It is a physical impossibility to overstate the importance of The Velvet Underground. Having provided the fulcrum upon which the rock world began to shift from pure teenage banality into artful creation and high-minded anger, the ideas they put forth during their short life span irrevocably altered the parameters of rock music’s potential.
But, of course, you knew that. The books have been written, the bands have been influenced, the tributes have been recorded and Andy Warhol’s still dead. However, for all Velvets referencing, for all the lofty literary analysis, for all the remembrances and name-dropping, for all the talk of drug culture, personality conflicts, avant-lowbrow chic, posthumous praise and other unnecessary bullshit, a fundamental element seems to be conspicuously absent from any Velvets-related discussion: The completely unmatched body of work that they produced. Of course, the music is always mentioned, but usually in a fashion that’s either perfunctorily inappropriate (as in “they sound a lot like the Velvet Underground”) or overly baroque (pretty much any discourse that involves either “The Gift” or “European Son”). With the release of Peel Slowly And See (Polydor/Chronicles, 5 CDs), perhaps the most long-overdue box set ever, that musical legacy can now be appraised for what it was: a blisteringly effective display of nihilistic perfection.
There’s a moment in “Heroin,” perhaps the Velvets’ most infamous song, that sums it all up quite nicely. About five minutes in, right after Lou Reed sings that line about being “better off than dead,” John Cale’s viola, which had been droning nicely in the background, begins to acclimate to the progressively accelerating pulse of the song and then proceeds to emit what is perhaps the most unsettling series of sounds ever committed to tape. Immediately before Reed’s voice re-enters, Cale’s viola literally screams with electricity, bathing the song in a crackling sheet of negative energy that instantly defines VU as a band that neither hates you nor loves you — they simply don’t care about you. Hearing that moment in a shambling, inchoate demo version cut in 1965 sans drums reveals that Warhol or no, the Velvet Underground would have been the most important rock band in history anyway.
Of course, although moments such as those were countered with an underlying pop sensibility (“There She Goes Again,” “Candy Says” and “Here Comes the Sun”), an uninterrupted listen to Peel Slowly And See will reveal that they were much more of a compositional element than most people realize. As the assorted outtakes and unreleased material found in this box set make clear, when the Velvets weren’t playing the blues (“Sheltered Life,” an embryonic version of “I’m Waiting For The Man”), they were building up pop songs that would later be dismantled. A demo here reveals that “Here She Comes Now,” for example, began life as a potentially lavish slice of pop ephemera, but when finalized for White Light/White Heat, the sinister, minor-key affectations of Cale’s arrangements become more pronounced, and the song, though still certainly far from “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” becomes one of the darkest love songs ever recorded.
Certainly there are other unreleased gems here. Between demos and live tracks (the legendary 30-minute live-in-Ohio “Melody Laughter” has been pared down to 14 minutes here, but loses none of its sonic grandeur), Peel Slowly And See presents 25 tracks that have never previously seen the light of day, as well as a good half-dozen non-album tracks (for instance, songs that showed up in places like VU, tracks from Nico’s Chelsea Girl) in addition to the chronological presentation of all of The Velvet Underground’s four studio albums. The unreleased material alone makes the set worth the relatively inexpensive price of admission (list price is around fifty bucks, not too bad for five CDs), but the opportunity to hear the music presented in an orderly, informed manner — David Fricke’s liner notes are astoundingly straightforward and enjoyable — is a rare treat indeed.
Few collections — and fewer albums — can be called indispensable. Of these, the Velvet Underground released two, in the form of …and Nico and White Light/White Heat. Now, with the indispensable Peel Slowly and See, the surviving members have given the world one last chance to revel in the band’s dangerous glory.
First appeared in the Nov. 11, 1995 issue of Creative Loafing.