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Velvet Underground reissue: When horrible noise had cultural urgency

The new six-disc reissue of the Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album shows what a change of direction it represented for the band.

With the new six-disc deluxe reissue of the Velvet Underground's third album, the original cult band's pyrrhic victory is finally complete. The ultimate nihilistic rock outfit is being eagerly consumed by all of you normal people. Show's over, nothing to see here. Move along, citizen.

But some of us aren't celebrating. For decades after their release, the Velvets' little-heard albums were ice floes that drifted into the respective harbours of the freaks and the geeks whose idea of a good time involves squalls of guitar feedback that'd drive your mom screaming from the room.

For a while, the iceberg that produced slabs of weirdness such as 1967's The Velvet Underground & Nico, and 1968's White Light/White Heat, was posthumously called punk; later, it was called college rock. Now it has melted entirely, and we who are drowning in tepid, niche-marketed indie rock have the Velvets' 1969 self-titled album partly to blame.

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The most galling thing about The Velvet Underground is that it is fantastic. Its recording took place after John Cale could no longer stomach playing foil to fellow bandleader Lou Reed, and left in a huff. Up to that point, the Velvets were notorious for two things: one, being briefly managed by Andy Warhol, who had designed their debut's banana cover art and given them their start as the house band for his bacchanalian loft parties; and two, being self-evidently bad at the technical aspects of being a band. Which is to say, they sucked, albeit in the most compelling way possible.

Most bands would kill to suck the way the Velvets sucked on White Light/White Heat's Sister Ray, with Cale's seething Vox organ weaving around guitarists Reed and Sterling Morrison's anti-melody, all while drummer (and I use the term loosely) Maureen Tucker tried to keep up. It was, and still is, stunning.

The Cale-less vibe of The Velvet Underground represented a sharp 90-degree turn. There are no freak-outs even in upbeat tracks like What Goes On, in which Reed deploys the boogie-rock jones he once used for tales of copping heroin in service of something like positivity ("Lady be good, do what you should, you know it'll work all right"). And although the band had its tender moments, nothing could have prepared its fans for the straight-up hymn that is Jesus. With production dubbed the "Closet Mix" (because, as Morrison noted, with the vocals turned up and the rhythm section turned down, it sounded as if it was recorded in a closet), the Velvets seemed not just competent, but almost nice.

If I had to finger a culprit in the ongoing wussification of what's still called indie rock, though, I would point at After Hours, a fine, haltingly cheerful tune about drinking alone and hiding from the world. After Hours is one Garden State-style movie-soundtrack-placement away from ubiquity. Now, everyone needs sentimental songs like After Hours once in a while; the problem is that, because the Velvets are cited in every decent history of rock 'n' roll as a huge influence on punk and indie rock, an album of After Hours- and Candy Says-lite can be marketed as implicitly part of the band's subversive lineage. The Velvet Underground was intended to be a commercial success; the fact that it failed makes it a hipper reference point than, say, Harry Chapin. And that, to make a long story short, is how we ended up with insipid whine-rockers like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver being marketed as somehow more legit than Cat's in the Cradle.

Blaming today's insipid indie rock entirely on The Velvet Underground would be unfair, given that it legitimately represented a new stage in the artistic progression of one of history's most creative rock bands. Still, listening to weird, noisy bands used to be a badge of sophistication, and a challenge for listeners to sample the subversive pleasures of the avant-garde. Now the biggest challenge rock music issues is to grow a beard so long, passersby will have to apologize for stepping on it.

Admittedly, today's indie music is more welcoming to people other than straight white men. When it comes to using art to challenge the dominance of the patriarchy, rocking a few effects pedals pales in comparison. But while I may be blinded by privilege, I can't help selfishly feeling nostalgic for an era when horrible noise had a certain cultural urgency.

Besides, bands like the Velvet Underground were viewed as defiantly anti-macho – the word "punk" was slang for "male prostitute," before it meant "proud owner of a Blink-182 wallet chain."

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At least we have this Velvets box set, which even includes two discs of live material, featuring Heroin and Sister Ray and a whack of stuff that will give miscreants like me shivers. Things could be worse. I mean, have you heard Maroon 5?

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About the Author
Editor, Globe Unlimited (Business)

Dave Morris joined the Globe and Mail in 2010 as Associate Editor of Report on Business Magazine. Born in St. John's, he graduated from Princeton University in 2003 and has written for publications including The Walrus and Maisonneuve. He has been nominated twice for Canada's National Magazine Awards. More

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