ELECTRICITY COMES FROM OTHER PLANETS

28/10/13

Image: Lou Reed 1969

In 1982 Brian Eno made his celebrated remark about the legacy of the Velvet Underground - that they had inspired everyone who had bought their records to form a band. For my generation, the one that grew up on and grew up with guitars in the second half of the1980s, it felt as if the Velvet Underground were our contemporaries.

When VU appeared in 1985 it was the first new Velvet Underground music to have been heard since Live 1969 over a decade earlier. Within a year Polydor had also released Another VU and the band were the subject of an hour long South Bank Show, one that included those precious few seconds of the band rehearsing in The Factory in their Exploding Plastic Inevitable pomp.

The Velvet Underground was a name that was inescapable during early adolescence. It could be decoded on the back sleeve of Hunky Dory and if you managed to thread the names together, the song writing credits listed for Sister Ray on Still. In 1983 Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga had published their Velvets biography Uptight, but before the arrival of VU it was easier to stand in a bookshop and flick through its monochrome photographs of the band than it was to hear their music, especially the four original studio albums which were often only available as expensive imports. There were other releases available. The truly committed fan could hear fifth generation recordings of the unreleased Cycle Annie and Loop on the Etc and And So On bootlegs, whereas the merely curious had to settle for the cheaply pressed Andy Warhol's Velvet Underground Featuring Nico compilation with its Pop Art-on-a-budget sleeve.

Once VU precipitated a renewed interest in the band the Velvet Underground became newly relevant, to the point of becoming a generational obsession. The band held an aura that was inviolable; they were not so much an influence as an article of faith. A cursory listen to any record made by a guitar band on an independent label in the last thirty years demonstrates how much their presence is felt across the history of contemporary music.

Lou Reed famously said he wrote songs ‘so people wouldn’t be alone’. Listening through to his records it became clear that he understood people with a tenderness that was at odds with the persona he often set against the media. These people include the cross dressers of the Factory, the woman who had her children taken away in Berlin, Stephanie and Caroline, Waltzing Matilda and everyone who takes part in The Halloween Parade. They are strong characters living difficult lives and many of them have problems. Reed understood them well enough not to pass judgement and by introducing them into our lives we certainly felt less alone. Most listeners would hope Reed’s empathy touched the lives of those who inhabit his songs as well.

As well as being capable of a deep compassion for those inhabiting the margins of society Reed, perhaps more than anyone, understood that at its best rock and roll contains an undeniable spiritual truth.

Some people’s lives - often the best people’s lives, certainly the most interesting people’s lives - really are saved by rock and roll. Ask anyone who has made it his or her business to be in a band how it feels to be able to sing the fourth line from Sweet Jane:

"Me I’m in a rock and roll band".

Whatever the reply there will almost certainly be a smile on their face.

The original Live 1969 version of Sweet Jane contains six words that are missing from the Loaded version:

"Thinking ways to get back home"

For reasons I don’t quite understand this lyric seems to have an emotional cadence that even in a canon as poignant as the one Lou Reed has bequeathed feels overwhelming.

If your life has been saved by rock and roll, then thinking about ways to get back home is something you’re just going to have to get used to.

"Anyone who's ever had a dream
Anyone who's ever played a part
Anyone who's going to live lonely
Anyone who's ever stood apart"

And then at the end of the Live 1969 version of Sweet Jane you can hear Lou Reed’s voice speaking softly as he says:

"Good Night".


— Richard King

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