Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground are the point at which old and musky rock n’ roll becomes exciting alternative music. Really it’s simply because their sound, attitude, and lyrical themes were so far removed from the rock music that was popular at the time. Sure, they were playing guitars and drums, but everything else about the group seemed to come out of a universe entirely removed from anything that rock radio offered at the time.
The Velvet Underground and the start of “alternative rock”
The story of the Velvet Underground is part of folklore by now. A group combining rock with serious-minded art and sound experimentation to create a brilliant and, at the time, entirely unique body of work. Also quite famous to the story is that while the group never enjoyed much commercial success, they helped inspire the formation of a larger number of other bands.
They effectively planted the seeds for punk rock and art rock, which in itself sounds unfathomable if you consider some of the bands representing those genres. Generations of artists that followed them imitate them in one way or another. But just as with Dylan, where so much of his work is part of the collective consciousness, Velvet Underground has been copied so much that many of the groups doing it now, may not even be aware of this.
The Velvet Underground’s live version of Sweet Jane and album inclusion
Sweet Jane is one of the Velvet Underground’s most famous songs, not least of all because of the great melody and classic verse-chorus-verse song structure. It appeared on Loaded, the last Velvet Underground album to feature singer, guitarist, and main songwriter Lou Reed. The original studio album featured a more polished production than their first three previous records. This works in the advantage of the more upbeat, almost anthemic, Loud Reed penned song. Beyond the catchy tune there is, as would be expected, a great dose of Reed’s witty and twisted Sweet Jane lyrics:
Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were at a crossroads by the time they recorded Sweet Jane. The band that had influenced so many musicians, had had little in the way of commercial success. John Cale had left the band to start a solo career. Their association with artist Andy Warhol, had largely been severed by this stage. Yet, the band’s reputation had only grown. And, the group was now operating in more conservative ways, touring and working on a classic rock record. The days of happenings and avant-garde were now part of the Velvet’s legacy, rather than something that was to be expected.
Lou Reed’s greatest live version of Sweet Jane
New songs like Rock N Roll, New Age, and Sweet Jane found their way into the Velvet Underground’s busy live schedule. After all, even at his worse, few writers could ape Loud Reed, let alone produce something as good. The songs would eventually also find inclusion on the group’s fourth album, Loaded. While witty as ever, they found the group favoring a classic rock sound. Yet, the commercial breakthrough they were hoping for was never truly to materialize.
Andy Warhol had served an important role in the Velvet Underground’s evolution. Not only did he make the band interesting to the art crowd clinging to Warhol’s every word. But, he secured the band the artistic independence they craved.
Things had somewhat changed by 1970. Band management sought more involvement in the group’s activities. This only served to distance Lou Reed, already disappointed with the lack of progress on the commercial front. Drummer Maureen Tucker was on sabbatical, pregnant with her first child. Tucker had long been a pillar of support for Lou Reed, who now found himself disconnected from the band.
And so, in the summer of 1970 the unthinkable happened. Unable to see eye to eye on most matters with band manager Steve Sesnick, Lou Reed left the Velvet Underground. Even more shocking was the fact that the group would continue to exist for a number of years.
Loaded getting released without Lou Reed
Loaded in August 1970 and was comprised mostly of Lou Reed-penned songs. While it’s a stretch to call the album a commercial breakthrough, it enjoyed a better run than its predecessors. So much so, that the band began touring in support of the album. Doug Yule had switched to lead vocals. Yule’s physical similarity to Reed further confused audiences, many never having seen the original Velvet Underground. “I left them to their album full of hits that I made,” Lou Reed would later state bitterly.
Adding insult to injury, the Sweet Jane original had edited some of Reed’s lyrics and arrangements. Later deluxe editions would put things to right. Its appearance on future live releases generally found the song in its intended form. These Velvet Underground and Lou Reed releases include: Live at Max’s Kansas City; 1969: The Velvet Underground Live; Peel Slowly and See; Live MCMXCIII; Loaded: Fully Loaded Edition; American Poet; Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal; Live: Take No Prisoners; Live in Italy; The Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Rock and Roll: an Introduction to The Velvet Underground; NYC Man (The Ultimate Collection 1967–2003); Live on Letterman: Music from The Late Show; and Berlin: Live At St. Ann’s Warehouse.
But, as years went on, there were few confused about the author of Sweet Jane. Lou Reed’s profile would go on to increase in the following years. Sweet Jane was a song he often played live and one for which he earned numerous praise. Rolling Stone magazine included it on its (sometimes reviled) list of 500 greatest songs of all time. Mott the Hoople and the Cowboy Junkies would have some success with their own versions of the song. And, the overpowering hard rock force that is Metallica acted as a backup band to Reed, at the 25th Rock n Roll Halle of Fame anniversary, hammering their way into a rendition of Sweet Jane.
The version of Sweet Jane found on Take no prisoners
Sweet Jane is one of the songs that Lou Reed consistently played live throughout his excellent solo career. Sometimes he played it similar to the record, sometimes he let lead guitars solo all over it and sometimes he brutally messed the song up. And it’s the last of these that make some of the best Lou Reed live recordings. Witty and possessing sharp humor, Lou Reed brings out the misanthropic side of his personality out on an audience that seems to be equally enjoying this and feeling insulted by Lou all at the same time.
This version is from the live album Live: Take no prisoners from 1978 and it’s as punk rock as it can get. Disclaimer: none of the songs on this record have Lou Reed performing the songs remotely as on the initial studio recordings. This is not a bad thing here.
The Sweet Jane intro finds Reed quoting W.B. Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” He then quips: “Now, you figure out where I am”. The band then launches into the song with the singer luring the audience into the familiar lyrics and usually leading them astray. In that way, it’s an extremely powerful version. The ending of the song has Reed baiting everyone towards the final chorus, which provides a great relief after the confrontational last 10 minutes.
As Lou Reed states on this record “I do Lou Reed better than anybody, so I thought I’d get in on it”. And even though throughout the record, it’s debatable whether he even wants to be there or not and whether he genuinely hates his audience, it’s this honest passion that makes it a great rock record. This is not a live performance with the singer urging the crowd to raise their hands to the heavens or clap in time. Reed tells the audience to “shut up” and takes pride in challenging their expectations: “What’s wrong with cheap dirty jokes? I never said I was tasteful”.
It’s Lou Reed doing a comedy routine while seeming genuinely angry to have to play up to the legendary status he already had by that point. He jokes about Barbara Streisand, adds dirty jokes to the existent lyrics and comments on Patti Smith. “Fuck Radio Ethiopia, man. I’m Radio Brooklyn.” Funniest of all is that Lou Reed throughout the song sings the lyrics as if he wants to get through with doing the song as quickly as possible while making the performance of it last for 10 minutes. As he says “It’s not that I don’t want to play your favorites, but there are so many favorites to choose from”. He is as confrontational as any band being deemed punk rock at the time, while more clever and intense than most.
Nowhere is Lou Reed looser than on the Take No Prisoners live album. The backing is, as always, provided by a very competent band. On guitar, we find Stuart Heinrich, who does an admirable job. Heinrich sits just behind Reed, opting to support rather than competing over attention with Reed. The instrumental backing is also a product of their time. It was 1978, after all. Punk rock’s minimalism was still popular and new wave was lurking around the corner.
Rock n Roll Animal
Similarly of its time is Lou Reed’s first, and arguably most famous, live recording, Rock n Roll Animal, released in 1974, a neat precursor to punk rock. Here, Lou Reed, an accomplished guitarist himself, seems happy to share the spotlight with a guitar duo of the hard rock variety. It may sound counterintuitive, but Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter soaring lead guitar offer the highlight of the album, and indeed one of the best moments in Reed’s career.
Steve Hunter is even giving a co-writing credit on the live recording, for composing the intro that segues into Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane. The aforementioned duo of Wagner and Hunter have long remained two of classic rock’s unsung heroes. The guitarists were Bob Ezrin’s go-to players on many sessions, especially those leading Alice Cooper into a brave new world of radio hits.
While their fame with the general public was limited, they were highly sought after by the huge name artists of the day. Their most celebrated appearance besides on Reed’s live album, is on Alice Cooper’s seminal horror rock album Welcome to My Nightmare.
The Sweet Jane version found on Rock n Rock Animal is a worthy contender for the song’s best live performance caught on tape. Lou Reed would rarely sound as slick and have a competent rock band as he did on this record.
The Velvet Underground did get to include Swee Jane on a notable live album. Live at Max’s Kansas City got sneaked out onto a largely uncaring market in 1972. The album, recorded clandestinely by an audience member and Andy Warhol associate, Brigid Polk, documents the very last concert the Velvet Undeground would play until 1993.
Velvet Underground bootlegs
Velvet Underground live albums are a treasured heirloom albeit a mixed-bag. Legends recall a rock band that at their best was virtually unbeatable. Yet, with recording equipment not easy to come by and the Velvets reputation surpassing the record-buying public’s interest, many memorable concerts live only in the recollection of those that saw them.
But, the most important difference, of course, is in Reed’s attitude. The artist possessed an unpredictable temperament. Despite being only five songs long, Rock n Roll Animal, finds Reed generally playing it straight.
Take no prisoners, on the other hand, seems to be a test of his fan’s devotion. Lou Reed goes off-script more often than stay with the original arrangement. He throws gags and insults at the audience, towards his celebrated peers, and does little to disguise his distaste for fame. A worthy competitor of rock album that doubles as a stand-up routine may be Tom Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner. But, while Waits plays up to his drunken hipster persona, Reed seems genuinely angry and determined to take the audience out of their comfort zone.
Cover versions of Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane
The song was covered by different artists, the most notable version being that by the Cowboy Junkies. It has also amassed many accolades such as being named as one of the greatest guitar tracks by the magazine Guitar World.
And, if you want to enjoy another great version of the song, granted more focus and with Lou Reed singing it pretty straight, there is the live version from the Rock n’ roll animal live album. This one feature some remarkable dueling lead guitars. For those that want a place to start listening to Lou Reed, this may be the best introduction.
Lou Reed always dreamed of writing The Great American Novel, but do it in the context of rock music. His oeuvre is ambitious, if inconsistent. While his songwriting is to be admired on many tunes, Sweet Jane might be the distillation of his talent.