‘The Velvet Underground’ 50 years later

By Peter Zemeske

The Velvet Underground promised an alternative take on music in the 1960s. Their third album, “The Velvet Underground,” turns 50 years old March 1. With such a landmark anniversary, a look back on a classic is a worthwhile trip.

The Velvet Underground were a definite product of the 1960s with their lyrics detailing taboo subjects like BDSM, prostitution and drug use and the group wasn’t shy about it either. A song off of their debut album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” is aptly named “Heroin.” Their sound sat somewhere between a mix of The Byrds’ jangly guitar-heavy psychedelia and The Rolling Stones’ rock sensibilities but The Velvet Underground had their own unique flavor.

Their third and self-titled album contains some of the band’s most rock-driven songs of their discography. “What Goes On” is a fine example with it’s fast tempoed guitar strumming, rock organ and guitar solos. The album was the first to be recorded without founding member and bassist John Cale who was kicked out of the band due to clashing views with frontman Lou Reed. Reed wanted to appeal to a wider, more mainstream audience while Cale wanted to keep the band’s sound experimental. Cale was replaced by multi instrumentalist Doug Yule.

Upbeat rock isn’t “The Velvet Underground’s” only strong suit; songs like “Candy Says” and “Pale Blue Eyes” showcase the album’s quieter and serene tones. A three-part trio of songs, “Jesus,” “Beginning to See the Light” and “I’m Set Free” details the narrator needing guidance and eventually finding peace within himself. “Jesus” has some irony in that Reed, the band’s chief songwriter was Jewish, not Christian.

The biggest experiment on the record is “The Murder Mystery.” The almost nine minute track features two different spoken word pieces being read simultaneously in the left and right stereo channels, resulting in neither poem able to be heard clearly. The premise is admittedly better on paper, but not all trials can be successful.

The Velvet Underground’s third musical entry into the world is a welcome addition to the band’s canon. The subdued sound following “White Light/White Heat” was a pleasant shift in approach. Songs like “What Goes On” and “Pale Blue Eyes” are considered to be some of the group’s best tracks. While most people will cite The Velvet Underground’s debut as their magnum opus, “The Velvet Underground” shouldn’t be overlooked.