The Velvet Underground can be seen as having had a number of different phases. The different incarnations of the band can be quite clearly heard in the progression of their albums. The earliest incarnation of the band was formed by Welsh multi-instrumentalist prodigy John Cale and aspiring singer and songwriter Lou Reed.
This incarnation would be taken under the wing of famous pop artist Andy Warhol, who became the manager and made many of the early creative decisions for the band. All the while, he would promote the group, making them the focal point of his art troupe named ‘The Factory’. It wasn’t long until they released their landmark debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, a record that to this day has had a dominant impact on the musical landscape, but at the time, wasn’t particularly well-received in the mainstream.
The group unshackled themselves from the creative dominion of Warhol and dropped Nico as a secondary singer (as Reed and Cale had wished to be the main vocalists) for their second album White Light/White Heat. This second album was a further step into obscure avant-garde depravity with the thematic continuation of lyrics portraying salacious acts and drug abuse, most clearly recognised in the seventeen-minute epic, ‘Sister Ray’.
By 1968 John Cale had left The Velvet Underground due to ongoing creative disputes with the rest of the band, pointing a finger at Reed especially. With his departure, the band’s sound lost a hefty portion of its avant-garde individuality, at least to the extent that lengthy experimental jams like ‘Sister Ray’ or spoken-word poem readings to a background wall of sound like in ‘The Gift’, were no longer a staple of the material. For this third incarnation of the band, Lou Reed took the creative reins and pushed toward a more commercially accessible tone while still retaining that darker trademark anti-hippie atmosphere.
For the below, fittingly muffled, recording of the group during their third incarnation, a member of the audience brought in their own recording equipment. Over two separate gigs at The Boston Tea Party, Boston, MA – firstly on December 12th, 1968 and then on March 15th, 1969 – a fan stood directly in front of Reed’s guitar amplifier and recorded for the entire sets. The resultant sound is an intimate exposure of Reed’s lead and rhythm guitar talent. The audio is muffled and the rest of the band are only just audible, but Reed’s classic choppy and distorted style makes the group recognisable a mile off.
Personal highlights from the set are ‘Beginning To See The Light’ and ‘What Goes On’, both fruits from the band’s self-titled third studio release often referred to as the Grey Album. The tracks display the pacey extended rhythm guitar sections synonymous with the Velvets that teem with tacit industrial aggression. The set also ends on a high with the impressive dual-guitar display on ‘Foggy Notion’ where Reed and Sterling Morrison’s guitars meet in an orgy of interwound rhythm and lead patterns – oh to have been one of those young attendees giving their eardrums a good kicking!
The almighty, monolithic wall of sound still reveals all the intricate details within the instrumentals from a mixture of feedback, string buzz, finger slides, and the raw humming of tube amps. These are aspects that are so intrinsically linked with the band who famously looked to present an avant-garde alt-rock sound unlike any contemporary pop acts of the day.
The complexities of the guitar tracks are a testament to the raw talent of the band as a whole and highlight the importance of Reed as the most prominent member of the band following Cale’s departure, not just as a creative lead, but as a skilled musician too.