She started dancing to that fine, fine music
So where were we? Ah, yes, the summer of 1983 and Bobby had left The Wake and got together with Beattie. Fuelled by a shared punk disgust, they rejected new pop distractions and rock pretension, and instead set out to discover the source musics.
I would love to be able to say that I was down the local shopping centre, spinning on my head on a roll of lino, as a ghetto blaster shared the latest Streetsounds electro compilation, just as I guess some will state they always understood what was subversive about r'n'b now. Actually, I was also watching the water with Bobby'n'Beattie, checking out Love, Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Dylan, Lovin' Spoonful, Velvets, and whatever else was informing the best current sounds like Hurrah!, Felt, Go-Betweens, Blue Orchids.
Two books were very big for me at the time. One was Richard Barnes' Mods! which had me out there, with French crop and whatever, checking out old soul, reggae, jazz, The Action, The Creation, Kinks, French literature, films, and so on. That's remained with me. And very much part of the same thing was Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga's book, Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story. Strangely though, I had not thought of or listened to the Velvets much for years, until very recently.
The Velvet Underground re-emergence is down to two things. One being the release of the Velvet Underground Bootleg Series, Volume 1: The Quine Tapes. The other being the 23 Skidoo reissues, with the restored Neville Brody artwork, and it was Brody who designed the Up-Tight book. I don't know if it's still around, but it's a stark black and white. Very mod, in fact. That book, taken in conjunction with Warhol's own Pop-ism and Edie by Jean Stein, set many an imagination soaring.
There are so many Velvet Undergrounds, but whew! none of them are mine. There have been so many Velvet Undergrounds that mine packed up and went home for the '90s. My own Velvet Underground could be traced back from the groups I liked in 1983 to the Postcard label and its satellites, The Fall and Subway Sect, Feelies, Voidoids, Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers. It's a Velvet Underground I found that had nothing to do with the druggy decadence and drones of Nick Kent or My Bloody Valentine. It certainly did not help to sell cars.
My Velvet Underground sounded strange. Strangely, I heard most of my Velvet Underground via tenth generation tapes played on cheap cassette recorders, which I in turn invariably crudely copied for others, like Bobby'n'Beattie. That was the way we listened to music in 1983. There were so many people trading copies of crudely copied cassettes. Demos, live sets, radio sessions, were what we wanted, and running the risk of seeing something chewed up was part of the fun.
People like Eddie Wolfram in Manchester and the guy who became Kenny Wisdom in South London provided a great public service, and it meant an awful lot to me to be able to get hold of supplementary recordings by the likes of Subway Sect, Prefects, the Postcard groups, the Postcard groups, Fire Engines and so on. Even now, I have stuff that's not appeared officially. Like the early Jazzateers recordings just before Postcard folded. This was the incarnation of the Jazzateers that envisaged the Velvets performing Jim Webb songs in an after hours Manhattan bar, as part of some strict anti-rock movement. These then were the years before Peel Sessions (Subway Sect, Slits, Prefects etc) were officially released, before the Buzzcocks' Times Up legally came out, and so on.
A hissy, muffled tape could count for a lot, and comparing notes later it is astonishing how cassettes were circulated. A chance conversation with James Dutton, the man behind Motion records, showed a tape of Vic Godard's infamous Northern Soul set at the Music Machine in 1980 which I got off Bobby and passed onto Vic many years later had reached James. A Jonathan Richman tape I got from Kenny Wisdom of the Modern Lovers live in the mid '70s was copied for Stephen Pastel or Aggi and in turn turned Everett True onto Jonathan Richman, and there are loads of stories like that. Even what we thought of as the 1978 Subway Sect demos later re-emerged on the 20 Odd Years compilation as tracks salvaged from the Gooseberry Studios sessions for the abandoned LP.
So, as you may have guessed from these ramblings, much of the time I listened to the Velvets via crude copies of roughly recorded live recordings, demos, out-takes, rarities. And yes, this was before compilations like VU were put together, so the sense of subterfuge was part of the appeal I guess. Ah! Romance. I even had live Velvets tapes from places like La Cave, Gymnasium, Boston Tea Party. I had some more from the Max's tapes where I think Jim Carroll's rambling on about Patton. I had an awesome 1968 live tape where the group just explodes into a savage 'What Goes On'. Somehow I have lost most of these along the way, but the lure of the Velvets' variations captured on a cheap, cumbersome cassette recorder really did appeal. I loved the idea of Brigid Polk capturing the Velvets in so relaxed a mood on her tape recorder, and then this becoming a real record. I loved this idea so much I tried to do the same thing with Hurrah! and the Jasmine Minks, practically bringing Abbey Road to a standstill in the process. They really could not cope with the idea of mastering from a cassette, until an 'old timer' Chris Blair came to the rescue, chuckling away to himself as he rewired the setup and muttered to himself 'this is the future!'
Anyway, via Up-Tight, the unofficial tapes, the third album, the Live 1969 double LP, the Max's LP, and Alan Horne's Postcard Velvets obsession, emerged my very own Velvet Underground. A hippy hating Velvet Underground with big solid semi-acoustic guitars (Gretsch / Epiphones) or a Vox teardrop, like Subway Sect and Fire Engines. A Velvet Underground that was rhythmically propulsive as the best disco or rockabilly, as tight as Fela or the JBs. A Velvet Underground you could dance to. A Velvet Underground you cry along to. A Velvet Underground so into stretching possibilities that many years later when Impulse! re-issued so many jazz CDs of firemusic / free jazz, it would sound like my kind of music. It was not hankering after a black consciousness, it was that the Sister Rays I had heard fitted right alongside Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders, and the spirituals the Aylers whipped up a storm with connected with the squalls the Velvets stirred up. My Velvets was not the torpor induced by the Spacemen 3 or My Bloody Valentine, it was a natural liberating realism that was totally uplifting and invigorating.
I used to have a theory that you could sum up a person by finding out their favourite Velvet Underground character. I was, and remain, very much a Mo Tucker man. There is a full page of Maureen in Up-Tight from 1969, with longer hair, playing the drums standing up with her mallets, which seems incredibly beautiful, and totally inverts the rock'n'roll norm. It sets the tone for that incredible period where you had the Slits, Raincoats, Delta 5, Lilliput, ESG, Bush Tetras, Au Pairs, Ut, Marine Girls.
Despite all this, I really don't think I listened to or thought about the Velvet Underground in the '90s, even though still some of the best pop like Stereolab, Clinic, The Sea and Cake and Broadcast owed much to Lou Reed and the Velvets. I can't really explain that one, but we have different needs at different times.
So, now I have my 3 CD box set of the Quine Tapes, and I love it. It's like rediscovering an old friend. I love the fact it's Robert Quine responsible for this. There is a case to be put forward for groups getting the fans they deserve, and it seems appropriate the Velvets counted among their fiercest aficionados both Jonathan Richman and Robert Quine. I love the idea of them being teenage Velvets obsessives, devotedly following the group and then having such a huge impact on the history of punk rock.
So, with Quine, it's easy to see now where his awesome Voidoids virtuosity came from, having sat Buddhist pupil-like at the feet of the master, and probably then going home to listen to Bitches Brew, no doubt. So, if his scything, scouring sobs on 'Blank Generation' and 'Love Comes In Spurts' were not enough, we must revere Quine for capturing the Velvets at the height of their powers.
The significance of the release of the Quine Tapes more than 30 years on does not seem to have been properly realised or celebrated. For this, after all, is my Velvet Underground, neatly packaged. It doesn't matter how expensive a CD system one has, it's compulsory again to listen to the Velvets in a muffled manner, but the glory shines through. This is my Velvet Underground, with Lou hunched over a big semi-acoustic, Maureen with her long hair and shades, and the group so rhythmically tight and light on its feet. The ballads make you ache inside, and when the group spreads its wings the music sounds so free that a 38 minute 'Sister Ray' passes in a flash. Mo gets to sing both 'After Hours' and 'I'm Sticking With You'. There's a version of 'I Can't Stand It' where the drums sound like cannon shots as the guitars roar as savage as you could dare hope for, and best of all the unknown (to me) songs, 'Follow The Leader' and 'Ride Into The Sun' suggest what Loaded could have been had the balances not been disturbed somewhere in a studio.
So, this is a special release, and I can see me having hours of fun. Yet, I maintain that there is no need for anyone to try and sound like the Velvet Underground in the 21st century.
© Kevin Pearce 2001