It is an interesting experience going back and listening to my older records, most of the time my views on ones I’ve had for decades don’t differ too much from back then once you allow/adjust for the ravages of time/diminishing of the mating urge/accrual of wisdom and the onset of male pattern baldness. Occasionally though it is healthy to have your nice cosy views on an LP ripped up and burnt in front of your very, umm, ears.
Loaded was the first Velvet Underground LP I got around to buying on vinyl, simply because it was the only one my friend Matt couldn’t tape for me; he didn’t own a copy because he thought it was crap despite having two of the best Velvet’s songs on it, ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘Rock & Roll’. After all, Moe Tucker didn’t feature, for maternity reasons, John Cale had already left, Doug Yule sung a few and Lou Reed left the band three months before it was released – how could it be any good? I bought it on 1 October 1991, agreed entirely and I hadn’t listened to it, in its entirety/with an open mind for almost 22 years until last weekend. My main thought is ‘what was I on? this is a really great album? you freakin’ simpleton!’ I had assumed the title was a drug reference, but that was just another instance of freakin’ simpleton-itis striking, it was in fact named after their new label boss, Ahmet Ertegun, told the band that he expected an album ‘loaded with hits’.
It’s really interesting sifting through all the interviews just how determined Velvet Underground were to fulfil the brief Atlantic Records had given them and did their absolute best to create a very ‘up’ commercial album. As a spotty 19 year-old with a twin fixation on ‘Sister Ray’s unwholesomeness and Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit To Brooklyn, this wasn’t what I wanted at the time – I wanted the full-on Velvets experience deluxe with extra helpings of drug references, black polo neck jumpers and sheer sunglasses-at-night cool. Instead of all that I got …
Personally I think Loaded doesn’t do itself any favours by opening with ‘Who Loves The Sun’, the drippiest 60’s-est Velvet Underground ever got. Try as I might I can’t embrace this track, like someone you don’t like at work, I’m happy to acknowledge it with a brief nod of my head in passing, but please, please don’t let me get stuck in the lift with it because, if that happens, only one of us is making out of there alive. Hell, yeah! ‘Who loves the sun / Who cares that it makes plants grow?’, me – I do, and I’m calling you out on it, song!
I like ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘Rock & Roll’, almost too much to sully them with my writing*, almost. The former is very much in the same vein as Velvet Underground III, classic ‘Beginning to see the Light’, the same playful vocals and real sense of fun, I wouldn’t want to cheapen it by saying it too often but I really don’t think music gets much better than ‘Sweet Jane’; every line is a straight knock-out punch Lou Reed playing with each syllable to maximum effect, very much like Dylan at his absolute best. The music is so simple too, settling down after the chiming, joyous intro to, mostly, just strummed bass, guitar and drums, it’s the vocals and the harmonies that make this track soar the way it does. I know blood was shed over the edited version that appears on Loaded, rather than the longer ‘Wine and Roses’ version that Lou Reed apparently favoured and claimed was edited after his departure** – for what its worth I prefer the shorter version, as did Lou Reed eventually as this was the version he would, mostly, play live thereafter; it’s punchier. ‘Rock and Roll’, is as basic as the title suggests, a simple ode to the life-affirming joys of the radio and, stone cold classic that it is, I’ll leave it at that!
I’m starting to love the sneery, playful joy of ‘Cool It Down’, which really does sound like a burnt-out band being forced to play happy songs at gun point and I mean that in a good way. I can hear the first stirrings of Transformer in this tune more so than any of the others in the Velvet Underground canon.
But me I’m down around the corner
You know I’m lookin’ for Miss Linda Lee
Because she’s got the power to love me by the hour
Gives me double you L-O-V-E
Next up is the most typically Velvet Underground track on Loaded, ‘New Age’ sung sweetly by Yule it is a weary little song about, what exactly? weariness with the music industry? an opportunistic, contemptuous starfucker? an ungallant dig at Shelley Winters?^ originally an ungallant dig at a girlfriend of Lou Reed? in the final analysis it doesn’t really matter, not when you achieve 1537 bonus points for convincingly rhyming ‘Robert Mitchum’ with ‘never catch him’. Possibly not.
Extra rocking juice is liberally smeared all over ‘Head Held High’, a great crackling little number which sounds like the Stones, Lou Reed doing his best gravelly Jagger impression – forget ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, cover this tune tomorrow Rolling Stones! I can see Velvet Underground laying this track down and thinking, ‘yup, commercial, hit material, cracked it’. I think it’s also a good example of the musicality and melody that multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule brought to the proceedings, poor Doug his place in VU history forever being tarred with the version of the band that lurched on after all the original members had left, producing Squeeze – a universally loathed LP with good cover art which I’ve never heard^^. Billy Yule, who stood in for Moe Tucker also plays it pretty straight forward throughout, maybe a little less primitive.
There are echoes of ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ in ‘I Found a Reason’, but the former’s raw heart having been replaced by a sweet pop-doo-wop sensibility and a very passable soul vocal from Mr Reed, until it gets to A SPOKEN BIT!!!!! Sweet Lord I love a song with a spoken bit in, no matter how tongue-in-cheek it may be. Ironically the whole vibe of ‘I Found a Reason’ is something akin to (long-time Reed sniping target) Zappa’s Cruising With Reuben & The Jets transposed to NY. I’m also developing a real thing for the relentless ‘Train Round The Bend’, with its’ arty guitar backing being the most out-there musical aspect of Loaded, it really is the type of song I find myself repeating and repeating.
The closer ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin” is another intriguing one, I could almost hear The Band, or Neil Young in this track. I know Lou Reed was later credited with all the song writing credits on the LP, but this sounds the least Reed-like (the most Yule-like?) tune here, a gently building guitar driven number with a gorgeous heartfelt vocal from Yule. If you’d played this song to me blind a few weeks ago I would never have guessed the band – which in a nutshell is possibly my, former, problem with Loaded. When I heard it I wanted more of the same VU NY cool archetype, drug-addled avant-garde sleaze and at least two song titles with girls names in per album and I wasn’t really ready for, or receptive to an LP made by, effectively, a different band for different reasons; who quite obviously made a different type of music.
Look at the cover, a sound wafting up from the underground, how much clearer could they have made it?
Freakin’ Simpleton! Taken entirely on its’ own merits, which in the final analysis is all an LP ever should be taken on, Loaded is a good listen, an interesting listen and if it doesn’t hit the same psychic depths as their earlier albums then they had the answer already prepared, this was their rock and roll LP and,
Despite all the complications
You know you could just go out
And dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station
It was alright
*I did, however, think that Jane’s Addiction had written them for about two years after they were both covered on Jane’s Addiction, their live debut.
**Doug Yule denies this, saying that the mixes were Reed’s.
^a bit unkind, I was always a big fan of Schnorbitz!! (obscure UK TV reference).
^^on which Deep Purple’s Ian Paice played drums – cementing the unlikely link between the Purps and the Velvets – Deep Velvet? Purple Underground?