Hear The Velvet Underground’s “Legendary Guitar Amp Tapes,” Which Showcases the Brilliance & Innovation of Lou Reed’s Guitar Playing (1969)

What was the Vel­vet Under­ground? A Kim Fow­ly-like art project that out­lived its impre­sar­i­o’s inter­est? A main vehi­cle for Lou Reed, rock’s ego­ma­ni­ac under­dog (who was no one’s ingénue)? Was it three bands? 1. The Vel­vet Under­ground and Nico; 2. The Vel­vet Under­ground with John Cale; and 3. The Vel­vet Under­ground with Doug Yule after Cale’s depar­ture. (Let’s pass by, for the moment, whether VU with­out Reed war­rants a men­tion…)

Each iter­a­tion pio­neered essen­tial under­ground sounds — dirgy Euro-folk rock, strung-out New York garage rock, junkie bal­lads, psy­che­del­ic drone, exper­i­men­tal noise — near­ly all of them chan­neled through Reed’s under­rat­ed gui­tar play­ing, which was, per­haps the most impor­tant mem­ber of the band all along. Who­ev­er taped the Vel­vets (in their sec­ond incar­na­tion) on March 15, 1969, on the last night of a three-show engage­ment at The Boston Tea Par­ty in Boston, MA, seemed to think so. “The entire set was record­ed by a fan direct­ly from Lou Reed’s gui­tar ampli­fi­er,” MetaFil­ter points out.

The mic jammed in the back of Reed’s amp, a Head Her­itage review­er writes, pro­duced “a mighty elec­tron­ic roar that reveals the depth and lay­ers of Reed’s play­ing. Over and under­tones, feed­back, string buzz, the scratch of fin­gers on frets and the crack­le and hum of tube amps com­bine to cre­ate a mono­lith­ic blast of met­al machine music.” Known as the “leg­endary gui­tar amp tape” and long sought by col­lec­tors and fans, the boot­leg, which you can hear above, “serves as a tes­ta­ment to the bril­liance and inno­va­tion of Reed’s gui­tar-play­ing — both qual­i­ties that are often under­rat­ed, if not over­looked entire­ly, by crit­ics of his work,” as Richie Unter­berg­er writes.

It should be evi­dent thus far that these record­ings are hard­ly a com­pre­hen­sive doc­u­ment of the Vel­vet Under­ground in ear­ly 1969. Except for Mo Tuck­er’s glo­ri­ous, but muf­fled thump­ing and some of Ster­ling Mor­rison’s excel­lent gui­tar inter­play, the rest of the band is hard­ly audi­ble. Songs like “Can­dy Says” and “Jesus” — on which Reed does not cre­ate sub­lime swirls of noise and feed­back — chug along monot­o­nous­ly with­out their melodies. “It is frus­trat­ing,” Unter­berg­er admits, “to hear such a one-dimen­sion­al audio-snap­shot of what is clear­ly a good — if not great — night for the band” (who were far more than one of their parts). On the oth­er hand, nowhere else can we hear the nuance, feroc­i­ty, and out­right insan­i­ty of Reed’s play­ing so amply demon­strat­ed on the major­i­ty of this doc­u­ment.

The tape cir­cu­lat­ed for years as a Japan­ese boot­leg, an inter­est­ing fact, notes a Rate Your Music com­menter, “con­sid­er­ing this bears more sim­i­lar­i­ty to record­ings from the likes of [leg­endary Japan­ese psych rock band] Les Ral­lizes Dénudés than most of the Vel­vet Under­ground’s oth­er mate­r­i­al.” The record­ings may have well paved the way for the explo­sion of Japan­ese psy­che­del­ic rock to come. They also demon­strate the influ­ence of Ornette Cole­man in Reed’s play­ing, and the lib­er­at­ing phi­los­o­phy Cole­man would come to call Har­molod­ics.

“Alla that boo-ha about whether Reed real­ly was influ­enced by free jazz,” writes one review­er quot­ed on MetaFil­ter, “can be put to rest here as he pulls the kind of wail­ing hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry shapes from the gui­tar that it would take the god­dam Blue Humans to decode a cou­ple of decades lat­er.” It may well over­state the case to claim that “Lou Reed sin­gle-hand­ed­ly invent­ed under­ground music,” but we can hear in these record­ings the seeds of every­thing from Tele­vi­sion to Son­ic Youth to Pave­ment to Roy­al Trux and so much more. See the full track­list below, a “clas­sic setlist,” notes MetaFil­ter, “from around the time of their 3rd LP.”

I Can’t Stand It
Can­dy Says
I’m Wait­ing For The Man
Fer­ry­boat Bill
I’m Set Free
What Goes On
White Light White Heat
Begin­ning To See The Light
Hero­in / Sis­ter Ray
Move Right In
Run Run Run
Fog­gy Notion

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Andy Warhol Explains Why He Decid­ed to Give Up Paint­ing & Man­age the Vel­vet Under­ground Instead (1966)

Hear Ornette Cole­man Col­lab­o­rate with Lou Reed, Which Lou Called “One of My Great­est Moments”

The Vel­vet Under­ground Cap­tured in Col­or Con­cert Footage by Andy Warhol (1967)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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