Review – The Velvet Underground (Documentary by Todd Haynes)

I think this documentary ended up posing more questions than it answered. 

Firstly, it doesn’t sugarcoat the notion of Lou Reed being….well…actually perhaps they DO sugarcoat it. Because what became obvious was that to label Reed “troubled” is somewhat of an understatement. I actually started to wonder how anyone managed to work with him. Certainly John Cale was finding it difficult towards the end of his part in the Velvet Underground story “if you were nice to him, he only treated you worse”.

The one thing I’d say to Jim after seeing this film is when you say you’re not worthy of tying Lou Reed’s bootlaces – you do yourself a MASSIVE disservice, Jim Kerr. You really do! 

The film starts with a quote from Baudelaire – “Music fathoms the sky.” That immediately had me thinking of Jim for in the New Gold Dream tour program, he’s given the name “Kid Baudelaire” in brackets. Attributed from Adam Sweeting? A nickname the rest of the guys give him? Who knows?

A Warhol film image of Lou Reed appears fairly early on. Just that straight-at-the-lens, nowhere-to-hide portrait shot, the camera rolling for several minutes. A childhood that didn’t sound overly loving, but they talk to his sister Merrill and she makes the counter argument of it being easy to pin all of Lou’s troubles on his childhood and upbringing. 

Several minutes later we move on to a similar half of the screen moving image portrait of John Cale. This is how little I admit to knowing about The Velvet Underground and its individual members – I hear John Cale speak and….he sounds like he usually sounds….with a New York twang. And then, he speaks again and sounds WELSH! Like, a proper Valley boy-o! 

I know! I should know better than this. I should be more knowledgeable. A lot of the time I do feel incredibly ignorant about a lot of things. 

A lot of the film centred towards PRE-VU. Lou and John and how they got into music the way they did, their influences, and how they met and formed The Primitives. 

All of that I found good. Sterling Morrison remains a mystery. Moe Tucker seems a very lovely woman. Doug Yule seemed a very fitting replacement for John Cale. 

It flowed well up to the point we got to when Warhol became involved and Nico joined the group. Then, for me, the documentary became a bit…rushed. It spent a lot of time on the preamble but then not much time on the Velvet Underground itself, once a modicum of success came.

Also, whenever they played Venus In Furs, it was DEAFENING! Venus In Furs was ssooo much louder than anything else within the audio, other Velvet songs, people speaking, etc, etc. It was a real wallop to the ears.

I kind of came away a bit…unfulfilled by the experience. I wanted more and something different. I probably wanted to learn more about Lou Reed than I did. I certainly wanted to learn more about the band than I felt I did. 

What I did learn though (or had confirmed to me) is:

  • The Velvet Underground are definitely punk. They are the TRUE pioneers of punk. Forget the “avant garde” schtick, although that does apply too. They’re punk.
  • John Cale is Welsh (I know! Lol).
  • Lou Reed was a douche canoe (at least at that time) and I honestly don’t know how anyone worked with him.
  • Delmore Schwartz was a massive influence on Reed.
  • Jonathan Richman is a sweetheart, and just about the only person to say something nice about Lou. And it explained why The Modern Lovers’ Roadrunner is ssooo much like Rock ‘n’ Roll to me. (Though it is meant to be a homage to Sister Ray – shows you how familiar I am with Sister Ray!)
  • Nico was a drifter. Lost, trying to find purpose in her life.
  • Warhol gave us “celebrity” and fame for fame’s sake. He’d love Love Island and Big Brother, and probably Gogglebox too.
  • Without Warhol no one outside of NYC would have heard of VU.

So, last night, in bed. Wanting to listen to some music to help me drift off to sleep, did I choose the “Banana Album”? Or White Light/White Heat? Or The Velvet Underground (aka album three)? Or Loaded? 

Nope!

I chose to listen to The Modern Lovers – the original set of recordings from 1972 that were finally released in 1976. 

And to paraphrase words from Roadrunner “I’m in love with Jonathan Richman”. We could all do with keeping that childlike wonder. Oh, man. Even in the documentary – you just want to reach in through the screen and hug him!

In summary of the Velvet Underground documentary. Did I enjoy it? To a degree. Did I find it insightful? Again, to a degree. Did I enjoy it as much as the previous music documentary I saw (The Sparks Brothers)? Naw.

If I was to give it a mark out of 10 – where the Sparks Brothers doc gets a firm 10/10. The Velvet Underground documentary gets a 7/10. The best bits were the interviews with John Cale, Moe Tucker, Jonathan Richman and Mary Woronov. 

It wasn’t quite what I had hoped for or anticipated. For one I didn’t expect to come out of a Velvet Underground documentary thinking “Aawww, Jonathan Richman – he’s sssooo sweet!” Lol

Can I recommend it? I guess. If you’re a REAL diehard Velvets fan, it probably isn’t going to give you much more of an insight in all honesty. Novices interested in the band and the period and wanting to know more…you might learn some stuff, but for me personally, it didn’t completely fill the remit.

And so, I shall leave you with this, influence of an influence that leads to an influence. And I love a fade-in!

Minds Music Monday – Boys From Brazil – SAF/SFC 40th Anniversary Celebration

In the early 1980s (as in 1980, 1981 and early into 1982) Simple Minds were accused of being “too Euro-centric” and of not putting enough of their focus into closer to home – what was happening in the UK, or even just in Glasgow itself.

Why should there be criticism of such a thing? Why should a band that originates from one place feel compelled to focus their music within one region or one area of geography? And besides, the United Kingdom is in Europe, is it not? Glasgow, beyond being within Scotland and the UK is also in Europe, no?

Jim was very pragmatic with his response to such things. And of course he was right to point out that the band are constantly touring Europe and are experiencing and witnessing things happening there so why would they not write about those things?

With that said, some songs DID focus on “home”. A case in point is Boys From Brazil. Despite its title seemingly alluding to Brazilian youths, it is actually a title lifted from the novel by Ira Levin (which actually does have young Brazilian characters in it). The book centres around a plan for a new rise of Nazi’s with a “new Hitler” at the top. Fascism and Neo-Naziism was on the rise in the UK, with the likes of the National Front gaining an undercurrent of support. (Oh how things cycle round and round.) Simple Minds’ version of Boys From Brazil was an ambiguous look at the alarming growth of movements like the National Front.

I’d like to share a memory of when the song most impacted on me. It wasn’t upon first listen, although of course that must have made a large enough impact. You can’t not be bowled over by those drums! It was the first thing that hit me. It would be the first thing to hit anyone listening to the song for the first time. The beat is relentless! More on that in a moment.

So this memory of mine is of coming back from a gig. A gig that I still can’t quite believe I attended AND enjoyed! At this point in time, I am in my very earliest days of Simple Minds fandom. Barely three months in, in fact. It was September 25th, 2014. The gig? Nana Mouskouri at the Royal Albert Hall. I know! How “rock n roll”, eh? Well, let me explain the circumstance.

At that time I was kind of being a “pro comper” – I was entering competitions on a full time basis. Searching for and entering as many competitions as I could find to enter each and every day. There are LOADS of competitions you can enter out there, with varying degrees of prize worth. I did this for about 12 months or so and had some success with things that I won. Ultimately though, it didn’t seem worth the time and effort I was putting into it to carry on with it full time. The best prizes I have won have been entering competitions outside of my stint at pro-comping.

Anyway, one of the prizes I won during this “pro-comping” time was for a pair of tickets to see Nana Mouskouri at the Royal Albert Hall. I had entered thinking that it would be cheap enough to get into London on the coach and that I’d at least get to experience a concert at the Albert Hall for free.

It was really great. The seats were good. Not waaaaaay up in the gods, but not really close…just middling, with a decent enough view. A few weeks after the gig, Nana was turning 80, and although she wasn’t exactly prancing about the stage like Beyoncé, she did put on a really good show. I enjoyed the spectacle and the fans loved her.

On the coach ride home back to Luton, I listened to some SM. I was devouring the music voraciously at that point. Visiting Dream Giver daily, searching the web for photos and just wanting to know everything there was to know and already just sssoooo solidly gone on Jim. Lol. Despite the style of the gig and the genre of music on offer, I still had a post-gig buzz. I was fatigued but my head was buzzing. I had taken my iPod Touch with me in case I “got bored” while travelling and I could have the music as my companion. (I’d like to point out at this stage also that I was actually with my OH that night, but we sometimes do our own thing to keep occupied during such travelling journeys.) I put on a shuffle mix of SM songs. About 4 or 5 songs in and just as we get onto the M1 motorway stretch of the journey out of London, Boys From Brazil kicks in. It was really dark in the coach and there was one of those screens which shows footage of a front facing camera that is pointed at the road.

So this is my lasting image of hearing Boys From Brazil. Sometimes when it plays I am taken straight back to that coach coming home from the Mouskouri gig. That dark motorway and my ears just awash with this amazing music and my mind wandering with the views inside and outside the coach as well as being mixed with the imagery the song itself conjures up for me…dapper young men looking all “fantoosh”, drinking champagne from fine flute glasses, cigarettes held gently between forefingers and middle fingers, languishing by a pool, basking in sunshine. The very air of sophistication. Think Minds at the Kensington Roof Top garden circa 1981 – the Sweat In Bullet video, the promo photos for the release of Sons And Fascination. It is all that it conjures up in me. I’m sorry, Jim, but what were you saying about not being sophisticated? …

To come back to a excerpt of Jim’s talk with Ian Cranna placed at the top of the post (and also within his words with John Gill), though it certainly wasn’t his intent or objective, I do find the imagery I see in my mind’s eye that Boys From Brazil gives off has an air of romanticism. And having never been exposed to the book or film and not being familiar with the plot, the lyrics are definitely too ambiguous to give any kind of clue that the song is meant to be a passing comment on fascist movements in Britain. I would say probably Heaven 17 were more direct with their (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang. On the odd occasion perhaps ambiguity doesn’t pay? As wonderful as it is for “artistic licence”. But the Jim Kerr of that time built lyrics solidly on “ambiguities and fragments”. It made Simple Minds songs all the more mysterious for it. And combined with that sound it was a hypnotic meld.

Let’s discuss musicality of the track. Wow! Those drums! Honestly. I like to view that drumming work on Boys From Brazil as Brian McGee’s lasting legacy for his time with Simple Minds. I’ve seen comments in recent times describing Brian’s drumming as “dependable” and “adequate” but I think he was much more than that – and I think Jim would agree.

Posted to Simple Minds Facebook page – Feb 15th, 2016.

I really couldn’t talk about Boys From Brazil without discussing the incredible contribution that Brian McGee gave to Simple Minds. The thing that astonishes me to this day is…beyond the hours of driving the band around in crazy backwaters and all that was perilous in that…was that, as a drummer, he was self-taught. Self-taught at a time when there’s no Internet and no way to just … go onto YouTube and watch drum tutorials and be able to pick up how to play that way. And no video recording either – well certainly very little for home use anyway – so I am guessing all he had to go on to try and learn was by somehow being exposed to watching other drummers play. And for all that, if Brian is deemed only worthy of being referred to as “dependable” and “adequate” – WELL GIVE ME F***ING DEPENDABLE AND ADEQUATE, because I think he’s frigging fantastic!

Those drums drive the whole musical expression of the song. It might be ambiguous in storytelling, but it isn’t in any way ambiguous in musical intent. It veritably pins you to the wall and makes you pay attention for the whole of its five and a half minute duration.

A lot of fans talk about the “classic line-up”, referring to it being the team of Kerr, Burchill, MacNeil, Forbes and Gaynor. But just listen to the rhythm backbone dynamic of Forbes and McGee (who then went on to team up in Propaganda as well), and if you are going to put a label of “classic line-up” to Simple Minds, then that’s the one! Kerr, Burchill, MacNeil, Forbes and McGee.

Me (in raptures) and McGee

Those drums, that monotone single key synth note, then a flash of colour, then bass lines to die for…and then that rich, almost baritone depth of voice that Jim has at that time just all blend and grab you by the throat and just…assault you with musical perfection. Everything I love about this song. EVERYTHING! How relentless the rhythm is, that endless mono-tonal synth note, the understated guitar riffs from Charlie, and the richness of Jim’s voice and the nuances to his singing style. It is just utterly, utterly perfect.

It has never been performed live to a crowd. From what I have heard, it HAS been performed in soundcheck, so it has very nearly made it to a live airing.

In video interviews in recent years, Charlie seems keen to want to do it but for some reason, Jim seems more reluctant. It is weird that the reluctance seems to come from Jim. Perhaps he thinks it is too perfect? Hmmm, I doubt that would be his reasoning. I do feel somewhat forlorn that the two songs I love the most in the whole Simple Minds catalogue, Boys From Brazil and Wonderful In Young Life, are destined never to be performed live. But…perhaps it is a blessing in disguise? Again, I’m not sure about that. Wishful thinking on my part. It is somewhat perplexing that a band that prides itself in their live performance would resist certain songs and never perform them.

As a result of this, all I have to share is the studio version of the song. Not even a demo version exists as far as I am aware. But would I want to hear a demo version of “perfection”? I think I would. I am always interested to learn how a song has developed and how it progressed.

I do dream for a Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call box set.

Additional source material for this post provided by the “Simple Minds Bible” – Dream Giver Redux – www.simpleminds.org

Never enough gratitude can go to Simon and his amazing website. Thank you ❤️

Another Snippet From Roadrunner – Dec ‘81/Jan ‘82

J’acuse Jim? (Is it just me that seems to take that as the implication?)

Also…I have NEVER seen this pic before…and every picture this magazine has used so far (apart from the one with him and Iva taken by Derek…and one other previously unseen pic I’ll share later today, from another edition of the mag) has been one of Virginia Turbett’s. So…I shall enquire…

I’m still holding out a tiny, weeny SMIDGEN of hope that this has not been lost/not making its way to me :-(( I cannot find another copy ANYWHERE! If only there had been a clean, crisp shot of the cover, I probably never would have bought it. Actually feel like crying thinking that it may just disappear in some void, never to be seen again :-(( #JimKerr #SimpleMinds