While their LPs weren’t huge sellers, many people who spoke fondly of the Velvet Underground over the years did so on the basis of their live performances. But without much label interest in a professional recording of their shows, it is therefore not surprising but fitting that the few that have been released officially are essentially bootleg quality, with one exception, which will be discussed eventually.
The first live release was both historic and contractual. The band kept busy during the New York Loaded sessions by playing a residency at Max’s Kansas City. While Maureen had to sit out due to her pregnancy, Doug Yule’s kid brother Billy played drums. One show was captured on a table-top cassette recorder by a friend of the band, and as chance would have it, it was also Lou’s last show before quitting. Hence, Live At Max’s Kansas City became something of an official farewell album, touching on all aspects of the band’s work, including such surprising inclusions as “Sunday Morning” and “After Hours”, punctuated by Lou’s wistful introductions and the sound of poet rocker Jim Carroll ordering drinks between songs. It’s more historic than definitive, since Doug Yule was under the impression he was in just another rock ‘n roll band instead of one of the more seminal entities in the pantheon. (Some 32 years later Rhino reissued an expanded edition of the album, including all of both sets from that night in their original sequence. Even Lou’s farewell songs are enhanced in this format.)
In response to Lou’s growing fame as a glam solo act, their original label decided to cash in on whatever they had left, compiling a two-record set from location tapes recorded at shows in Dallas and San Francisco. Taking care to highlight Lou’s name on the (hideous) cover art, at least the album known as 1969 could boast Maureen Tucker on drums. But what made it more interesting was the inclusion of several unreleased songs exclusive to the set. “Lisa Says” and “Ocean” had been heard by a select few on Lou’s first solo album, but here were full-fledged band versions, the former with a jaunty bridge and the latter stretched to ten fascinating minutes. “Over You” and the odd “Sweet Bonnie Brown/It’s Just Too Much” medley are curious on their own, but “We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together” crackles with energy. Many of the tracks are extended to jam length, and the key discovery to latecomers came in “New Age” and “Sweet Jane”, both in their original versions before being re-jigged for Loaded. (It was this version of “Sweet Jane” that the Cowboy Junkies covered in 1989, leading to their own success and an endorsement by a genuinely flattered Uncle Lou.)
When the 1969 album was reissued on CD, it was separated into two budget-priced volumes, with an extra track on each. A rehaul is long overdue, but there has been a sequel of sorts. Come the turn of the century, when the archival boom helped boost sales in a dying industry, the Velvet Underground became the latest act to find themselves with an authorized “Bootleg Series”. The inaugural—and to date, only—volume in the series was culled from various safeties of cassettes recorded by guitarist (and eventual Reed sidekick) Robert Quine with his own personal tape recorder at twelve different shows. The Quine Tapes offers three discs chock full of the Velvets playing their little hearts out, complete with Maureen singing both “After Hours” and “I’m Sticking With You”, and three renditions of “Sister Ray” ranging from 24 to 38 minutes. One key rarity is “Follow The Leader”, otherwise known only from a mid-‘70s Lou solo album. Despite the method and fidelity of the recordings, both 1969 and The Quine Tapes are quite enjoyable.
The Velvet Underground Live At Max’s Kansas City (1972)—3
2004 Deluxe Edition: same as 1972, plus 8 extra tracks
The Velvet Underground 1969: The Velvet Underground Live With Lou Reed (1974)—4
1988 CD: same as 1974, plus 2 extra tracks
The Velvet Underground Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes (2001)—3½