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“‘European Son’: Showcasing the Velvet Underground’s Only True Show-Stopper”

To an extent, The Velvet Underground, when they started out, like any other viable rock and roll band, were a salient expression of frustration. The songs, the melodies, the statements buried under the noise of what was in their embryonic days The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, were secondary. Reed didn’t want to edify you, he wanted your ear drums to bleed, otherwise he would have stayed doing that Pickwick song doctor crap.

Guitar feedback was a technological advancement in the mid-’60’s, The Who having been the first to deliberately employ it on a studio album, at the very end of “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” and it certainly came off as the work of British “lab wizards.” The mood, though, was light — we’re all young and free, we can do what we want.
Reed on “European Son” sings as if at the bottom of a ditch, metaphorically, a ditch of life that has found him hassled and smote by the man around every corridor. His use of amplifier returns is certainly less artful than The Who’s, so give those blokes credit for ushering in a new era in form every bit worthy of the rock gods. But “European Son” is by no means the album’s centerpiece, and “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” was more than a centerpiece — it was released as a single, not even bound by album form, and listening to it you can hear why.
My point is that The Velvet Underground & Nico closeur “European Son” is a prime example of how there are many, many ways of looking at the beast that was this overall project. It’s composed of pliable parts — the classic riff, the disarmingly confrontational, obtuse lyrics, the obfuscatory structure — each of which could, on their own, go on to influence entire albums, like Ziggy Stardust for instance, which to me just plays as Velvets idolatry in the general vein of the Motown-inspired riff.
Feedback, though, arguably the nuclear point, the song’s nexus, is thrown in amongst a heap, in the innocuous middle of the song, buried way under Cale’s riff which is like Motown on a mixture of meth and “heroin.” And do I even hear DRUMS on this song? I mean I’m sure they’re there, I’ll just be damned if I can make ‘em out. Maybe it’s because the entire song sounds like one giant, unified elephant tusk, rolling down a cliff off Cote D’Ivoire and poised to make quite the splash.
Ironically, the production strikes me as more the handiwork of Reed, with the returns, and Andy Warhol (I’d peg the latter as the resident glass-breaker), than of John Cale, the then Velvets bassist who would go on to sit at the control panel for The Stooges’ self-titled debut. Cale might have been frustrated at this, related to his eventual departure from the band, but for now, this song is a cacophony of horror anyway, so it probably doesn’t matter. Anyway, though, in this way the non-producer probably makes the biggest musical impact, from an influence standpoint.
The energetic, possessed vocal style, the “rap”-like delivery, these things are nothing disorienting to us by this time (though on this song he does toggle in and out of sing-song with an ultimately soul-ripping ease, and this alternating singing and rapping went on to become a staple in New York hip-hop, Pete Rock, Mos Def et. al).
What is curious to think about, however, is that this is probably the best Velvet Underground “groove” to date, from a visceral rock and roll standpoint — the most hypnotic, entrancing and its own way, devastating, and yet you never hear this song on live albums. John Cale’s bass riff is cosmos-splitting, memorable stuff, and Sterling Morrison sounds like Garth on drums, on guitar, busting those speed-strums insane, timely alacrity. Reed seemed to favor melody for audiences, and “European Son” rests only about 10% of its weight on melody, though not in any way an immaterial 10%.

 

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