At this point, 50 years after the Velvet Underground formed and 45 years since Lou Reed left the band, there’s not a lot to say about this endlessly influential group that hasn’t already been said — and not a lot to hear that hasn’t already been released on some or other deluxe boxed set. Indeed, with The Complete Matrix Tapes and Loaded: Re-Loaded 45th Anniversary Edition — the final two chapters in the group’s career — each of the band’s four studio albums and two live LPs has been released in a multi-disc box. The original albums, along with demos, scratchy old acetates, muffled audience recordings of concerts and more, have all been restored with a Smithsonian-level of tasteful TLC, making this group’s catalog arguably the most optimized of any in the rock era.
Having said that, much of the material on these two collections — The Matrix Tapes, culled from two nights in San Francisco late in 1969, and Loaded, the band’s final studio LP — has already been released. So what more could anyone but a complete obsessive find in them?
Plenty, and here’s why. The Velvets were a hard-touring band, and while the oft-repeated mantra that they never played the same song the same way twice is an overstatement, the songs evolved dramatically over the months that the group played them: They’d mix up tempos, feels, lyrics, graft songs together as medleys. It was less about extended jams — the 20-minute-plus versions of “Sister Ray” excepted — than about reinvention. That reinvention continued in even more tectonic ways during the last few months of the Velvets’ existence: Drummer Maureen Tucker became too pregnant to tour, so the band first toured without her, and then with bassist Doug Yule’s teenaged brother Billy playing drums.
Concerts by each of those three incarnations of the band are included in these sets (the latter two included with the Loaded box). And while four full Velvet Underground concerts might feel excessive, they’re so different from each other that all reward repeated listens.
Indeed, skeptics may be converted by the first song on the 4-CD Matrix Tapes: A languid, 13-plus-minute-long version of “Waiting for the Man”, complete with a whistling break and two previously unreleased verses, seemingly made up on the spot. But what makes this collection essential is the cohesion of the band and the setlists: The shows find the Velvets at their absolute peak as a live unit, with Reed and Sterling Morrison’s guitars — the former raucous and unhinged, the latter pristine and precise — meshing with an almost subconscious cohesion. The 42-track set finds the band cruising through some 22 different songs sprawling across their entire career: “Sweet Jane” is rendered in versions much calmer than the familiar recording on Loaded, forceful on the first round (and with yet another unreleased verse), gentle on the second. Doug Yule introduces a loping melodic bassline into “Heroin” (first night, second set) before moving over to organ. But most of all, the clarity of the sound — which is drastically improved from the Live 1969 album, where several of these songs were first released, and The Quine Tapes collection, which is rough-quality audience recordings of songs from the same set of shows — makes it feel as if the band is performing right in front of you.
The Loaded set is a weightier affair. The album is generally considered the band’s weakest — and the fact that it includes the classics “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll” is a testament to the genius of the band’s other three albums. The set includes virtually every imaginable permutation of the album — a remastered stereo version and a radio-only mono mix that boosts the bass and makes for an overall punchier sound — and two-dozen-odd outtakes, demos, single mixes and “remastered early versions” that are fascinating but have been available for years. Where it gets really interesting is the two concerts: One, from Philadelphia in May 1970, finds the band playing without a fulltime drummer, although Doug Yule gets behind a kit for three songs. The sound quality is horrific but everything is audible, and hearing the band rip through basically unplugged versions of these songs — most of which are from Loaded that were rarely played live, like “Oh Sweet Nuthin’” and “Cool It Down” — adds yet another chapter to the canon.
The set ends as the original band’s first era did: With the August 1970 set from New York’s Max’s Kansas City, fortuitously recorded on a cassette player by Warholite Brigid Polk, that represented Reed’s last gig with the band until 1993. He’s in a wistful mood throughout, dipping back to the band’s first album for seldom-played songs like “Sunday Morning” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” Drummer Billy Yule’s adolescent energy makes the set brawnier and, oddly, much more conventional-sounding than at any point in their career: It’s as if the Velvets had been reinvented as a garage band.
Are these albums essential for a casual fan, or a fitting introduction to this essential band? Lord no. But they illuminate fascinating corners of the band’s career that most of us never knew existed.