The Velvet Underground's Loaded, 45 Years Later

Music Features The Velvet Underground
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It was decaying. And Lou Reed likely had known for years.

Loaded, the Velvet Underground’s fourth and final studio album with any significant remnant of its founding members, was issued in 1970. And inside the next two years, the band was ostensibly finished.

In a 1983 interview, John Cale sits heavily on a couch, answering questions about his past, his time in the Velvets and founding an ensemble that inarguably disrupted the trajectory of American rock music.

Thing is, though, Cale sounds nonplussed and figured the whole thing went sour relatively quickly.

“However innovative it was, it never lived up to its promise,” Cale says about the Velvets, lounging next to After Hours host Donnie Sutherland. “The band went out on the road and developed a whole different style of playing. It wasn’t based on hard work and musical…a certain amount of musical…extrapolation. It really turned into a road band. It was a drag. It was tedious.”

Despite Cale following his criticism with a rather staid rendition of the folksy “Chinese Envoy,” off the 1982 solo album Music for a New Society, his point’s an easy one to understand. It also explains Cale leaving the Velvets after the band’s 1968 White Light/White Heat, which included “The Gift,” a garage vamp sporting the bassist’s narrative that ends with some sap getting stabbed in the head.

So, by 1970’s Loaded, which has been reissued by Rhino in a much expanded six-disc iteration for the album’s 45th anniversary, the band features not only different personnel—Doug Yule had replaced Cale for the ensemble’s self-titled third album and remained in tow for the rest of the Velvets’ existence—but a different attitude toward composition. The Velvets’ then-newest member recalled the era in a 1996 feature for volume five of Sal Mercuri’s The Velvet Underground Fanzine.

“The sessions for [Loaded] were extremely different than those which produced the third album,” he said. “Many of the songs had been played live, but the recorded versions were very different than the road versions. The emphasis was on air time. Every song was looked at with the understanding that there was a need to produce some kind of mainstream hit.”

After playing in one form or another since the mid-1960s and not earning a spot atop the charts, the fact that both Verve and MGM records passed up the chance to issue Loaded isn’t a shock. But with Yule exerting his musical personality, as well as singing most of the tracks on the Cotillion-issued offering, a different band seemed poised for the possibility of vague success.

Reed’s minimalistic vision still seeped into most of the 10-song album. And if nothing else, the disc’s third track, “Rock & Roll,” was a five-minute accounting of the music’s healing potential. “Oh Sweet Nothin’,” the record’s closer and its longest track, extends Reed’s literary perspective on life’s absurdity that originated in drug-addled fantasies masquerading as song and surged through each Velvets album: “One minute born, one minute doomed.”

But so deep into the band’s existence, the startling fecundity of exploration had begun to disappear from its performances and seems to have been purposefully omitted from studio recordings.

“[The Velvets] played a fair amount of Loaded material live in 1969, but all of it was pretty radically rearranged or rewritten when it came time to record,” said Tyler Wilcox, a Pitchfork contributor and the man behind Doom & Gloom from the Tomb, a website showcasing copious live material from not just the Velvets, but the Grateful Dead and sundry other counter-culture behemoths. “The recordings made at the Matrix in late ’69 show that they were mixing in poppier stuff—a lot of the songs that would show up on VU and Another View—but still playing epic versions of ‘Sister Ray.’ By the time they were playing Max’s in the summer of ’70, confrontational stuff like ‘Ray’ and ‘Heroin’ had been dropped from setlists.”

One-third of the discs Rhino’s putting out into the world marking the Velvets’ slow fizzle are live recordings, one being an already properly released set of an Aug. 23, 1970, date at Max’s Kansas City, and the other, a previously unissued Philadelphia set from May 9 of the same year. Each features the troupe that recorded Loaded dealing in latter-day Velvets compositions, with only a handful of songs puncturing the five-minute mark. Tripped-out 30-minute excursions have been excised. Reed, though, still musters more than a few batches of guitar theatrics, making each performance more than worth tuning in for.

With a refocused musical premise and the potentially stabilizing influence of Yule’s pop-oriented contributions, Loaded still failed to deliver on anyone’s radio-friendly dreams. Reed exited the group he founded and began work on what would become his 1972 self-titled disc. As his continued writing resulted in decades-worth of new material focused on rainy days and transvestites, some of Reed’s solo output managed to insinuate a dash of what Loaded was angling at—and it’s certainly prevalent on that first solo disc, as well as Transformer.

A Yule-led troupe persisted for a few years after Reed’s departure, issuing an abominable 1972 disc, Squeeze. But by that time, guitarist Sterling Morrison had left to pursue a career in the academy and drummer Moe Tucker continued a journey with her family that eventually led to a one-off recording with members of the Sun City Girls and a relatively sedate life.

Most folks, it seems, though, can’t recount the Velvets’ career too lucidly. Maybe there’s a foggy notion of some transgressive group, clad in black, all apolitical drug heaps cranking out noise for the sake of itself. If a deeper bit of understanding’s expressed, it almost certainly omits Loaded completely.

For a slim moment so late into the band’s life, though, Reed and company reveled in unparalleled possibility and endless dreaming. There was still hope for the Velvets. And on Rhino’s boxset, the disc given over to “Demos, Early Versions & Alternate Mixes” finds a take of “I Found a Reason”—one that could have been a part of Bob Dylan’s 1967 “John Wesley Harding”—all lilting country rock and harmonica gloss.

“I do believe you are what you perceive/What comes is better than what came before,” Reed sings between Morrison’s support and some spindly guitar noodling. The band’s less tense than ever in its history, but assured. That lyrical positivity eventually was able to creep its way into a catalog of songs about getting electroshock, whippings, death and scoring drugs speaks to the pronounced significance music can offer for those exploring culture, art and genre. It just doesn’t always make for hits.

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