Velvet Underground, Live at the Gymnasium

The Beatles are hard to fuck with and the Rolling Stones and New Order and Bowie and Sonic Youth and the Zombies all have their moments and My Bloody Valentine and Pavement are probably the real answer and when you’re drunk you only want to listen to The Fall, but, when it comes down to it, it’s hard to argue that the Velvet Underground are not the best band ever. This previously unreleased VU performance (currently available on green vinyl on eBay for a modest price) has been lighting up the music blogosphere for the past few days (really, how often do you hear a new Velvet Underground song?) and I thought I’d share the wealth. (In order to hear it, you’ll need to install WinZip or the Wackintosh equivalent.)

We know the Velvet Underground from their four records (although no casual fan I know owns White Light/White Heat, even though it contains perhaps my personal favorite VU track). Understandably, their sonic legacy also stems from their studio work, and the modern bands we identify as the Velvets’ successors (Jesus and Mary Chain, Joy Division, Galaxie 500) are identified as such with respect to those four, glorious records. However, like Animal Collective now, the Velvet Underground’s live performance had very little to do with what they captured in the studio. I’m far from an expert, but what I know of the VU live (scattered tracks on the box set, the incredible 1969 and Quine Tapes, and now this) suggests that a live set never featured anything as precious as ‘After Hours,’ or ‘Sunday Morning,’ anything as opiatic as ‘Venus in Furs,’ nor anything as avant-garde as ‘The Gift’ (a quality they shed, ‘The Murder Mystery’ aside, with their departure from Warhol and, eventually, John Cale).

No, the Velvet Underground were a rock band with their roots, like the Beatles, in rhythm and blues, although Lou Reed came to welcome the accessible (Loaded) while Lennon and McCartney rejected it (‘Revolution 9′). The studio tracks most representative of the Velvets’ live personality are ‘Waiting for My Man,’ ‘Beginning to See the Light,’ and, of course, that irreverent poem unlimited, ‘Sister Ray.’ That driving chords and swing are not their signature sound is somewhat surprising, given that 1969 was one of their few records consistently available during their rise to immortality through the 70s and into the 80s. Perhaps their raucousness is easier to isolate for music writers than their rhythm and more salient for the band’s followers.

A more informed writer could better identify the influence of the VU live performances compared to their studio work, but I maintain (no points for originality here) that the quintessential Velvet Underground track not written by the Velvet Underground is ‘Roadrunner,’ (often recognized as the original punk track, and whose two chords are lifted from the three in ‘Sister Ray’) by the Modern Lovers, whose lead singer, Jonathan Richman, allegedly saw his idols play live over 100 times (roughly the same number of performances of Die Meistersinger Hitler supposedly attended). My point is not to argue that everyone is bloody wrong, that we think of the Velvet Underground as one of the most pioneering, vital musical entities of the last century and they were really just a noisy doo-wop band, but merely to point out that The Velvet Underground as an active musical group, one that could come play for the young musicians in your town, meant a very different thing for fans and concert-goers of the period, and that an appreciation for the talents of the group can hardly be grasped from what they managed to release at the time. This recording demonstrates that, splendidly. Lucky us.


~ by ohkrapp on February 27, 2008.

One Response to “Velvet Underground, Live at the Gymnasium”

  1. come on already. this surely isn’t krapp’s last ?… Best Of music 07??? (N.Lennox)

    yes my bloody valentine and pavement probably are right. beatles

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