I’ve read a few reviews of Loaded that equated its commercial approach – the Velvet Underground were instructed to make a record ‘loaded with hits’ – with poor quality. Indeed I recall one purist complaining that bassist Doug Yule’s ‘sappy boy-band influence’, or something like that, had come to fore after the departure of multi-instrumentalist John Cale whose tastes ran to the extreme avant garde. Perhaps it’s simply not as, uh, cool to like something as accessible and listenable as Loaded.

But I’ve never thought that the Velvets’ need to produce something that would appeal to the mainstream marred the record. Loaded is simply less perverse than, say, White Light/White Heat (the second album), the most difficult of their oeuvre, being full of wailing, screeching instruments, extended improvisation, dissonance, feedback, and of course a preoccupation with drugs and similarly unpalatable themes. Furthermore, in the case of Loaded, the commercial imperative resulted in pretty melodies and harmonies; catchy, structured songs; and disciplined yet exuberant, tuneful solos. What’s not to like?

I first encountered the music of the Velvets – specifically, the music on Loaded – when I watched the film High Fidelity, which prominently featured the first and last tracks off the album. They both feature Yule’s gentle voice rather than songwriter/guitarist/primary singer Lou Reed’s flat, sarcastic one, and are the better for it. The album opener, ‘Who Loves the Sun’, is an exercise in contradiction, with petulant lyrics set to bright, cheerful harmonies and chiming acoustic riffs:

Who loves the rain?

Who cares that it makes flowers?

Who cares that it makes showers

Since you broke my heart?

The other High Fidelity soundtrack item, ‘Oh Sweet Nuthin’’, is my favourite song on Loaded, and ironically enough the least commercial of the lot, being (a gripping) 7 and a half minutes long. In fact, it is perhaps my favourite song by the Velvets. Gorgeous major-key blues music; amazing extended guitar-plus-drum solos; shadowy harmonies; and a profound subject – poverty – given simple, wistful treatment and an earnest, cracking, empathetic vocalisation:

Say a word for Polly May

She can’t tell the night from the day

They threw her out in the street

Just like a cat she landed on her feet

And say a word for Joanie Love

She ain’t got nuthin’ at all

With every day she falls in love

And every night she falls when she does

She said

‘Oh sweet nuthin’’

You know she ain’t got nothing at all

Lou Reed’s expressive, exuberant vocals are put to good use on this album, though. He sings ‘Train Coming Round the Bend’, a relentlessly pounding blues rocker, in a strangled, off-key voice that occasionally drops out and suggests the train isn’t the only thing going round the bend. And he puts a whole lotta feeling into ‘Rock and Roll’, which perhaps is not surprising since, as he said, what happens to Jenny in the song was what happened to him:

Jenny says when she was five years old

There was nothing happening at all

Every time she puts on the radio

There was nothing going down at all

Then one fine morning she puts on a New York station

You know she don’t believe what she heard at all

She started shaking to that fine fine music

You know her life was saved by rock and roll

Despite all the amputation

You know you could just go out

And dance to the rock and roll station…

It was all right

The song may be highly personal in origin but its appeal must be universal: it really captures that feeling you get when you discover rock and roll. Reed’s energy is infectious and you can’t help obeying when he admonishes you ‘Oy! Listen to me now’ (he’s Jewish). ‘Rock and Roll’ is preceded by ‘Sweet Jane’, a great pop song that is similarly amusing and affecting all at once:

And there’s, you know, some evil mothers

Well, they’re gonna tell you that everything is just dirt

You know that women never really faint

And that villains always blink their eyes

And that, you know, children are the only ones blush

And that life is just a dive

But anyone who ever had a heart

Oh, they wouldn’t turn round and break it

And anyone who ever played a part

Oh, they wouldn’t turn round and hate it

If it seems like I’m quoting rather a lot of the Velvet Underground’s lyrics, I am. Displaying the lyrics in their full glory is the best way to make the point that Lou Reed has really interesting things to say, even on this supposedly most commercial and therefore least-worthy-of-cult-interest album. The bouncy ‘Cool It Down’ advises – unusually for a rock song – a young man to take things slowly with his young lady, though without a hint of old-fogeyness. I also love the fact that this advice is given in two slightly different versions of vocals, which has the effect of an uncoordinated Greek chorus – especially when one comes in ever so slightly behind the other.

The music on Loaded is full of such cute, creative touches, typical of this notoriously ground-breaking band. ‘Sweet Jane’ has an organ blasting a deep bass melody for just a few seconds right at the end as the song fades out, but that’s enough for impact in a song that is otherwise built on a repeated series of simple, rhythmic guitar riffs. Then there’s that delightful musical transition in ‘Rock in Roll’. It comes after the first bluesy guitar solo, where, although the lead guitar line has reverted back to the melody of the verses, the drumming and rhythm guitar delay their switch back for two bars. The effect is… captivating.

In short, Loaded emphatically does not exhibit the superficiality of theme and tone and that one usually associates with mainstream pop music. It still sounds remarkably like the Velvet Underground, and looks like them too: the album cover depicts an entrance into the New York City subway, complete with emanating cloud of stench, coloured pink for some reason. (To be fair, the subway has been cleaned up and the smell wasn’t bad when I was there last year, despite it being summer). Again, what’s not to like?

Advertisements