Important as they were, the Velvet Underground were remarkably under-documented. Their four canonical studio albums are from very different phases of their career, and despite the universally received notion that they were way better live than in the studio, most of the evidence for that notion has come from crappy-sounding bootlegs. This has just changed, with the legit release of seven discs’ worth of (more-or-less crappy-sounding) live recordings that fill in some blanks in their history with unexpected answers.
Robert Quine, later a guitarist with Richard Hell & the Voidoids and Lou Reed himself, was a huge Velvet Underground fan, and he recorded a bunch of their St. Louis and San Francisco shows in 1969. Four hours of those recordings have just been released as a three-CD set, The Velvet Underground Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes (PolyGram), and it reveals a weird and uncomfortable truth about the Velvets: the godfathers of punk rock were actually a jam band, or at least had become one by the end of the ’60s. The average song length on The Quine Tapes is 10 minutes, and a lot of old favorites are converted into vehicles for extended guitar soloing. ("I’m Waiting for the Man," originally a primal stomp, appears twice: once slow and once near-catatonic.)
On White Light/White Heat, the Velvets’ signature song, "Sister Ray," was a one-take, one-riff, 17-minute blowout — the wreckage left by a garage band in full attack mode. On the three half-hour-long versions here, they slow it down, mutate it, and noodle noodle noodle until they recall Quicksilver Messenger Service or Canned Heat. "Follow the Leader," a new addition to the canon, is straight-ahead boogie — not at all bad, but a reminder that they’d once been the house band for Andy Warhol’s marathon parties and could pass for a party act when they wanted to. Even through the distant amateur recording, you can hear bursts of raw invention here, the bandmembers shifting into a colossal noise monster at whim, or challenging one another to approach an old song in a new way.
Meanwhile, there’s a second, less-heralded new Velvets boxed set: Final V.U. 1971-1973 (Captain Trip). Reed left the Velvet Underground in late 1970, but they didn’t break up then; with bassist Doug Yule leading the band, they toured Europe, recorded another (awful) album, Squeeze, and staggered on for a few more years. Final V.U., assembled from Yule’s personal archive, documents four concerts from the post-Reed period, all of which lean heavily on the Reed repertoire — they all begin with "I’m Waiting for the Man," and we get three more versions of "Sister Ray." (As a bonus, the lyric book includes the legendary mistranscriptions from the first Japanese edition of The Velvet Underground and Nico: "Whoop on me, sir it spins from my mind/I’m just looking for two different of mine.") Singleminded drum goddess Maureen Tucker is along for the first two shows, as is inimitable Boston rocker Willie Alexander; by the third disc, there are no original members left in the band; by the fourth, even they aren’t calling themselves the Velvet Underground any more. Yule told me a few years ago that his 1973 band’s promoter booked them as the Velvets against his instructions, and they played Velvet Underground songs because "we didn’t want to be lynched, and it’s real easy to do ’em.’ "
The surprising thing about Final V.U. is that even the post-Reed, post–John Cale, post–Sterling Morrison, post-Tucker band sound like the Velvet Underground — arguably more like the Velvets of cultural memory than The Quine Tapes does, if a lot less inspired. And, wretched sound quality aside, some of the performances aren’t bad at all. (Well, they’re not so hot by VU standards, but plenty of bands would be justly proud of them.) The joke that Yule ruefully cites in the liner notes is that he was Reed’s "evil twin," and a couple of his original songs are egregious Reed imitations, but he was actually more the lost sibling of the band who had played at the Factory in 1966. The error of Yule’s Velvet Underground wasn’t that he continued the band without the founders; it was that part of VU’s genius had been the way they evolved beyond their roots, and he tried to go back to the place they’d left.