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The Velvet Underground album that Todd Haynes' documentary ignored


Todd Haynes’ new documentary about legendary subversive rock band The Velvet Underground structures a very specific narrative around the group. Namely, that the dynamic between singer-songwriter Lou Reed and violist-bassist John Cale was responsible for the unique qualities that made The Velvets one of the most influential and belatedly celebrated bands of all time.

Most of the film’s first third occurs outside of the actual purview of The Velvet Underground, instead opting to follow Reed and Cale through their respective youths and how they separately dealt with their misfit personalities, made it to New York, and eventually became a part of the nascent avant-garde scene of the 1960s. It’s only after we get to know Reed and Cale in great detail that the other elements of the band are introduced. 

However, that’s not to say Haynes purposefully lessens the impact of any of the other contributors. Even though their backgrounds are mostly kept on the periphery, portions of the film are dedicated to Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, Andy Warhol, Nico, and Doug Yule. But the film is hardly a thorough historical examination: original drummer Angus MacLise goes unmentioned, and the same goes for later members Walter Powers and Willie Alexander. Perhaps most egregiously, the film abruptly cuts off once Reed quits the band in 1970 after a disastrous run of shows at Max’s Kansas City.

Reed’s departure didn’t end the group, however. Yule, Morrison, and Tucker soldiered on for a few more shows, with Powers taking over bass and Yule becoming the band’s new frontman. Morrison left in 1971, with Tucker departing in 1972. But even that wasn’t the end, as Yule was dispatched to the UK by manager Steve Sesnick, complete with an entirely new band of musicians, to perform as The Velvet Underground. Sesnick basically stranded them there, and Yule was informed that he had to record an album to satisfy a contract made with Polydor Records.

Over the course of a few weeks, Yule and Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice recorded an ad-hoc album that was eventually released as Squeeze. Upon release, it was immediately dismissed and vilified by the rock music writers who had previously championed the original Velvet Underground. Rolling Stone writer David Fricke called it “an embarrassment to the VU discography”, while Allmusic’s Steven Erlewine said the album “doesn’t just ride the coattails of VU’s legacy but deliberately co-opts their achievement”. When the band’s back catalogue was collected as part of the box set Peel Slowly and SeeSqueeze was deliberately excluded.

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It’s not as though Yule’s presence was a detriment to the band – he had sung on a number of Velvet Underground tracks on theier final two albums with Reed, The Velvet Underground and Loaded. Songs like ‘Candy Says’, ‘Who Loves the Sun’, and ‘Oh! Sweet Nothin’ are classics within the VU canon, with Yule stepping up to give a truly transcendent performance on the latter. Critics seemed to heighten in on the absence of the rest of the group, but Reed specifically, as a treasonous degradation of everything that the Velvets had built. Yule was forced into the situation and would have to take the onslaught of abuse that came to define Squeeze.

Here’s the truth, though: Squeeze isn’t all that different from Loaded. Reed was already pushing the band in a less-experimental direction, and by Loaded, the band were making full-on pop rock. Sonically and lyrically, Squeeze plays more like a Loaded Pt. II than as an ugly stepchild with no resemblance to the band name that adorns its cover. Despite all the amputations, it still sounds like The Velvet Underground, and listening to the album isn’t the painful excursion that it’s made out to be. In fact, when viewed as Yule’s Last Stand, it’s quite admirable and even quite good.

Tracks like ‘Little Jack’, ‘Caroline’, and ‘Jack & Jane’ could have been late period Velvet classics if the band had managed to stay together. Yule is less successful when he leans into the saloon piano honky-tonk of ‘Crash’, ‘Wordless’, and ‘Send No Letter’, but there’s nothing inherently shameful or humiliating about Squeeze, and the fact that it’s been all-but permanently deleted from The Velvet Underground story is an egregious bit of revisionist history. Squeeze‘s reputation has improved somewhat in recent years, whether due to bemused reassessments or sympathetic responses from the vitriol that followed it for years, but few still regard it as a “proper” Velvet Underground album.

The truth is that the entire arc of The Velvet Underground was haphazard and created on the fly. Nico was added to the band’s lineup to the chagrin of Reed, and Reed’s strong-arming of the band, which included kicking out Cale in favour of more commercial sounds, which still didn’t lead to success. Nothing the band ever did was the “right” thing to do, so what makes the persona non grata status placed on Yule and Squeeze excusable? They’re still a part of the VU story.

If the Velvet Underground were all about being subversive, now that they’ve been polished and accepted into the mainstream, Squeeze remains as the most subversive work associated with the band. Squeeze deserves its place within the band’s history because it works in tandem with, not despite, the established narrative of The Velvet Underground: messy, hopeless, destined to fail, and strangely beautiful all at the same time.

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