bootlegs of these recordings exist online, it is the 45th anniversary box set that presents this set in its first official capacity.
Aside from fans who already own the “Unripened” bootleg, listeners may find that many of these takes sound like different tracks altogether. “European Sun” is extended by one minute and proves even more disorienting while “Venus in Furs,” one of “The Velvet Underground & Nico’s” most sinister tracks, seems lighthearted without its sadistic polish. Even “Heroin” has a different vibe altogether, sacrificing its depth for the ramblings of a lesser Bob Dylan. Because the Velvets have been built up out of mystique and influence, these takes only offer a unfortunately lowered opinion of an otherwise classic album.
Although it’s not worth shelling out the $82 the label insists on charging for it, the reissue redeems itself in some ways. In its infancy — and perhaps at its best — the Velvet Underground was part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Warhol’s traveling multimedia event that toured much of the U.S. in the mid-60s. One of these performances that took place in Columbus, Ohio is documented on the two final discs and contrasts with previous demos as early evidence of structure. The recordings are far from clean, but the state of the band outshines the mediocre quality of the medium on which it’s presented. Lou, Nico, multi-instrumentalist John Cale and their colleagues provide glimpses of what ended up on the final version of the album. As with most acts, a unique energy possesses the Velvets in a live setting, and this is what restores the reverence that’s lost with the reissue’s earlier portions. It brings the rough edges, drug-induced frenzies and masochistic poetry back into the limelight, and thus ends the six-disc compilation on a high note.
No matter how many re-releases appear in future decades, the “Banana” album will always arouse interpretation. Generations will uncover more recordings or outtakes and continue to decipher the work as they see fit. But in my eyes, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” doesn’t need these useless additions; rather, it is best enjoyed in its most pure and final form.