In a Rock & Roll Band: The Velvet Underground’s ‘Loaded’ at 50

Guided by commercial aspirations, a neglected VU lineup did justice to some of Lou Reed’s most inviting songs. 

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The Velvet Underground in 1970: Sterling Morrison, Lou Reed, Moe Tucker and Doug Yule (from left). Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

People have many problems with Loaded, the Velvet Underground’s fourth record, but the main complaint seems to be that it wasn’t one of the Velvet Underground’s first three records.

It wasn’t The Velvet Underground & Nico, the fully realized, Warhol-authorized 1967 debut that included sweet, dark tunes like “Sunday Morning” and “Femme Fatale,” the transactional drama “I’m Waiting for the Man” and pedal-to-the-metal avant-garde exercises like “European Son” and “Black Angel’s Death Song.” The band had the songs of Lou Reed; the daring instrumental interplay between Reed (on lead guitar), John Cale (viola and bass), Sterling Morrison (mostly rhythm guitar, sometimes lead, sometimes bass) and Maureen “Moe” Tucker (drums); and a decidedly East Coast air of detached intellectualism and narcotic hedonism.

Loaded wasn’t White Light/White Heat, which subtracted Nico and marshaled an even more defiant rock-as-noise attack that rushed from the brilliantly ramshackle title track to the thunderous “Sister Ray.” And it wasn’t the third, eponymous LP, which subtracted Cale, added the Long Island-raised, Boston-based guitarist and vocalist Doug Yule and transformed the Velvets into purveyors of the world’s finest introspective slow-to-midtempo songs, “Candy Says” and “Pale Blue Eyes” chief among them (though the album also has loose-limbed rockers like “Beginning to See the Light”).

Which brings us to Loaded, or, rather, almost brings us to Loaded. In 1969, the band went into the studio to record its fourth album. Songs were plentiful but sessions were sporadic, and it became clear that the exercise was being done under a cloud. That cloud was named MGM/Verve, the record company that had released the Velvet Underground’s first three albums. The marriage had soured. The band didn’t feel that MGM had its back, and the label didn’t feel that the band was fulfilling its commercial potential.

They disagreed to agree, and the Velvet Underground left MGM and signed with the Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion. The new label wanted a record quickly, and looked through the songs that had been recorded over the course of the past year. They didn’t find what they were looking for, which was hits, though Reed was receptive to their needs, perhaps even eager to prove that MGM had been wrong about the band’s lack of commercial prospects. (After all, he had started as a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records, a junior-varsity version of the Brill Building, where he learned to write everything from doo-wop to surf to car songs.) The Velvet Underground entered Atlantic’s in-house Manhattan studio in the spring of 1970 to begin new sessions that would yield the Loaded record — as in “loaded with hits.”

Loaded was unquestionably a more commercial endeavor than the band’s first three albums. It opened with “Who Loves the Sun,” a gentle, lightly psychedelic love song with genuinely pretty harmonies and a winsome lead vocal by Doug Yule. It was somewhat of a fakeout. What followed was the one-two punch of “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll,” the two most anthemic songs of Reed’s songwriting career, at least in the narrow sense. Both were sung by Reed, and both were streamlined and polished celebrations of the salvific power of rock and roll. Neither song was a hit by conventional standards, but both demonstrated Reed’s ability to deliver focused, accessible lyrics driven forward by indelible riffs. The verse chords of “Sweet Jane,” in particular, are instantly memorable, a placid wave, crisp at the crest, and Reed’s first lines sketch downtown cool as perfectly as any song ever has:

Standing on the corner, suitcase in my hand
Jack is in his corset, Jane is in her vest, and me, I’m in a rock ’n’ roll band

“Rock & Roll” is an even blunter instrument, recounting Reed’s own discovery of rock on the radio by assigning it to a 5-year-old girl named Jenny. Bored in the suburbs (“two TV sets and two Cadillac cars”), bored with the radio (“nothin’ goin’ down at all, not at all”), she turns on the radio and “couldn’t believe what she heard at all.” These two songs, both sung by Reed, became FM radio staples and go-to covers for bands trying to obtain the same magic as the Velvets. Mott the Hoople famously covered “Sweet Jane,” as did Cowboy Junkies. Mitch Ryder covered “Rock & Roll,” as did Jane’s Addiction.

It wasn’t that the album moved totally away from idiosyncrasy. “New Age” remains one of Reed’s finest and strangest compositions. Originally an autobiographical lyric about his bisexuality (“It seems to be my fancy/To make it with Frank and Nancy”), the song evolved into a sentimental but finely wrought tale of a fan approaching an aging star:

Can I have your autograph
He said to the fat blonde actress
You know I’ve seen every movie you’ve been in
From Paths of Pain to Jewels of Glory
And when you kissed Robert Mitchum
Gee but I thought you’d never catch him
Over the hill right now
And you’re looking for love

Loaded also continued the band’s practice of shedding a key member each time out: Nico between the first album and the second, Cale between the second and the third. During the Loaded sessions, Sterling Morrison was attending college, so his contributions were more sparing than usual. But the real odd man out was the band’s only remaining woman, Moe Tucker, who had gotten pregnant with her first child. The band debated waiting for her, decided against it and fulfilled the drum duties using Doug Yule, his teenaged brother Billy, engineer Adrian Barber and a Long Island musician originally credited only as Tommy.

The result was a band that served the more mainstream aims of the project and continued the trend of sanding away the Velvets’ avant-garde edges. Tucker has spoken often about her disappointment with the album — not so much with any specific musician, but with the sacrifice of singular minimalism for generic rock drumming. Even Doug Yule has said that he deeply regrets not waiting for Tucker to start recording Loaded. “I didn’t have the balls to say, ‘No, then let’s wait till Maureen’s ready. I’d rather work a day job then,’” he told Richie Unterberger. “We lost the closeness of the third album by doing [Loaded] as a studio album.”

And then, in short order, they lost the closeness of the band in general. In the summer of 1970 the Velvet Underground booked a nine-week residency at Max’s Kansas City, a bar and restaurant just north of Union Square favored by the Warhol crowd. At this point, the Velvets consisted of Reed, Morrison and the Yule brothers, though Tucker came to see them play. One afternoon, Reed confided to Tucker that he was leaving the band; by the close of August he was gone. 

When Loaded was finally released on November 15 to largely positive reviews (Lenny Kaye, writing in Rolling Stone, called it a “refinement” of the group’s sound that “shows off some of the incredible finesse that Lou Reed has developed over the years as a songwriter”), it was a trick mirror, reflecting back a band that no longer existed.

To maximize Loaded’s chances of charting, Reed had allowed Doug Yule to play a more prominent role, giving him lead vocals not only on “Who Loves the Sun” and “New Age” but on “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” and the seven-minute album closer, “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’.” That must have seemed like an acceptable sacrifice, but it had unintended consequences. The back cover of the album, in listing “The line up,” put Reed third, after Doug Yule and Sterling Morrison. (It also, oddly, credited Tucker as drummer, relegating her replacements to “percussion assistance.”) Reed, looking back on the record nearly 20 years later for a Rolling Stone cover story keyed to the release of New York, took up the idea that Loaded was not so much a transitional release as a notional one, an artifact that not only failed to reinforce the band’s identity but in fact undermined it. “Loaded didn’t have Maureen on it, and that’s a lot of people’s favorite Velvet Underground record,” he said. “So we can’t get too lost in the mystique of the Velvet Underground.”

In 1971, Morrison quit to pursue postgraduate studies in medieval literature in Texas. Unwilling to confront his bandmates before they returned to New York following a show in Houston, he pretended to pack and took an empty suitcase to the airport, where he notified them that he would not be boarding the plane. Doug Yule soldiered on, even recording a final Velvet Underground album, Squeezemore or less a solo record, and a fairly execrable one at that. Buried near the end of the record was a song called “Jack & Jane” that tried to reckon with Reed’s legacy and talent through a kind of meta-commentary on the two people who were standing on the corner with him in his most memorable song:

Jack and Jane, well they were quite insane
But did you think that I really care
Though they tried to get me to insinuate
I couldn’t follow them anywhere
Because they weren’t ever really there

But they were.

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