Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reed and Cale, 1970-71--Scoping out the youth scene.

 "What's this, The Bee Gees? The Band?"
No, it's John Cale from his solo debut.

"What's this, Steely Dan? The Dead?"
No, it's Lou Reed from his solo debut.

At the time of releasing their debut solo albums, neither Lou Reed or John Cale were the cult figures they would become. They, in fact, were largely unknown by the record buying public, and thus, didn't take too many artistic chances on these albums--they were only trying to fit into the current rock music fabric.

Back to two of my favorite themes: Alternate History and Level Playing Fields.
These are the two manipulative (THOUGH FACT-BASED) devices I like to employ not only to keep things interesting (for me at least), but also confuse the reader into seeing my way.
These are the things I use to convince you that Mike Nesmith and Jerry Garcia traveled parallel roads, but just never met up. Or that The Velvet Underground were as much of a jam band as the Grateful Dead were a noise band. Again, I produce all the facts. I'm not saying "Donnie Osmond was a junkie".
I'm not lying to you, or deceiving you. I'm just trying to reprogram the conventional wisdom that was set in stone by "the winners (or Wenners) in the world".

Here are some fuel for what keeps me going: 
--While Jann Wenner is single handedly keeping The Monkees out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (though, really, who gives a fuck about that sham of a museum?), his one time cohort, Ben Fong Torres gave Michael Nesmith's work plenty of positive praise.
--While many a Lester Bangs fan may be able to quote some anti-Dead rant, they know not of his having written the words "In spite of everything, and I can hardly believe it myself, I am a Grateful Dead fan" (his review of Grateful Dead aka Skullfuck aka Skull and Roses. 1971)
--Because SPIN Magazine's Record Guide gives XTC's catalog pretty much a raw deal beginning to end, there is a sizable percentage of young music fans out there that will never give them a chance--or if they do hear them, they'll have a shitty pre-conceived notion. Whereas they'll pretend to love The Fall, even if they secretly can't stand them, and will never admit this until they're laying naked with a lover at 4:30 am after also admitting that they are frightened of H&M dressing rooms.

So....level playing field, alternate reality....imagine that David Bowie quit show business after the limp success of his "heavy hippie" album, The Man Who Sold The World. And that was that. He'd be remembered for some campy singles ("The Laughing Gnome" etc) and two innovative (and totally awesome), psychedelic rock records which were largely unheard outside Europe.

No re-inventing Lou Reed. No record-buying public rediscovering The Velvet Underground. No Glam Rock Revolution. No Stooges after two albums. No Eno, Roxy Music, T Rex (in his post hippie guise), no disaffected youth forming their own bands in the 70's (Joy Division, The Fall, etc) or 80's alternative bands owing everything to the Velvets (Jesus and Mary Chain, Dream Syndicate, Feelies, Yo La Tengo, Galaxie 500).Sure, there were the underground journalists praising White Light White Heat, and FM DJs occasionally giving "Sweet Jane" a spin, but no monster cult was being built.

Huge, right? I really don't want to know a world like that. At all. I don't want Glenn Frey, Jackson Browne and Stephen Stills to be calling the shots in the 70's. That's gross and makes me feel suicidal.

Sure, I like The Grateful Dead, BUT because I like what they bring to the party. I like hummus AND peanut butter. I like IPA AND Stout. I like shaving and not shaving. Point being, I like hearing "I'm Set Free" next to "Wharf Rat" and don't want to live in a world where one doesn't exist or where one isn't allowed to be heard. I want both.

And for the record, I don't really like the Allman Brothers all that much except for "Sweet Melissa" and "Blue Sky" and maybe one or two more. Difference between The Dead and the Allmans--the Dead never posed naked together. And oh yeah--the Dead (or Garcia and Hunter) wrote 50 great songs that are just fine without any jamming or solos. And enjoyed noise-- and I like the juxtaposition of music and noise.

Anyway...put yourself in mid 1972. Music is changing, but where's it going?  You're 21. Maybe you should stop caring.  Maybe you love CCR and The Stones.
Maybe you used to like The Doors but Morrison's death confirmed that he was just a scary dude. Maybe you love McCartney's solo albums but can't get into Lennon's (though you don't say this in certain company). Of course you love George's stuff.
Maybe you've learned that James Taylor and Joni Mitchell will get you laid even though you'd rather hear Randy Newman--who will NOT get you laid.
Maybe you've had psychedelic revelations while listening to Marvin Gaye and Traffic back to back for 18 hours and bought a dashiki you've never worn.
Maybe Bob Dylan is totally off your radar after his last couple albums.
Maybe you liked a couple Monkees singles when you were 14 but have no idea that the guitar player has released 5 great solo albums while you weren't looking.
Maybe you have a housemate that listens to Pink Floyd all the time and you just can't understand why--but envy the caliber of female action he seems to get as he cranks up 23 minutes of "Echoes" and that's the last you see of him or his date until the following afternoon.

But here's a safe bet: unless you are a rock journalist or FM DJ, you (or your housemate) most likely do not own either of these albums:

It's 2011. Have you heard these albums?
They are, respectively, the solo debuts of Velvet Underground founding members, John Cale and Lou Reed. John Cale's debut is entitled Vintage Violence and was released in the spring of 1970. Lou Reed's debut is self-titled and was released two years later.

There's a good chance you haven't heard these albums, and also a good chance (let me know when I'm being more condescending than informative) that perhaps you thought Paris 1919 (1973) was Cale's solo debut and Transformer (late 1972) was Reed's. Those albums were when they hit their stride, yes, musically, in style, and found their place in the fabric of the times--i.e. as outsiders from artsy backgrounds who, thanks to Bowie and Lenny Kaye and Lester Bangs, were now being seen as guiding lights--when just a year before, they were looking for such a light.

How funny (he says, slipping into an orange robe) that so often, the guiding light for which we search in life is within us.

Ponder that with me for a second....(Buddhist bell rings). *

* I truly believe this.

Ok. Back to these albums.

These two albums require nothing but a love for rock and roll. Sort of like Nesmith, with his cursed stigma (teen-idol? no way!) Lou and John entered their solo careers kind of like the new guy on the block who was reluctantly handed an invitation to a party, even though there's something a little weird about him, and shows up. It's a bit weird that he brought a weird (for these parts) brand of beer and that he drops literary references instead of TV show references. Oh, and that no one could be sure if he actually took a hit off that joint going around.
But later in the night, he's encouraged to play some songs on the guitar and, well, they rock! In a weird way. Kind of uptight and nerdy, but trying to fit in.Or, hey, wait a second. Maybe he's making fun of us! Maybe we should kick his ass! Do you even LIKE Ten Years After!? Thought not, pansy!

This is the vibe one gets from these albums.  Conventional stuff from unconventional guys. Just getting their foot in the door, proving to the hippie-crazed industry that they too have something to offer and to forget about White Light, White Heat--that was then, this is THE SEVENTIES!

John Cale's Vintage Violence:

What can I say? Most people will like this album. There's nothing weird about it. Some strange lyrics, but whatever. There's no test. So if you don't understand some literary reference, bug fucking deal. It's a rock record. Cale says in his excellent memoir that he was just learning to write pop songs. Prior, he really preferred bringing his rich classical and avant garde knowledge to the pop format, but here he was rocking out with his Welsh accent. 

Best bits:
"Cleo"--amazing pop that sounds like it's from some bizarre 1962 B-movie.
"Big White Cloud" and "Charlemagne" are ripped straight from Bee Gees playbook  ("When the Swallow Flies", "Trafalgar" and "First of May" come to mind). Cale admits as much in his book. No shame at all in that.
"Bring It On Up" is a revelation. Why? Because it sounds like Exile-era Stones, two years before Exile. It even sounds like Jagger singing back up.
"Please" and "Ghost Story" are very pretty midtempo ballads that, to me, reflect the opiate haze that Cale was still in at the time of writing and recording this album.

Not Best Bits:
"Fairweather Friend"--this was the single, and I guess I can see why. But it sounds forced and sort of makes me angry when I hear it. It's kind of annoying.
"Adelaide"--a blues harp opening. Enough said.

Now, Lou Reed's solo debut. Not many folks know this record.
Short time table:
1970--Mo Tucker leaves the Velvet Underground to have a baby. They get teenager Billy Yule, a Mitch Mitchell-wannabe, and brother of bassist Doug Yule (who was Cale's replacement in 1968). The band get a deal with Atlantic Records, and record Loaded, which is by far, their most accessable album.
Why? More conventional rhythm section and better engineering. Pure and simple. Don't argue. All the VU albums (save White Light White Heat, which is just a beautiful monolith) had pop songs all over them. But Mo Tucker played simple, sparse patterns with no sign of syncopation.
Now, this 16 year old Billy Yule wasn't gonna play like a chick. He was gonna boogie like all his fave rock drummers.
Boom, for the first time in VU history, you got DRUM FILLS! and FUNKY BEATS! and already, Lou was forever a funky rhythm guitar player. And Sterling Morrison was getting more and more noodle-y in his soloing. So, Loaded. Pop album. Very 1970.
Lou left during mixing. Lou also had Doug Yule sing a few songs to make them more pop-friendly.
It did OK, but they weren't a band by the time of release.

1970-71--Lou goes back to mom and dad, and takes a job as a typist at his father's accounting firm. Or so the story goes. He possibly cleaned up a bit, got healthy for a bit, and wondered what was next.

1971--makes some demos (check this out!) at journalists Richard and Lisa Robinson's apartment.

Gets signed to RCA, who feel that the perfect band to back Lou Reed on his solo debut is.....wait for it.....
(like, um, serious W-T-effing-F here, right? Like, am I alone here, people?)
I'll say it again. The band YES. Actually, just Wakeman and Howe.  Because these British art rockers were REALLY in tune with the NYC downtown art/drug/party scene. Oh, and the drummer, Clem Cattini, was easily 10-15 years older than everyone else, and his idea of "hip rock drumming" was to play GODDAMN FILLS THAT GO ON FOR 4 FULL MEASURES, MAKING SURE TO HIT EVERY SINGLE ONE OF HIS TOMS. Well, in 1971, that kind of WAS hip rock drumming....

(for the record, Lou didn't say no. Nor did he say no to having Steve Winwood and Jack Bruce on his 1973 album Berlin).

Thus, what we get on Lou Reed's debut solo album is what this weird British band considered "downtown NYC music", coupled with Lou not being very articulate and probably a bit freaked out. Plus, it's produced by Richard Robinson...WHO WAS NOT A RECORD PRODUCER. HE WAS A ROCK JOURNALIST.

What does it sound like?

Do you like the Velvet Underground? Do you like the songs "I Can't Stand It", "Ocean" and "Lisa Says", as heard on the 1985 release VU? Those are all perfect recordings of a perfect band, right ? Yes, in fact they are. They are perfect. They never saw the light of day in the 60's. Crime.

On Lou Reed's solo debut, they are not perfect. They are filled with funky beats, flamboyant fills, fancy fretwork and Lou shouting a lot. Not great. And I just can't hear them as if I'd never known the VU versions. Because those VU versions just entered my DNA and there they will stay.

What Is Good On Lou Reed's solo debut:

"I Love You"--pretty. sounds like a Moby Grape song or something.
"Love Makes You Feel"--I love this song. It's unlike anything Lou did before or since. Except the rhythm guitar break has a "What Goes On" thing. NOTE: on the acoustic demos, he does do "What Goes On" at the request of the Robinsons, so maybe they had suggested he write a newish song along those lines? This is only a guess...
"Wild Child"--it's a fun song, and has all the Lou Reed hallmarks...but really...The Doors already had a tune called "Wild Child" and it was a cliche already. I would not have said this to Lou, because he hated Jim Morrison with a passion. NOTE: Jerry Garcia hated Jim Morrison with a passion too.
"Ride Into The Sun"--beautiful. It's got this whole bridge bit that sounds maybe like the Yes dudes came up with it, but I don't know.
"Going Down"--also lovely. total drug/depression song. 
"Berlin"--yeah, he recorded this before there was an album called Berlin. Same tune, but, in my opinion, I like this version better, if you ask me, as far as I'm concerned, as one man's opinion.

So there's you go.

You could make one great Album out of these two albums combined. Wanna do that? Ok, let's do it: This will be a nice lead in to perhaps my next entry. We'll see. Enjoy this thing, though. Again, I won't post anything illegally.



Hello, There    2:48    John Cale    Vintage Violence
Ride Into The Sun    3:17    Lou Reed    Lou Reed
Big White Cloud    3:33    John Cale    Vintage Violence
Love Makes You Feel    3:14    Lou Reed    Lou Reed
Ghost Story    3:48    John Cale    Vintage Violence
Lisa Says    5:35    Lou Reed    Lou Reed
Bring It On Up    2:26    John Cale    Vintage Violence
Wild Child    4:42    Lou Reed    Lou Reed
Cleo    2:36    John Cale    Vintage Violence
Going Down    2:58    Lou Reed    Lou Reed
Please    4:20    John Cale    Vintage Violence
Berlin    5:17    Lou Reed    Lou Reed
Charlemagne    5:03    John Cale    Vintage Violence
I Love You    2:21    Lou Reed    Lou Reed

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