Sunday, October 27, 2013

Scepter Studios Sessions - The Velvet Underground

Scepter Studios Sessions
The Velvet Underground
Polydor B0017649-01

By an eerie coincidence I was listening to this album this morning when I started my laptop and opened the Yahoo homepage and saw a picture of Lou Reed.  A chill ran through me even before I read the text, I knew that he must be dead.  There he was singing on my turntable as I read about his death.  Ironically the first time I ever heard of Lou Reed was when I was a freshman in high school sitting in Electronics class and a couple of stoner girls asked our hip teacher, Mr. Farrow, if he had heard that Lou Reed was dead.  He was of course very much alive back then.  The girls spoke of Reed as if he were some rebel junkie, which I guess was not too far from the persona he had cultivated.  I was just becoming aware of underground culture and was intrigued by their conversation.  Soon I had some rock reference books and learned about Reed and the Velvet Underground.  I bought "Transformer" but was kind of lukewarm in my reaction to it.  But then I picked up "The Velvet Underground & Nico" and it blew me away.  I loved the Velvets from that moment and I managed to track down all of their records and listened to them all the time.  I was far more interested in the Velvets than Reed's solo career but as I got older I came to admire his solo albums and acquired most of them.  It is a very impressive body of work, consistently interesting and adventurous.  The Velvets are still one of my favorite groups and I dutifully collect their archival recordings of which there are now quite a few.  This one comprises the acetate they cut at Scepter Records Studio in New York, financed and "supervised" by Andy Warhol and Norman Dolph, a former record company executive.  It was discovered by a record buff at a New York City flea market where he bought it for 75 cents, perhaps the greatest used record score of all time.  Six of the nine tracks on here were re-mixed and used by Verve for the Velvet's debut album, "The Velvet Underground & Nico."  The other three tracks, "Heroin," "Venus In Furs" and "I'm Waiting for the Man" were re-recorded for that album.  The acetate version of "Heroin" is nearly a minute shorter than the Verve version and is less noisy although otherwise the arrangements are similar.  I think the re-recorded vocal is more expressive than the acetate one.  The acetate version of "Venus in Furs" is also shorter than the release version but otherwise they are similar and I don't see that the Verve version is any big improvement over the acetate track.  The acetate "I'm Waiting for the Man" however pales in comparison to the supercharged release version.  Not only is the Verve re-recording a lot punchier but it boasts a superior, more effusive vocal from Reed.  The version of "European Son" on the acetate goes on for more than a minute longer than the official release version.  The acetate version of "All Tomorrow's Parties" features Nico's vocal on just a single track as opposed to the double-tracked lead vocal on the Verve release.  The double tracked vocal is certainly stonger and heavier, but I like the more plaintive quality of the acetate recording.  The acetate's version of "I'll Be Your Mirror" is missing the backing vocal of "reflect what you are" at the conclusion of the song.  The backing vocals in "Femme Fatale" are different too.  On the acetate you hear more voices, on the Verve version Lou Reed's backing vocal is higher in the mix and the recording has more reverb.  The acetate "The Black Angel's Death Song" and "Run Run Run" sound practically identical to the release versions to me aside from very slight variances in the mixing, most notably because the acetate is a mono mix.  "The Velvet Underground & Nico" is definitely a more professional sounding record, it jumps out of the speakers more forcefully than the acetate recording does, but as someone who has heard the Verve record countless times, the unpolished mixes on the acetate offer a chance to hear these classic songs from a fresh perspective.  I should note however that on the quieter recordings like "I'll Be Your Mirror" or "Femme Fatale" you can hear noticeable surface noise since the album is recorded from the acetate record which apparently has some wear.  Unless you are a big fan you probably don't need the acetate recordings, just stick with "The Velvet Underground & Nico."  Recommended to people who believe that rock and roll lost one of its greatest masters today, a man who was a true original and a genuine artist who profoundly elevated the genre.  

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