Linger On: “The Velvet Underground: Under Review” takes a look at the first four VU albums

By on January 24, 2018

The Velvet Underground: Under Review takes a long look at the influential New York City-based band’s career and their first four albums, released between 1967 and 1970.

You’ll find this great 2006 documentary film — from the UK’s Prism Films — in our Under Review section over on Night Flight Plus!

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This 85-minute film features rarely-seen film footage of the Velvet Underground in concert (shot by Warhol and others), in addition to rare vintage interview clips with Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, Sterling Morrison and John Cale.

There are more recent interviews with former VU members Moe Tucker and Doug Yule, and with Warhol Factory archivist Billy Name (all three also provided private photos from their own collections).

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The Velvet Underground: Under Review also features critical assessment by rock critic Robert Christgau; Clinton Heylin (author of From the Velvets to the Voidoids); Total Rock DJ, author & journalist Malcolm Dome; Dean Wareham (his band Luna opened for the Velvets on their 1993 reunion tour); writer/musician Joe Harvard; recording engineer Norman Dolph; Steve Nelson (manager of the Boston Tea Party, where the Velvets played many gigs), and many others.

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In May of 1982, during an interview with Kristine McKenna (“Lots of Aura, No Airplay”) in the L.A. Times, Brian Eno remarked:

“I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band! So I console myself in thinking that some things generate their rewards in second-hand ways.”

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That’s the simple truth of it: the Velvet Underground didn’t sell too many records when they were an active band, but they were hugely influential on all who followed.

Read more about The Velvet Underground: Under Review below.

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After Andy Warhol saw the Velvets at Café Bizarre in NYC’s Greenwich Village, he asked them to become part of his Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI), a multi-media avant-rock spectacle that combined live music with projected films, strobe lights and psychedelic liquid light shows.

VU would debut with the EPI on January 13, 1966, wearing all black.

One of the more remarkable things about their sound early on was the use of droning viola, played by Cale, a Welsh-born classically-trained violinist.

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Warhol decided to invest in their future, becoming VU’s benefactor and “producer,” managing the band’s affairs between January ’66 until July 1967, paying their bills and giving them an allowance to live on (he also paid their rent).

At Warhol’s insistence, they were soon joined by another of his discoveries, Nico (real name: Christa Päffgen), a cinematically-striking, partially-deaf German chanteuse, model and actress (she’d appeared in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita).

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Nico added “charisma,” which Warhol felt they lacked, but her addition created friction with Reed.

In May of 1966, Warhol and former Columbia Records sales exec Norman Dolph booked the band into Scepter Studios on Broadway near Warhol’s Factory, where they recorded the entire first album in eight hours (total cost: $2000).

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After Columbia Records rejected the album, the tapes for The Velvet Underground and Nico sat on the shelf for a year before it was finally released, on March 12, 1967, on MGM’s Verve label, a jazz label MGM had purchased a few years earlier from producer Norman Granz.

Producer Tom Wilson then re-worked their recordings over a two day period, and three of Reed’s songs written for Nico’s gloomy, icily-sung lead vocals — “Sunday Morning,” “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be You Mirror” — were notably some of the album’s best songs.

Warhol — who designed the peel-off “banana” cover art — later felt he wasn’t temperamentally suited to music business baloney, and cut ties with VU prior to the release of their next album.

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The Velvet Underground: Under Review tells the stories behind their debut album’s songs, as well as the stories about their next three albums, including their Tom Wilson-produced White Light, White Heat, released on January 30, 1968.

The title track was written by John Cale one morning during a snowstorm after a night of speed, while their 17-minute magnum opus, “Sister Ray,” was recorded in one take.

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On September 28, 1968, Cale — who had grown tired of Reed’s power plays and their new manager Steve Sesnick’s maneuverings — quit the band, and they were never the same after that.

Reed recruited bassist Doug Yule to take his place, and it’s with this new lineup the VU would record their next two albums.

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Their third, the self-titled Velvet Underground album — sometimes called “the Gray Album” — featured Reed’s “Pale Blue Eyes” and the Yule-sung “Candy Says,” about Warholite Candy Darling (Yule says he was unaware it was about a transvestite).

After Mike Curb — MGM’s new label president, and an avowed Christian fundamentalist — decided that all the freaks on the label had to go, meaning the Velvet Underground were dropped (so were the Mothers of Invention, but the Cowsills were allowed to stay).

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With help from publicist Danny Fields, the Velvets were then signed to Atlantic Records in March of 1970, and their fourth album, Loaded, was released on Atlantic’s Cotillion imprint on September 19, 1970.

We learn in the documentary that Reed’s “Sweet Jane” was written to be a radio hit  and that then-pregnant Moe Tucker didn’t play the drums on the album (Yule’s high school-age brother Billy, session player Tommy Castanaro and album engineer Adrian Barber all helped out).

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The Velvet Underground franchise soldiered on with various Yule-led lineups — but without Reed, Cale and Morrison — for another year before they called it day in 1971.

Watch The Velvet Underground: Under Review to get the full VU story, and check out our ever-growing selection of music documentary titles we’ve recently added to Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.