Published Dec 19, 2014Box sets are usually a way to re-affirm established narratives around classic albums and artists. But this new, six-disc collection built around the Velvet Underground's self-titled third album makes the case that we've spent the past 45 years listening to the record wrong.
In his forthcoming article about the album, "The Acoustemology of the Closet," art historian Godfrey Leung argues that The Velvet Underground, released in 1969, has long been regarded as the group's singer-songwriter album, a product of Lou Reed taking over after John Cale's ouster from the band. This was bolstered by producer Val Valentin's mix, which mirrored the sound of the day's commercially minded singer-songwriters. This is the mix that most listeners are familiar with, as it's been the standard issue for most of the album's life. A mono version of the record is included here, but this was clearly a product of its time and never meant to represent the band's true vision. However, a third mix, by Reed himself, found its way onto the first American pressing of the album. First made widely available on 1995's Peel Slowly and See box set, stories vary as to how the variation occurred. But Reed's mix presents the record as a wholly different beast. This version pushes the vocals right up front, while panning the instruments hard to the left and right channels. The result is a far more intimate recording that sounds more like a high quality four-track demo than the result of a professional recording studio, as Valentin's mix does. Sterling Morrison appropriately dubbed it the "Closet Mix" due to the illusions of spatial confines Reed created. It's not hard to carry that spatial reference over to the proliferation of lo-fi "bedroom" recordings in the '90s and '00s, drawing a straight line from Reed's mix through to Pavement, Elliott Smith and even the hushed intimacy of the Postal Service.
Which mix is the "real" one has long been up for debate. In his extensive and otherwise informative liner-notes, Rolling Stone's David Fricke frustratingly refuses take on the record's established narrative, offering no clarification on which one it might be. The narrative of the Velvets as a group with commercial aspirations, especially in light of experimentalist Cale's departure, has prevailed, with Valentin's mix taking centre stage. But as Leung notes, original mixes of Cale's final sessions with the band — a crucial missing piece of this set — that have surfaced over the years and suggest that the move to the closet was already in motion.
Whatever the band's intentions, it was clear that by the end of the year, they were already moving on. Subsequent recording sessions from 1969 were originally spread across '80s rarities comps VU and Another View. Here the Velvet's "lost" fourth record is reconstituted on a single disc. Many of the tracks boast their original 1969 mix, with others receiving a "new mix" that strips away the booming 80s production from previous incarnations.
The loose playing on these sessions resembles the live performances from the band's 1969 residency at the Matrix in San Francisco, which are housed on the set's final two discs. These performances are already available on the famed, lo-fi Quine Tapes and many of the versions found here, captured by the venue's in-house four-track, made their way onto 1974's 1969: The Velvet Underground Live. But the performances — loose, jammy and the product of an electrified quartet working at the top of their game — further alienates the record as a conscious realignment towards commercial songwriter territory.
Hardcore fans will complain that most of this material has been floating around in various forms for years. Though incomplete (those final Cale sessions are an important hole) presenting them as a whole paints a fuller picture of one of the most important bands of the rock era, and forces listeners to at least briefly reimagine one of their favourite records as a wholly different beast.
Pick up The Velvet Underground & Nico on pink vinyl here. (Universal)