For all intents and purposes, The Velvet Underground is one of the most influential bands in history. People may not have realized it when they were still functioning as a band, but they are single handedly responsible for making NOT being played on the radio, cool! While The Beatles were manipulating words and phrases to hide the true nature of darker lyrics and subject matter, The Rolling Stones sort of hinting around the idea, The Velver Underground just said it. And without a single care as to what people thought of them.
They may have not been around too long but in that short period of time they managed to put out four albums worth of avant-garde-meets-folk-meets-rock anthems that influences thousands of bands, and still influencing them! But I could sit here all night long talking about the influence this band had on music, pop culture, and counter-culture. What more could really be said? We’ve all heard the sings and praises of the late Lou Reed and his impact on song writing but the interwebs are filled with countless articles on that subject matter. Let’s prod around a little bit to uncover something that rarely gets a mention…..the infamous fifth album.
Yes, you heard right. There was an album released after “Loaded” which is generally referred as The Velvet Underground’s last album. I’m not talking about a live album, or boxset of unreleased demos or alternate takes, but actual written, recorded, produced, mixed and released songs on an album. The album “Squeeze”.
For those of you who are not familiar with the band’s history, I’ll make this quick to get you up to speed to the time when this album was released. A little after the half-way through mark the band’s career, co-founder and guitarist John Cale left the band, and replaced by Doug Yule. After recording the “Loaded” album, Lou Reed also quit. Instead of ending the band’s run right then and there without it’s creative core, the label they were on insisted one more album to be released to fulfill their contract. Doug Yule took it upon himself to write, arrange and record the album.
Without any of Velvet Underground’s founding members, it’s really hard to call “Squeeze” a proper Velvet Underground record. Not only have the fans erased it from their memory other than the occasional “Wow that album is BAD” but the former members of the group have all but expunged it from existence. Why? Is it THAT bad? Is it because Nico, Lou, John, Sterling, or Maureen are nowhere to be found on it?
Ultimately, it’s a combination of all of those reasons that history has removed this record from Velvet Underground canon. Even Doug Yule insists that it’s more or less a solo album than a proper follow up to the band’s previous record seeing as he played all the instruments aside from drums being handled by Deep Purple’s Ian Paice. How bad can it really be though? I may be in the minority but I actually like some of the songs on the album.
From the start, it’s painfully obvious that the best song on “Squeeze” is worse than the worst song on “Loaded”. Yule had recorded lead vocals on a handful of Velvet Underground songs before this album but he just can’t carry this band on his shoulders alone. Gone is the edgy, spit on a sidewalk in Harlem, talking about heroin while yawning, and in it’s place, a more generic early 70s jam band mentality.
On a technical level, it’s pretty solid. Everything has a well-produced sheen on it from the lightly distorted guitars, crisp piano, and right on the money timing of the drums. All things previous Velvet Underground albums were not. The song “Crash” sounds like if John Lennon had written “Martha My Dear” and sang by Ringo Starr. In fact, there are more times on this album that remind me of late era Beatles than any other Velvet Underground record. Nothing wrong with making reference to The Beatles by any means, but it’s not a good sign when a band sounds like someone else when everyone is hoping that you don’t! Despite that, there is some KILLER stereo mixing on the piano track.
The closest the album gets to sounding Velvety is with the song “Friends”. It strolls along with a certain whimsy and swagger that makes the listener just wish it was Lou Reed singing lead or least the background harmonies. The tiny, yet powerful, piano solo is tied with the keyboard solo and ending of “Caroline” for my favorite parts on the entire record. There is no denying that Yule is a great musician and once a worthy member of The Velvet Underground, if he wasn’t the nit-picky Lou Reed wouldn’t have asked to join the band in the first place. There is just something missing though. As much people like to pin the magic of the band on Lou Reed, I think he was just part the puzzle.
At face value, “Squeeze” is not a bad album. All of the songs are very easy to listen to, which is a feat in it’self because as big of Velvet Underground fan I am, each album has that one song that I always skip. There is none on this record that I skip. Maybe the whole thing is just so middle of the road that I really don’t care enough to hate one particular song?
In closing, I think it’s a little sad that this album isn’t nearly as bad as history makes it out to be. Sure, purists will insist that it’s not a proper Velvet Underground album, but just because a record from your favorite band isn’t well received, is it justifiable to pretend it’s not them? Wouldn’t that be like sitting down at breakfast to eat your bowl of Cheerios and accidentally grabbing a fork in place of a spoon. Instead of trading it out, you throw the bowl through the living room, beat the kitchen up, and setting fire to your house? How about just enjoying the album for what it is, or at least trying to. As with any album from any artist, listen with an open mind and try to enjoy on it’s own merits.
I kind of like “Squeeze” from The Velvet Underground….There, I said it.