It is every vinyl fiend crate digger’s dream. To go through that box of shite records at a yard sale, knowing full well it will simply be full of Mantovani, warped classical albums without sleeves and James Last LPs, without any hope, without any real expectation of making a find, just running on autopilot … and there it is!
You reach out and you put your hands on a small piece of history. A studio acetate that will cast light onto the creation of one of the mythic debut LPs of all time. Not only will you make a packet from this find on eBay, it will be released for the first time ever as part of expensive box sets and RSD exclusives, all because of you.
But that’s enough about the discovery of The Legendary Toilet Tapes by Dave Jobby & The Turdettes, I haven’t got a copy of that* so we’ll just have to be content with Velvet Underground Scepter Studios Sessions instead. Sorry.
Scepter Studios was a low rent, rundown studio in Manhattan and financed by Andy Warhol and Columbia Records exec Norman Dolph, the Velvet Underground convened there for 4 days in April 1966 to lay down the bulk of what became The Velvet Underground & Nico, released 11 months later. Essentially these session would go a long way to refining alternative music and the whole discourse around that, for good; suddenly we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
Scepter Studios Sessions are therefore a putative unalloyed version of the finished tracks before producer Tom Wilson got his hands on them**. The VU cut ten tracks at Scepter, nine of which are here – the missing one being ‘There She Goes Again’^. Of these 9, 4 are different takes to the final studio ones and 5 are just different mixes. It’s an interesting ride.
The lead off track here is ‘European Son’, the closer on the LP proper and it’s a wise choice, artistically if not financially^^. It is the best and most striking number here, longer and sonically more anarchic than the finished product; closer to White Light/White Heat than The Velvet Underground & Nico. I prefer this spikier iteration of the track.
I once put the track ‘Heroin’ on a pub jukebox three times running (it was on the soundtrack of The Doors), I was that obsessed with it. I had not reckoned on my fellow pubgoers being less-enamoured than I with the prospect of spending 21:24 in the company of Lou’s harrowing fever dream – things turned a bit sour (‘Fucking students!’) and the landlord pulled the plug as it started for the second time. As any true hero would, I blamed it on my friend Michael.
But I digress, fellow drinkers at The Carpenters Arms would have only had to suffer 18:48 if Scepter Studios Sessions had been available then. This shorter take of ‘Heroin’ is more tentative musically, but Reed sings it more aggressively. It’s an interesting take, but I would take the finished version every time as it benefits from a real clarity and precision in the final mix.
Of the other two different takes, ‘Venus In Furs’ shows that this one was pretty much born fully-grown and ‘Waiting For The Man’^* is an irredeemable shuffling dirge – none of that nonchalant whipcrack firepower that makes it one of my favourite songs ever*^.
The tracks from Scepter Studios Sessions that were just mixed differently for the debut are, understandably, not massively different to the finished product. The vocals are the largest variable on show, although all the tunes benefit from better clarity and punchiness. I do really like the way the backing vocals on ‘Femme Fatale’ are much louder and the main vocal a bit muggier, but then Nico was always by far the least interesting woman on the LP to me.
The Sceptre Studios Sessions were released for the first time as a single vinyl for RSD 2012 in a limited edition of 5000. I do rather like the way the cover mimics the original acetate, but there again I am easily pleased.
I often have mixed feelings about all the demos and peeks behind the curtain we collectors get these days into the creation of ‘the classics’. I have a very limited tolerance for listening out for minor variations in inferiorly recorded versions of songs I love and sometimes it can diminish the joy of the originals for me. I’m a zealot and a wanna be believer, I would rather think these things sprung immaculately formed from the ribs of the lead guitarist than know how hard the band worked at it.
However, I do enjoy this LP. This is probably because of the hobby-vindicating history of the thing in part, but also the sense of rock archaeology inherent in the whole enterprise, I’m always susceptible to that. It is interesting to hear the Velvet Underground were born sussed, spiky and deviant but had yet to have their edges honed enough to cut through all the positive bullshit so incisively.
… which is why I think that The Legendary Toilet Tapes gives us such a ready insight into the essential genius (not too strong a word to use here) behind such classics as ‘Flush Gordon In The 21st Century’ and ‘Ploppy’. Dave Jobby, we salute you!
*couldn’t afford the box set prices.
**you could write weighty tracts on who, if anyone, really produced the final vinyl version of the debut LP, the main protagonist’s memories conflict. The smart money is that Tom Wilson is the man who shaped and corralled the VU’s wired wild weird into focus. Plus I’m a massive admirer of his and so I simply choose to believe he did.
^The Velvet Underground & Nico uses a mix of the Scepter Studios version apparently.
^^bear in mind that one of the purposes of the acetate was to interest record companies, luring them in to invest in the band. Herman’s Hermits this ain’t.
^*the song seemed to have acquired its ‘I’m’ later.
*^in university I rewrote the lyrics as ‘I’m Waiting For My Gran’ for a friend’s band – they liked it and then promptly split up. ‘I’m waiting for my gran / Pension book in my hand / Up to bingo one, two, five / Feeling lucky, Mini Metro on my drive’.