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Backtracking

Singles up from Underground

These 45s from the Velvet Underground weren't hits in their day but

September 29, 2009|Robert Hilburn

"The Velvet Underground Singles 1966-1969" is an illuminating new boxed set that helps explain how the Lou Reed-led band could be influential enough to get voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without ever having had a hit single or album.

For decades now, the Velvets have been known as the quintessential "album" band because the group's themes were too eyebrow-raising to generate mainstream radio airplay, which was the key in the 1960s to building a large following.

Those mature themes, about such subjects as drug abuse and sexual fetishes, were part of singer-songwriter Reed's attempt to elevate the subject matter of rock 'n' roll beyond the teenage sensibilities reflected in the music of Elvis Presley, Little Richard and even the early Beatles.

"I know it sounds pretentious, but I wanted to bring a Brecht-Weill sensibility" to the music, he told me in 1992. "Why not? You're not 15 forever. There was nothing in [the Velvets'] songs that I hadn't read about in books or seen in movies. 'Man with the Golden Arm' had been out for years before I wrote 'Heroin.' "

But Reed and the Velvets also wanted hits, so they sidestepped those exotic themes in a series of exquisite singles recorded in hopes of gaining mainstream radio exposure. Yet even those -- which are showcased on separate, 45 rpm vinyl recordings in the boxed set from Sundazed Records -- proved too sophisticated for radio programmers, thus killing the Velvets' chances at achieving big sales.

If you think of history as another form of measuring success, the recordings by the Velvets are smash hits. Not only do they still sound alluring, but it's also easy to hear in them the musical attitude and strains that influenced a wide range of rock forces, including David Bowie, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, Roxy Music, U2 and the Strokes.

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The Velvet Underground

"The Velvet Underground Singles 1966-1969"

Sundazed

The back story: The Velvets -- featuring singer-songwriter Reed, multi-instrumentalist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker -- made their live debut in 1965 and were quickly championed by Andy Warhol, who made the act the house band at his studio, the Factory, and persuaded the group to add a female singer, Nico. That Warhol association gave the Velvets an immediate avant-garde reputation in the pop world, and the band's debut album, "The Velvet Underground and Nico," further cemented its exotic image.

Even though the group's first single, "All Tomorrow's Parties," was "safe" enough for mainstream radio, airplay was minimal; the song reached only No. 103 on the Cash Box chart. Sadly, no other Velvets single would even register that high.

The music: "All Tomorrow's Parties," a wistful account of a troubled young woman attracted to New York's hip party scene, simply wasn't as immediately accessible as dozens of other singles that year, including the Mamas and the Papas' "Monday, Monday," the Beatles' "Paperback Writer" and the Rolling Stones' "Paint It, Black."

If radio programmers had spent more time with the record, they might have noticed the slow-building tension in the song that gave it, upon repeated listening, such a haunting and seductive presence.

The Velvets' second single, "Sunday Morning," backed with "Femme Fatale," was a two-sided gem -- songs rich with inviting commercial textures that should have caught the ear of radio programmers. But the failure of "All Tomorrow's Parties" and the group's controversial image probably kept most DJs from even checking out the songs.

The band's most blatant attempt at a hit single was probably "Temptation Inside Your Heart," though MGM Records decided against releasing the record.

In this version of the song, we hear Reed and the others trying playfully to inject some overt Motown touches into the arrangement, all the way down to a few Martha & the Vandellas-inspired "doo-doo-doo" vocal lines.

After quitting the Velvets in summer 1970, Reed went on to a distinguished solo career. This time he had a new champion: Bowie, who co-produced Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," a single in the spirit of the Velvets, right down to the "doo-doo-doo" vocal response. It was a smash hit in 1973 and led many rock fans to explore Reed's work with the Velvets.

The new boxed set is a good way for a new generation of rock fans to acquaint themselves with this classic group.

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Backtracking is a monthly column devoted to CDs and other pop music items of historical interest.

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