Top positive review
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none more black!
on 9 December 2013
This edition, like the similar one of The Velvet Underground & Nico, is billed as a "45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition" and has an identical format of a (roughly) 10" x 12" hardback book with cardboard slots for the CDs at the back. As with the VU&N super deluxe edition, it contains stereo and mono versions of the original album, extras and out-takes and a live recording.
But there the resemblance ends. Firstly, it contains only 3 CDs as opposed to 6 - the relatively small difference in price between the two indicates that you're mostly paying for the book, but while this is beautifully produced as with the VU&N, it's considerably slimmer - 56 pp as against 88 - and 5 of those pages are occupied by large print quotes lifted from elsewhere in the text (as opposed to only 1 with VU&N). While much of the content is similar - an essay, photos and gig posters - there's much less of it, and unlike the VU&N you don't get the lyrics. With regard to the photos, which are excellent as far as they go, this is not surprising - during the VU&N era they were part of Warhol's Factory milieu and far more regularly photographed. By the time they recorded WL/WH they'd cut their ties with Warhol and were on their own. The essay (by David Fricke) is not only much shorter than Richie Unterberger's in the VU&N but told me a lot less that I didn't already know, though it contains a lot of good quotes of the band members.
However, now we come to the musical contents. There are 5 considerations for the fan who already has a relatively recently mastered version of the stereo mix on CD:
1. The mastering
2. The mono mix
3. The studio extras
4. The live recording
5. The amount of previously unheard content
Is fine. But I can't hear much difference between the stereo mix and the most recent remaster I'm aware of (dating from late 1990s/early 2000s?). Whereas the VU&N Super Deluxe was notably changed and improved from the early 2000s Deluxe Edition. This of course isn't to say that there's anything wrong with it - it sounds great, as does the mono mix.
The mono mix:
I've waited decades to hear this. It's fair to say it doesn't reveal any spectacular surprises - the different runtimes, alternate guitar parts etc. etc. that are common between mono and stereo mixes of rock albums from c.1965-68 are completely absent and one is left with the faint suspicion that the mono mix was created by combining the channels of the stereo mix - does anyone know? It certainly sounds ... more concentrated, and perhaps a shade better. But nothing dramatic. It's interesting to hear the most obviously stereo tracks (The Gift and Lady Godiva's Operation) in mono, and they both work fine. Sister Ray sounds superb - it all does, frankly - but it just isn't very different from the stereo mix, give or take the lack of channel separation on The Gift.
The studio extras:
The two studio discs contain additional material as follows:
CD 1: I Heard Her Call My Name (alternate take) - much of the guitar sounds so similar to the issued take that I'm tempted to believe this is just an alternate mix, though such a different mix that it sounds much more different from either the mono or stereo album mixes than they do from each other. Guess I'm Falling In Love (instrumental version) - this was issued on Another View but has been remixed for this release and sounds far better; it's faster than the live version (see below) but wouldn't be quite as good even if it had vocals. Temptation Inside Your Heart and Stephanie Says are not the 1984 mixes that appeared on VU but appear to be original 1968 stereo mixes, which were first issued on the Gold compilation in the 2000s, which many fans would have ignored, assuming they had it all already; Peel Slowly And See contained the same 1984 mixes as VU. The two takes of Hey Mr Rain that previously appeared on Another View have also been newly remixed and sound pretty good. And finally there's a previously unissued Cale-era version of Beginning To See The Light with a great, stomping beat and a partly different lyric. This is the only additional studio track that is a completely unheard recording.
CD 2: the first 2 extras here are mono single mixes of White Light/White Heat and Here She Comes Now. Any differences from the LP mono mixes will only be apparent to those with extremely sharp hearing, especially WL/WH. These are followed by isolated vocal and instrumental versions of The Gift, which are very welcome but frankly you can create these at home from a stereo version very easily - I did some years ago.
The live recording:
At last, a complete legal release for the legendary 30 April 1967 performance at The Gymnasium in NYC. This was one of the Velvets' last gigs as part of Warhol's entourage and they didn't play live in New York again for over 3 years. A couple of tracks (Guess I'm Falling In Love and Booker T) leaked out in the 80s - the former on a bootleg and the latter initially on a John Cale album before both subsequently appeared on the Peel Slowly And See box set. Most of the rest came out as a more complete bootleg a few years ago. It's unclear who recorded it, or how - John Cale claims to have been given a copy a few decades back but not to know its source - but the sound quality is staggeringly good apart from a number of drops and surges of volume which to my ears should have been easy to correct as the sound quality isn't dramatically affected. If it's an audience recording, it was done with quality equipment, but the lack of audience noise and the often too-loud vocals (occasionally clipping, unfortunately) suggest a reel-to-reel fed from the mixer. Unlike the very rough-sounding Valleydale Ballroom recording that appeared in the VU&N super deluxe set, this tape has been looked after and was in good enough condition to be capable of further mastering improvement - it sounds considerably better than the already quite good quality bootleg. So it's hard to understand why those volume variations were left in.
The recording shows the Velvets in grungy rock'n'roll mode - it starts off with the scuzzy jam of Booker T, continues with the previously unheard I'm Not A Young Man Anymore - not their greatest song but chugs away merrily and features lots of great guitar and pumping bass. Guess I'm Falling In Love sounds better than ever and features some of the best rock'n'roll guitar playing ever recorded. Two songs from VU&N follow; I'm Waiting For The Man is about halfway between the studio version and the 1969 Live version; the vocals are bit too loud, as they are also in Run Run Run. Sister Ray suffers initially from some feedback on the vocals; it's cleaner sounding than the studio version, slower and a bit stiff rhythmically; the vocals are still mixed too high and the organ takes a while to make its presence felt but it's fascinating to hear such an early live version and like all the tracks here it's chock full of fantastic and well-recorded guitar playing. Finally, we get a version of The Gift. Booker T has long been confused with The Gift and the recent bootleg of this gig didn't clear up the confusion because it included neither. Once you've heard this, although they're fairly similar it's clearly apparent that Booker T is NOT The Gift because THIS quite plainly is. Although at this point it's still an instrumental, it's a fully formed version of the backing track used for The Gift on WL/WH. If this is the whole of the gig, this quite laid-back (if very grungy!) jam seems a strange way to end - one is left thinking there might be more, but presumably this is all John Cale had and it's great to hear something that wasn't on the bootleg. It's also worth noting that it's not at all clear if this is the correct running order - on the bootleg (which lacks the two instrumentals) the running order was otherwise the same but I'm Not A Young Man Anymore was preceded by tuning up which has been edited off here, so it could well have been the beginning of the set; who knows where Booker T belongs, in that case? Most of the songs are completely separate edits, dating perhaps from before the tape was given to John Cale.
The amount of previously unheard content:
While there are a lot of mix variants on the original album and studio extras, the whole 3 CD box only contains 2 recordings (Beginning To See The Light and the live version of The Gift) that are completely new and haven't even (to my knowledge) come out on bootlegs, though as noted above the live recording has never sounded so good despite the failure to correct the volume variations. All the other studio songs except Temptation Inside Your Heart, Stephanie Says and the 2 45 versions are previously unissued mixes. It's a shame that they didn't feel able to include any 1968 live recordings of the Cale line-up in this box - some of them are quite listenable and available recordings of the Cale-era 4-piece without Nico are pretty thin on the ground to say the least. I can certainly see myself playing the Gymnasium gig quite regularly, and you can't say that for the hard-to-listen-to Valleydale Ballroom gig included in the VU&N super deluxe edition.
This is a superbly produced item and the musical content is iconic and brilliant. But at nearly £50 for 3 CDs and a nice but not particularly content rich book it seems overpriced to me. While the mono version sounds great, it doesn't sound sufficiently different from the equally great-sounding stereo version to make its reissue 46 years on as massively desirable as I'd hoped it would be. If you love the original album you'll want it, but I'd say this is for real completists - especially those who haven't managed to acquire the Gymnasium bootleg, which is, in any case, available in the 2 CD version for a quarter of the price. In those circumstances I've docked this emphatically 5 star album a point for the price, the paucity of previously unheard content, the too-great similarity between the mono and stereo mixes and the failure to correct the volume variations on the live recording.
Finally ... the appearance of this edition (nearly a year after the 45th anniversary it ostensibly commemorates) does suggest that in a year or so we will see a similar set issued for the Velvets' 3rd album. It will contain the Val Valentin and Lou Reed stereo mixes of the original album, perhaps the very rare mono mix, a substantial chunk of the post-Cale content from VU and Another View (unless that's going to be the subject of a fourth super deluxe set, which I seriously doubt) and one of their many gigs at the Boston Tea Party.