I bought The Velvet Underground & Nico album when I was 12 or 13 years old, and I HATED it! I saw them on a TV program about the history of rock ‘n’ roll and thought they looked interesting doing whatever it was they did in that underground catacomb they were performing in. When I actually heard the album, I thought it was the most amateurish, repetitive and uninteresting nonsense I’d ever heard in my life. For the life of me, I could not comprehend why people thought they were so damn great. When it was over, I washed my hands of the whole matter and popped in Aftermath by the Rolling Stones.
Although, a few years later, I came around to it a little more – I like “I’m Waiting for the Man”, “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin” for instance – I have to ask the people who claim to be Velvet Underground fans, if they were to forget everything they’ve ever read about them and listened to Revolver, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Strange Days or Are You Experienced?, would they still be able to speak of the superiority of Velvet Underground & Nico or White Light/White Heat?
All I hear from the Velvet Underground is clanking garage rock, some dissonant noise, a few viola scrapings, some guy talking about drugs, bondage and sucking on a ding dong and, in the case of The Velvet Underground & Nico, some anorexic, Aryan broad moaning on a few songs. Hey, they’re your ears; I’m just wondering if your love for them is sincere or whether you are trying to fit a round peg into a square hole by listening to them over and over again so you can claim that they’re great. According to Lester Bangs, everyone he knew claimed to love them, yet their copies of all four VU albums looked completely pristine, as if they had never been played.
One of the arguments I hear defending the Velvet Underground is that, without them, there would be no punk rock, garage rock or indie rock. First of all, their alleged influence is no reason to actually listen to them, and secondly, it’s such a simplistic argument, that it borders on false. Sure a few musicians listened to the Velvet Underground – such as Dee Dee Ramone, who wrote “Chinese Rock” as a way to outdo Lou Reed’s “Heroin” – but how much did their actual music influence anybody? Most of what became punk rock drew its influence from the Stooges; Ron Asheton’s primitive guitar riffs (and to some extent, his replacement James Williamson), Iggy Pop’s punky snarl and proto-punk anthems such as “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “No Fun.” And their influences appear to be the 1964, three chord garage hit “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen, along with bands such as the Seeds, the Sonics and the Count Five. Johnny Ramone blatantly said that he lifted his entire rapid-fire, down strum approach from “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin.
On top of that, the Velvets’ repetition “vamps” and dissonant noise making are really boring; if you want that sorta thing, check out the far superior “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive” by Pink Floyd. If you want something that’s obscure, garagy and also kind of weird, I highly urge you to check out Black Monk Time by the Monks (just listen to that chopping banjo and militaristic percussion!), The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators by the 13th Floor Elevators (how do they make that weird jug noise?) or The Seeds and A Web of Sound by the Seeds. If you’re looking for snarky, anti-hippie sentiment along with experiments in musique conrete and free jazz to go with your rock, Frank Zappa and his Mothers of Invention got you covered with classic albums like Freak Out!, Absolutely Free and We’re Only in It for the Money. If you just want raunchy, satirical underground music from the ’60s, then you’ve got those jokesters, the Fugs, who have such classics as “Slum Goddess.” Hell, if you just like seventeen minute long songs, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly has a lot more going on in it and isn’t about sucking on a ding dong.
And, my god, if you just want music that rocks, you best stay the hell away from the Velvet Underground because they were always too high to rock. In fact, the only thing I can really think that they “innovated” was droll, depressing lyrics about sex, drugs and depravity; my favorites.
A similar situation occurred when I purchased David Bowie’s alleged classic The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Spiders from Mars. I had heard “Suffragette City” on the radio and absolutely loved it. Then I saw Bowie on TV rocking out with Mick Ronson on guitar and got excited because it seemed as though Bowie was some sort of British equivalent to Alice Cooper, whose albums Love It to Death, Killer and Billion Dollar Babies I consider three of the greatest albums of all time. I went and purchased The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars under the impression that the rest of the songs would be comparable to “Suffragette City”, but oh no… with the exception of “Ziggy Stardust” and “Hang Onto Yourself”, the music was like Elton John piano ballad music. And if I want Elton John piano ballad music, I’LL LISTEN TO FUCKING ELTON JOHN!!! On the back of the record, there was a little message that said, “Play this record loud.” What in the hell for? Almost none of it rocks!
Just like with the Velvets, I somewhat came around to Bowie and especially Mick Ronson, whose records I actually like more, but again I have to ask why people like these artists so much. My conclusion is that their fans discovered these albums in their late teens, and while these artists are hardly obscure, they were more off the beaten path than whatever mainstream crapola was on the radio. Therefore liking them became some sort of intellectual badge of honor.
I think by 22, young people should outgrow this bizarre form of thinking; the notion that you’re listening to music that the “normals” are too stupid to get. Lord knows I went through this phase for a few years, and it’s resulted in my purchasing many albums by sunn O))), Earth, Wolf Eyes, Tangerine Dream and Cluster. While technically these groups fall into three distinct categories/eras/phases of music (drone metal, noise and the cosmic ambient end of krautrock), they all have one thing in common; none of them make any actual music. Their records just consist of tones and sounds, but no melodies or songs. If I want to prove how hip, cool and underground I am by listening to stuff that the “normals” wouldn’t like, it pretty much doesn’t get any “hipper” than that. Wait, actually it does, but I don’t want to invest in a cassette player. Unfortunately, I really can’t listen to it, and I wonder what kind of person actually can. I did a sunn O))) listening marathon at work once and, when it was over, it occurred to me how I just spent an eight hour day listening to one chord and some noises.
Music is a thing you listen to. Ergo, it needs to be pleasing to your ears. If music criticism was based on this criterion alone, then we would have an entirely different dialogue about it. My tastes range from the “dumb” (UFO, Scorpions, Ted Nugent, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Grand Funk Railroad, Metallica) to the “smart” and “challenging” (Captain Beefheart, Residents, Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!, Faust, Van der Graaf Generator, Brian Eno, Public Image Ltd., the Fall) to the commercial (Cheap Trick, Cars, Abba, Fleetwood Mac) to underground genres like black metal, death metal, grindcore, hardcore and noise rock. In my opinion, the first three Blue Oyster Cult albums – Blue Oyster Cult, Tyranny and Mutation and Secret Treaties – are three of the greatest rock masterpieces of all time and eternally more interesting than anything the Velvet Underground has ever made. Just listen to “Then Came the Last Days of May”, a haunting song about a drug deal gone awry when one of the three dealers betrays and murders the other two. They also have a certain level of hipster cred thanks to Patti Smith writing some of their lyrics and singing on “The Revenge of Vera Gemini” from their 1976 album, Agents of Fortune (the one with “(Don’t Fear) the Ripper”).
Unfortunately the idea of trying to be just outside the accepted norm is still a thing among hipster music fans. Hence the exchange that occurred between me and this bearded, red haired guy in a patch covered denim jacket. Although I was drunk, I remember the exchange going something like this:
Me: “…blah, blah, my balls, George Bush, the Beatles–”
Him: “The Beatles?! Man, THE KINKS!!!”
Me: “What about the Kinks? We weren’t talking about the Kinks! How about the Pretty Things or the Dave Clark Five or the Turtles or Gerry and the Pacemakers or Herman’s Hermits or the Action or the Creation? What the fuck is wrong with the Beatles?!”
Him: “Uh, I just… uh, nothing, I guess…”
What is with the one upmanship that defines all of hipsterdom? In my opinion, aside from their aesthetic differences, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, Kinks, Pretty Things and Yardbirds are all great bands, who write catchy, hooky and memorable songs. It’s like being able to choose between six women, all of whom are 8’s and 9’s and want to sleep with you. Red hair, black hair? Bigger ass, smaller ass? You’re going to enjoy it either way, so it’s up to you and your arbitrary taste.
But, for some reason, the hipster community has voted on the Kinks as the top of that scene. I love me some Kinks, but that is a rather odd choice considering how some of Ray Davies’ songs promote traditional, conservative values; I mean “Two Sisters”? Aside from their not being as popular as the Beatles, the Stones and the Who, I really don’t get why they’re the vaunted band of the British invasion.
Hipsters tried to pull that shit with Black Sabbath around ten years ago when Pentagram had their early 70s demos reissued by Relapse; they claimed that their new “discovery”, the “American Black Sabbath” was better than the genuine article. Pentagram is great, but they’re no Black Sabbath, and I bet that there is a twenty-something year old out there arguing how Pentagram is the superior band. As a result of this greater interest in excavating for “undiscovered” bands from decades past, a whole new fanbase for collecting obscure heavy rock, proto-metal and psychedelia from the late ’60s and early ’70s has emerged. While I’m all for the trend, since I like buying well packaged CD or LP reissues of old, obscure music – such as the double LP reissue of both Dust albums – the independent label Numero went and exploited the trend by releasing a “self-aware”, obscure heavy rock/proto-metal singles compilation, and the hipsters ate it up (it’s not a bad compilation, but I’ve heard better); leave the heavy, pschedelic and proggy to pros like Rockadrome, who aren’t so steeped in irony. Unlike me, many of the people into this type of stuff are “too cool” to realize that they can find plenty of early heavy rock, proto-metal and prog in their dads’ collections. But, I guess, unlike Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and Uriah Heep, Budgie and Captain Beyond never appeared on a Freedom Rock compilation, and that makes all the difference in the world.