Graded on a Curve: Velvet Goldmine OST

Once upon a time, I owned the soundtrack to Velvet Goldmine on compact disc, but somebody stole it. Or maybe in an addled state, I let somebody borrow it, and they never gave it back. It’s possible I might’ve left it at a friend’s house or in their car. Somehow, I doubt it. Whatever the reason, it’s long gone, though this fact saddens me no more, because on April 5 MVD Audio is bringing out a fresh edition on double blue and orange vinyl. As it remains one of the few song-based (as opposed to score-driven) soundtracks that didn’t have me giving the CD player skip button a workout, I’m pretty stoked. A few fresh spins had that tone arm gliding steady.

Having enjoyed Todd Haynes’ first two features, I watched Velvet Goldmine, his third from 1998, and liked it, too. I considered digging into it again in service for this review, but ultimately didn’t, which is of no consequence, as the record stands on its own merits. Not only pleasing from start to finish, it’s also unusually multifaceted for a soundtrack, with its handful of genre-appropriate ’70s tracks cohering well with a larger helping of thematically-focused ’90s material.

First, the old stuff. The film Velvet Goldmine is tersely described as loosely based on the lives and artistic trajectories of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed, but especially Bowie. However, Haynes apparently wasn’t able to license any of Bowie’s stuff, a roadblock that became a benefit, as the soundtrack (and the film, as I remember) dually functions as a lengthy trip down one of the main highways of ’70s Glam.

That would be the glam rock-as-Art-as-lifestyle liberation-auteur route on the map, which means a decided deemphasis on bubblegum or hard rock (Gary Glitter and Slade are heard in the film, though). However, the selections grabbed from the era do an adequate job of portraying glam rock’s creative ambition even without access to Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie.

The tracks are T. Rex’s “Diamond Meadows,” Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel’s “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me),” Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” (so Bowie is actually briefly heard, albeit as a backup singer on Transformer, a record he and Mick Ronson coproduced), Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain,” and Brian Eno’s “Needle in the Camel’s Eye.”

But y’know, I didn’t buy the soundtrack for those tunes, as I already owned them on wax, even the Harley & Rebel, though I confess that I rarely listened to that band’s The Best Years of Our Lives. No, I bought it (as I recall, before the DVD arrived on video store shelves for rental) primarily for the cover of the Stooges’ “T.V. Eye” by The Wylde Ratttz, who were Stooge Ron Asheton, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Steve Shelly, Minutemen’s Mike Watt, Gumball’s Don Fleming, and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm.

Today, post-Stooges reunion, my purchase could be assessed as the acquisition of a heavy-duty fan. It was. But back then the song registered as a big deal. C’mon, Asheton playing with all that indie rock firepower? It was a big deal. But the version heard on the record lacks Arm’s vocals and adds actor Ewan McGregor, who starred in the film as Curt Wild (or Wylde), singing over a Wild Ratttz’ instrumental take.

I remember some displeasure from the participants at the time over this decision (mainly over a lack of mastering) and attendant grousing from folks who shared my enthusiasm, but hey, this “T.V. Eye” sounded alright to me back then. The same is true now. I do recall being slightly bummed that this batch of all-stars were represented by only one song. There’s another, an Arm-Asheton original “Be My Unclean” in the film, plus a short album’s worth of material recorded pre-movie, but none of it ever made it beyond internet bootleg status.

Venus in Furs, the other one-off supergroup assemblage here, featuring Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, Suede’s Bernard Butler and David Gray, landed five tracks on the set, all covers; three by Roxy Music (“2HB,” “Ladytron,” and “Bitter-Sweet”), one by Eno (“Baby’s on Fire,” with vocals by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who played Brian uh, Slade in the film), and one by Cockney Rebel (“Tumbling Down”).

Venus in Furs’ contributions are uniformly well-done, and it’s hard to dispute they’re the record’s biggest deal considering Radiohead’s rise in stature. They’re also a well-done situation that blends with those ’70s-era choices to productive effect. It’s not that the range in vintage isn’t noticeable; it can be, particularly during “Baby’s on Fire.” It’s just never jarring or off-putting. Ultimately, the difference rarely matters, at least to my ears.

Along with a version of “Bitters End” by Paul Kimble and Andy Mackay, the soundtrack connects as much as a Roxy-Ferry-Eno tribute as a remake-remodel of Bowie’s thing, though the aura of that aspect gets felt through most the record’s original stuff, namely Shudder to Think’s “Hot One” and “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” (yes, that’s an Eno reference), and Grant Lee Buffalo’s “The Whole Shebang.”

Excepting “Velvet Spacetime,” the nifty extract from Carter Burwell’s score, Pulp’s “We Are the Boyz” is the only other non-cover. It strikes me as the most ’90s moment overall, but one that goes down easy in the scheme of the album. It also contrasts nicely with a take of the New York Dolls’ “Personality Crisis” by Donna Matthews (of Elastica) and Teenage Fanclub. That one leans toward the ’80s Sunset Strip (so glam of a subsequent stripe) with a touch of footballers’ shout-along.

Placebo’s solid cover of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” is the only selection unmentioned, so I’ll mention it. Altogether, the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack is a whole lot of not fucking things up evolving into something substantial. That this reissue is its first time on vinyl enhances the significance of the occasion more than a little. Upgrading that missing CD of mine, it will serve as a reminder to rewatch Haynes’ film again sometime soon.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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