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In the time when rock was barely in its teenage year, before even Sgt. Pepper hit the shelves, and a new eccentric form of the genre was born in the heart of New York. Amid the city’s modern art scene, the Velvet Underground laid the foundation of experimental rock. Even though they are now a massive name inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the Velvet Underground band’s history is mainly filled with commercial failures and continuous ego clashes.
Like most of my generation, my connection to the band came with “the banana” album. Andy Warhol’s album cover is such a staple in the rock scene that it’s impossible to miss it.
Years back, I bought a book on a rock cover with the “Dark Side of the Moon” in the front and a banana on the back. I didn’t know what to call it then or how it sounded. At first, I expected a typical 60s blues rock album; instead, I got a timeless alternative piece that I still can’t categorize. As the Velvet fans well put it:
The band’s first album sold only 30,000 copies, but all 30,000 went and formed a band.
The Velvet Underground Quick Facts
|Band Members||Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker, Nico, Doug Yule, Walter Powers, Willie Alexander|
|Genres||Experimental Rock; Art Rock: Proto-Punk; Avant-garde.|
|Years Active||1964 – 1973; 1990; 1992 – 1993; 1996|
|Most Successful Album||The best-selling album is “The Velvet Underground.”|
|Social Media||Facebook, Instagram, YouTube|
|Awards||Inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame; Grammy Hall of Fame Award; Ranked number 19 on Rolling Stone’s list of “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” in 2004.|
|Last Updated||October 2022|
Lewis Allan Reed (March 2, 1942- October 27, 2013, in Brooklyn) was the Velvet’s frontman, guitar player, primary songwriter, and most successful solo artist after the Velvet’s disbandment.
Reed was rock’s unconventional poet, giving a literary beauty to the ‘dark’ sides of society that other mainstream songwriters wouldn’t touch on. His writing drew from his troubled childhood, early drug experimentation, and the choice of being a misfit in every social circle.
Calling experimental Reed’s guitar playing and performing is an understatement. Neither a vocalist with a wide range nor a technical player, he reached peak creative strength while being within the limits of his skills.
Out of all the Velvet members, Reed was the only one who reached acclaimed commercial success during the 70s and 80s and got invited both as a member of the Velvet and solo artist into the Rock n’ Roll hall of fame.
Reed passed away on October 27, 2013, from Hepatitis C and liver disease complications.
John Davies Cale was born on 9 March 1942 in Wales. He was the avant-garde side of the Velvet Underground. A classical musician with a rock attitude, he added a refined touch to the arrangement & compositions through either classical instruments, studio experimentation, or guitar & bass work.
If Reed brought songs to the table, Cale turned them into a timeless audio experience. The creative clash between the two would fuel innovation in the Velvet and ultimately cause Cale to leave the band.
Different from other members, Cale is a classically trained musician who often played the viola and piano in Velvet songs. The genius was that none of the instruments often served their “classic” role.
After leaving the Velvet, Cale started his career as a producer, becoming one the most iconic names in the industry. To this day, he keeps releasing music, producing artists, and stretching the reaches of various genres.
Holmes Sterling Morrison Jr. (August 29, 1942 – August 30, 1995) was the band’s guitar and occasional bass player. Sterling added the psychedelic droned element to the band, which locked the trance-inducing rhythm section in the first albums along with Moe’s drumming.
At first, Morrison and Reed would exchange roles in rhythm and lead, while from the third album onward, Sterling was mainly the lead player.
In my opinion, as a session guitarist, Morrison was mostly a stylish arranger who knew how to serve the song perfectly. His lines always added to the music, never overplaying but fearless to kick in ‘noise’ when needed.
The track “heroine” is probably the best testimony of Reed’s and Sterling’s dual guitar work, while ‘I’m Gonna Move Right In” features his take on his bluesy lead side.
Morrison’s music career was brief, with not any creative project apart from the Velvet.
He died in 1995, 1 day after his birthday and one year before being inducted into the hall of fame, from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which prevented him from playing guitar in his last years.
Maureen Ann “Moe” Tucker (born August 26, 1944) in New York was the Velvet’s drummer, who joined one year after the band formed, replacing original drummer Angus Maclise.
Tucker was not a technically impressive drummer by any standard; however, she became one of the most influential rock drummers ever through style alone.
Moe Tucker was the first to establish the “attitude” of the punk drummer, with her own sense of time, all-over-the-place performance, or minimal approach. Chops were not necessary as long as she added touches to the song. The way I like to put it is that her playing was crude but impactful.
Any normal drummer would have opted to add groove when Tucker either didn’t play or added a slight percussive touch. She neither played sitting down, used sticks, nor hardly ever used cymbals.
After the Velvet, she left the music industry and returned years later with four singer-songwriter solo albums and a few performances with the Velvet member.
Christa Päffgen (16 October 1938 – 18 July 1988), born in Cologne, Germany, became temporarily part of the Velvet due to Andy Warhol’s insistence on including a female image in the band.
Nico was an actress and model with an image and musical style often seen as the opposite of what Velvet stood for. However, their collaboration brought fruit to one of the greatest rock albums.
The Velvet Underground and Nico might have become legendary, even though the relationship between Reed, Cale, and Nico was never the best. Nico was not an experienced performer, and her routine was not one of a professional musician. Both worlds collided, resulting in having to leave the band as soon as the relationship with manager Warhol was over.
What I find Impressive in Nico’s career is her determination to continue a prolific music career in which she got better as a singer, songwriter, and overall musician. Ex-bandmate John Cale produced some of her solo work.
Nico tragically died in Ibiza in 1988 following a biking accident.
New York’s art scene and the birth of The Velvet
The Velvet Underground were both a cause and effect of New York City pop culture and the underground scene. The rise of an alternative culture was followed by alternative music from the Velvet Underground as early as 1964 when Lew Reed and John Cale worked on Reed’s first anti-dance single, “The Ostrich.”
After recruiting Angus Maclise, and Sterling Morrison, the group named themselves the Primitives, Warlocks, and Falling Spike until they encountered a contemporary mass-market paperback by Michael Leigh about the secret sexual subculture of the early 1960s named Velvet Underground. Playing for mainly hostile crowds in small clubs in New York was the band’s routine in a time where folk and RnB were the main attraction, along with Beatles on the other side of the ocean.
The band recorded the first acoustic demos in 1965, mostly Reed’s work inspired by modern literature and Cale’s eccentric way of blending classical music & sound experimentation The same year, original drummer Maclise quit the band as he felt getting paid to play small gigs was a form of selling out and got replaced by Moe Tucker.
Warhol’s Patronage and Nico
The unusual blend of styles in the band, both visually and musically, caught the eye of one the leading figures of Pop culture, artist Andy Warhol. Warhol became the band’s manager and patron, making them residents at his performance art discotheque, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol’s world of art was the perfect playground for the band, who had never had the chance to perform this often.
As in older times, the musician had a patron. A person that would be ready to stake money in the art he believed in. However, with all the benefits, there was a catch, Warhol wanted to change the band’s image and often dictated the musical direction, leaving Reed and the other members not much choice in accepting the German actress and model Nico as part of the band.
The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
The first Velvet album is the most memorable for every rock fan, even those who never hear it. It’s hard to say what stood the test of time more, the experimental music or the timeless provocative artwork.
My first listen to the album was a roller coaster through rock heaven and a secluded corner of experimental rock. The album starts with the dreamy track “Sunday Morning.” Beautiful and sweet, the song is an all-time classic, but it’s nothing like the rest of the album. The beautiful melodies leave space to free jazz elements, Avant-gard noises, and atonal feedback.
“Heroin” is probably my favorite song from the lyrics’ depth and standpoint from which Reed describes what is, at first sight, a drug experience. The guitar work is, by all sense, brilliant.
Femme Fatale features Nicko’s deep vocal performance in a more Pop style than the rest of the album, keeping the distinct Velvet sound, especially on the droned guitars.
Andy Warhol’s role in the album as a producer might confuse you as it did with me. Warhol had no musical contribution but financed and aided the visuals while guiding the creative process by suggesting or requesting songs. Cale and Reed were the people to whom the music production should be attributed.
As with most Velvet albums, this commercial failure created a legacy bigger than most charting albums. The blend of multiple genres, literary lyrics, and overall attitude of the record is a cornerstone of rock culture.
Rolling Stones even listed it 13th in the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.
White Light/White Heat (1968)
With Warhol’s role in managing the band becoming more intrusive, the band detached from him and Nico, hiring Steve Sesnick as manager. The second album is even more experimental than the second because of the band’s choice, accidents, and errors.
Lyrically it’s very heavy, with themes of drug abuse. The title track, “White Light/White Heat,” a seemingly joyful name, reflects the physical effect of Metaphetanime on the body.
“I Heard Her Call My Name” is my favorite song of the track, although it’s the track that probably caused the biggest rift for the original lineup. Apparently, the loud distortion and ‘mess’ that accidentally became the prototype for Punk Rock was not planned but happened by the member’s and engineer’s carelessness. The heaviness of the record was due to the distortion of the mix, a blend of technical errors, the band’s members arguing, and bad mixing decisions.
I have to agree partly with Sterling, who called the album doomed by distortion and compression – the songwriting and arrangement are brilliant, but the studio delivery doesn’t do it justice. Not having a patron anymore meant even more limited studio time to re-record.
The record was ahead of its time in many ways. If it had been recorded in the 80s with this type of energy and power, there would not have been an issue with the mix, and the result would be a mainly Punk Rock cult record.
An apparent failure at the time inspired an entire future genre. For the time, the songwriting style and a mix couldn’t be marketed for many reasons.
The Velvet Underground (1969)
The third album by the Velvet saw the firing of John Cale, whose clash with Reed had come to its height. Reed gave the ultimatum to the band that it was either him or Cale, resulting in the young Doug Yule joining in for the bass and organ work.
Musically the album is less experimental but more solid than their previous work. As a rock record, I find it superior in songwriting and production to their first and second. What they lost from Cale’s avant-garde prominent genius was replaced by Yule’s spacey and airy nature. The electric viola leaves space for a present organ.
As you would expect to form a 60s record, but not from a Velvet Record, it is a lot of rock n’ roll.
What goes on in your mind is a perfect example, with one of Reed’s best guitar solos.
As Reed puts it, the album’s live performances were heaven music. I agree with him that it’s an album that can transport you into a meditative state and is much “cleaner” than the elegant discord of the previous two. I especially love how all members have a chance to sing, with Yule singing two songs and Tucker having her vocal debut with “After Hours.”
My favorite song is “Pale Blues Eyes,” a straightforward ballad that I doubt would have made it with Cale still in the band or would have sounded much different. The song’s lyrics, “Money is like us in time. It lies, but can’t stand up,” never left my mind as a prophecy of the band’s commercial failure and future success.
The album’s controversy lies in Reed’s dominance over the mix and music, which clashed with Sterling, who felt that kicking Cale from the band for a talented but inexperienced member was a mistake. Reed remixed the albums without the band’s approval, adding to the rift between the original members.
The rumors go that the band’s manager had a role in alienating Cale, feeling that there were too many creative leaders in the band and one had to go. However, that didn’t help the album in sales, as the marketing efforts put behind it by the label were poor.
At the brink of disbanding, the band released “Loaded,” the final record to feature founding members and the last Velvet album in all but name.
The band got signed to Atlantic Records, pushing them for commercial success and radio play. The goal became making multiple hit singles, and thus many rock n’ roll elements were put in, sacrificing the sonic experimentation. Lyrically it’s still genial with glimpses of satire, making it an Intellectual Rock album that crosses some boundaries but quickly returns to its feet.
I believe that after the accidental heaviness of “White Light/White Heat,” the album that sealed the songwriting sealed Velvet’s Proto Punk Legacy was Loaded.
“Sweet Jane” feels to me like the best impression Reed could do of Bob Dylan. There’s a dragged Sloopy passion to the voice in an almost folly style. Yule also gets his share of the lead with the ending track “Oh! Sweet Nothin,” still keeping a similar vibe of Americana, blues, and folk.
This is not the album I’d send to anyone who asks for a seminal Velvet Underground record. It’s a very good rock record, but it sounds like an elaborate try to be successful while stretching commercial limits.
The Velvet Underground Disbanding
Reed Left the band on August 23, 1970, presumably from the lack of commercial success. Reed had taken the band’s lead for two records but didn’t manage to hit the chart even when turning into a more pop-y sound.
Shortly after, Morrison and Tucker would leave the band, as the Yule lead version of the Velvet Underground was not a vision that any of the founding members were willing to agree on. Bassist Walter Powers, keyboard player, and singer William Alexander replaced both members with little success.
With all the original band members gone, the final album of the Velvet Underground felt to fans more like a desperate move to keep the band together. Yule wrote and performed all the songs while Tucker played drums in what could have been a good solo album for him but not much for the Velvets Legacy.
Classic Rock even included the album at 28 in their list of The 50 Worst Albums of All Time. In May of 1973, the Velvet Underground’s new lineup officially disbanded.
The Velvet Underground Reunion
The Velvet members would reunite on a few occasions and work together occasionally. Cale and Reed Cale and Reed united only in 1987 to record “songs for Drella,” dedicated to the late Andy Warhol. Their vision and leadership clash initially broke the band, and their performances of songs for Drella on stage meant a Velvet reunion could be close.
Fans were rewarded with a European start on June 1, 1993, on which they headlines and opened for U2, the biggest band in the world at that time. Tensions between Cale and Reed would again rise, though, and limit the 1-year tour to Europe only.
The Velvet Underground End
The Velvet Underground had given it all it could be when Morrison passed away in 1994. The last song they ever wrote and performed was “Last Night I Said Goodbye To My Friend” while being inducted into the Hall Of Fame.
The sense of something missing in the songs, an open sonic space in which Sterling would be playing over, added to the emotion of the performance.
The best-sounding version of “Heroine.” performed during the last tour, is even better than the studio version.
The Velvet Underground Controversies
The Velvet Underground were themselves a controversy for most of their history together, both in live music. Stories of drug abuse and heated clashes betwen Cale and Reed were never absent.
The biggest debate that fans have was and is about Reed’s role as leader. Reed fired Warhol without counseling the band, had the last say on mixes, and even fired Cale.
On the other hand, his insight and contribution as a songwriter were at the other of Velvet Underground.
There are many versions of the story; some call Reed a twisted, scary monster, others a person willing to collaborate and push other band members to sing on albums.
In terms of having Niko in the band, judging by the band’s musical direction and the many leaders involved, it was obvious she had no place to stay after Warhol left. If the whole band decided to do so abruptly or just Reed’s desire to take control is still debatable.
Finances were a huge problem for a band that labels would not support with enough marketing or even a famous producer. Once the band lost their patronage from Andy Warhol, funding records became a task that managers never fully fulfilled.
The Velvet Underground Legacy
The Velvet Underground, for rock music, were like the Ramones for Punk. If you know both bands, you’ll agree that The Velvet Underground were the Ramones for the Ramones. Their legacy, though, is much more expansive than only Punk.
The band left an enormous legacy that neither Reed nor Cale would have thought possible, with five total studio albums, five live albums, and only 14 singles. All alternative music genres, both rock and pop branches, credit Velvet’s first three records for laying the ground before anyone else.
Even the hippie movement was still building but in a different cultural context. The Velvet Underground was rougher than the first psychedelic bands. Reed didn’t hide facts with metaphor and bluntly stated his truth in lyrics that more resembled poems. Long instrumental jams were replaced by direct, pointy, and visceral performances. Perhaps even too much for the time.
Commercially it was San Francisco’s counterculture with the positive outward-looking music that caught the attention of both labels and the masses. With only a few set standards for mainstream rock, other alternative forms had to wait until the mainstream was filled. The image of “alternative” in music was very young, with the Beatles and The Stones being seen as a new generation of the mainstream but not an alternative.
Perhaps the Velvet Underground’s lack of success might have been due to the lack of a mainstream rock culture to rival. Simply said, there might not have been enough ” typical” rock yet for people to choose the alternative form of it, let alone labels. As with all art ahead of its time, this was proven as soon the 70s ended, and something new, simpler than prog rock and more accessible than jazz was needed.
Answer: The distorted sounds, anti-norm attitude, alternative lifestyle, visceral performances, and themes of drugs, sex, and the darker side of society were the main aspects from which the Velvet Underground inspired Punk.
Answer: The Velvet Underground sold a total of around 800 000 albums.
Answer: Lou Reed’s net worth was around 15$ million at the time of his death in 2013.
- The Velvet Underground
- The Velvet Underground | Discography | Discogs
- The Velvet Underground – Rotten Tomatoes
- The Velvet Underground Songs, Albums, Reviews, Bio & More | AllMusic
- The Story of The Velvet Underground & Nico’ – Classic Album Sundays
- ‘We Were Not User-Friendly At All’: The Story Behind The Velvet Underground’s Debut
- Lou Reed, Velvet Underground Leader and Rock Pioneer, Dead at 71 – Rolling Stone
- Who Was the Real Lou Reed? – The New York Times
- John Cale’s Inventive Retrospection | The New Yorker
- The Crazy Real-Life Story Of Andy Warhol
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