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The myth that The Velvet Underground sold only a few thousand copies of their first record and that every one who bought it formed a band is handy only in that it makes a solid opener for everyone who will ever write about the Velvet Underground. The truth is that the first VU album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, sold about 58,000 copies in the first two years and most bands that were influenced by The Velvet Underground were, are, and always will be terrible. But pernicious influence aside, the four Velvet Underground albums are as about sublime and damn near perfect as pop music gets (and I say “perfect” allowing for the band’s idiosyncrasies, the warts that help make them compelling. Perfect-perfect is no fun at all). 1969 was the year that The Velvet Underground, while not losing site of the death worry/worship and downtown jive that made them so singular, embraced Pop with a capital “P” and Rock with a capital “R” (and god…with a lower case “g”), for their self-titled third album.
On the 45th anniversary of its release, The Velvet Underground (known among fans as “The Grey Album”) is being released as a massive, six-disc deluxe edition, with smaller editions being released for us commoners. Included is unreleased live material (that is honestly stunning) from the band’s November 1969 stint at The Matrix in San Francisco, alternate mixes of the entire album, and the entire “lost” (or, if you go by Doug Yule’s version, “demo”) Velvet Underground record that preceded the MGM album being feted. It’s a sprawling historical document, kept from being a time capsule by the staying power of the songs and performances themselves. Like the Brill Building pop that informed them, the songs sound effortless and timeless.
Doug Yule befriended the band in 1967, through the then-manager of his Boston band, Glass Managerie, who was becoming VU’s road manager. When the band forced John Cale out, they brought on Yule, put him on bass, and tasked him with midwifing Lou Reed’s vision of Velvet Underground as a Proper Rock and a Roll Outfit. It’s another myth that the band wasn’t received well by critics until the third album but Yule definitely helped forge a warmer, more accessible sound. He sang on classics like “Candy Says” and “Who Loves the Sun” and generally added swing and an element of, for lack of better word, winsomeness that had been previously been absent. After Reed’s departure, Yule would bring in his brother, Billy, and continue The Velvet Underground for the much reviled fifth album, Squeeze, which is generally regarded as bad and, with both Reed and Cale absenst, borderline non-canonical. For his part, Yule is fairly philosophical about the record, saying, “I look at Squeeze as being, it’s like the equivalent of a tenth grade term paper, it’s a piece of work that I did, it’s not my best work, but it shows a lot of where I was going.” (For the record: I haven’t heard it. Life is too short for every damned thing and I don’t trust my own contrarian nature to not convince myself that it’s wonderful. By all accounts, it is not wonderful.)
On the occasion of the rerelease of his first album with the band, the Velvet Underground, Yule was good enough to take time from his current passion for bluegrass and building/restoring violins to talk to Noisey, as well as share some rare photos from the Velvet Underground sessions he took. Yule clearly doesn’t love interviews but he was kind and interesting, and for that I’m grateful.
Exclusive: "Foggy Notion (Alternate Version)"
Noisey: With these anniversary things, what is your actual part in it? Are you actively curating these or does Universal put these together?
Doug Yule: Mostly they have been putting them together—for example, on this one they had a number of tracks where they couldn’t identify who was playing what and where they were standing and stuff like that. So they sent me a bunch of tracks to listen to for that and they asked questions about the sessions. It’s by the people at Universal, and some other people that are friends of the people at Universal. I basically hear it when it’s put together.
What is your relationship with the stuff that’s on there now? I know from previous interviews you have a sort of ambivalent relationship with rock n’ roll.
Maybe I read into it wrong. I am only going by old interviews. What’s your relationship to the lost album now? Is it something you wish had been released?
What lost album do you mean?
Well, the one that is referred to as that. I know you refer to it as just demos. Is that the last word now?
That was the intent going on at the time. You’re talking about the stuff that was recorded at MGM?
That was basically pre-production stuff. It was done to studio quality but not with that intent. It was all done in the daytime.
Which to me is, like, when you’re working on an album in the studio—you know it gets dark at like 5PM. This was all done at ten in the morning.
It gives it a little bit of a different body-feel.
That certainly explains a bit of it. Looking at it that way, how do you feel about it being released officially? Do you like it?
It’s um, there’s such a little bit of material on the Velvets that any material that comes out, people are interested in and want to hear it. You know, to hear the variation. You know you look at the Grateful Dead, and everything the Dead ever did is online—and it’s a huge body of work. They recorded every show and documented everything, but the Velvets were virtually undocumented. There’s virtually no film except for what Warhol took. No video, except for a couple of appearances. Any kind of variation—you know, if you can get five mixes of a song—people really like that. So in that aspect, yeah. It’s nice.
I’m not trying to diminish it by asking if you look at it as purely historical. For good or for bad, the Velvet Underground are the kind of band that people tend to over-intellectualize.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah.
I don’t know if you’d agree—there’s people assign your era of the band as the sort of warmer, more rock n’ roll part.
Photos courtesy of Sal Mercuri Collection
In other interviews you say, rock n’ roll was ultimately always for the money. Is there a strangeness now? Is there an emotional attachment to the music in any way or is it more like, “This is something I was part of, and that’s nice that people like it.”
Well, you’re a writer?
And you probably have been writing for a long time.
And every now and then you’ll go back and read stuff you wrote a long time ago?
You feel an attachment to it, it’s something you did. Some of the things you were thinking at the time sort of go through your mind. Everything I did in music or in my life—I have an attachment to it, I have a link to it, and the Velvets and the Velvets’ stuff was really… fun. It was very spontaneous and very creative in many ways, whereas some of the more musical stuff I’ve done has been much more studied and kind of over-thought. So, when I hear some of the mixes they sent of some of the major shows, it was really fascinating to listen to because it’s the first time I’ve heard that stuff. I imagine people who listen to it have a similar, but of course different, connection to it as well. Maybe if they were born then, they were doing something, and they remember where they were when they first heard that song.
It’s not that I discount rock n’ roll. I made some comments about commercial vs. non-commercial music. A lot of the music I play now is like, backporch, southern music that is sort of evolved purely for entertainment purposes for dancing and listening. It’s not a commercially driven music. My biggest problem with rock n’ roll and pop music is that it’s hugely driven by business people who I don’t see eye to eye with. I see a constant conflict between artists and record business people.
Lou Reed by Doug Yule
Since you’re so invested in bluegrass, do you see any lineage—I know this album wasn’t overtly religious or practicing Christianity—but was this the first Velvet Underground record that explored the gospel tradition?
Yeah, there is some of that in that album. When that happened it was a surprise to me. And I think to other people too. But that’s kind of the way (Lou Reed) works—he’d explore lots of different things. I’m sure at times he just wanted some kind of deliverance. And Jesus is the man that comes to mind in much of the western world.
He’s first on the list. I was thinking of the influence of the band. I thought it was really interesting, you talking about Mickey Baker was also a huge influence on the clean guitar style. It hadn’t occurred to me, but actually re-listening to everything, there’s actually a lot of Carole King…
Well, I don’t know how much but I read in a lot of the liner notes there’s talking about how you guys and Lou Reed were listening to a lot of Brill Building stuff.
Yeah, Lou worked in the Brill Building. Those of use who grew up as rock n’ roll started and gained popularity and notoriety, it was just a force in day-to-day life. Till this day, there’s a huge body of songs that I could not only sing for you but I could sing all the lyrics at a moment’s notice. It’s just implanted. I know it was the same way for Lou, we listened to a lot of the same stuff.
When I listen to some of the stuff on the third album, it just sounds like the 1959—1961. I hear those chops being played.
I think that’s interesting because it’s almost sort of cliché the whole, “Oh that’s when they became more mainstream,” but you don’t sound like anything of the time. There’s nothing in 1969 that you guys particularly sounded like. It sounds more within the tradition of late 50s early 60s.
Yeah, definitely. Honest, it’s great that it’s right there. It’s a straight cop on it. A straight cop on a 1959 street-corner torch song.
What’s interesting about the live stuff is that it’s pulling a lot of that stuff out. Are you saying you heard the live stuff before, or haven’t heard it in a long time?
Nobody could get to them! The only times I heard them—I think we heard them the time we got to listen to some of the stuff. Late at night.
Starling Morrison by Doug Yule
There are so many bad recording versions of some of these.
Yeah [laughs] Yeah, the quality has really come along. Yeah. You heard the Max’s Kansas City album—that was recorded on a Sony briefcase cassette machine—and it sounds like it.
The 1969 session version of “Rock & Roll,” which I really love the ending of, is lower and jammier in a lot of way than the final (Loaded) version which is more of a barn-burner. What was the process of tightening something like that?
Well when it started out it was a real soft—it was like a “Ride Into the Sun” clone in terms of tempo and feel. A “Stephanie Says” sort of tune. Really sweet and mellow but then eventually hardened up a little until the Loaded sessions when it was just like “Bam!” Lou over a practice amp and that was our sound! A lot of the stuff started almost folk-y and got rocked up.
Was that a band dynamic/natural shift or was it you or Lou Reed thinking, “You know what, this isn’t quite doing it, let’s bang this out more?”
When we went to do Loaded the push was for FM hits and FM jingles which was hot in those days. There was a lot of time spent “pep-talking” Lou about hits and singles and like, three-minute songs, stuff like that. So when we went into to do Loaded there was this pressure on Lou and he started cranking up the heat on the tunes. Stuff like “Head Held High” was specifically designed, edited, and produced to be a three-minute single. It started out much more down-tempo and mellow.
The process happened mostly because we were playing it live, and when you play live, you wanna groove. We wanted a deep groove and Maureen was really good at that. Almost any song, you start playing it live a couple of times and it develops a little more substance. Less folk-y and more rock-y.
This does bring to mind, and I don’t know how awkward of question this is gonna be, but just talking about the push to make things more commercial from the third to the forth album… I don’t know how the residuals work with you—has stuff like internet and piracy affected what you see of your share from the Velvets?
Well, I have nothing to compare it to. We have a guy that oversees the catalog—I see the reports and what they show and I don’t know.
So you didn’t see a visible drop when everyone started filesharing?
No, actually it’s been—we don’t make a lot of money off this. We make a bit, but it’s more according to what’s going on for somebody—if there’s an album released you’ll see an upturn in six months to a year later. If there’s songs in a movie, you’ll see an upturn six months to a year later. Stuff like that. The royalties have been remarkably even for many, many years—where they should have been fading away.
Well you guys are still gaining new fans, and some that are still interested in purchasing music with actual American dollars.
Yeah, there is that. For every album that is released there’s gonna be, I would say that a hundred people will buy whatever we put out. It’s probably a few more than that, but you know what, the hardcore, the people who collect, they’ll buy at least one of everything. I imagine you can buy this on iTunes too?
Maureen Tucker by Doug Yule
I would imagine so.
I know Comcast has been really ugly about people who used torrents. I know my son downloaded something and they contacted us and said, “Someone did something they shouldn’t have at your address, and if they don’t stop, we’ll cut you off,” so they’re pretty aggressive about chasing people down. And the people that are somewhat law-abiding will respect that and then you get the people who don’t care. They’re gonna get what they want either way. I don’t see it as that much of a problem. The people who were really hit were people with big—the mainstream popular megahits.
Yeah. This is a trivial question, but it was on my mind. On the liner notes, there are the pictures of the ticket stubs and posters to the shows and I was struck by… I had no idea who any of these bands you were playing with were except for MC5. And it’s weird, you had that reputation of being separate, but were you playing with anyone you liked?
Err—not really. I mean, some of the bands we played with…
It was just a lot of weird jamboree bands…
Some of them were. Some of them were on the rise, and never went anywhere. Anything from a local garage band to the Grateful Dead and everything in between. It depended on who was booking and who they could get.
Was there any—this is a chance to re-ignite someone’s career—was there any small band you were playing with that you liked playing with?
Yeah, but I don’t remember who it was… [Laughs]
Well, I would listen to the other band because I liked to hear what’s going on and occasionally you’d run across people that were really good, but they never got anywhere. It’s a crapshoot, it really is.
The Gray Album Boxed Set
I don’t have much else to ask you. I guess is there anything you’d like to have covered about this?
[Pauses] No. I have no agenda. It was a good album. It’s the one that sounds most like the band.
What do you mean by that?
Listen to the Matrix hits and listen to the third album and they sound like the same band, because they are except one’s a live recording and one’s a studio. The Grey Album is essentially a live studio album because we did all the tracks together and then overdubbed the voices. So it just feels to me the most natural, the most normal.
I don’t mean this in a denigrating way at all, it just seems like you put a lot more value in the warmth and the groove of the music as opposed to this mentality of, “The Velvet Underground, they’re a very dark, artsy band.”
Well the first two albums—when I listen to any of that stuff I can hear the same roots in Lou, but I hear a lot of New York dark angst at the same time. The lyrics are more shocking. When you’re trying to get some attention, shock-value does go a long way. It’s understandable.
I find a certain amount of sweetness on those. But maybe that’s because of lifestyle decisions I made in my own life. With you singing “Candy Says” which is probably the most lyrically-themed of the first two records—I read in the liner notes that he would give you good-natured grief for not really “getting it.”
Yeah, wasn’t always good natured. [Laughs]
It sounds like you were never interested in the New York Downtown cat life anyway.
Well, I remember the first time I saw Divine at Max’s. She was awesome character, just this really… I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Divine…
Never in person, but when my sister and I were 13 and ten, my dad thought it was a good idea for us to see Female Trouble.
[Laughs] It was just—I didn’t have any experience with that.
Well, you still seemed pretty game. I don’t know how conservative your Long Island background was, but you didn’t balk at singing the song.
I was thinking in terms of people. To me it’s just a song of a young woman facing some difficult issues. Which in fact, it is.
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