The Velvet Underground

Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes (Polydor)

When the Velvet Underground toured the West Coast with Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable back in 1966, the response was underwhelming to say the least. LSD was still legal in California, and peace, love, and tripping were the watchwords of the day. During the shows, the hippie hordes greeted the arch negativism and lofty artistic pretensions of the Velvets with stony silence, and by all accounts, the band replied in kind, literally turning its back on the audience while blasting music loud enough to deafen a turnip.

Three years later, when Lou Reed and company played S.F.'s now-defunct Matrix and Family Dog ballrooms, the Velvets had at least one fan in the audience: young Robert Quine, future lead guitarist for the Voidoids and possessor of a brand-new tape deck. The just-released three-CD set The Quine Tapes represents the best of his old recordings, capturing the pioneers of punk playing live at the height of their powers. Admittedly the sound quality is not first-rate, but considering that the material was recorded on a primitive cassette deck, transferred to reel-to-reel years later, and finally digitized for the CD era, it ain't bad. What's most important is the chance to hear one of rock's most influential bands in all its wild, icy fury, performing radically altered versions of canonical standards. In some regards the Velvet Underground was a band of its time -- the interminable guitar solos and sledgehammer drums wouldn't be out of place on an Iron Butterfly album -- but the group's palpable nihilism and foreboding drone were years ahead of the competition. The through-line from this sinister repertoire to the art rock of Sonic Youth, Galaxie 500, et al. has never sounded clearer.

It bears mentioning that, by the time of these late-1969 performances, speed and heroin had become the drugs of choice in the swiftly disintegrating Haight-Ashbury community, meaning the Velvets were finally preaching to the converted. A pity, then, that the hippies never quite understood the ironic nature of the material. They'd simply converted to heavier highs, rather than harder music. The Velvet Underground remained a cult band, a dark comet that soon burnt out and later kindled the fires of glam, punk, and grunge. In retrospect, The Quine Tapes are the perfect VU document -- as ugly, abrasive, and enduring as the band itself.

 
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