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life after John Cale
on 25 November 2014
Here it comes now, the third and (presumably) final instalment of the Velvet Underground super deluxe reissues from Universal. The format (10"x12" hardback book with cardboard slots for the CDs) is identical to the first two.
As with The Velvet Underground & Nico, there are 6 CDs, with the last two being live recordings. Like White Light/White Heat, however, the essay is by David Fricke, and again as with WL/WH it told me a lot less that I didn't already know than Richie Unterberger's essay with the VU&N super deluxe, though again there are fascinating quotes from band members, most particularly from a recent interview with Doug Yule undertaken specifically for this project.
Unlike both previous super deluxe outings, this one contains three mixes of the original album - the "Closet Mix" by Lou Reed, the Val Valentin mix insisted upon by Verve/MGM because they weren't too keen on Reed's mix, and a mono mix described as "Promotional Mono Mix", meaning it was presumably only issued to radio stations and didn't make it into record shops. David Fricke asserts in his essay that it was the Closet mix which was originally issued on LP in 1969 and the Val Valentin mix later replaced it - this applies to the USA but in the UK it was the other way round - the first edition was the Val Valentin mix (sent to UK Polydor in error) and the second, from 1971, was the Closet mix. Things got more complicated with the arrival of CDs - on the earliest CD issue, one half of the album was from the Closet mix and one half from the Val Valentin mix; this error was fairly quickly rectified in favour of the Val Valentin mix and the Closet mix then turned up in its entirety on Peel Slowly & See but to my knowledge has never been available separately on a standalone CD.
Let's look at the contents. As with the super deluxe editions of their first two albums, the following considerations apply for fans considering purchase:
1. The mastering
2. The mono mix
3. The studio extras
4. The live recording
5. The amount of previously unheard content
Is absolutely fine, though headphones reveal quite a lot of hiss in places. Of course both stereo mixes of the original album have already been available in respectable masterings.
The mono mix:
My sense of anticipation for this wasn't at the same level as it was for the mono WL/WH. Just as well, as it sounds suspiciously like a bounce-down of the stereo Closet mix - as well as sounding very similar, it uses the same take of Some Kinda Love - the Val Valentin mix used a completely different take. The Murder Mystery perhaps inevitably doesn't work well in mono - the two recitations just interfere with each other when not separated into left and right channels - but the rest of the album sounds fine, just not very different.
The studio extras:
CD 2 (The Closet Mix) contains a bonus track in the shape of Beginning To See The Light (Alternate Closet Mix). Presumably rejected in favour of the released Closet mix version, it's slightly inferior to that version and is of course the same take. CD 3 (Promotional Mono Mix) contains two bonus tracks in the shape of the single versions of What Goes On and Jesus. Both mono, the former is an edit but otherwise sounds identical to the full length mono version; the latter is effectively indistinguishable from the mono album version; someone with sharper ears than me may be able to discern some minor difference.
CD 4 contains all the studio material the Velvets recorded in 1969 after the original release of this album, ostensibly for a fourth album which didn't get issued at the time. All of this material first saw the (legal) light of day in 1985 and 1986 on the albums VU and Another View (along with a few tracks recorded when John Cale was still in the band, which have been reissued on the deluxe & super deluxe versions of White Light/White Heat.) Most of the tracks on VU and Another View were newly mixed for those releases - only 4 of the original 1969 mixes (Ocean, I'm Gonna Move Right In, Ferryboat Bill and Rock & Roll) were used. Those 4 appear here and are joined by another 4 previously unissed original 1969 mixes and 6 brand new mixes from 2014 - the 1984 and 1986 mixes, which sound very much of their time, have been consigned to the dumper. Straight away, the 1969 mix of Foggy Notion is way superior to the 1984 mix - weightier, and less reverb on the snare. Next up is a new mix of One Of These Days; the new mix has clearly been done in the spirit of the 1969 mixes rather than the over-reverbed 1984/86 mixes. Happily, this applies throughout - whether 1969 or 2014 mixes have been used, they are hugely superior to the 1980s ones, and the four songs that were always available in 1969 mixes are far better mastered than they were 30 years ago. What seemed in some cases to be rather slight, poppy tunes sound far more convincing here than they did with their 1980s mixes and mastering. Given that the contents of this disc are only available in the super deluxe edition, Universal really ought to consider issuing it separately, preferably with the Cale tracks added, though the latter are at least available in the 2 CD version of WL/WH.
The live recording
Consists of recordings made at the Matrix in San Francisco on 26-27 November 1969; it isn't stated whether this represents 2 gigs or one that went on past midnight but if it's the former the individual tracks aren't specified to one night or the other. Note also that the two tracks here that appeared on The Quine Tapes (Rock And Roll was also on 1969 Live) were supposedly recorded on different dates (Sister Ray on 3 December, Rock And Roll on 25 November) so one must be wrong. The Matrix had an in-house 4-track recording system and performances there appear to have been routinely recorded, though due to the expense of half inch tape they were quite often recorded over, which apparently happened to quite a lot of the Velvet Underground recordings from earlier in their quite lengthy residency at the venue. Six of these performances (Some Kinda Love, Beginning To See The Light, Lisa Says, Rock And Roll, White Light/White Heat and Sweet Jane) were first issued in 1974 on 1969 Velvet Underground Live, along with more from the Matrix and a few from a slightly earlier gig in Texas; it's unknown whether the other tracks on that album from the Matrix were recorded on the same night(s) as the ones here.
What isn't clear is whether the compilers of 1969 Velvet Underground Live had access to the 4-track tapes or were just given mix-downs; given the slight crackles on some tracks there, it may even have been acetates. Either way, the difference in sound quality is staggering; I've always found the recordings on 1969 Live entirely listenable and it's one of my all-time favourite albums but they were undoubtedly of "good bootleg" quality. Here, the compilers HAVE had access to the 4-track tapes and we now have 2 hours of the best-sounding live Velvet Underground recordings ever to see the light of day, legally or otherwise. Not just marginally the best-sounding, but by the proverbial country mile - the recordings are amazingly clean-sounding, with considerable weight and punch where appropriate, begging the very obvious questions of "how much more is there?" and "when do we get a remixed/remastered/expanded version of 1969 Live?" or, if there's a lot more of this stuff, "when do we get the Velvets at the Matrix box set?" - though my earlier remark about many of the tapes from earlier in their residency being taped over is sourced from a quote of the guy that ran the venue at the time, so perhaps the latter is not very likely. We can at least hope that the multi-tracks also exist for the Matrix recordings on 1969 Live that aren't duplicated here.
As well as the 6 tracks that first appeared on 1969 Live, the version of Sister Ray here first appeared on The Quine Tapes, mastered from a cassette recording - again, the improvement in quality is massive, though there is a sudden drop in quality for about 30 seconds round about the 33 minute mark, which suggests that the tape may have run out and a little bit of Robert Quine's cassette recording had to be inserted. The remaining 11 tracks have never seen the light of day before. It seems very likely that at least some of these recordings were considered for 1969 Live and rejected - where different versions of the same songs appear on that album, they are generally superior to the versions here, though not by much - the overall standard is very high. Finally, 4 songs here did not appear on 1969 Live at all - Venus In Furs (replacing John Cale's viola with organ); a particularly unexpected (and very fast) run though of There She Goes Again; and excellent if fairly straight versions of I'm Set Free and After Hours.
The amount of previously unheard content:
While there are a lot of previously unheard mixes of studio material here, and in the case of the 1969 recordings this is a far from insignificant bonus, there are no previously unheard studio recordings here at all. But as detailed above, 11 of the 18 live tracks have never ever seen the light of day before, and some of them are superb.
Like the super deluxe editions of the Velvets' first two albums, this is a superbly produced item containing iconic and brilliant music; this set is certainly better value than the 3 CD super deluxe version of White Light/White Heat. There are two very strong reasons for buying this if you're a serious Velvets fan - the massively superior mixes/mastering of the 1969 "4th album" material, and the staggeringly good sound quality of the live material. As a result, the relatively disappointing mono mix doesn't dent the desirability of the set overall. Unlike the WL/WH super deluxe, it also beats the 2 CD "Deluxe" version hands down: CD 1 of the deluxe edition is the Val Valentin mix of the original album, i.e. you can still only get the Closet mix on a box set - this one or Peel Slowly & See; CD 2 is a "best" of the Matrix recordings, omitting We're Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together, Venus In Furs, There She Goes Again, Sister Ray, I'm Set Free and After Hours - all previously unissued performances except for Sister Ray. Personally I think the opportunity to hear that Sister Ray in good quality is one of the main reasons to go for the Super Deluxe, along with the audio justice finally done to the 1969 recordings, none of which are on the deluxe edition.
November 2015 postscript: all the live performances included on CDs 5 & 6 here have now been reissued as part of "The Complete Matrix Tapes", leaving this set looking much less good value than it did a year ago. Its remaining USPs are now the Closet and mono mixes of the studio album (of which you may have the former as part of "Peel Slowly And See" and really don't need the latter) and the 1969 studio material - and it can surely only be a matter of time before that comes out separately.