Graded on a Curve:
The Velvet Underground, Squeeze

Contrary to what’s sometimes published, the studio legacy of The Velvet Underground didn’t end with 1970’s Loaded. No, it culminated with what many consider to be an abomination, an offense in the annals of one of the greatest bands to ever transcend and redefine rock’s limitations. The record is 1973’s Squeeze, and despite music that’s inescapably lackluster there is a case to be made for bringing the album out of the shameful shadows that persist in shrouding its existence.

For many VU fans, Squeeze exists on the same plane as that uncle who’s been sent up the river for crimes that nobody in the family feels comfortable discussing. Other Velvets fanatics LLLOOOVVVE to talk about this understandably scarce LP, mostly because it helps to flesh out theories over what made the band so exceptional, speculations that often vary greatly from person to person. Because if The Velvet Underground are the ornery granddaddy of an often sorta suspect category known as “cult bands,” unlike many of the groups awarded with this stature there is no consensus on what is VU’s best LP, or for that matter what is even their finest era.

And this seems to have been a gradually evolving process. Around 1987, when I first began listening to the Velvets in earnest, the older heads with whom I spoke (almost always inside the welcoming walls of record stores), seeking guidance on this somewhat daunting entity, were essentially divided between which of the band’s first two records, The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat, was best. This is to say that while surely considered valuable, the post-John Cale material was definitely esteemed as lesser.

But a new day was dawning. As the arrival of groups like The Wedding Present and Galaxie 500 made clear, a generation of young musicians had come of age subscribing to the notion that the music produced for the band’s self-titled third LP was the true apex of the Velvets’ achievement. This phenomenon was aided by VU and Another View, both compilations fairly fresh in the racks and often easier to obtain than the actual full-length studio records.

If that third album is a true rudiment of indie pop, then some of Loaded’s contents came to be slowly embraced as “classic rock,” even though most rock fans in 1970 wouldn’t have spit on Lou Reed if he was on fire. Part of the reason seems derived from the influence of Reed’s songwriting upon the arty glam-metal of Jane’s Addiction and the punk cognizant hard-rock strains of Guns N’ Roses. The other part is that people were simply catching up.

With the release of the Peel Slowly and See five-CD box, The Velvet Underground’s canonization was truly complete. Not only is the set a total rarity, a five disc single band collection that’s just as essential at the end of the last disc as at the beginning of the first, it additionally presented such an effective and seductive case for the brilliance of VU that their existence as commercial failures, while acknowledged and in some cases celebrated (creating a “those dummies didn’t get it, but we do” situation) and definitely mythologized (the “100 people bought their record but they all formed bands” malarkey), was also simultaneously disregarded.

As once elusive live boots like Sweet Sister Ray, The Legendary Guitar Amp Tapes and La Cave 68 became easier to hear (along with the legit issue of The Quine Tapes), the daily reality of the Velvets’ later existence became ironically harder to discern, even though it was long in plain sight, having been on the market since the release of Live at Max’s Kansas City and 1969: The Velvet Underground Live back in ’72 and ’74, respectively. These documents present a group that if surely one of the shining moments in rock’s history, were essentially reduced by the end of the ‘60s to singing for their supper.

Live at Max’s for instance is often given special consideration for capturing Reed’s last performance as a member of VU. But it was also the culmination of a nine week engagement where they were obliged to deliver two sets a night. In other words, a working band that was earning its keep while recording Loaded. And Live at Max’s was only issued by Atlantic to cut losses on a two-album deal after Reed bailed before Loaded was finished.

But this mercenary live LP, mastered at the wrong speed (since corrected, yes), undeniably a rather depressing (if necessary) document in its original form, is often saved from scrutiny by some fans in a manner dangerously close to blind adulation; hey man, it’s the last example of Sweet Lou playing for “us” before he broke free and began a fitful relationship with the mainstream, i.e. “them.”

And Max’s is indeed that, but it’s also the sound of a guy that had went from the confidences of Andy Warhol to the status of commercial poison, the grooves finding him running through the motions one last time. That his mere motions are better than the accumulation of most mortals’ best days is no reason to mistake them as something else.

To be fair, many people don’t. But just as many miss the underlying significance of Reed’s repartee with the crowd in the Dallas, TX club End of Cole Ave. on 1969 (unlike Max’s a truly sterling record). Before a note is even played he’s jockeying for acceptance, taking a mild swipe at Texas life but also talking about football, specifically that day’s Dallas Cowboys’ game.

While many artists of the era, especially those of San Fran lineage, were showered with devotion for simply walking onto stage, Reed and company still had to prove they deserved it, and as 1969’s opening banter shows, there was no guarantee that the gig wouldn’t fall flat or even go spectacularly wrong.

It’s largely for these reasons that I consider Squeeze to be a fitting if highly disappointing endnote to The Velvet Underground story. Yes, I’m talking about a botched record with no original members, basically a Doug Yule solo LP. And post-Reed touring in promotion of Loaded is really the only reason Squeeze even exists.

And it does exist, though the Spin Alternative Record Guide (published 1995) doesn’t include it in the band’s discography. No mention is given in Clinton Heylin’s From the Velvets to the Voidoids either, and in fact Yule is cited only once in the entire (to be fair, quite superb) book even though the guy plays on the majority of the Velvets’ studio work (and I’m excluding Squeeze).

It ultimately makes sense that Yule is the least appreciated member of VU, for frankly he was the least talented. But he was also an absolutely crucial support player; if many could’ve hypothetically filled his shoes, it was Yule’s shoes that were actually in the studio getting the job done, and it was also Yule that was out on the road pimping Loaded after Reed split the scene.

On a Euro tour that still included original member Maureen “Moe” Tucker, band manager Steve Sesnick (the real villain in the story of this record, not Yule) set up a one album deal with Polydor. Sesnick, surely knowing that Tucker was a tough customer with a low tolerance for foolishness sent her and Willie “Loco” Alexander packing back to the States and brought in Ian Paice of Deep Purple as session drummer; in the insult to injury department, more than once have I witnessed a VU partisan positively fume over Paice’s involvement in the debasement of an apparently once flawless group.

But if Squeeze afforded a member of the rock establishment the opportunity to dance on the defiantly non-conformist grave of the Velvets, it still sits in solid symmetry with Lou’s third solo disc Berlin, released the same year and including contributions from definite insiders Jack Bruce, Aynsley Dunbar, and Steve Winwood. Sadly this connection doesn’t extend into the realms of quality.

In contrast to Berlin, one of Reed’s best solo works, Squeeze is simply an underwhelming experience. It’s also not, unlike the claims of some, a horrible record; it’s just excruciating average and undistinguished, every worthy track (opener “Little Jack,” “Caroline” and the appealingly Beatles-esque “Friends”) doubled by cuts that either flounder or feel quite indebted (and far inferior to) Reed’s early solo stuff.

Also mildly influenced by electric folk and ‘50s rock (at least presenting an early-‘70s approximation of such), Squeeze simply pales in comparison to One Kiss Leads to Another, the 1970 album by early VU fans and proto-punk notables Hackamore Brick. And Paice’s drumming here, while surely competent, lacks any real personality or zest. He’s obviously in it for the paycheck.

Squeeze would’ve surely fared better had Tucker remained in the picture and the musicians actually been allowed to interact; another of Sesnick’s missteps is plunging the record into a bland overdub purgatory. Yule, Paice, some backing vocalists, and a sax player known only as Malcolm are the only credited humans on the record. Oh yes, Squeeze features saxophone, as unwelcome an additive as you’d expect.

So why even bring the record up? Again, I think Squeeze works exceptionally well as the end of a group that was ignored, maligned, and misunderstood while active, reduced to bar-band servitude, only to rise phoenix-like from the ashes with far too many people crowing “I told you so.” It fits with their reality, not with their legend.

Other than a couple small French pressings in the early ‘80s, the record’s been long OOP, never on legit CD and never released in America in any form. And I’ve only knowingly been in the same room with a copy of Squeeze twice in my life. While I don’t think it’s very good, if some label undertook a small reissue edition, I’d definitely buy a copy, and I’m no completist.

For if any band does inspire the legit acquisition of everything it’s The Velvet Underground, mainly because “everything” helps to reduce and humanize its members, lending illumination to the successes and mistakes of an amazing and justifiably lauded group of individuals that just like you, me and everyone we know, put their pants on one leg at a time.

Graded on a Curve: C-

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