Aug 12

The Velvet Underground: “Rock & Roll”

The Velvet Underground -- Loaded

The Pink Panther was clearly up to no good in the New York subway.

I was out mowing my lawn this weekend, listening to a “Genius Playlist” on my iPod Touch that was based on the Hives’ “Abra Cadaver” (which has nothing else to do with today’s song — just thought it might be of interest). A lot of great songs from my music library popped up in the list, including “Head Held High” by the Velvet Underground, from their 1970 album, Loaded, which also happened to be their last. It’s my favorite VU album, and that’s saying a lot, considering the other classic albums that preceded it. So in any case, as I listened to “Head Held High,” I was thinking, “Oh, yes, perfect song to post on Reselect. One of the best from that album.” And right up until a few minutes ago, I was going to do exactly that. But as I listened to it again this morning, I made the mistake of flipping through the rest of the songs on the album. So of course “Rock & Roll” was one of them, and when that came on, as always, I was just blown away by how amazing that song is, and realized that “Head Held High” would simply have to wait. I haven’t posted any VU here on Reselect previously, and I’m pretty sure at some point in the past year or so, I knew in the back of my mind that this had to be the first song of theirs that I would use.

But “Head Held High” is such a great song as well that I think I might just have to do something like a “Two for Tuesday,” with half of it ending up on Wednesday. So check back tomorrow for “Head Held High”…

But back to “Rock & Roll”: few songs about the cathartic release that rock and roll can provide are as anthemic, and themselves cathartic, as “Rock & Roll.” It lays out the case for music as a life-changing force, and does it in completely convincing style — I can’t help but think that when I first heard the song (although I don’t recall exactly how old I was . . . maybe early teens), it changed my life as well. It presents the greatness of rock music as a mythical force, and helped me to realize that my intense love of music was grounded in an ongoing tradition of the power of a great chord change or drum fill. The guitar in “Rock & Roll” is epic in a way that is hard to pin down, and Lou Reed’s singing is soulful, making it clear that the story of the song’s Jenny is his story as well. The song is far more than the sum of its parts, however — it’s simply one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded.

If you aren’t entirely up on your Velvet Underground, “Rock & Roll” (and the majority of other VU songs) was written and sung by Lou Reed. Reed is such a challenging rock legend to appreciate — he’s done all he can to make himself not easily likable. But with the Velvet Underground, he channeled all of his orneriness into one incredible song after another. And it must have drained him, because he walked away from the group soon after finishing the recording of Loaded. But what an amazing legacy he left behind — few bands ended up being as influential as VU. And Loaded is as great a place as any to start if you’re just discovering their genius.

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