During the mid-‘60s, the mantle of the counterculture was passed from the beats to the hippies, probably the night that Bob Dylan and the Beatles smoked pot together in 1964. People stepped away from writing novels and poetry at their typewriters, choosing instead to pick up electric guitars to write rock songs. Yet the Velvet Underground (Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker) carried on in the beats’ tracks, specifically the work of William S. Burroughs as Reed related dark, gritty tales from the shadows and evenings of city life, detailing heroin addiction and sadomasochism in honest frank detail. The stories, while unique to rock music at the time, weren’t created purely for shock value. They were well-told songs filled with empathetic characters and intriguing situations.
Each album saw their sound change as members left the band. After their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Nico’s deep, haunting vocals, which strengthened the female narratives, was gone. When Cale was fired after White Light/White Heat due to the ego clash with Reed, he took most of the avant-garde sound with him, giving way to more of a mainstream rock ‘n’ roll sound on The Velvet Underground. Doug Yule was brought in as Cale’s replacement, but would eventually be everyone’s replacement. He, and a number of others, played the drums for Tucker on Loaded when she left due to her pregnancy. He also took over when Reed quit during the making of the album. Morrison split to go teach, leaving Yule the band name under which he created the much-maligned Squeeze.
The Velvet Underground’s limited fame in the late ‘60s was reached with help from Andy Warhol. He had them play at The Factory and assisted in getting their first album produced, including contributing the iconic artwork for its cover. The band wasn’t necessarily successful in terms of album sales, but their influence can be seen in many of the bands that came after them in the punk, new wave, and alternative genres.
Velvet Redux Live MCMXCIII is taken from a previous 1993 VHS release. The band was recorded during a three-night residence at the Parisian venue L’Olympia while on a brief reunion in Europe where they headlined shows and opened for U2 on their Zooropa tour.
They open with “Venus in Furs”, a song that references the 19th Century novel by Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch. This slow, brooding dirge is still unique and refreshing due to its dark, seedy story and Cale’s outstanding viola work.
Due to their artistic reputation and roots, it’s forgotten that, in essence, they are a rock ‘n’ roll band. “White Light/White Heat” has the artifice stripped and the tempo sped up, revealing a Chuck Berry song underneath. “I Heard Her Call My Name” is also a straightforward rock song. And speaking of “Rock ‘N’ Roll,” the band delivers an up-tempo version
In place of Nico, who passed away in 1988, John Cale sings, or to be more accurate reads, the vocals to “Femme Fatale.” Of course, his voice doesn’t have the same distinctive quality as Nico, but he does more than an adequate job singing. Reed sings Nico’s part on “I’ll Be Your Mirror”. For some inexplicable reason, Cale also takes the lead on “I’m Waiting for the Man”.
The band takes the natural thematic segue and just like the Man delivers “Heroin”. It’s an outstanding performance as the both the words and the music put you in the narrator’s state of mind. It begins smooth and soothing and peaks with a raw and savage frenzy, which sounds better here than on the original where it was more sonically avant-garde. Here, the chaos is more controlled and deliberate, making it more appealing.
What’s great is that they didn’t stick to their hits. They perform two rare tracks that appeared on compilation albums over 15 years after the band disintegrated. Tucker comes out from behind the drums to sing the nursery rhyme “I’m Sticking With You”. It is a tad silly and it’s apparent why it didn’t make the cut way back when, but it shows a very playful side in a way that Reed rarely shows. When it was released, “Hey, Mr. Rain” appeared in two versions, each coming in at about five minutes, but here the band stretches out and turns it into a 15-minute jam that sees Reed’s guitar and Cale’s viola trading licks while Morrison on bass and Tucker keep the rhythm driving. At about 10 minutes in, Reed finally sings the lyrics.
Tucker is an interesting drummer to watch. Her bass kit is turned on its side and she plays standing up. She delivers a sure and steady beat to allow the others to go off. Meg of the White Stripes owes a debt to her.
I didn’t feel like I was watching a recreation of what it must have been like seeing them back in their glory days and that obviously wasn’t their intention. This show is a celebration of their music and is very deserved.
They tease with a promise of something more from them as they close the show out with a new song, “Coyote”. It is forgettable and slowly peters out, as does the band’s future and fans’ hopes because some things never change. They couldn’t keep their egos in check and split apart, ending both the reunion before it hit the States and the talk of an MTV Unplugged episode. No one would expect them to have gone back to what they were, but it would have been intriguing to see where they could have headed.
A two-CD set of the concert, which was previously released, contained nine extra tracks. Why they aren’t included isn’t clear and there was certainly plenty of space. Also, it would have been nice to see some extras that could shed some light on the band and their influence.
All in all, the concert was entertaining and well worth watching. Fans should enjoy it and newcomers will find it a good, although not entirely accurate, introduction to the band.