Wednesday, May 16, 2007
The First Two Velvet Underground Records-part 4: European Son and Live Improvisation
While “Heroin” exemplifies all this about the aesthetics of The Velvet Underground and Nico, “European Son” explains the direction of the band in terms of loose song structure and lack of precise mimicry between performances.
This track serves as a culmination of all the ideas throughout the record. There is plenty of interplay between instruments, primitive drums, etc. “European Son” also addresses the question about the relationship between music as live performance and a recorded document. It is a departure from the notions of pop music found in the other songs on the album, and has avant-garde leanings. For example, “there’s a chair being scraped across the room by Cale, at which point he stops in front of Lou, who drops a glass… The engineer, he’s saying, ‘My God, What are you doing?’… It was tremendous, because it is in time, and the music starts right up. I don’t know how we timed it like that… [but ‘European Son’] was just different every time. There was no structure, we just did it,” (Heylin, “Velvets to the Voidoids” 20). The choice to abandon pop sensibilities and structure was very ambitious in 1966. Even the Beatles would throw in their versions of John Cage in their pop records in a few years. On the other hand, the Beatles did their avant-garde leaning work in the studio exclusively. They never presented it in live concert for whatever reason. The Velvet Underground not only played “European Son” live, but did not value the aesthetic of perfect reproduction. Instead, they decided to embrace how different they could make their songs, avoiding the jukebox feeling of playing the same songs over and over ad nauseam until something snapped. The Velvets allowed for songs to be interpreted differently every time and made their sets more interesting for them and more engaging for the audience. At the same time, they captured only one possible performance of a song like “European Son” on record. Instead of just mass reproduction, they recorded a unique version of their song that could not be reproduced by the band note for note. This addresses the theory of aura put forward by Benjamin. This song maintains its aura and authenticity even though it has been mass reproduced because it was a unique performance. If Benjamin was worried about classical music being mass produced instead of being seen live, he might be comforted by music that was not notated or written down to be preserved, but just recorded one time. This song also helps to push the record past the point of music as entertainment and moves it toward the world of art. This is another statement against pure mass production for the sake of mass consumption. It does not pander to the audience but rather speaks for itself in terms of artistic quality. This trend would not disappear during the second album, but instead was explored in a different way.