The Velvet Underground was one of the most avant-garde bands of its time; from which emerged punk, noise and 99% of alternative music. But what makes them absolutely essential is that when you take away the experiments, the art rock, the noise and Andy Warhol you are left with the songs of one of the best pop songwriters of all time, Lou Reed. Well, Loaded is, to a certain extent, the album in which the Velvets removed all the 'cool' and experimental ‘clothing’ (it is even questionable whether this is really a Velvet album, without Maureen Tucker and very little input from Sterling Morrison); but you are left with the songs. Obviously nobody is going to give you an award for being the coolest guy on the planet for saying you like this album over White Light/White Heat, but song by song this is the only album of their career that can rival their mythical debut.
Loaded was the band's last attempt at success. The record company they had just signed for asked them for an album full of hits and Lou Reed, like a fairy godmother, granted their wish by writing several anthems that should have been their passport to fame. And the fact is that Reed was dropping great songs all over the place, as he not only completed an album in which there were ten possible hits, but in these same sessions he wrote some of the best songs of his solo career, gems like Satellite Of Love and Sad Song that was recovered for his two most celebrated solo albums, Transformer and Berlin; not to mention almost his entire solo debut album.
Stripped of the transgressive side and 'artiness' of his first albums what remains here is a perfect work of classic rock, in which each of its 10 songs could have been a 'single'. Of course, like in the rest of the career of the band, the work did not see commercial success, in spite of featuring marvels such as Sweet Jane, Rock & Roll, Who Loves The Sun, New Age and Oh! Sweet Nuthin'. There wasn't much left of the original Velvets either, with John Cale gone for two years and Maureen Tucker not playing the drums (despite being included in the credits) due to her pregnancy. As if that wasn't enough, the two guitarists, Reed and Sterling Morrison, are not heard much either, since Cale's replacement, Doug Yule, takes care of most of the solos, besides the bass, keyboards, part of the drums and the lead vocals on four songs, Who Loves The Sun, New Age, Lonesome Cowboy Bill and Oh! Sweet Nuthin'.
And now the time has come to defend the figure of Yule, the man whom the official biography of the band has almost erased from its history. It is clear that Yule is not John Cale, but not wanting to hear the great work he did on this album is foolish. The four songs that he is in charge of are perfect for him - maybe Reed voice would have bettered New Age, but on the other three Yule is perfect, with his sweet voice being perfect for that Candy pop that opens the album - Who Loves The Sun - and for that enormity that closes it, Oh! Sweet Nuthin'. I'll never forget the first time I heard it; I almost cried at such a marvel. It is another of Reed's best songs but he never claimed it for himself, as he did with Sweet Jane or Rock & Roll. Yule's high-pitched voice, which seems to be on the verge of breaking, does as well as Maureen Tucker's child-like voice on the previous album After Hours. And that's not to mention the remarkable solo he plays with her Gibson ES-335TD. Of all the crimes Yule is charged with – including not being Cale, and making the subsequent Squeeze under the name of the band (when he was already on his own) - the only one for which he is guilty is that of cutting the heavenly bridge of Sweet Jane, a mistake corrected on recent editions of the album. A mistake that Yule says Reed was responsible for (something that doesn't seem so out of place if we think that its author doesn't use the bridge on the famous version of Rock'n'Roll Animal either).
By the time Loaded was released in November 1970, the ‘captain had left the ship’ three months earlier, but this was still Lou Reed's ship. All the songs are his, and while he gives up four of them to Yule's voice, in the remaining six he sings better than in his entire career. Just listen to the pastiche doo wop on I Found Reason, which finds Reed harmonizing perfectly with Yule, and the strength with which he sings Head Held High - or that bravado so typical of Sweet Jane, which is possibly the best song of his career.
With Loaded the Velvets did not break any barrier, nor opened up new avenues, but that does not mean that this is not a masterpiece. When a group is capable of producing 10 songs as good as these, very little else matters.