Is a great album saddled with some rather heavy baggage still a great album? Few recordings beg this question like Squeeze by the Velvet Underground. And when I say 'the Velvet Underground,' I'm talking about a Lou Reed-less, Maureen Tucker-less, John Cale-less, Sterling Morrison-less Velvet Underground. "Worst idea ever," you may be saying, likely co-opting a Comic Book Guy-style cadence. "How could such an album exist, and why don't I know about it?"
Here's the background. As VU was wrapping up the recording sessions for its pop-rock masterpiece Loaded, Lou Reed abruptly left the band. He simply didn't show up one day and that was that. Revisionist history suggests this was the immediate end of all things Velvet. Not so much. Although shell-shocked, the rest of the members soldiered on as a musical entity, with Doug Yule being the obvious choice to take over the frontman role.
Yule was the young fellow who replaced John Cale after the Velvet Underground's White Light / White Heat album, and at the behest of Reed, played a co-role in guiding the band into more pop-based sensibilities. You know those VU tunes where Reed's singing comes across as particularly robust? ("Candy Says," "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'," "Who Loves the Sun", "The Murder Mystery," "Lonesome Cowboy Bill," "New Age") Not to tell tales out of school, but that's actually Doug Yule plugging away on vocals.
The remaining trio toured the heck out of Loaded. Then Morrison dropped out, leaving Yule and Tucker as the last two Velvets standing. As they wrapped up a string of UK dates, not-so-scrupulous manager Steve Sesnick (whereabouts presently unknown) signed a new record deal with Polydor, sent Tucker back to the U.S., arranged some recording time, stuck Yule in the studio, pocketed all the advance money, then eventually left the young musician stranded in Europe. The end result is the little-known -- yet paradoxically, highly-polarizing -- final Velvet Underground release: 1973's Squeeze (a fitting title given Sesnick was literally squeezing the collection of songs out of Yule).
In the ensuing decades, a good number of VU purists either glossed over Squeeze's existence or simply derided it as rock n' roll sacrilege: an embarrassment of an album not fit to be mentioned in serious conversation. And from a narrative standpoint, several pieces were in place to support this argument. The entire band was gone, meaning Yule had to play all the instruments himself (with the exception of sax and drumming duties, the latter relegated to Deep Purple's Ian Paice -- whaaa?). As well, Yule had never recorded one of his own songs before. Ever. Lastly, he wasn't Lou Reed; he was, well, some other guy.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the delete bin. Against all odds, 25-year-old Doug Yule recorded a true pop classic. One that only a handful of people have ever heard. Literally a handful. It had a quick Europe-only release and then vanished. Yule dissolved the Velvet name soon afterwards, marking the official end of the band.
Eleven tracks. Thirty-three minutes. Squeeze is a Velvet Underground album, only technically it's not. It's a Doug Yule solo album, only technically it's not. For nearly 40 years now, it's been in music purgatory, floating idly in an uncategorizable limbo. And yet if you pluck it from the shackles of its murky back-story, Squeeze is nothing short of a quintessential listening experience.
When I ask Yule about the album, he's modest, if not a bit sheepish of its place in the VU canon. "To me it's so far in the past, and there was so much emotion tied up in how I was treated by Sesnick, I don't think I can have an objective view of it," he says. "Admittedly at the time, I was very confident about it. I was really having a good time and I enjoyed the tunes."
The confidence he had is all over these tracks. Sonically, it's a faithful continuation of the Velvet Underground's post-Grey Album musical direction, brimming with impeccable melodies and top-notch musicianship. "Loaded was Lou and I for the most part, with Sterling and other people coming in to do their parts," says Yule. "Squeeze was basically half of that: it was still my mentality, and of course the influence Lou had on me over the years. So it wasn't exactly like Loaded, but the overall attitude was similar, like a reasonable continuum."
Squeeze's leadoff, "Little Jack", hits you right out of the gate, showing Yule is ready, willing and able to step out of the shadows and front his own band. His bass and lead guitar chops (exceptional throughout the album) are front and center here, reeking of blustery, untethered sureness.
"Crash" is a charming piano-driven sing-along about a young family member's fearless tricycle antics. Those with an affinity for childlike innocence will welcome this into the fold, placing it alongside such PG-rated VU classics as "After Hours" and "I'm Sticking With You".
"Crash" is a perfect counterpoint to "Mean Old Man", a bluesy beast easily described as Jack White 30 years before Jack White. The guitar riff is classic Velvet Underground and the snarling vocals prove Yule can drop the angelic voice to ride rock n' roll shotgun with T. Rex, the New York Dolls and other big boys of the era.
"Caroline", "Dopey Joe" and "Send No Letter" are swinging, catchy-as-hell rockers, while "Wordless" and "She'll Make You Cry" take on a bluesy, mid-tempo vibe, replete with pitch-perfect harmonies and virtuoso guitar soloing.
"Friends" is the sole melancholy number, a stunning piano and acoustic guitar ballad about unrequited affection. Like most songs on this record, it would have likely achieved instant classic status had it appeared on an earlier Velvet Underground release. Worth noting that if "Friends" doesn't tear the crap out of your heartstrings, you may very well be an android or a mid-level claims adjuster.
"Jack and Jane" is yet another brilliant hook-filled melodic assault, this one featuring a cheeky swipe at Yule's former band leader (specifically his badass tales of '60s American subculture). One caveat: it will lodge itself into your brain for an extended period of time, so govern yourself accordingly.
"Louise" is the epic album closer, the tale of an aging exotic dancer whose best days are behind her. It's a Kurt Weil-esque baroque number that dovetails into a stunning multi-layered vocal outro straight from the Abbey Road Medley playbook.
In a nutshell, that's Squeeze. And over the past four decades, Yule has made exactly zero dollars and zero cents from its release. It was never issued on CD and the vinyl version is years out of print, meaning the only way to own a copy involves a wee bit of illegal downloading from a torrent site. Which as a law-abiding citizen, I, uh, wouldn't condone under any circumstance. Cough cough. (For you Eighth Commandment-fearing folk, I've assembled a brief YouTube compilation of some of the tunes.)
The haze of nostalgia leads many to believe the Velvet Underground made an indelible mark on the music scene in its brief lifetime. In reality, VU's iconic status was posthumous, not cemented until years after Loaded hit stores in 1970. Which means in the summer of 1972, Yule wasn't recording Squeeze to ride the slipstream of one of the most cherished rock n' roll records in history. He was crafting a faithful follow-up to a genius yet poor-selling album from a cult band most people had never heard of. And outside of the brilliant Lou Reed, I'm convinced the only person earning the right to venture into such waters would be Mr. Doug Yule. The fact he pulled it all off so seamlessly makes Squeeze a doozy of a criminally overlooked album.