Keith Richards famously called it the ancient art of weaving. Subverting the distinctions of lead and rhythm. Like any technique, guitar interplay has no linear development. It has had ephemeral, unique expressions and, in the hands of some, ascensions.
It’s not the focus of the first V.U. record with Nico. And the guitars don’t shine above the abrasive din on White Light, so much as frame it. They’re tamed and refined on the third record while constructed and overdubbed on Loaded. When you get around to finding them, it’s the live albums that give the most insight. A copy of the 1969 Live volumes. Or if you could tolerate digging into The Quine Tapes.
You could be forgiven for not thinking of the Velvet Underground as a cornerstone of the style. They’re proper albums weren’t designed to highlight it. Instead they layered sounds, piled guitars on violas, perverted and distorted rock conventions, or just supplanted them with 20th Century classicism. With their guitars though, the Velvet Underground married the teenage Rock ‘N’ Roll of Chuck Berry with the demanding avant-garde intelligence of Ornette Coleman.
Digging into the recently remastered The Velvet Underground deluxe re-issue you get lost in that side of the band. ‘What Goes On’ has been the text-book on rhythm playing for several distinct iterations of art rock. Lou Reed’s plain-spoken, twisted, Roy Orbison, nestled between a twin guitar tapestry provided by he and Sterling Morrison. The Alternate mixes, out-takes, and demos highlight what a gifted a lead player Morrison was (Check this ‘Foggy Notion.’)
The strongest elements begin to show themselves, however, once the band kicks in. Reed and Morrison’s interlocking riffs sound like they’re coming from one, celestially withdrawn, guitar. Doug Yule’s percussive and melodic bass anchored to the propulsive minimalism of Moe Tucker’s inverted kit. This record marks the beginning of an obvious interest by the band in chart success, evasive as it was, but never seems comprised.
The last discs reveal, for the first time in reasonably sequenced order and suitable fidelity, the power of this group live. Caught in San Francisco in 1969 on a four-track you can hear the band as only a lucky few ever did. A loud, meditative, twin guitar, rock band; as indebted to Cochran as Coltrane.