Decisions, Op. 37

posted by Tom Moon on May 19, 2009 at 4:01 pm
in , , ,

Or, why the Velvet Underground & Nico and not White Light/White Heat.

One of the trickiest aspects of developing the list for 1000 Recordings involved starting points: Where should someone who’s a newcomer to a particular artist begin? In some cases, there’s a clear “first” option (Kind of Blue for the Miles Davis newbie, for example), but often it’s possible to make compelling arguments for several records. There’s no “right” or “wrong” in those arguments – often the defining characteristics of an artist manifest differently over time. Distinctions the rock snob might consider to be vital won’t matter much to the junior explorer.

This was exactly the predicament I faced with the Velvet Underground, the pathfinding New York band that has influenced virtually every generation of rockers since the early ‘70s. I discovered the band, as many did, through R.E.M. – after reading some interview with guitarist Peter Buck, I hunted down White Light/White Heat and became a convert. (Not instantly, I confess: It took me a while to appreciate the tangled drug-tinged delerium of “I Heard Her Call My Name,” for one thing.) By the time of this, its second record, the band was approaching sound from a completely new direction – its notions of noise and texture register not as quaint abstractions, but sharp electrical jolts to the nervous system. The music announces itself as a visceral experience, a “feel now, think about it later,” vibe well suited to the assorted deviances (kinky sex, amphetamines) celebrated in the lyrics.

As a dispatch from the debauched rock and roll fantasy, White Light is impossible to beat. But it’s too strong to be a gateway drug. And it helps to approach it with some persepctive – it becomes more monumental if you go back a year, to the shorter and somewhat less volatile songs of The Velvet Underground & Nico. This set doesn’t have the explosiveness of White Light, but it catches the nihilistic bent of the band in its nascent state, and offers crucial context for the revolution that was just around the corner. I’m not one of those people who think debut albums are always the best, but listening chronologically, I had to admit that as much as I love White Light, sometimes it really is better to start at the beginning.

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#1 from Mike - 05/22/2009 5:24

Great post, Tom.  I had a similar experience when trying to introduce a friend to the Velvet Underground.  White Light/White Heat is one of the most intense and musically imaginative albums ever made, but one needs to be prepared for it.  I heard White Light/ Heat third, after The Velvet Underground (which might still be my favorite) and Loaded; Nico was actually the last album I heard.  By the time I got to White Light/Heat, I was totally sold on VU, and was ready for it.  I introduced my friend to VU in exactly the same order, and she became a life long convert.  I guarantee that if she had heard White Light first, she would have been turned off.

One thing that did happen to me after White Light/Heat was that I became way more interested in and tolerant of experimentation; I was about ten when I heard it for the first time.  I know I would never have been able to handle Trout Mask Replica without White Light/Heat first, for example.

#2 from Adam, New Jersey - 05/22/2009 9:47

This makes me think of learning a song through a cover and then coming upon the original version.  Also, some bands went down a rabbithole and were completely transformed - the best example of this is, per Tom, Fleetwood Mac.

#3 from tom, Austin - 05/23/2009 3:48

Tom, your blog posts don’t render properly in Google Reader.  Could you ask your technical person to investigate, and possibly fix it?  In Google reader, all of the text is squished together without line breaks or paragraph spaces.

#4 from Lance, Seattle - 05/25/2009 6:55

Certain records do require some some foundation and background, almost as if the listener has to build up skills and experience to really hear and appreciate more complex and unique sounds.  I see the same thing happening in films and novels.

I am still at the “The Velvet Underground & Nico” level as far as V.U. is concerned, but I did like pieces of “White Light”.  Plus, it set me up to appreciate other bands, like Pavement and Sonic Youth.

This whole discussion begs another question that has been bothering me for quite some time: How many times should I listen to an album before it “clicks or doesn’t click” for me?

I know there isn’t a straight forward answer to this question, but I am often troubled that I give up on certain critically acclaimed albums because I just don’t get it.

Albums like “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” and “Marquee Moon” initially turned me off because of the strange sounding vocals.  Then, one day, I had an epiphany and heard how great they really are—those are great moments.  “Trout Mask Replica” and “Loveless” were two more major epiphanies just because they didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard before.

Other albums, like “That’s Entertainment” and most Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones albums have never connected with me no matter how many times I listen to them.  Meanwhile, music critics and good friends insist that certain albums are great.  It’s as if they occupy a cloistered and coveted area of musical enlightenment that I cannot reach.

Or maybe the answer is simply: three.

#5 from Adam, New Jersey - 05/26/2009 5:39

I really like that post.  First, it reminds me of the Seattle librarian, Nancy Pearl, who wrote the book “Book Lust.”  In it, she suggests spending 50 pages on a book and if it doesn’t click to put it asid.

Second, one of the things that you mention has to do with genre and aesthetics.  As far as genre goes, there is an idea that when a new genre is created it is ugly, but its second generation is more beautiful (this is a Gertrude Stein idea).  So, perhaps Captain Beefheart is ugly, but Tom Waits is more beautiful.  Also, there is the idea of “good” as in good for you - albums that for the history of music are important touchstones or turning points - and albums that you want to listen to.  The best quote on this is Neil Young.  When it was pointed out to him that “Sweet Home Alabama” is an answer song to “Southern Man” his comment was that if he woke up in the morning he’d rather have “Sweet Home Alabama” on the radio than “Southern Man” any day.

(And I totally agree with you about Marquee Moon.)

#6 from Tom Moon - 05/26/2009 7:32


Thanks for that comment. Your question about “how much is enough?” really got me thinking. I am working on a post that responds to this, and takes on a bit of the huge topic “how to listen,” so stay tuned.

Thanks again….


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