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‘Loaded’: How The Velvet Underground Invented Indie Pop
In Depth

‘Loaded’: How The Velvet Underground Invented Indie Pop

The Velvet Underground’s final album with Lou Reed, ‘Loaded’ has influenced generations of guitar-pop bands.

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Anyone coming cold to The Velvet Underground’s fourth album could easily have jumped to the wrong conclusion when it was first released, in 1970. Here was a record by a band best known for writing provocative, drug-addled songs such as Heroin and Sister Ray, and it was called Loaded and housed in a trippy sleeve depicting a New York City subway entrance. Surely that all pointed to it being their most decadent-sounding record yet?

“The title was a reference to the fact that the label and [frontman Lou] Reed and [manager Steve] Sesnick all wanted hits,” bassist Doug Yule later explained. “The album was ‘loaded’ with hits.”

Listen to ‘Loaded’ here.

Speaking to The Velvet Underground Fanzine in 1994, Yule shone a further light on the group’s mindset at the time of recording the album: “On Loaded there was a big push to produce a hit single, there was that mentality: which one of these is a single, how does it sound when we cut it down to three and a half minutes? So that was a major topic for the group at that point. And I think that the [group’s self-titled] third album to a great extent shows a lot of that, in that a lot of those songs were designed as singles.”

Leaving its deliberately ambiguous title aside, Loaded has proved the most divisive of The Velvet Underground’s four studio albums featuring original frontman and primary songsmith Lou Reed. However, while it lacks the edgy, avant-garde leanings of The Velvet Underground & Nico, the sheer abrasive intensity of White Light/White Heat, or the mellow insouciance of The Velvet Underground, Loaded is still a fine record that stands on its own merits.

The recording: “It sort of devolved down to the Lou and Doug recreational recording”

Nonetheless, Loaded has come under fire from some fans. Having replaced the Velvets’ multi-instrumental savant, John Cale, in the autumn of 1968, Boston-born Doug Yule has sometimes been criticised simply for not being his predecessor. Yet that’s unfair, for – in addition to playing bass – Yule handled most of the organ and piano, several of the guitar solos, and sang four songs on Loaded, and his dexterity was central to the album’s completion. Yet his increased role in the recording sessions inadvertently created friction within the Velvets camp.

“Sterling [Morrison, guitarist] became discouraged early on because he felt I had too much an influence in it,” Yule told Perfect Sound Forever in 1995. “He felt basically, sort of cut out, which I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the fact that I was feeling much more confident since the third album, more a part of the group.

“Also Lou leaned on me a lot in terms of musical support and for harmonies, vocal arrangements,” Yule furthered. “I did a lot on Loaded. It sort of devolved down to the Lou and Doug recreational recording.”

In addition to Yule’s increased role in the group, Loaded was the first Velvets album not to feature the band’s original drummer, Maureen Tucker, though her absence was for purely personal reasons, as Yule later confirmed in The Velvet Underground Fanzine.

“We needed a drummer for Loaded because Maureen was pregnant,” he said. “[My brother] Billy was a pretty good drummer at the time… so he came out and played… and I’ve always been a frustrated drummer, so I play drums on some of those [songs].” The band also enlisted session musician Tommy Castanero to help out, but when the band forgot his surname, his album credit simply red “Tommy”.

The songs: “It’s one of my favourite tunes from the Velvets catalogue”

Regardless of the trials and tribulations, Loaded ended up featuring some of The Velvet Underground’s most stellar songs. It took an unashamed tilt at guitar-led pop classicism on tracks such as Head Held High and the summery Who Loves The Sun, but it also welcomed quirkier cuts such as Cool It Down, the tongue-in-cheek Lonesome Cowboy Bill and even the gospel-tinged I Found A Reason. Besides, any album featuring no less than three Lou Reed-penned classics of the calibre of the laconic Sweet Jane, the strident Rock And Roll and the stately ballad New Age will always demand attention.

“I vividly remember recording Lou playing through the big Sunn amp at [New York City’s Atlantic Studios] and cranking on the riff for Sweet Jane and it sounding so big, fat and full,” Doug Yule said in a 2005 interview with Prism Films. “The guitar figure was only finalised just before we started recording it, and it just defines the song. To this day, if someone plays that riff, immediately everyone knows it’s Sweet Jane.

“But when I think of Loaded, I think of Sweet Jane and Rock And Roll as being the heavy tunes,” he added. “Every band, at some stage, does a song about playing this music, and that’s what Rock And Roll is, it’s our homage to the music. It’s one of my favourite tunes from the Velvets catalogue, and it’s just a great cut.”

The release: “Sweet Jane was arranged to be a hit!”

Despite spawning four singles (Who Loves The Sun?, Sweet Jane, Head Held High and Rock And Roll), Loaded didn’t live up to its title’s stated intent. Released on 15 November 1970, through the Atlantic Records subsidiary Cotillion, it missed the Billboard 200 altogether, and its progress was further hindered when Lou Reed wasn’t around to promote it.

Citing disillusionment with their lack of progress, the singer-guitarist quit the Velvets at the end of August 1970, just after completing their lengthy residency at New York venue Max’s Kansas City. He also expressed anger at the final mix of Loaded, which he maintained had been re-edited and re-sequenced without his consent.

Doug Yule has since countered this claim (“Sweet Jane was arranged just exactly the way it is on the original Loaded release exactly for that reason – to be a hit!” he told Perfect Sound Forever), and Reed’s concerns have been addressed on subsequent reissues of Loaded. In its original guise, however, the record remained a cult-level title – one that larger numbers of fans started to discover after Lou Reed’s David Bowie-produced solo album, Transformer, won him some mainstream recognition in 1972.

The legacy: “You could use it to make a statement”

Indeed, the Velvets owed Bowie a debt for spreading their gospel during the 70s and beyond, with bands ranging from The Modern Lovers and Television through to most UK in3die-pop acts from the 80s citing them as an influence. For his part, Bowie drew particular attention to Loaded by performing Sweet Jane live with Lou Reed in London, in 1972, and also honoured the Velvets’ influence on his breakthrough Ziggy Stardust era and the surrounding glam-rock scene.

“Sweet Jane has that kind of bash-it-out three-chord catchiness that would had been very easily absorbed and adapted by groups like Mott The Hoople and solo artists like David Bowie,” Velvets biographer Richie Unterberger said in a 2020 interview with The Independent.

“Something like Sister Ray [from White Light/White Heat], it’s hard to match that cacophony of noise. But a more straightforward guitar-oriented song like Sweet Jane, for groups that wanted to do something that was more pared down, you could use it to make a statement”

Buy the ‘Loaded (Fully Re-Loaded Edition)’ vinyl box set at the the Dig! store.

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