Three years after The Velvet Underground’s landmark debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Loaded reflected how rapidly—and radically—New York rock’s underground icons had changed. Nico, the German singer with a haunting presence, was long gone. John Cale, whose minimalist drones sharpened the group’s avant-garde edge, had left after White Light/White Heat, the band’s blistering second album, replaced by bassist Doug Yule. Drummer Maureen Tucker, source of the Velvets’ primal beat, was pregnant and taking time off, and Yule’s brother Billy, among other drummers, had taken her place. That left just Lou Reed and guitarist Sterling Morrison as the group’s original members. By the time Loaded hit shelves, Reed had quit, soon followed by Morrison and Tucker. It was the founding members’ swan song.
But what a graceful bird: Where once the Velvets flirted with extremes—feedback rave-ups on their second album, narcotic dirges on The Velvet Underground, their third—on Loaded they finally play nice. The opening “Who Loves the Sun” is so sweetly harmonic, you could almost miss that it’s all about heartbreak; “Sweet Jane” is shot through with existential sadness, yet its giddy chorus is as uplifting as they come, like a gospel take on “Louie Louie.” Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun wanted a record “loaded with hits,” and he got ’em: “Cool It Down” and “Train Round the Bend” are groovy country blues; “I Found a Reason” is a winsome doo-wop slow dance. Most indelible of all is “Rock & Roll,” a tribute to the lifesaving elixir of electric guitar and sturdy backbeat—a future staple of Reed’s solo catalog, and then a standard to be covered by many more. They may have spent much of their career scowling in the grittiest corners of the counterculture, but here they sound guileless and radiant.