The Velvet Underground Review: Lou Reed Was a Pop Singer All Along?

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The most intriguing revelation of the documentary, musically, is hearing how the band settled in new places in sound. They found a home by tuning to the hum of the refrigerator at the Dream Syndicate space on 56 Ludlow Street. As opposed to the standard 440 pitch standard tuning, the 60-cycle hum, according to Cale, was “the drone of western civilization.” It affects the alpha rhythm of the brain frequency which then has a psychological effect on the listener. As evidenced in the drone of the viola of “Venus in Furs,” or the sustained chordal dissonance of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” the harmonics create tones of their own. Modern Lovers founder Jonathan Richman says there were more noises coming from the stage than there were band members to account for. Cale called the collaboration “dream music.”

It was, apparently, more effective for Reed than putting his hand through a glass door to get out of a gig he didn’t want to play on the St. Lawrence River. Upon a suggestion by Warhol Factory superstar Paul Morrissey, Warhol added the hypnotic German actor and model Nico to the band’s mesmerizing sustains. Reed didn’t like it, and would ultimately fire Andy, but it fitted the outfit for celebrity.  

Reed was a rock and roller with a strong affinity for street corner doo wop groups like the Paragons and the Jesters. Educated on the melodies and chord structures of Tin Pan Alley composers, he started out as a low-rent house writer for the label, Pickwick Records. A major high point of the documentary is hearing some of these early records. Velvet Underground fans should be prepared before watching to delve deep into some of the early titles. It is worth it. The snippet of the novelty song “The Ostrich” with Reed’s band The Primitives, and songs like it, are only an appetizer. Reed’s first record, “Leave her for me,” even got played on the Murray the K radio show. The famed DJ was out sick that night and Paul Sherman spun the disc, but the airplay netted Reed his first royalty check, for $2.70. Reed points out how that was “in fact, more than I made with the Velvet Underground.”

Reed would probably roll his eyes at his biography. The documentary itself points out his legend of hating everything, except Bob Dylan, and probably Dion of the Belmonts. He even trashed the Beatles, repeatedly. Cale says Reed was “like a three-year-old who needed to make everybody feel as uncomfortable as he was.” The Velvet Underground performs some shallow therapy on the root causes. Reed’s father was distant, far too much so to play catch, the documentary explains. Dragging Reed from the streets of Brooklyn to suburban Long Island left the young musician rudderless. Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, says the story about gay aversion electroshock therapy is untrue. But overall, Haynes appears to be saying Reed was very serious when he told early record producers he just wanted to “get rich and be a rockstar.” It makes Reed out to be inauthentic.

Cale gets the spotlight from the opening kinescope clip of his 1962 appearance on the CBS game show I’ve Got a Secret. Cale’s secret is that he made musical history by giving an 18-hour concert where he only played one song over and over. Cale comes across as the radical soul of The Velvet Underground to Reed’s rock and roll rebel without a cause. As a young music student in Wales, Cale wanted to play Paganini, but was caught up in the drone of the New York City underground. He’d improvised his way through the classics and needed more challenge. He finds the avant garde sounds of John Cage, whose compositions pushed critics to say “that’s not music anymore,” remembers Henry Flynt, who coined the term “concept art” in the early 1960s.

The documentary dives deep into the music of the first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, but focuses on the drama behind White Light/White Heat, the band’s second album. It is more known for Reed’s speedy drug indulgences, like firing Warhol or replacing Cale with Doug Yule for the 1969 album The Velvet Underground.  The final album, Loaded, from 1970, is treated like a sellout bid for mainstream popularity.

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