What does it sound like?:
The Complete Matrix Tapes by The Velvet Underground is four and a half hours of the best Rock music ever recorded. It consists of four complete live sets played over two days during a week long residency at The Matrix, San Fransisco, in late November 1969.
By that time, The Velvet Underground were boiled down to the essence of a Rock band, into its four elemental parts of guitar, bass, drums, organ. Andy Warhol’s artistic patronage, Nico’s glacial cool and John Cale’s maverick experimentation were long gone. The raw, basic sound strips away the brash hedonism of the songs and reveals a poignant tenderness at their heart. They highlight the fragility of the human condition, populated as they are by drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes, people living precariously on the edge of a society that rejects and despises them, composed by a tremulous hand, one of their own, someone who understands and loves them. These are amongst the greatest Rock songs ever written, crafted from blood, spit and a heated spoon, because, even though most of us will never encounter the characters and situations described, we can all relate to the emotions expressed in the relationships. It’s the small details that scratch the soul: the ‘suitcase in my hand’ on the way to Sweet Jane’s domesticity, ‘the fact you are married’, drowning as he is in Pale Blue Eyes or the ‘three flights of stairs’ after waiting for his man.
On The Matrix Tapes, Reed stares into an abyss as the music swirls around him, threatening to overwhelm his grip on sanity itself, and, somehow, manages to hold on. There is a strength and a sense of total belief in these renditions. The band are as magisterial at managing tension and release within the music as the most accomplished jazz group. They also find joy in repetition. Sterling Morrison gives a masterclass on rhythm guitar, continually stirring a cauldron as it reaches boiling point. Mo Turner’s drumming is stoic and relentless, a thumping affirmation of life. And Doug Yule’s contributions are thoughtful and judicious, answering a question he didn’t know he’d been asked. These are musicians, street-smart and battle-hardened from constant touring, who are willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Reed as he wrestles his demons and surrenders his heart and soul to audiences barely numbering more than a few dozen. The applause is comically tiny compared to the enormity of the performances, performances that should have them lying on their backs, kicking their legs with glee, tear-stained and dizzy from all the dancing.
The truth is that The Velvet Underground were a commercial disaster. They had many admirers but few sales. Reed was writing hits for the forthcoming album, Loaded, without any real hope of entering the charts. Temporarily liberated from the restrictions and limitations of making a record, they play old ‘favourites’, improvised and extemporised (Sister Ray & White Light/White Heat), they adjust newer songs with too many verses to fit on a piece of vinyl (Sweet Jane & New Age) and try some new ones that were never recorded in a studio (Over You & Sweet Bonnie Brown/It’s Too Much). They play as though there is nothing else they can do with their lives, as though being in a Rock band is all that matters. Reed, in particular, is in his element. His song introductions are witty, light-hearted and relaxed. He actually sounds happy, almost as if, like a man facing certain death, he has never felt so alive. This is The Velvet Underground that left Jonathan Richman wide-eyed with wonder.
They didn’t intend these gigs to be recorded but recorded they were, on pretty decent four track equipment. As such, The Matrix is where The Velvet Underground are captured with the best live audio quality of their career. Some of the material can be found on 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, some on The Velvet Underground 45th Anniversary Edition and there is the Quine Bootleg Series but this box is satisfyingly whole.
It’s a privilege to have The Complete Matrix Tapes in our lives. It is one of Rock’s definitive recordings. These four live sets are enough listening pleasure to last a lifetime.
What does it all *mean*?
In just four years, the demise of the CD gathers pace, whilst vinyl still maintains its place in collectors’ hearts. The Complete Matrix Tapes was issued on four CDs in 2015 and this release is a limited edition eight LP box, especially mastered for vinyl.
Goes well with…
A fat wallet. You are looking at £120.
Might suit people who like…
Sly & The Family Stone Live At The Fillmore East, Miles At The Fillmore – Bootleg Series Vol. 3, John Coltrane – The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings or Bob Marley & The Wailers – Live! (Complete).