What’s the Amplitude, Lou?

A while back, when raving and drooling over the David Bowie & Stevie Ray Vaughan rehearsal bootleg, I mentioned a Velvet Underground bootleg entitled The Legendary Guitar Amp Tapes. Recorded at a club called The Boston Tea Party (in Boston, natch) on March 15, 1969, the Velvet Underground run through a set of songs from their first three albums, with a couple of oddities thrown in. I’m sure if you were there, the show was comparable to other sets from that year, captured on the official albums 1969: Live and Bootleg Series, Vol. 1: The Quine Tapes, as well as numerous boots. However, in Boston that early Spring we find either the most incompetent or ingenious taper of the day; instead of setting up his gear to get the sound of the P.A., we get a recording made from in front of Lou Reed’s guitar amp.

So how does it sound? Pretty much how you would guess from the title. On the quieter tracks like “I’m Set Free” and “Jesus”, the mix is just a little off, with vocals quite discernible if distant; both Sterling’s guitar and Moe Tucker’s full kit are relatively audible; Doug Yule on keys or bass comes across a bit muddled (in my experience, most bootlegs from this era lack any sort of clarity on the low end). Lou is crisp and loud on these tracks, but not overwhelming. On anything that has even a hint of rumble and drive, from mid-tempo tracks like “Beginning To See The Light” to more up-tempo songs like “What Goes On” and “Sister Ray”, Lou’s guitar sound is almost all you hear. Tucker’s snare and tom come through just alright, often barely enough for the listener to keep the tempo in mind, while the vocals might as well be in another room and the rest of the band almost ceases to exist. “Sister Ray” has enough space here and there for the keyboard to come through with the expected vamping familiar from other live versions, but is regularly dunked deep below the surface of the oceans of squeals and feedback Lou is marshaling.

A good example of this “so in-your-face from the get-go as to be unbelievable” sound is the opener, “I Can’t Stand It”. It is joined in progress, though pretty close to the beginning. Lou is playing the riff cleanly, bending a note here or there for emphasis; Moe Tucker can be heard above, cymbals crashing, snare and tom just laying the barest groove, steady and simple; far, far, away you can hear Lou singing, and if you know the song you can follow along, filling the gaps where he drops below audibility, “If you just come back it’ll be alright”. It’s moving along as you expect, and that groove is there, almost undeniable. But at 1:50, Lou let’s go and everything drops out besides a quiet thump, an occasional snare snap. Wailing single notes bend and scream, to be replaced by jagged chords, to be supplanted again by bent notes and peels of noise. It isn’t beautiful; there is no hint of Hendrix-style lyricism, or the fluid explorations of Clapton in Cream; it is a growl, an attack that goes on for the next 2:40 before a sharp ending, as Lou prepares for the next verse and chorus, and Sterling Morrison can be heard playing the main guitar figure across the stage. One verse, one chorus, then 30 seconds of vamp-into-noise to bring the song to it’s end. Over half the song is blaring guitar, growling, vamping, moaning, howling, stark. Other songs touch this burning ember, but none reach the same incandescent glow.

In a lot of ways this recording is a novelty. There are good recordings of this same band just a few months later, where the mix is more even and the interplay and variation that made them such a reputable live act is readily apparent. Yet, I keep listening to this weird document, as often or more than the official recordings mentioned above or the highly recommended Live at End Cole Avenue bootleg (the full Dallas show that some of the 1969: Live recordings are pulled from, in better quality than the official release). There is something exciting about this album, such a harsh, bright spotlight on Reed’s soloing, so in your face and astounding. It isn’t the Velvet Underground as a band but Lou Reed, Noise Impresario.

It is such a singular thing that it has a webpage dedicated to it, complete with audio samples. Praise Ye The Lord, indeed.

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