The Velvet Underground – The Complete Matrix Tapes

It’s the first time on vinyl for the historic Matrix Tapes from 1969 that capture the post-John Cale incarnation of the cult band in spectacular live form. Gary Tipp’s life is saved by rock & roll…

Matrix Underground

From the druggy pop smarts of The Velvet Underground & Nico to the frenzied avant-garde dissonance of White Light/White Heat, from the contemplative folky comedown of the self-titled third to the skewed classic rock of Loaded, The Velvet Underground never made the same record twice. The reason, in part, is down to a crucial change to the band’s line-up after the second album, when Lou Reed, against the initial wishes of Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker, cordially invited experimental Welsh noisenik John Cale to put his electric viola back in its case and take a hike.

Without Cale’s hissing white noise and experimental promptings The Velvet Underground’s sound mellowed significantly with the sonic emphasis returning to Reed’s considerable songwriting craft. And it is this rounded-at-the-edges incarnation of the band, with the curly-haired Doug Yule drafted in on bass, that features in The Complete Matrix Tapes, a highly-desirable eight-LP, 43-track vinyl boxset.  

The post-Cale Velvet Underground toured extensively in 1969, and rocked up in San Francisco at the end of the year for a series of gigs, including at the semi-mythical club The Matrix, opened in a former pizza joint by Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin in 1965. Over the course of their residency, the club’s high-quality four-track recorder, was rolling through much of it from a booth at the side of the stage. Two of these shows, on November 26 and 27, form the basis of the boxset. This means that across the 43 tracks there are multiple versions of the same song, for instance, there are no fewer than four versions of We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together.

The shows, as you can hear, were intimate affairs, and feature a relaxed Lou Reed happy enough to banter between songs (“This is a song about the sorrows of the contemporary world, of which I know we all know so well”). All four studio albums are represented on the setlist, including early versions of yet-to-be-recorded songs such as Sweet Jane, New Age and Rock & Roll (which later appear on Loaded).

Naturally, enough, Cale’s absence is felt and the lack of his experimental edge means that the early songs are entirely different propositions, and not all of the reimaginings translate successfully within the stripped-back band dynamic; specifically a bizarre cocktail lounge version of I’m Waiting For The Man, a blunted, rambling White Light/White Heat and a challengingly marathon 36:54 version of Sister Ray. That’s not to say that all the songs from the first two albums suffer, far from it; a hushed version of Heroin is utterly thrilling, while the shimmering Venus In Furs resonates with a majestic splendour.

The songs from the third album onwards find the band in spectacular form, with the improvised guitar interplay between Reed and Morrison nothing short of miraculous with the breakneck What Goes On, Some Kinda Love and New Age particular highlights. This is The Velvet Underground fully transformed from in-your-face sonic terrorists to a sensational live rock band with a locked-in groove and an edge all of their own.
Gary Tipp