Hear Me Out: The Velvet Underground’s Squeeze

Doug Yule did his best to carry Lou Reed's splendid, poptimistic torch, even if his efforts on the Velvets' final album were cursed from the very first note.

Music Features The Velvet Underground
Hear Me Out: The Velvet Underground’s Squeeze

Hear Me Out is a column dedicated to earnest reevaluations of those cast-off bits of pop-cultural ephemera that deserve a second look. Whether they’re films, TV series, albums, comedy specials, videogames or even cocktails, Hear Me Out is ready to go to bat for any underappreciated subject.

I can smell the tomatoes already. But, hear me out. I am not here to label the Velvet Underground’s final studio album a masterpiece or anything of the sort. No, no. Instead, I would just like to say that, hey, Squeeze is not so bad! Yes, in the context of something like The Velvet Underground & Nicoone of the greatest albums ever made—it’s quite deplorable. And yes, in the context of the Velvets’ other three albums (White Light/White Heat, self-titled and Loaded), it’s still bad. But I’m not so sure we should really consider Squeeze in the context of those albums. I mean, is it even a Velvet Underground project at the end of the day? Survey says: No. But, contractually, yes, it is.

To better understand the band’s loathed and reviled 1973 finale, we must first rewind to 1968, when the Velvet Underground released White Light/White Heat. They had lost Nico after cutting ties with their then-manager Andy Warhol, and Warhol’s replacement, Steve Sesnick, was not liked very much by multi-instrumentalist John Cale, who believed that Sesnick was trying to retool the band’s image by presenting Lou Reed as its frontman. If The Velvet Underground & Nico is considered a proto-punk forefather, then White Light/White Heat was the raunchy, chaotic explosion that shattered heavy music’s low ceiling. The band’s performances were harsher and rowdier than ever before, and Cale even described the record as “consciously anti-beauty” in the wake of their debut’s delicate moments, like “Sunday Morning” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”

Tensions were beginning to set in quickly, as Reed and Cale both held the brilliance to be bandleaders but had perpendicular ideas. Toss in some serious underperforming sales and lack of overall recognition for the work, and the Velvets were sitting front row on a heat-seeking missile toward self-destruction. One of the last recording sessions to feature Cale showcased this division: three songs were made with Reed’s poppier glint (“Stephanie Says” being one of them), while Cale’s viola-driven drone took center-stage on “Hey Mr. Rain.” By the end of September 1968, Cale was fired from the band. “Lou told [Robert Quine] that the reason why he had to get rid of Cale in the band was Cale’s ideas were just too out there,” Michael Carlucci later recalled. “Cale had some wacky ideas. He wanted to record the next album with the amplifiers underwater, and [Reed] just couldn’t have it. He was trying to make the band more accessible.”

Reed’s desires to make the Velvet Underground a more palatable band after leaving Warhol’s Plastic Exploding Inevitable make sense. He was never so deeply entwined with the avant-garde, at least never to the extent of the virtuosic Cale, and his interests were always far more aligned with the pop world—at least in the 1960s, as some of his solo albums, like the equally maligned Metal Machine Music, are allergic to pop labels. So, as the Velvets were about to start work on their third (and eventually self-titled) LP, Reed hired Grass Menagerie multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule to replace Cale. The story goes that, while he was still living on River Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts (in an apartment owned by the band’s tour manager Hans Onsager), the Velvets stayed at Yule’s apartment after playing the Boston Tea Party.

During their stay, Sterling Morrison claimed to have heard Yule practicing guitar and informed Reed that the young New Yorker was getting better at playing. Sesnick would organize a meeting between Yule and the band at Max’s Kansas City in October 1968, and the idea was to have him join the Velvet Underground as their new bassist, organ player and background vocalist. The new quartet recorded The Velvet Underground between November and December of that year, and it came out the following March.

The Velvet Underground, the People’s Champion of the band’s catalog, was a massive departure from the brash, angry soundscapes of White Light/White Heat. Reed had gotten his wish of employing a gentler sound, one influenced by the historical folk scene that was grabbing national attention in the early 1960s—the same time period that La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music began doing all-night performances with different permutations, which included Cale, and would inspire the avant-garde roots of the Velvet Underground altogether. And on their self-titled album, Reed was able to pen two of his greatest tracks: “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Candy Says,” the latter of which featured Yule on lead vocals. He and Reed proved to be a formidable (and often overlooked) pop tandem.

Yule would continue to see his role in the band grow, leading to him singing lead on two of the band’s sweetest tunes: “Who Loves the Sun” and “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” the bookending tracks on the Velvets’ fourth album, Loaded. While Reed’s “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll” have endured as the two most beloved and “commercial” songs from the band’s penultimate record, I would argue that Yule’s performances are some of the most compelling on the project. The seven-minute closer “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” is handily one of the greatest finale tracks of its era, especially. Loaded went on to receive scores of admiration and generational praise: Rolling Stone gave the album five stars, while Pitchfork’s retrospective review declared it a perfect 10. Even critic Robert Christgau, whose Village Voice was one of the first publications to write earnestly about the Velvet Underground’s work during the & Nico days, gave Loaded an A.

By the time Loaded hit the shelves in November 1970, the avant-garde, experimental roots of the Velvet Underground had been eradicated. Reed’s pop sensibilities were in full bloom, and Yule’s willingness to play a worthy second-fiddle to him helped shoulder the Velvets into another dimension. But, as rock ‘n’ roll folklore would have it, the band was slowly falling apart. Longtime drummer Maureen “Mo” Tucker received credit for Loaded without playing a single note (except for her singing “I’m Sticking With You,” which only appears on deluxe-editions), as she was on maternity leave during the recording; Reed, fed up with the Velvets going nowhere commercially or critically, had actually quit the group a month before the album came out; Morrison would leave nearly a year later. “I left them to their album full of hits that I made,” Reed allegedly said of Loaded after seeing it in record stores.

For a moment, Sesnick tried filling bookings with Loaded set to release in November 1970—with a lineup of Morrison, Tucker, Yule and a newly-hired Walter Powers on bass. Yule was set to take over Reed’s vocals and guitar parts, and the band played a handful of promotional shows over the course of an 11-month span. After the Velvets played a gig in Houston, Morrison packed an empty suitcase and, at the airport, told his bandmates that he was staying behind to get a Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Texas. A keyboardist named Willie Alexander replaced him for the band’s subsequent shows in the States, Canada, England, Wales and the Netherlands. By the time the European tour was over, the iteration of the Velvet Underground alive at the time—with Tucker being the last remaining original member—properly disbanded.

In hindsight, this should have marked the complete end of the Velvet Underground’s history. But when Brigid Polk’s bootlegged recording of the band’s Max’s Kansas City gig on August 23rd, 1970 (Reed’s final performance with the Velvets) was released in May 1972, a newfound interest in the Velvets caught some serious wind in England. As any greedy suit would do, Sesnick got Polydor to give the Velvet Underground a one-album deal and a handful of shows in the UK for November and December of that year. Yule, guitarist Rob Norris, bassist George Kay and drummer Mark Nauseef got together and played enough shows to make enough money to fly back to the States, as Sesnick didn’t come to London—ridding the Velvets of equipment and tour funding. Though it was a brief stint in Europe, Yule recorded almost all of Squeeze by himself (with some help from Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice and a saxophonist simply credited as “Malcolm”).

Squeeze was never going to succeed—there was no way it possibly could! For a band that cut its teeth on the frontman prowess of Lou Reed, no one was going to settle for Doug Yule as a replacement, even if his voice was almost indistinguishable from Reed’s at times on Loaded. Obviously, bands like AC/DC and Black Sabbath were able to rebrand with new vocalists, but they at least retained the rest of their core members in the process. Yule, who’d only stepped into the limelight on a handful of songs prior to Squeeze, was handed the keys to thpeee Velvet Underground by a naive, money-hungry Sesnick (who, mind you, Cale and Reed would both call “a snake” in interviews after their departures from the Velvets) and tasked with fulfilling a record deal quota—and all because some fan bootlegged what should’ve been their final gig ever. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I wouldn’t know what to do with a responsibility like that. Upon all of my revisits to Squeeze, I am left pretty satisfied with what Yule put together. “Friends” sounds like it could’ve come straight from Reed’s songbook, while the riffs and harmonies on “Dopey Joe” and “Mean Old Man” could turn any honky-tonk bar into a romp. Even the hooks of “Little Jack” sound as good as any post-Eat a Peach Allman Brothers deep cut.

New Musical Express’s Nick Logan called it a “Velvet Underground album in name only,” and Rolling Stone gave it just one star and called the record “the sort of pricey collector’s item you really shouldn’t ever pay money for, lest you get laughed at by whomever you’re trying to impress.” And, when Rolling Stone unveiled their “50 Genuinely Horrible Albums by Brilliant Artists” list in February 2023, Andy Greene placed it in the #2 slot and said that the record “might have been OK as a Doug Yule solo effort, but as an album by one of the greatest rock groups of all time? Definitely not.” Most rankings like that are wildly subjective. I should know, I make a lot of them for Paste. But to say that Squeeze is a worse album than Weezer’s Raditude, the Jacksons’ 2300 Jackson St. and David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down? Get a grip. Squeeze, for what it is—even with the Velvet Underground name attached to it—is still a serviceable record on par with its pop-rock peers of the era, and to say it’s somehow worse than Lou Reed’s abysmal 1986 LP Mistrial is a stretch, too.

Like it or not, Yule was the last remaining member of the Velvet Underground before calling it quits after Sesnick deserted the band in the UK in 1972. By the time Squeeze came out, too, Yule was credited with playing on more Velvet Underground records than Cale—further casting Yule’s work with the band off. When a CD boxed set called Peel Slowly and See was released in 1995, it included all of the band’s studio albums—except Squeeze. David Fricke wrote in the set’s liner notes that Squeeze was “an embarrassment to the VU discography,” while Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that “it doesn’t just ride the coattails of VU’s legacy but deliberately co-opts their achievement—but it’s listenable, something its reputation never suggests.” While Fricke’s words are just revisionist fluff, Erlewine’s idea that Squeeze “co-opts” the Velvet Underground’s achievement as a group feels like a cheap retrospective on a record that was likely made without the band’s legacy in mind in the first place—a legacy not yet cast in rock ‘n’ roll’s immortal stone by that point.

In 1973, the Velvet Underground—despite Brian Eno’s “30,000 bands started” quote—were not the monolithic purveyors of post-punk and art-rock we now bill them to be. It’s easy to cast Squeeze aside as being a failure under the guise of what we now know about how formidable the Velvets were to a specific and crucial lineage of American rock acts, but I doubt Yule or Sesnick even thought that the band even had a lineage to tend to. Perhaps now, in a world where TikTok virality can buy a musician a festival slot, it feels notable to mark Squeeze as a more calculated blunder—especially given that a brief spark in intrigue convinced a record label like Polydor to put stock in a band completely devoid of its original lineup in the first place—but my reading is that, above all else, Yule had wanted to remain faithful to the band that brought him in as a 21-year-old instrumentalist and gave him a career in the first place. And in that case, Squeeze sounds pretty nice coming out of my turntable speakers.

After Squeeze came out, Yule hopped around briefly, doing session work with Reed on Sally Can’t Dance and, later, Coney Island Baby. In 1976, he joined the band American Flyer as a drummer, played on their Hot 100-charting single “Let Me Down Easy” and remained a member until 1978, when the group disbanded. Afterwards, Yule retired from doing music full-time and, allegedly, became a violin luthier and a cabinetmaker. And when the Velvet Underground got back together in 1993, Morrison wanted Yule to be a part of the reunion, but Cale and Reed objected. But the renewed cultural interest in the Velvets got Yule to go public again, and it was the first time since 1973 that he’d done interviews about his time with the band (something he still does, from time to time). When the Velvet Underground was inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame in 1996, Yule was not invited, nor was he included in the band’s original lineup—despite having written and recorded their entire final album by himself. He would, however, join Reed and Tucker at the New York Public Library in 2009 to celebrate a photo collection of the band’s first performance in New York City titled The Velvet Underground – New York Art.

Yule was a formidable songwriter in his own right, a truth undeniable as long as his talents aren’t considered in the same way we consider Reed’s—and tracks like “Caroline,” “Louise” and “She’ll Make You Cry” are splendid little earworms, as are “Wordless” and “Send No Letter,” the latter of which is bluesier and catchier than 90% of the Velvets’ catalog. You can tell just how influenced by the Beach Boys, Little Feat, the McCoys and one-hit-wonder groups like ? and the Mysterians Yule was—as Squeeze is a sublime fusion of garage rock, psychedelia, surf and Southern blues.

And I’d wager that Squeeze would have taken off had it been in the hands of someone like Todd Rundgren and Bearsville Records (it certainly made just enough noise to inspire Squeeze to name themselves after it). It’s an album that’s as bubblegum, blistering and charming as Sparks’ first record, but Sesnick’s motivation to capitalize on a blip of interest in the Velvet Underground in Europe marred any solo career Yule could have had. “[It was] like the blind leading the blind, me leading myself,” Yule later said of Squeeze. “That’s what came out of it, I don’t even have a copy of it. But it’s kind of a nice memory for me and kind of an embarrassment at the same time. I wish I had my eyes wider open, but it was nice to get my name and my songs out there.” Doug, if you’re reading this, I hope you know that you’ve got a fan of Squeeze for life in me.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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