The Velvet Underground was a pioneering experimental rock band from New York City first active from 1965 to 1973. Its best-known lineup consisted of vocalist/guitarist Lou Reed, bassist/violist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker. The band also collaborated with Nico for their debut album in 1967, under the supervision of producer and pop artist Andy Warhol.
Some see The Velvet Underground as being a bridge between the pacifist themes of the late 60s and the sheer chaos and indifference of the mid-70s punk movement.
The Velvet Underground was one of the first rock music groups to experiment heavily with the form by incorporating avant-garde influences. The group's often raw, sometimes difficult sound would influence many later punk, noise rock, and alternative music performers, and singer Lou Reed's lyrics brought new levels of social realism and sleaze to rock. Critics Scott Isler and Ira Robbins argue that "The Velvet Underground marked a turning point in rock history. After the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico knowing the power of which it was capable, the music could never be as innocent, as unselfconscious as before."
The foundations for what would become The Velvet Underground were laid in late 1964. Lou Reed had performed with a few short-lived garage bands and had worked as a songwriter for Pickwick Records, a job Reed described as "a poor man's Carole King". Reed met John Cale, a Welshman who had moved to the United States to study classical music. Cale had worked with John Cage and La Monte Young, but was also interested in rock music. (Young's use of extended drones would be a profound influence on the early Velvet's sound). The pair rehearsed and performed together, and their partnership and shared interests steered the early direction of what would become the Velvet Underground.
Reed's first group with Cale was the short-lived The Primitives, assembled to support a Reed-penned single, "The Ostrich". Reed and Cale recruited Sterling Morrison – a college classmate of Reed's who had already played with him a few times – to play guitar, and Angus MacLise to play percussion. This quartet was first called The Warlocks, then The Falling Spikes.
While moving into his New York City apartment Reed found the book The Velvet Underground by Michael Leigh, a book about sadomasochism, left by previous tenant Tony Conrad. Reed and Morrison have reported the group liked the name, considering it evocative of "underground cinema," and fitting, due to Reed's already having written "Venus In Furs", inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's book of the same name, also dealing with sadomasochism. The band immediately and unanimously adopted the book's title for its new name.
Early stages (1965-1966)
The newly named Velvet Underground rehearsed and performed in New York City. Their music was generally much more relaxed than it would later become: Cale described this era as reminiscent of beatnik poetry, with MacLise playing gentle "pitter and patter rhythms behind the drone".
In July of 1965, Reed, Cale and Morrison recorded a demo tape. When he briefly returned to Britain, Cale gave a copy of the tape to Marianne Faithfull, hoping she'd pass it on to Mick Jagger. Nothing ever came of the demo. The demo was eventually released on the 1995 box set Peel Slowly and See.
When the group accepted an offer of $75 for their first paying performance at Summit High School, in Summit, NJ, MacLise left the group, protesting what he considered a sell out. "Angus was in it for art", Morrison reported.
MacLise was replaced by Maureen Tucker, Jim Tucker's younger sister. Tucker's abbreviated drum kit was rather unusual: She generally played on tom toms and an upturned bass drum, using mallets rather than drumsticks, and she rarely used cymbals. The band having asked her to 'do something unusual', she turned her bass drum on its side, and played standing up. When her drums were stolen from one club, she replaced them with garbage cans, brought in from outside. Her driving rhythms were at once simple yet exotic, influenced by Babatunde Olatunji and Bo Diddley records, and became an essential part of the group's music. The group earned a regular paying gig at a club, and gained an early reputation as a promising ensemble.
While the American west coast was undergoing the Summer of Love, psychedelia and flower power, the typically east coast Velvets concerned themselves with darker subject matter: transvestites, heroin addiction, and sadomasochism. Also setting them apart from their contemporaries was their use of feedback and amplifier noise in a musical context, exemplified by the seventeen minute track "Sister Ray" from their White Light/White Heat album.
Andy Warhol and the Exploding. Plastic. Inevitable (1966-1967)
Andy Warhol became the band's manager in 1965, and suggested they feature the German-born singer Nico on several songs. Warhol's reputation certainly helped the band gain a higher profile. Though Reed eventually fired Warhol, he praised the integrity of his early efforts with the group. Warhol helped the band land a coveted recording contract with MGM's Verve Records, with himself as nominal 'producer', and gave the Velvets unprecedented free reign over the sound they created.
During their stay with Andy Warhol, the band became part of his multimedia roadshow Exploding. Plastic. Inevitable., for which they provided the musical part. This show played a couple of months in New York City, then took to the road all over the United States and Canada until its last installment in May 1967.
In 1966, MacLise temporarily rejoined the Velvet Underground for a few E.P.I. shows when Reed was suffering from hepatitis and unable to perform. For these appearances, Cale sang and played organ and Tucker switched to bass guitar. Also at these appearances, the band often played an extended jam they had dubbed "The Booker T", after the leader of the musical group Booker T & the MG's; the jam later became the music for "The Gift" on White Light/White Heat. Some of these performances have been released as a bootleg; they remain the only recordings of MacLise with the Velvet Underground.
The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
At Warhol's insistence, Nico sang with the Velvet Underground on four songs off their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. The album was recorded in one or two days — there is some uncertainty between the band members' memories — at TT&G Studios during the November of 1966, and released by MGM Records in March of 1967.
The album cover was famous for its simple, suggestive Warhol design: a bright yellow banana with "Peel Slowly and See" printed near a perforated tab. Those who did remove the banana skin found a pink, phallic, peeled banana beneath. This would later be used as the cover to their boxed set, appropriately titled "Peel Slowly and See," released in 1995.
Eleven songs showcased their stylistic range, veering from the pounding attacks of "I'm Waiting For The Man" and "Run Run Run," the droning "Venus In Furs" and "Heroin" to the quiet "Femme Fatale" and the tender "I'll Be Your Mirror".
The overall sound was propelled by Reed's strong deadpan vocals, Cale's droning or shrieking viola, Morrison's often rhythm and blues or country-influenced guitar, and Tucker's hypnotically simple but steady, propulsive beat.
The Velvet Underground & Nico peaked at number 171 on Billboard Magazine's top 200 charts, but the promising debut was dampened somewhat by legal complications: The album's back cover featured a still from a Warhol motion picture, Chelsea Girls. The film's cinematographer, Eric Emerson, had been arrested for drug possession and, desperate for money, claimed the still had been included on the album without his permission. MGM Records pulled all copies of the album until the legal problems were settled (by which time the record had lost its modest commercial momentum), and the still was airbrushed out.
White Light/White Heat (1968)
The Velvet Underground performed live often, and their performances became louder, harsher and often featured extended improvisations. Cale reports that at about this time, The Velvet Underground were one of the first groups to receive an endorsement from Vox. The company pioneered a number of special effects, which the Velvet Underground utilized on White Light/White Heat.
Reed fired Warhol as manager, and Nico was jettisoned, partly due to her unreliability. In September 1967, the VU recorded what would become their second album, White Light/White Heat, with Tom Wilson as producer. It was released January 1968.
The recording was raw and oversaturated, one of the harshest, loudest records yet released. Cale has stated that while the debut had some moments of fragility and beauty, White Light/White Heat was "consciously anti-beauty". Isler and Robbins suggest that the record "is almost unbearably intense."
The title track and first song starts things off with Reed pounding on piano like a demented Jerry Lee Lewis. The eerie, hallucinatory "Lady Godiva's Operation" remains Reed's favorite track on the album.
Despite the dominance of noisefests like "Sister Ray", and "I Heard Her Call My Name", there was room for the darkly comic "The Gift", a Reed-penned short story narrated in Cale's deadpan Welsh accent. The meditative "Here She Comes Now" was later covered by Galaxie 500, Cabaret Voltaire, and Nirvana.
In 1968, a year after Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Are You Experienced, there was an experimental feeling throughout rock music, while it should be noted that the Velvets are arguably the foremost pioneers in this realm. There were a few other experimenters with noise, but few were tackling noise with as much apparent glee as the V.U. White Light/White Heat was hugely important, and "Sister Ray" is arguably one of the most significant rock songs of the late 1960s. The songs' simple 3-chord progression along with screeching organ and lead guitar, all distorted perhaps beyond the bounds of tastefulness, coupled with William Burroughs-influenced lyrics, was completely unique. "Sister Ray" is often seen as one of the earliest precursors of punk and Alternative rock, with its blistering instrumentation and alarming lyrics.
The second album's cover was a subtle black-on-black picture of the tattooed arm of Billy Name, one of Warhol's "Factory" members. White Light/White Heat entered the Billboard top 200 chart for 2 weeks, at number 199.
Tensions were growing: the group was tired of receiving little recognition for their hard work, and Reed and Cale were pulling the Velvet Underground in different directions. The differences showed in the last recording session the band had with John Cale in February 1968: two pop-like songs in Reed's direction ("Temptation Inside Your Heart" and "Stephanie Says"), and a viola-driven drone in Cale's direction ("Hey Mr Rain"). None of these songs were released until they were included on the VU and Another View compilation albums.
The Velvet Underground (1969)
It's often been reported that the early edition of the Velvet Underground was a struggle between Reed and Cale's creative impulses: Reed's rather conventional approach contrasted with Cale's experimentalist tendencies. The Velvet Underground would seem to prove the truth of these claims, as the harsh, abrasive tendencies on the first two records were almost entirely absent. This resulted in a gentler sound influenced by folk music, prescient of the songwriting style that would form Reed's solo career (another factor in the change of sound was the band's amplifiers being stolen from an airport while they were on tour; they obtained replacements by signing a new endorsement deal with Sunn).
Morrison's ringing guitar parts and Yule's melodic bass guitar and harmony vocals are featured prominently on the album. Reed's songs and singing are subdued and confessional, and he shared lead vocals with Yule, particularly when his own voice would fail under stress. A rare Maureen Tucker vocal is featured on "After Hours," a song that Reed said was so innocent and pure he couldn't possibly sing it himself. The album's influence can be heard in many later indie rock and lo-fi recordings.
A year on the road and the "lost" fourth album (1969)
The Velvet Underground spent much of 1969 on the road, feeling they were not accepted in their hometown of New York City and not making much headway commercially. During the same year, the band recorded on and off in the studio, creating a lot of material that was never officially released due to disputes with their record label. What many consider the prime of these sessions was released many years later as VU. This album has a transitional sound between the whisper-soft third album and the pop-rock anthems of their final record, Loaded.
The rest of the recordings, as well as some alternate takes, were bundled on Another View. After Reed's departure, he later reworked a number of these songs for his solo records ("Stephanie Says", "Ocean", "I Can't Stand It", "Lisa Says", "She's My Best Friend"). Indeed, most of Reed's early solo career's more successful hits were reworked Velvet Underground tracks, released for the first time in their original version on VU, Another View, and later on Peel Slowly and See. The standout from VU is considered by many to be "One of These Days," part torch song and part slide-guitar freakout.
In 1969, MGM Records president Mike Curb wanted to purge any drug- or hippie-related bands from MGM, and the V.U. were on his list, along with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. (Nonetheless, MGM insisted on keeping the tapes of their unissued recordings.)
Atlantic Records signed the Velvet Underground for what would be its final studio album, Loaded, released on Atlantic's subsidiary label Cotillion. The album's title refers to Atlantic's request that the band produce an album "loaded with hits." Though the record was not the smash hit the company had anticipated, it contains the most accessible pop the V.U. had performed, and several of Reed's best-known songs, including "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll".
Though Tucker had temporarily retired from the group due to her pregnancy, she received a performance credit on Loaded. Drums were actually played by several people, including Yule, engineer Adrian Barber, session musician Tommy Castanaro, and Doug Yule's brother Billy, who was still in high school.
Disillusioned with the lack of progress the band was making and pressured by manager Sesnick, Reed decided to quit the band and did so in August 1970. The band essentially broke while recording the album, and Reed walked off before it was finished. Doug Yule finished the album, singing parts to some of Reed's vocal tracks. Lou Reed has often said he was completely surprised months later when he saw Loaded in stores. He also said, bitterly, "I left them to their album full of hits that I made."
Reed was particularly bitter about the truncation of a verse from "Sweet Jane". "New Age" was changed as well: as originally recorded, its closing line ("It's the beginning of a new age") was repeated many more times. A brief interlude in "Rock and Roll" was also removed. (Years later, the album would be reissued with the edits restored.) On the other hand, Yule has pointed that the album was to all intents and purposes finished when Reed left the band and that Reed had been aware of most if not all of the edits. The few weeks between Reed's departure in late August and Loaded’s arrival in the shops in September of the same year also would have left little room for the whole process of editing, reviewing, mastering and pressing.
Although Loaded's spin-off single "Who Loves the Sun" did nothing, the album itself is something of a muted triumph. "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll" became U.S. radio favorites, and the band, featuring Walter Powers III on bass, and Doug Yule promoted to lead vocals and guitar, went on the road once more, playing the East Coast of the U.S. and Europe. By that time, however, Sterling Morrison had obtained a B.A. degree in English, and left the group for an academic career with the University of Texas at Austin. His replacement was singer/keyboard player Willie Alexander. The band played shows in England, Wales, and the Netherlands, some of which are collected on the 2001 box set Final V.U. (Longtime fans began mocking the new lineup as the "Velveteen Underground", perhaps unfairly.)
In 1972 Atlantic released Live at Max's Kansas City, a live bootleg of one of the Velvet Underground's final performances with Reed, recorded by fan Brigid Polk. By this time Doug Yule was once again touring the United Kingdom, this time backed with hired hands as Sesnick had sent home Tucker, Powers and Alexander, effectively ending their time with the band. Later that year, Sesnick managed to secure a recording contract with Polydor Records in England, and Yule recorded Squeeze under the Velvet Underground name with Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice. Squeeze is a controversial item among Velvet fans, most of whom flatly decline to consider any post-Lou Reed material as worthwhile. Rarely heard before the advent of Internet audio file sharing, the album's perceived Middle of the road content is sometimes dismissed out of hand by Velvets fans. Although the album technically is a Velvet Underground release, it is properly Doug Yule's debut solo album and it might have fared far better if it had been labeled as such, given the actual quality of most of the tracks, some of which would not have been out of place on Loaded. (Interestingly, Yule was actually in the group longer than Cale.)
Post-VU developments (1973-1990)
Reed and Cale, in the meantime, developed solo careers. Sterling Morrison was a professor for some time, teaching Medieval Literature at the University of Texas at Austin, then became a tugboat captain for several years. Maureen Tucker raised a family before returning to small-scale gigging and recording in the 1980s; Morrison was in a number of touring bands, among others with Tucker's band. In 1988, erstwhile singer Nico died of a brain hemorrhage while bicycling on the island of Ibiza.
Reunions (1990 and 1992-1994)
In 1990, Reed and Cale released Songs for Drella, dedicated to the recently deceased Andy Warhol. ("Drella" was a nickname Warhol had adopted, a combination of "Dracula" and "Cinderella".) Though Morrison and Tucker had each worked with Reed and Cale since the V.U. broke up, Songs for Drella was the first time the mercurial pair had worked together in decades, and rumors of a reunion began to circulate, fueled by the one-off appearance by Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker to play "Heroin" as the encore to a brief Songs for Drella set in Jouy-en-Josas, France.
The same lineup briefly reunited from 1992–1994, resulting in a European tour — both headlining and opening a few concerts for U2 — and a live album, Live MCMXCIII. Cale sang most of the songs Nico had performed with the group.
Before the band could tour the U.S. or record — an MTV Unplugged album was proposed — Cale and Reed fell out again, breaking up the band once more. The definitive end to the band's checkered career came when Sterling Morrison died of cancer in 1995. Reed's death in 2013 put a permanent end to any hopes of further Velvet Underground reunions; tributes poured out from all corners of the internet upon the news.
In recent years, the band's first four albums have been reissued with expanded box sets featuring two to five discs' worth of bonus content. An archival series of live recordings has also been issued as The Complete Matrix Tapes, which has been praised both for its audio fidelity and for the quality of the performances (many of the recordings here were initially the source of the band's acclaimed 1969 Live album, but the sound quality has been further cleaned up).
1967 - The Velvet Underground & Nico
1968 - White Light/White Heat
1969 - The Velvet Underground
1970 - Loaded
1972 - Live at Max's Kansas City
1973 - Squeeze
1974 - 1969: The Velvet Underground Live
1985 - VU (rarities compilation)
1986 - Another View (rarities compilation)
1993 - Live MCMXCIII
1995 - Peel Slowly and See (box set)
2001 - Final V.U. 1971-1973 (live)
2001 - The Quine Tapes (live)
2015 - The Complete Matrix Tapes (live)