The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground (1969)

We had this one kid back in high school, the scary kid, the one dressed all in black (decades before "goth" or "emo" or whatever you kids are up to these days!), sitting in the back of the class when he showed up at all, perpetually tethered to his Sony Walkman.  One day I actually approached him, asked him what he was listening to.

"The Velvet Underground and Nico.  You should check them out."

And I did.  That first album, with the banana on the cover.

It was a revelation.  Frightening and noisy and beautiful and poppy and hypnotic and incredibly perverse, depending on where you happened to drop the needle.

The second album was even scarier, the pretty and poppy bits from the first album largely absent, a barrage of noise, particularly the 17-minute 2-chord assault of degradation and violence that is "Sister Ray."

But it was the third album that shocked me the most, and became my favorite.  Because they did a complete 180, delivering an album that was gorgeous and brooding and (mostly) less challenging from a sonic standpoint but every bit as intense and novel.

Indeed, the next thing you hear from the band after "Sister Ray" is "Candy Says," a beautiful (yet dark) ballad, sung by new guitarist Doug Yule rather than frontman Lou Reed.  The contrast was astonishing.  And a little bit later, "Pale Blue Eyes," perhaps the most stunningly gorgeous song Reed has ever written.  And even "Jesus," a surprisingly devout little piece of swoony gospel from the (at least ostensibly) Jewish Reed.

Which isn't to say the album doesn't have its more upbeat, rocking moments.  "What Goes On" is a blast of flat-out pop-rock, simple and catchy; "Beginning to See the Light" is likewise nearly commercial in its appeal.

The only real throwback to its predecessor is the sprawling, spoken-word "Murder Mystery," which continues in a similar vein as "The Gift" from the previous album.  And then they wrap up with drummer Maureen Tucker singing the positively sweet little ditty "After Hours."

I pretty much think each of the Velvets' 4 albums was perfect in its own unique way (or maybe 5 albums if you construct a missing album from all their leftover outtakes that they eventually released); but this is the one I probably turn to most often.

Here's "Pale Blue Eyes" from their 1993 reunion tour.  Damn, this is... wow.
And a rollicking live take on "What Goes On":

Buy it on Amazon. (Or invest in the massive Super Deluxe box with multiple versions of the album as well as outtakes and live recordings.)


  1. Yes. Without What Goes On there wouldn't be a Pavement. And without Beginning to See the Light we wouldn't know what Lou Reed's voice sounds like.


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