|Squeeze--the most polarizing album ever?|
I’ve posted several times about how one of my favorite things to do is to go back and listen to albums deemed terrible (for whatever reason) by critics or fans and see if it actually is as bad as everyone claims. In a previous post, I discussed two such albums, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, which while not a total flop was far from the success of Rumours and was widely derived as a drug-fueled mess, and Kiss’ Unmasked and Music from the Elder albums. To me, both stand up much better with time than would have been thought given the reviews at the time.
If you Google “Worst Album” or “Worst Rock Song” you get a lot of interesting lists. Interestingly, many of these seem to focus predominantly on music released in the last 10-15 years, stuff like Limp Bizkit, Nickelback, Creed, etc. It is beyond doubt that we’ve seen an alarming spike in douchiness in music in the past 15 years. But every era has its cringe-worthy, sucktacular shit sandwiches. In the 70’s you had “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks, “You Light Up My Life” by Debbie Boone, “Billy Don’t Be a Hero”, pretty much everything by Barry Manilow and the Captain & Tennille, “Escape (the Pina Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes, “Afternoon Delight” by Starland Vocal Band, teen pap like “Heartbeat (It’s a Love Beat)" by the Defranco Family (as well as numerous abominations by the Brady Bunch, Osmonds, Partridge Family, etc.), the entire Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band soundtrack, etc.
The 80’s gave us lots of other horrors, primarily 60’s and 70’s bands attempting to maintain their popularity by coating their music in a patina or new wave synths or pop metal hooks. Starship and Heart are two of the biggest offenders here; most people consider “We Built This City” to be a strong contender for the worst song of all time. The 80’s also saw a rise in movie/TV star vanity albums, everything from Eddie Murphy (“My Girl Wants to Party All the Time” is another leading candidate for worst song ever) to Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat” (ditto) to Bruce Willis’ entire Return of Bruno album (thritto). The 80’s brought us soft rock nightmares from Mr. Mister, Christopher Cross, Air Supply, Wham!, Rick Astley, and the Beach Boys (“Wake Me Up Before you Go Go”, “Never Gonna Give You Up” and “Kokomo” often are top-5 on many “Worst Ever” lists). Novelty songs like Taco’s “Puttin’ On the Ritz” or “The Curly Shuffle” are also notable in their badness. The early 80’s saw a proliferation of new wave haircut bands, most of which dropped a musical deuce or two before sliding away. I would also vote for most everything released by every hair metal band in that decade, but most notably everything by the “W” bands (Whitesnake, Warrant, Winger), with special honors going to “Cherry Pie”, which to me is WAY worse than anything Starship or the Defrancos could have foisted on humanity.
The 90’s had their shitzophrenic moments too. Wilson Philips, Gerardo, Vanilla Ice, Right Said Fred, “Barbie Girl” by Aqua, Billy Ray Cyrus, “Macarena”, 4 Non Blondes, Roxette, Celine Dion, the list goes on and on. In fact, I might argue that the 90’s gave us more musical crap than any decade. But really, I honestly believe that EVERY decade gives us the best of times and the blurst of times, to paraphrase the Simpsons. No decade had a monopoly on good OR bad music.
Interestingly, NPR did an “All Things Considered” (which is available as a podcast) where a panel of discussants tried to decide which decade was the “worst”, and most of them felt the 80’s won this dubious honor. But the ever-insightful and brilliant Carrie Brownstein (she of Slater-Kinney fame who has achieved even greater exposure in her newest band Wild Flag and as half of the duo who make the hilarious comedy show Portlandia) tried to counter this by mentioning all the GREAT music made in that decade (she cited R.E.M., Husker Du, Black Flag, the Replacements, etc., all cogent examples). And again I would very much agree with this; there is no best, there is no worst, it’s all kind of cut from the same cloth. Every decade, every era, gives us memorable songs and not-so-memorable ones.
Bad music can come from everywhere but certain genres predominate. Teen pop has long been a major source of forgettable music, starting with the Monkees, Bobby Sherman, Shaun Cassidy, Menudo, New Edition, Debbie Gibson, Tiffany and New Kids on the Block, the Spice Girls, Britney Spears, 98 Degrees, Backstreet Boys, ‘NSYNC, and continuing on to today’s Justin Bieber and so forth. Novelty songs are almost by definition lame because by the time they come out the fad they celebrate is usually on its way out—“Kung Fu Fighting", "Convoy” and “Disco Duck” are perfect examples.
So there’s a lot of bad music out there. But in the field of obscure music there’s two albums that are often considered the worst ever, but for different reasons. Interestingly, they were made by two individuals who were members of the same band, and furthermore it’s a band that’s one of the most revered of all time for their enormous impact and inspiration: The Velvet Underground.
Everyone of course knows that the history of punk and alternative music starts with the Velvets, who were formed in 1964 by the disparate duo of former Brill Building novelty songwriter Lou Reed and avant-garde drone/minimalist musician John Cale. After adding second guitarist Sterling Morrison and androgynous drummer Maureen (Mo) Tucker, the Velvets gigged around New York City and eventually hooked up with artist Andy Warhol, who insisted they add model/chanteuse Nico as vocalist. Their first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico (with its iconic Warhol-designed banana cover) was not a hit, but as Brian Eno famously said, almost everyone who DID buy it ended up forming a band. Reed’s songwriting focused on the seamier side of life, including drug use, sado-masochism and so forth. But aside from the lyrical content, and John Cale’s highly avant-garde electric viola drones on a few songs, it wasn’t THAT outrageous. The two songs that achieved the greatest notoriety, “Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin”, are actually not too crazy sonically speaking, though the guitar on “Man" is more strident than people were probably used to hearing in 1967. Even at this early stage Reed and Cale were walking a marvelous balance between writing songs with sonic dissonance (like “Man” and the very droning “Venus in Furs” and “Black Angel’s Death Song” and owe much to Cale’s classical training and education, particularly with La Monte Young) and sweet, gentle pop songs of an almost ethereal evanescence. My favorite songs of this album are actually three of the latter, all of which were sung by Nico (who’s presence in the band was hugely resented by Reed, particularly after they slept together then promptly broke up). “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is the most dissonant of the three, with Reed and Morrison noodling and strumming atonal non-blues licks while Cale drones on in the background. Nico’s voice here is extremely flat and Teutonic, almost off-putting in its foreign-ness. To me this is the quintessential VU&N song, outré without being unlistenable. This is absolutely a top song for me. “Femme Fatale” is a close second on this album. Much sweeter and more melodic than “Parties”, and with a less strident vocal from Nico, this should have been a huge hit in a different, more perfect world. It is nothing but a sweet pop song, marred only by Reed’s braying Long Island accent on his backing vocals (though I actually like how they counterpoint Nico’s booming but sweet Germanic delivery). “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is another sweet, affecting pop song but to me it isn’t quite as catchy and touching as “Femme”.
After parting ways with both Warhol and Nico in 1967, the Velvets recorded and released their second album, White Light/White Heat. Here they dispensed almost entirely with the sweeter, catchier pop elements of their debut—the one glaring exception being the understated “Here She Comes Now”--and focused instead on ramping up the atonal, dissonant elements. The title track, with its lilting piano and the buzzsaw roar of the music is probably the most listenable song aside from “Here”. “The Gift” and "Lady Godiva’s Operation” are strange, spoken word interludes “sung” predominantly by Cale while the band noodles atonally in accompaniment. The one thing I love about “Lady Godiva’s Operation” is how it shifts from Cale’s smooth Welsh vocals to Reed’s strident Long Island honk. It’s like he and Cale looked at Reed’s voice as a unique instrument to exploit for pushing the sonic limitations of the song. Perhaps the most challenging song on an admittedly challenging album is “I Heard Her Call My Name”, with its frantic tempo and wild squalls of sludgy guitar; this is one of my other favorites from this album.
But the centerpiece of this album, and perhaps of the Velvet’s whole career, is the seventeen-plus minute opus “Sister Ray”, which has a funky, bluesy, catchy rhythm. Here the atonality kind of rides along below the groove . . . for awhile, then it of course explodes and goes insane with the wildly improvised “solos” played by the various band members, but most notably Cale and his keyboards. This is hands down Cale’s finest moment as a member of the Velvets, the perfect melding of his neo-classical background with the wildness of 60’s rock. Of all the other attempts to move rock beyond the usual 2-4 minute anthem stage, perhaps only the Doors’ “The End” comes close to matching the harrowing intensity and seductive rhythm achieved here. My favorite part is the very end, when after finally returning after yet another frenetic Cale organ solo, the band suddenly speeds up to double time and ends the song rampaging along at runaway train speed before stopping suddenly and leaving their instruments wildly feeding back; it’s in this 30 seconds that you can hear nearly everything that came after, from the primitive roar of the Stooges (Iggy has been quoted as having heard the album very early in the Stooge’s career) to the blistering tempos of hardcore (particularly the Germs and Black Flag, who practically made careers centered around this exact sound).
Like most of my musical experiences, my exposure to the Velvets was very bass-ackward. In much the same way as I was exposed to the Stooges, where my first album of theirs was their second, followed by their third and only then their first, my first Velvet Underground album was their third album, The Velvet Underground. One of my roommates in college had this on vinyl and I instantly fell in love with it (and only then did I get into their second, and lastly their first, albums). Cale had departed by this time, taking with him most of the harsher avant-garde elements, and was replaced by Doug Yule, formerly of the band the Grass Menagerie. The Velvet Underground is an almost quiet and introspective album, particularly compared to the incredible harshness of White Light/White Heat. Side one is a particular revelation, showing again Reed’s ability to craft magnificently beautiful pop songs almost effortlessly. Yule’s presence in the band is emphatically established in the very first song, “Candy Says”, which was sung by Yule. The song is sweet and introspective and sets the tone for this album being a strong departure from their manic second album. The next song is probably my favorite Velvets song of all time, “What Goes On”, which is almost like a blues holler song but then goes into an extended atonal dual guitar and organ solo that shows that they haven’t lost all their avant-garde leanings despite Cale’s departure. This was the song that really introduced me to the intensity of the Velvets. The next song, the funky “Some Kinda Love” is another personal favorite, and its lyrics provided the title for a subsequent Lou Reed anthology, Between Thought and Expression. This is the Velvets at their bluesiest and funkiest; the thumping rhythm seems to have been taken from “Sister Ray” and repurposed for a less raving, more mellow song featuring some of Lou Reed’s weirdest lyrics yet (“Put jelly on your shoulder; let us do what you fear most”). “Pale Blue Eyes” is another soft, slow, mellow song like “Candy Says”; its good but it goes on about one verse too long in my opinion. “Jesus” is a strange song for a guy who wrote about sado-masochism and hard drug abuse to write; it’s literally a modern-day psalm and might be the Velvets’ most unusual song. “I’m Beginning to See the Light” is much more “vintage” Velvets—catchy, rollicking, but also with elements of stridency to it. “I’m Set Free” is yet another high point, noodling along like “Heroin” but building to a big loud chorus that ends with Reed telling us he’s been set free “to find a new illusion”.
Alas, their third album was no better selling than their first two and so the Velvets were soon dropped by their record company. They toured and recorded more material but none of this was released at the time; some of their live material was released as a live album a few years later; the studio stuff was compiled into 1985’s VU. In 1970 they released their fourth album, Loaded. Pressured by their new record label, Atlantic, to produce some radio-friendly hits, Reed complied but felt increasingly uncomfortable with this new direction. As a result, fewer songs were sung by him and more by Yule. The poppy, peppy “Who Loves the Sun” is catchy and affecting but by 1970 this go-go style of music was pretty passé. “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll” of course became two of Reed’s more popular songs; “Sweet Jane” is my favorite from this album but I also like the hip, funky “Cool It Down” and “Head Held High” (which reminds me of “Beginning to See the Light”). “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” is very strange, a honky-tonk rave-up sung by Yule that sounds closer to Little Feat than it does the Stooges. “Train Round the Bend” is the only song that even marginally captures some of the edginess of their prior work, but even here the fuzzed-out guitar is muted and sounds more like Ray Manzarek’s organ on “Hello, I Love You”. Yule sings the final track, the introspective, 70’s-sounding “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’”, which is another terrific song and should have been a big hit.
Even if it had, it might not have changed the outcome: Reed, disaffected by the record company’s involvement and wanting a new set of challenges, left before the album was even finished, and even if there had been a hit its dubious as to whether he’d have returned. Reed of course went on to a memorable if up-and-down solo career, achieving success with the song “Walk on the Wild Side” off the Bowie-produced Transformer. But in 1975 Reed released an album that has polarized critics and listeners ever since: Metal Machine Music. Consisting entirely of vocal-less over-modulated guitar feedback split into 4 “songs”, one to a side, Metal Machine Music was a shockingly radical departure from the tuneful if eccentric songs he’d written on his four prior solo releases. To this day fierce debate rages about whether this was an intentional act of creation by Reed (Reed himself swears it is), an emphatic “fuck you” to his record label, or a deliberate act of self-sabotage toward his career. The answer may well be “d, all of the above”. Even divorced from the strongly negative feelings of his fans at the time of release, with almost forty years of perspective, it’s still hard to appreciate what, if any, musical statement Reed was trying to make. The song is, however, not without precedent in Reed’s own catalog. Many Velvet Underground songs took a harsh, atonal approach sonically, particularly “I Heard Her Call My Name”, though admittedly none so completely abandoned traditional song structure and mechanics (“I Heard Her Call My Name” had lyrics and vocals for example). In 1966, in the earliest days of the Velvets, Andy Warhol and his associate David Dalton released a multimedia “magazine” containing a flexi-disk with the song “Loop” on it, which was credited to the Velvet Underground but was actually produced by Cale. “Loop” consists of a loud, atonal feedback drone that builds and subsides in a way that does seem to eerily presage Reed’s work in “Metal Machine Music”. “Loop” itself seems to recall the work of La Monte Young from this period, particularly “For Brass”, which isn’t surprising given Cale’s affiliation with Young prior to forming the Velvets. “Metal Machine Music” also seems to presage some of the mid to late 70’s work by avant-classical composers such as John Cage, Glenn Branca (such as “Symphony #3 Gloria Third Movement” and “Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar”, and Rhys Chatham’s “Guitar Trio”. Obviously much electronic and industrial music shares an affiliation with this music as well.
So what’s the answer? My personal feeling is that as music MMM is not effective—it’s too dissonant, too purposefully difficult to listen to to be considered a success. If Reed WAS trying to push music in a new direction, he failed miserably (at least initially), since nobody really took this and tried to expand on it, nor did he ever make any attempt to follow up on it. As a statement, as a concept, I think it succeeds, particularly if placed in the context of avant-garde 60’s and 70’s classical, particularly drone and minimalist classical. But it still remains one of the oddest experiments by an artist ever, and as mentioned still divides fans and critics alike as to its merits.
The second polarizing album that is the focus of this post evolved out of the Velvet Underground’s history post-Lou Reed. Reed did not own the name, this was owned by manager Steve Sesnick, and so despite the departure of inarguably the Velvet’s driving force and main talent, Sesnick decided to push on with the Velvet name and the Velvet Underground, now consisting of Doug Yule on lead guitar and vocal, Sterling Morrison on rhythm guitar, Mo Tucker on drums, and Yule’s former Grass Menagerie bandmate Walter Powers on bass. This incarnation of the Velvets toured the East Coast and Europe before Morrison too decided he’d had enough and left to obtain his Ph.D. in medieval literature. He was replaced by Willie Alexander, a third member of the Grass Menagerie. The Yule/Powers/Alexander/Tucker version of the Velvets toured England and the Netherlands in Fall 1971. Sesnick managed to secure the band (probably based on name and reputation alone) a record deal with Polydor in England. In fall of 1972 Yule recorded Squeeze in London; by this time Mo Tucker, while ostensibly a member of the band, was not included in the recording sessions and the percussion was handled instead by former Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice.
It has been reported that the decision to release this album under the Velvet Underground name was Sesnick’s alone, since he controlled it at this point. The extent to which Yule was involved in this decision is hotly debated, and indeed Squeeze itself remains one of the most controversial albums of all time. Velvet purists (or snobs) insist that it is an abomination against nature and they scream for Yule’s blood for participating in such a grotesquerie. But I’m not sure. First of all, as mentioned, Yule may not have had much say-so in this matter given that Sesnick controlled everything on the business end at this point. Almost assuredly Polydor gave him the recording contract based on the Velvet name, which was pretty respected in Europe by this time (it was around this time that David Bowie was covering in concert versions of “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “White Light/White Heat”, bringing his love of Lou Reed’s music and songwriting to a whole new audience). They may not have had much choice in the matter. Second, even if he DID have some say in the outcome, I think it’s pretty hypocritical of anyone to criticize Yule, for many reasons. Until YOU’VE had a chance to be in someone else’s shoes and have to make that decision, I don’t think you can really criticize someone. Complicating matters was the fact that the Velvets had from the very beginning had a rotating lineup, rarely having the same personnel from one album to the next. Hell, Yule was one of the main stable elements, playing on the last three albums (including Squeeze and not including the live albums). Related to this, the Velvets changed styles so easily and often that there isn’t anything stylistic that separates Squeeze from the rest of the Velvets canon; again, if anything Squeeze is at least sonically and lyrically similar to Loaded, which is more than you can say about any other two Velvet albums. The fact that Reed was detaching even during the recording of Loaded, and subsequently gave lead vocals to Yule for 4 songs of the 10 songs on that album, makes the transition between Loaded and Squeeze even more smooth.
And the final thing I have to say about this is, unlike Reed’s Metal Machine Music, Squeeze isn’t bad. If you completely divorce yourself from the controversy of this being labeled a Velvet Underground album, you can see that it is actually an interesting document of early 70’s rock. “Little Jack” starts kind of like Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” but then it has a jaunty, almost 60’s garage-folk feel. I love the twangy guitar here and the acidulous solo (Yule played all instruments save drums). This song is one of many on this album that does not fall far at all from the Velvet tree; Yule had clearly paid attention to Reed’s songwriting and here and on many other songs does a VERY credible job of writing in the same vein.
“Crash”, the second song, is a rollicking little piano ditty that quotes extensively from “Martha My Dear” by the Beatles (It also reminds me of “Make Up” off Reed’s Transformer album), the lyrics are a little corny, and it’s not one of my favorites. “Caroline” too is sort of weak, with its faux-barbershop/Beach Boys chorus that vaguely recalls “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” off Loaded.
“Mean Old Man” starts with a big riff but then settles into a smooth 70’s bar band-ish groove complete with soulful female backing vocals. “Dopey Joe” has the most Lou Reed-ish vocals of any song on Squeeze and its horns and swinging rhythm remind me of some of the pub rock that would emerge from the London music scene in a couple of years when more people rediscovered basic bar band rock. Another thing this reminds me of is some of Jim Croce’s work, specifically “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”.
“Wordless” is another Beatles-Velvets mash-up; anyone liking both bands would probably like this song. But the standout track on this album is “She’ll Make You Cry”, which is easily as good as anything on Loaded and could probably nestle comfortably on The Velvet Underground without embarrassment. It starts with a piercing guitar by Yule that has a slight country twang before launching into his very Reed-esque vocal. The vocal harmonies on the chorus kind of sound like Crosby Stills and Nash a little. This song is quite good, as is the next one, “Friends”, which clearly samples the light, evanescent feel of “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Candy Says” (which was of course sung by Yule) off The Velvet Underground. The backing vocals are very Beatle-esque—soft, sweet “ooooh”s and “aaaaah”s.
“Send No Letter” is a higher tempo rave-up with a prominent piano line that’s okay but is probably a minute or two long. “Jack and Jane” is more of a slow bump and grind that emphasizes its pulsing bass and honking sax. “Louise”, the album ender, is really reminiscent of mid- and late-era Beatles, a cross between “Lovely Rita” and “Maggie Mae”, but with twinges of Mott the Hoople and/or Badfinger.
The final verdict? This would be a marvelously valuable musical artifact that would probably be revered and the LP auctioned on eBay for thousands of dollars had it been released as a Yule solo album. Musically there’s nothing here that’s shameful or terrible, and indeed most of it actually stands up pretty well, particularly in light of its sources of comparison (the Velvets, the Beatles, Lou Reed’s solo work). If you put this on between Loaded and Let It Be, most people at the party wouldn’t even blink twice.
But I can also sympathize with people who are outraged at this being considered a Velvet Underground album. I’ve lived my entire adult life in the “permanent nostalgia tour” era of music, when bands no longer ever break up when they’re out of musical ideas, they instead continue to tour and rake in money from ever-aging fans wishing to reclaim their own youth. Even that’s not the worst crime in the world—if you can still play, and there’s still people who will pay to see you do so, what’s wrong with that? But it does make music a little like watching a cannibal trying to eat his own self. It’s kind of grotesque and never-ending, and it detracts somewhat (at least in my opinion) from viable, fertile bands who are continuing to try to make new music. If all of us just retreated to our little bubble of nostalgia and listened to music from XX years ago, we’d never see anything new and interesting being made. I’m reminded of Homer Simpson saying “Everyone knows rock achieved perfection in 1974”; while we may quibble about the exact year, most of us have a mental time zone in which we feel most comfortable. Again, nothing wrong with that, but life is also about moving yourself OUT of your comfort zone, at least occasionally. If we don’t accept new challenges, new stimuli, we stagnate, and so does our culture. When a critical mass of people is no longer interested in trying something new, what happens to our society?
This gets even worse when bands DO split up but then try to continue on as some two-headed monster; “Dennis DeYoung’s Styx” and “The Original Styx” and so forth come to mind. And I DO have a REAL problem with some minor role player, particularly if he or she was a johnny-come-lately to a band that achieved its greatest success before they arrived, trying to lamely carry on the band under their own aegis. In college one of the frat houses advertised that “Fishbone” was going to play one of their rush parties. Ordinarily I wouldn’t be caught dead in a frat house but I and a bunch of other folks dutifully trekked down Gayley and stood around their beer soaked rumpus room . . . only to find out it was a band where ONE GUY had ONCE been a horn player for Fishbone! Needless to say my punk friends and I were pissed off and tore the place apart.
I don’t know why I’m willing to give Yule a pass here, given those feelings. But for some reason I guess I DON’T hold him accountable for Steve Sesnick’s questionable business ethics, nor to I blame him for trying to make a go of it and doing the best job he could. Often in life we have to play the cards we’re dealt whether they’re winners or not; Yule did an acceptable job of putting out something that isn’t a total embarrassment to the Velvet Underground brand. Call it whatever you like, it’s still an enjoyable slice of 70’s pop/rock from a guy who apprenticed with one of the great songwriters of all time and who clearly learned a thing or two in the process.