Letty Gardner explains why ‘Loaded’ is one of the Velvet Underground’s greatest albums
The Velvet Underground’s final and most controversial studio album Loaded is full of beautiful tracks, heartfelt and contemplative lyricism, and a high energy throughout. Although Lou Reed bitterly left the band three months before the album’s release, stating in an interview ‘I left them to their album full of hits that I made’, this, to me, is one of their greatest albums, and one of my favourites.
After previously releasing their first three albums on record label Verve, The Velvet Underground signed to Atlantic Records, and were asked by the head of the label, Ahmet Ertegun, to avoid sex and drugs in their songs, to make tracks that were more clean-cut and ready for radio play. They were essentially being asked to become money makers, which obviously irked Reed. This is where the album gets its ironic name from, with the band claiming that they were asked to make an album ‘loaded with hits’. This album is less obvious in its contemplations than former tracks such as ‘Heroin’ or ‘I’m Waiting For My Man’, but Reed proved with this record that he could write commercial sounding songs without abandoning his musical personality in that process.
The record opens with the cheerful ‘Who Loves The Sun?’, full of upbeat, pop-fuelled harmonies contrasted against lyrics of heartbreak. Tightly structured and coming in at only just under 3 minutes, this track is a step away from the songs of The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/ White Heat, and The Velvet Underground, but one that I find impossible to criticise.
One of my favourites from the record, ‘Sweet Jane’ is a wonderful example of Reed’s contemplative song-writing, that just oozes coolness, as he gazes upon the fictitious characters Jack and Jane as they go about their mundane day-to-day. Reed continued to use this song in his solo performances, which perhaps is an indication of its success. Reed sings in his New York drawl ‘Jack’s in his car, says to Jane who’s in her vest/ and me, babe, I’m in a rock and roll band’. If this lyric isn’t effortlessly cool, then I don’t know what is.
‘Rock & Roll’, a powerful song about the transformative power of music, follows this great track. Again, Reed writes about other’s lives, this time focusing on Ginny, who discovers the rock and roll station, and then suddenly ‘It was alright’. The Velvet Underground are calming all our troubles by reminding us that ‘Despite all the amputation, you know you could just go out and dance to the rock and roll station’. I am very biased when it comes to this song, because it is one of my favourites ever, as it’s impossible to feel anything but happy when its playing.
One track that stands out a lot on ‘Loaded’ is ‘New Age’, which opens with the somewhat bizarre words ‘Can I have your autograph/ He said to the fat blonde actress’. ‘New Age’ beautifully comments on our obsession with fame and celebrity, ‘you know I know everything you’ve done’, to the sad lilting guitar, perhaps presenting Reed’s exhaustion with the commercialism that was being thrust upon him and the band by their new record label. The track moves in three parts, the opening being sad, sweet, and slow, moving to the progressive ‘Something’s got a hold on me’, and ending with the affirmation that this is ‘the beginning of our new age’, an age of music that Reed has to get used to, or avoid.
There are a few tracks on the album that I do admittedly skip over. ‘Train Round the Bend’ and ‘Lonesome Cowboy Bill’ seem to me gimmicky and hectic, a step too far away The Velvet Underground’s classic cool sound, but this does not take away from the brilliance of the rest of the album, and this does not mean that they are not acclaimed by fans.
Loaded ends with the anthem ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’’. If the 3-minute pop songs of this album are not for you, then this song will be. It takes The Velvet Underground back to their indulgent, too-long-for-radio tracks, like ‘The Gift’ or ‘Sister Ray’ from White Light/ White Heat. The track is 7 minutes of beautiful and simple Velvet Underground. It follows various characters, has a cracking guitar solo in the middle, and ends with Reed delicately singing ‘Oh sweet nuthin’,/ She ain’t got nothing at all.’
Loaded is an album loaded with hits, but also loaded with The Velvet Underground’s signature sounds. Although it drove Lou Reed to quit the band and pursue a solo career (which is no bad thing, look at how good Transformer is), this is an incredible album, and for me, one of the best.