In October, The Velvet Underground announced they’d be releasing a reissue of their third album — “The Velvet Underground” (1969) — to celebrate its 45th anniversary. However, what came out on Nov. 24 was certainly not an average reissue from the legendary band, but instead a six disc, 65 track, “super deluxe” reissue of their work — including songs from their 1969 record and much, much more. This isn’t the Velvet’s first reissue either, after releasing a box set for “The Velvet Underground & Nico” (1967) for its 45th anniversary in 2012, and a reissue of “White Light/White Heat” (1968) just last year.
The first three discs for the re-release of “The Velvet Underground,” precursor to 1970’s “Loaded,” feature different takes on the album as a whole. One disc is a mix of Lou Reed’s personal “Closet Mix,” a “mono mix,” according to Kory Grow with Rolling Stone, that was released on promotional copies of the album. Another is a mix from MGM house engineer Luis Pastor Valentin.
The 1969 release was originally considered a stark departure from the Velvet’s previous, harsher “Heroin” (1967) sound. It featured largely ballads and seemingly straightforward songs like “What Goes On” and “Candy Says.” David Fricke, a reviewer for Rolling Stone who also compiled the liner notes for the latest reissue, remarked in 1985 that the “ironic pairing” of the tracks “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Jesus” represented “the hopeful warmth at the center of the Velvets’ rage.”
The fourth disc of the super deluxe set, however, consists of 10 previously unheard songs from the band, based on recordings made at New York City’s Record Plant in 1969. Many of these tracks were eventually re-recorded by Lou Reed for his solo work. According to Grow, these tracks embody what the band’s “fourth album could have been.” Instead, their fourth attempt was “Loaded,” Lou Reed’s final record with the Velvets and one of the band’s most popular.
Finally, the last two discs consist of stunning, sobering recordings of a performance The Velvet Underground gave at Matrix in San Francisco in November 1969, featuring beautiful renditions of earlier songs like “Heroin” and “White Light/White Heat.” But what if you’re not a die-hard fan, willing to splurge on the $99.98 copy of the 45th anniversary edition on Amazon? Well, have no fear. There’s a version fit for the common folk, or common college student, comprised of only the two disc set of the re-release of the third album, and the San Francisco live recordings, which closes with a mellow, sobering, even haunting performance of “Sweet Jane” (1972).
So what does one gain from this reissue? Is it not just another ploy for yet another record company to make a few more bucks from music produced almost fifty years ago? Perhaps instead, it’s a chance for one to listen a bit more closely and explore once again the strange, avant garde nuances of tracks like “The Murder Mystery,” the odd second-to last track, in juxtaposition to the seemingly easygoing closer “After Hours.”
Or perhaps reissues like these are for the fans who love to over-intellectualize an artist’s work. Doug Yule, bassist of The Velvet Underground, once said in an interview with VICE that “there’s such a little bit of material on the Velvets that any material that comes out, people are interested in and want to hear it. You know, to hear the variation.” He also noted that recordings of live shows — often quite spontaneous, according to Yule — were often “really fascinating to listen to because it’s the first time I’ve heard that stuff. I imagine people who listen to it have a similar, but of course different, connection to it as well.”
With The Velvet Underground’s long-lasting legacy, it’s quite certain that the band’s music would live on vibrantly without reissues like last month’s. However, every listen — particularly when hearing the unreleased live tracks — offers something new to discover, an intriguing variation that invites one to continually explore, and proves that the Velvets will continue their influence much beyond “The Velvet Underground’s” 45th anniversary.