I’ve been listening to the Velvet Underground a lot in the past few days. I think it kind of started on my final day living in Dublin last week, my things all packed up and me floating around the house not really sure what to do before leaving for the airport – so I put on ‘Sunday Morning’, and it seemed kind of appropriate somehow; all light, pretty and surreal. The Velvet Underground and Nico is probably still my favourite VU album, not least because it’s the first one I ever listened to – it has that sense of familiarity and nostalgia about it, and that inherent weirdness, extraordinary diversity and sheer ingenuity, all of which I love. But, since then, this week I’ve been listening to the 1985 outtakes compilation, VU, quite a bit because it was only introduced to me recently (and it has some incredible stuff on it – ‘Temptation Inside Your Heart’ is an absolute delight with the ridiculously irreverent/incredible Cale/Reed chats over the top).
But also I’ve been playing their last record (Squeeze doesn’t count) 1970’s Loaded a lot too, and so when I saw they had just announced a 45th anniversary re-issue of the LP I felt I might as well write a pointless essay about why I think Loaded is so great.
It’s funny, because it’s a less definitively Velvet Underground record than the others – Mo Tucker was on maternity leave so she’s not playing her weirdly characteristic drums, and of course John Cale had been gone for a good while at this point, so less in the way of wonderfully odd, loping strings. But, even though he had left the group before it was actually released, this is Lou Reed’s last VU record, and Reed’s presence is surely the ultimate defining aspect of the VU.
This was meant to be an accessible pop record – “loaded” with hits was ostensibly the premise – and the opening duo of ‘Who Loves the Sun’ into ‘Sweet Jane’ are absolutely a gloriously enthralling way to start an album. The sweet, woozy harmonies of the former with its gorgeously melancholy lyrics sung by Doug Yule (“Who loves the sun / Who cares that it is shining / Who cares what it does / Since you broke my heart”) over summery almost psychedelically twinkling melodies – it’s spectacular. It sounds kind of like the Velvets at their most Beatles/Beach Boys, but that perhaps doesn’t do it justice.
And then that’s immediately followed by ‘Sweet Jane’ – probably the biggest pop song they ever did? And it kind of makes me think of blasting it out the day Lou Reed died, yelling along dressed all in black while my flatmate got along with her day, bemused. And my god is this song euphoric in a really weird way – there’s something strangely affirming about lines like “‘Cos life is just to die”. Man, that spiralling whirl of melody crescendoing into the opening verse then that oomph of a chorus. If there’s something this album could do with more of it’s Lou Reed’s lead vocals, because that seductive semi-sprechgesang he had going was always something else, and it really stands out on this track. His confidence, his strut – he’s just phenomenal.
‘Rock & Roll’ is a vibrant, breathless little rock song with some swoony, weird melodies weaving through it and Reed yowling “oh baby” over the screeching cacophony of guitar near the end. Cale’s departure obviously curtailed a lot of the most experimental things the band were trying, but even in his absence I’d argue the band were never gonna have the mainstream appeal Reed seemed to want. For all they had a spectacular array of poppy, rocky songs on this record, they still had a strange edge to them – the VU were never exactly a conventional band and that was what was so great about them. A lot of the tracks have a bluesy, Stones-esque feel to them, which for the most part works – ‘Cool It Down’ is particularly fantastic. I am never convinced on ‘Lonesome Cowboy Bill’, which might well be my least favourite Velvet Underground song. The lyrics for ‘I Found A Reason’ are beautiful (“I’ve walked down life’s lonely highways / hand in hand with myself / And I realise / how many paths have crossed between us”) and the gospel-like harmonies are warming (never quite on the verge of becoming cloying).
The album closer is the real beauty though – ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin” comes in at just over seven minutes and is nothing short of powerful. There are some perfectly delicate, morose, unfaltering vocals from Yule, particularly on that hugely evocative refrain of “She ain’t got nothing at all”. Again, you’ve got that warming gospel undercurrent and it really works – it’s just really really moving.
And so no, it’s not the record that people associate with the definitive VU sound – it’s not all avant-garde, brash cacophonies of distortion or haunting songs about drugs and drag queens. But comparatively accessible is no bad thing, and it’s one of my favourites. Loaded is an astounding album that any band would be delighted to have in their oeuvre, and 45 years later Lou Reed continues to prove himself as a timeless songwriter. Yes.