45 Years Ago: The Velvet Underground Make Their Commercial Move on ‘Loaded’
Lou Reed wanted to be a star in 1970. It wasn't always this way. On the first three albums he made with the Velvet Underground, he was contentious, abrasive and as far from the mainstream as an artist could get in the latter part of the '60s. But when the time came for the band to make its fourth album, Loaded, in 1970, Reed was ready for his close-up.
The group had already gone through a change on its last album, 1969's self-tilted LP, a late-night folk record that featured its new bass player, Doug Yule, who replaced John Cale, Reed's main sparring partner on those first two more aggressive works. But when they entered New York's Atlantic Recording Studios in April 1970 to begin sessions for Loaded, Reed was tired of his underground status. Plus, the label was pushing for something way more commercial. None of the band's albums had sold particularly well, and most of the country was having a difficult time wrapping its ears around the Velvet Underground's noise rock.
So, taking a cue from The Velvet Underground's softer tones, he dialed down the feedback, the distortion, the sex-and-drug-themed lyrics, the inscrutable lyrics and the general sense of anarchy that ran through the band's first two LPs. As Reed only half-jokingly said at the time, the record would be "loaded with hits." And indeed, Loaded was a crisp, concise work that would have sounded great on the nation's burgeoning FM radio stations.
Or so was the plan. By the time the album was released in November, Reed was gone, and the record's mix became a controversial sparring point. Two of Loaded's best songs -- "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll" -- were presented in edited versions that Reed claimed he never approved. Yule later countered that Reed edited the songs himself, aiming for a tighter sound that radio would be more likely to accept. (Either way, the longer versions of the songs have turned up on various reissues over the years, including a six-disc 45th-anniversary edition released in 2015.)
None of this really mattered in the end, though. Loaded, like all of the Velvet Underground's albums, stalled on the charts (the highest any of them ever got was 1967's debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, which made it to No. 171). Loaded stopped short of the Top 200, settling at No. 202. Which is a shame, because the album, more than any of the group's other records, could have been a hit, given the chance.
The songs are impeccably played (drummer Maureen Tucker was pregnant during the recording, so her input was minimal; Yule and session drummers fill in), and the songs -- all written by Reed -- are among his most mainstream-friendly (both "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll" would become FM radio staples in the '70s with Reed's electric versions from his live Rock N Roll Animal album).
In the liner notes to 1995's excellent boxed set Peel Slowly and See, Reed noted that "it's still called a Velvet Underground record. But what it really is is something else." And in a way, he has a point. For the most part, the record sounds like nothing else in the group's brief catalog (they made one more album, 1973's Squeeze, with Yule at the helm, but nobody really talks about that one for obvious reasons). Some of that has to do with Yule, who sings lead on four of the album's 10 songs. But much of that has to do with the record's commercial bows.
All these years later, Loaded sounds like the culmination of a group that most daring music fans wouldn't catch up to until much later. It's not a representative starting point for the band, but it is its most accessible work, an album that sounds, appropriately, as much a part of the late '60s as it does the early '70s. And, in more ways than one, it sounds like the end. But it's a fitting end, one that gave a last shot towards finding a bigger audience. It didn't happen, and wouldn't happen for another 15 years at least. Even at its most commercial, the band was way ahead of its time.
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