Okay, so it’s “Cyber Monday” and also ‘tis the season for all the record companies to start releasing those deluxe, super deluxe, ultra deluxe, etc, box sets of classic rock albums. These can range from essential to silly, often within the same box (what was on the discs of the Pink Floyd Immersion box sets last year was truly excellent, but the stupid Pink Floyd drink coasters and Dark Side of the Moon marbles (marbles???) were, perhaps, uh, less essential). When box sets seem more like they were put together by marketeers, rather than by actual fanatical fans, it really shows.
The “Heroic Overkill in a Classic Rock Box Set” award—not that there is anything wrong with giving the folks who actually pay for their music more, rather than less—this year probably deserves to go to the 15 disc box set of the 1973 King Crimson classic Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. (Overkill it may be, though I’ve heard few King Crimson fanatics complaining about getting their money’s worth from this monster).
Another release this year that (almost) gets it perfect, is UMe’s new 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition of The Velvet Underground & Nico. I can’t imagine this one not being nominated—and winning—a Grammy for best archival reissue, or box set, but it could be in a number of categories, including best design and best liner notes for VU expert Richie Unterberger’s exhaustively detailed extended essay about the recording of the album and its bad-luck plagued initial release in 1966.
I always approach these things with skepticism. Do I really need to buy an album, AGAIN, that I’ve owned on LP, CD, as part of the Peel Slowly and See box set and that I passed up when it came out again in 2002, in an edition supposedly better than the version on the box and blah, blah, blah? Is it worth the money is how I try to approach “reviewing” something like this (who gives a fuck what I or anybody else thinks about this music, it’s beyond having an opinion on). Actually, since I don’t even have to pay for music and DVDs anyway, I get review copies of pretty much everything I want, I think that makes me slightly more difficult to impress.
Additionally, I bought my first copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico—actually my grandmother bought it for me—in 1976, when I was ten. I’d read about the Velvet Underground in CREEM and I pretty much graduated from James Bond soundtracks to Ziggy, Iggy, the VU and Never Mind The Bollocks in one fell swoop. Obviously I was a child, and like most children, I didn’t have all that many records, so at the time I was initially exposed to The Velvet Underground & Nico, it was one of maybe a dozen or so records I owned. I’m not trying to convey how hip of a little kid I was, it’s just that this an album that I have listened to over and over and over again, so many damned times that I didn’t think it was something I’d ever want to listen to for pleasure again. I’ve pulled out this album very few times in the past 25 years. It’s never the one I grab when I want to listen to the Velvet Underground (that would be the VU collection, for me).
So why is this box set so great, you’re wondering? Well, for one, it’s pretty definitive. I think it can be predicted, with confidence, that this is probably the very, very last time that The Velvet Underground & Nico will ever be re-issued on a disc of any sort (maybe there will be a Blu-ray in the future, but what would be the point of that?). Truly, longtime Velvets A&R man Bill Levenson and Sterling Sounds’ Kevin Reeves have been able to tease out sonic nuances from the master tapes of both the stereo and mono releases of the album and there are slight variations and single edits and things like that, included, some more commonly heard than others. The selling points of this set have little to do with the album as we know it, however, and everything to do with it being the first official release of the now legendary Scepter Studios sessions as discovered on the “Norman Dolph acetate” found at the Sixth Ave Flea market in New York in 2002.
The acetate (a glass test record) was cut of the original five day VU recording sessions at the near derelict studios belonging to the Scepter Records label in 1966. These sessions were paid for by a Columbia Records sales executive named Norman Dolph (who I’ve met—we both collect Paul Laffoley’s art—he’s a fascinating guy) and Andy Warhol. As heard on disc four of this new box set—in the cleanest version you’ll ever hear—the Scepter Studios sessions is a true revelation—white light, white heat, even!—for any aficionado of the Velvet Underground, even the most jaded ones, like me.
It’s a show stopper. Some reviewers call the differences minor, but I don’t think so…
Truly, I’d have never thought that I could get into this album again with fresh ears, but that really has happened, via the Scepter sessions. I’ve been listening to it obsessively for about a week and just digging the fuck out of it.
Five tracks are the same, although there are different mixes, three entirely different takes and several vocal changes. Since it’s likely that when these same multi-tracked tapes were taken back into the studio at TTG in Los Angeles for finishing, the original performances were probably recorded over: Lou Reed’s falsetto backing vocals on “Femme Fatale” for instance (in the version we know he sings low and flat). “Heroin” features a far more frantic, crazed viola from Cale and even starts off with a much different opening line, giving new meaning to the lyrics (John Cale wrote of being infuriated at the change in his autobiography, now we can hear what he was so pissed off about.) “European Son” is two minutes longer and although the take is different enough from the final version known on the album, it’s pretty amazing to hear just how well-rehearsed that ear-splitting cacophony actually was! That this was “lost” for so many years, and now can be heard like this, well, it’s pretty extraordinary, it really is.
The set also included a loose 1966 rehearsal tape recorded at Warhol’s Factory on January 3, 1966 and a nicely cleaned up version of the only decently recorded performance of the band with Nico known to exist, live at the Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus, Ohio on November 4, 1966. Part of this recording, the menacing, amorphous jam “Melody Laughter” was previously excerpted on the Peel Slowly and See box set. It’s much (much) better than The Quine Tapes if you are wondering.
Additionally, there is a remastered version of Nico’s Chelsea Girl album, which seems appropriate to include here. The odds of that one seeing a sonic upgrade its own were kinda slim, so I’m OK with that.
The only place where I feel the 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition of The Velvet Underground & Nico falters in any way is the failure to include the FINAL piece of media that would have made it a totally perfect box set of the 66-67 Nico arc of the band’s career, and this is the sole sync-sound audio-visual document made of the Velvet Underground and Nico, the Warhol (or Paul Morrissey) shot 16mm film Symphony in Sound.
The film, made to be screened behind the band onstage during their Exploding Plastic Inevitable “happenings” is honestly pretty dull. It goes on for a LONG time with not much happening besides a drony primitive jam and a frenetic camera zooming in and out. Nico is there (with her young son Ari) but she’s not singing, just hitting a tambourine. Lou doesn’t sing either. At one point the camera droops on its tripod and no one readjusts it for quite a while. So it’s boring, most Warhol films were boring—Warhol himself always said his movies were better discussed than actually seen—but it is the freaking Velvet Underground playing live on camera for what is probably the ONLY time during their original incarnation, so it would have been worth including here for that reason alone.
You can watch Symphony in Sound below. If you can get over how dull it is, it’s actually pretty fucking cool. In the later moments, when the cops show up due to a noise complaint, Warhol has to deal with them himself.
So, what more can I say about this 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition of The Velvet Underground & Nico It truly is the killer diller item that you want it to be (it also is a no-brainer Christmas gift for that middle-aged rock snob on your shopping list). Worth the cost? I admitted above that I didn’t pay for mine, but if I had, I would feel, for sure, to have gotten my money’s worth (there’s also a 2 CD merely “deluxe” edition that has the Dolph acetate and the Factory rehearsals on the second disc). I mean, this is it, this is THE final version that will probably ever be released of this album. If it’s important to you to have an item like this particular classic rock trophy on your shelf, you will most assuredly not be disappointed by the 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition of The Velvet Underground & Nico.
“The Black Angel’s Death Song” live at the Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus, Ohio on November 4, 1966:
Thank you Adam Starr!