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From the vaults... I discovered the Velvet Underground in a way that should make the band's most impassioned devotees cringe. I'd been told by a hip elder cousin that, in light of my immersion in David Bowie and Mott the Hoople, it was only prudent that I find a place in my heart for the Underground's dark star, Lou Reed. But frankly, I was bit scared of the guy. Wasn't this the self-proclaimed rock and roll animal who glorified transvestitism, shot up smack on-stage and devoted an entire release, Metal Machine Music, to some of the most irritating noise on the planet?

At 15, I didn't feel I was ready for Reed. Then, a few months shy of my 16th birthday, in a moment defined more by poverty than bravery, I scrounged up $1.99 for a beat-up copy of Velvet Underground's Loaded. Sure, I'd heard of the Underground, Reed's maiden voyage into the land of extremes. But what I didn't know was that Loaded was the Velvet Underground at its warmest and fuzziest. The band's final studio release, Loaded was an attempt at selling out. I took to it immediately. And it remains my favorite.

Now, Rhino has given the Velvets' commercial parting shot its just due with Loaded (Fully Loaded Edition). Rhino not only remastered the original recording and gussied up its packaging with extensive liner notes and vintage artwork, they loaded it (so to speak) with a wealth of bonus tracks, including an entire disc's worth of spare takes from the original sessions. The label is touting that extra CD as "an entire alternate version" of the original Loaded release, though I'd be more inclined to call it an entire inferior version. Even so, these clumsy, demo-quality rejects have their merits, especially "Satellite of Love," one of eight bonus offerings that Reed later revamped for his solo outings.

As the Velvet Underground, Reed, the late Sterling Morrison, Maureen "Moe" Tucker and John Cale (who made an early exit in 1968) reinvented themselves constantly. They dabbled in a little of everything, from the art-rock cadences of the Warhol-inspired The Velvet Underground and Nico to the minimalist maelstrom of White Light/White Heat to the tender, acoustic exorcism that dominates much of The Velvet Underground, and they never once thought about reconciling those warring musical personalities.

If rock and roll deification was handed down purely on the merits of units sold, the Underground would be somewhere near the end of the line. The group's four studio releases sold miserably in their day -- no big surprise, considering their anti-hippie image and dearth of bucolic sentiment. By 1970, the members of the Underground seemed as tired of their bummer-band stigma as they were of each other. Loaded was the group's first and only play for a pop audience, and it came at a time when the group was falling apart, with Reed on his way out the door, Tucker on pregnancy leave and Morrison as indifferent as a shadow. Still, between Reed's compositions and the lively presence of Cale replacement Doug Yule, Loaded was the most playful version of the Velvet Underground any DJ could hope for. "Sweet Jane" (the full-length -- and, I'd argue, lesser -- version of which is included here), "Rock and Roll" and "Head Held High" prove, without a doubt, what Reed knew along: that he could craft radio-friendly singles without compromising his brooding world-view.

Despite the band's admirable last-ditch efforts, Loaded failed to chart in America. The Underground had already been left for dead -- and even in death, it seems, they couldn't catch a break. Pity.

Even more pitiful is the saga of Pete Ham, the tortured leader of Badfinger, who hanged himself in 1975 at the age of 27. Suicide was Ham's way of escaping the realization that he'd been betrayed by the ones he'd trusted the most. They'd left his life in financial ruins, his spirit drained.

Tragedy aside, Badfinger was a good band measured unfairly against perhaps the greatest rock band ever. The group is still seen by many as little more than a pre-disco Fabricated Four, and for obvious reasons: The Beatles were Badfinger's mentors, affording the band its first record deal on Apple Records and a hit single in the McCartney-penned "Come and Get It." That in mind, I tried to suspend any undue scrutiny when listening to 7 Park Avenue, a new Rykodisc collection of previously unreleased demos recorded by Ham in his home studio during the late '60s and early '70s.

In the end, doing so didn't require much effort. True, parts of 7 Park Avenue are stubbornly McCartneyesque, and one or two cuts shamelessly ape the echoey live-to-tape feel and signature three-part harmonies that defined the early Beatles. But a larger portion of 7 Park Avenue proves that Ham was hardly living in a nostalgic vacuum. The goofy "Matted Spam," for example, is an obvious nod to Steve Winwood. There's still more to suggest that Ham was gradually working through his more derivative habits and developing a raw, confessional style all his own. The various kinks and imperfections in performance and production (Ham's recording equipment was primitive) contribute to the intimacy that floods these demos.

In itself, Ham's abbreviated life is tragic. But with the fitfully inspired 7 Park Avenue serving as a reminder of what was lost with his death, the effect on the listener is nothing short of harrowing. Damned if this isn't some the best music Badfinger never recorded.

-- Hobart Rowland

 
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