411 Music Hall Of Fame Class of 2010: The Velvet Underground
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND’S MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS:
Lou Reed was working as a songwriter and playing in garage bands in 1964 when he met John Cale and the two hit it off thanks to a common interest in experimental music. The pair’s affinity for droning sounds and alternate guitar tunings in addition to rock and roll would form the sound that the Velvet Underground would later revolutionize. Cale and Reed would join with drummer Angus MacLise and guitarist Sterling Morrison to form a band that was originally known as The Warlocks, then the Falling Spikes, before settling on the Velvet Underground, taken from a book about the sexual subculture of the time.
MacLise would be replaced by Maureen Tucker, whose sparse drumming style was perfect for the band’s sound; also fitting perfectly were Reed’s songs that dealt mainly with drugs, sex, and the grimy details of urban life that Reed saw in the band’s native New York City. The group would begin to make a name for itself with its unique musical style, but got a huge boost in 1965 when pop artist and icon Andy Warhol saw the band perform and quickly became their manager, making them a part of his multimedia road show, the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable”.
As big as the exposure was from being associated with Warhol, perhaps his biggest impact on the group was his suggestion that they work with the German singer Nico. Her deep and ethereal voice brought another dynamic to Reed’s songs, ones that combined great melodies with his dark tales and impressive songwriting abilities. Those tracks made up the band’s debut The Velvet Underground and Nico, which was produced by Warhol and released in 1967.
The album became notable for Warhol’s infamous cover of a yellow banana that could be peeled back to reveal a pink banana. It was instantly noticeable, but it didn’t help the album’s sales; radio wouldn’t touch any of the songs and the album only reached #171 on the Billboard Charts. Those who heard the album, though were blown away by legendary songs like “Heroin,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Cale’s droning strings set the stage for Reed’s deadpan vocals that dealt with the urban decay he saw all around him. Nico is now considered a classic, ranking highly on numerous lists of the greatest albums of all-time despite its lack of initial commercial success.
Over the next year the band ended their relationships with both Warhol and Nico and began recording their next album in September 1967, entitled White Light/White Heat. This album featured the group at its most abrasive, with many of the songs drenched in feedback and distortion. Cale said this album was “consciously anti-beauty,” and songs like “Sister Ray, “Lady Godiva’s Operation” and the title track prove that to be quite true. Like the band’s debut, White Light/White Heat sold poorly but has come to be regarded as a classic.
Due to frustrations with the band’s lack of popularity, as well as difference in opinion between Reed’s taste for more pop-oriented songs and his own penchant for more experimental songs, Cale left the group in 1968 before the recording of the band’s self-titled third album, on which he was replaced by Doug Yule. This album represented a huge shift from White Light/White Heat as songs like “Candy Says’ and “Pale Blue Eyes” showing a more subdued and muted sound than their previous albums as Reed became a more confessional songwriter.
Much of the VU’s 1969 was spent on the road, as documented on the excellent 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, and they followed that up by recording a whole new batch of material. Unfortunately, record label issues prevented the release of the album and the songs eventually found their way to VU compilations and Lou Reed solo albums.
That unreleased album did represent a transition from the band’s self-titled record and their 1970 album Loaded, which featured some great pop-rock songs like the hit “Sweet Jane.” However, this album would mark the end of the Velvet Underground as most people know it since Reed left the band before its release. He had been disillusioned with increasing pressures from the band’s manager and Yule’s increasing control over the band. Tucker and Morrison would eventually join Reed, leaving Yule as the one leading the group. He would release an album under the VU moniker, entitled Squeeze, that he recorded himself in 1973, but it was quickly forgotten.
In the years following, the band’s reputation would grow by leaps and bounds as Cale and Reed had successful solo careers, while artists like David Bowie professed their love for the band. In 1985 the outtakes compilation VU was released, showcasing some of the songs that were to be part of that unreleased fourth album.
Cale and Reed teamed up five years later for the first time in two decades for the album Songs for Drella, dedicated to the late Andy Warhol. This would help pave the way for a proper VU reunion which occurred in 1993. Tucker and Morrison would join Reed and Cale on a European tour, but unfortunately Cale and Reed would have another falling out, ending the reunion before the band played any US dates.
Sadly, Sterling Morrison would die in 1995 of lymphoma, effectively ending any possibility that the group’s main lineup would ever fully reunite. Tucker, Cale and Reed would join up for the band’s 1996 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and that would be the band’s last ever performance. That hasn’t kept the band’s reputation from growing consistently over the years, as more and more people have found the band; solidifying The Velvet Underground’s legacy.
Why The Velvet Underground Was Selected:
Brian Eno once said that while The Velvet Underground’s albums didn’t sell many copies when they were initially released, nearly all of the people who were fortunate enough to hear them started their own bands. I can’t think of too many better ways to estimate a band’s importance than something like that. The Velvet Underground proved that one needn’t be a rock star to make a great album; with their gritty production, polarizing songs and arty appeal, the VU found a new way to make a mark in the music business, even if the results weren’t immediately apparent.
Through the leadership of two rock and roll visionaries, the Velvet Underground’s four main studio albums singlehandedly paved the way for punk rock while creating a sound that hadn’t been heard before. The Velvets may not have had the popularity of the other rock bands of the time, but time has a way of being kind to genius; now the band is as highly regarded as any in the history of rock and their importance and influence cannot possibly be overstated. When listing the best and most important rock bands of all-time, The Velvet Underground’s work proves that they deserve to be on the list with anybody else.