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Velvet Underground, The

Velvet Underground, The

Velvet Underground, The, seminal late 1960s band whose influence far outstripped their meager record sales; leader Lou Reed later had a long solo career garnering critical respect if not smash-hit status. Membership: Lou Reed (actually, Louis Firbank), voc, kybd., gtr. (b. Freeport, Long Island, N.Y., March 2, 1943); John Cale, voc, viola, kybd., bs. (b. Crynant, Wales, Dec. 5,1940); Sterling Morrison, gtr., bs. (b. East Meadow, Long Island, N.Y., Aug. 29, 1942; d. Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Aug. 30, 1995); Nico (Christa Paffgen), voc. (b. Cologne, West Germany, Oct. 16,1938; d. Ibiza, Spain, July 18, 1988); Maureen “Mo” Tucker, drm. (b. N.J., 1945). Nico left after the first album and John Cale after the second. He was replaced by Doug Yule.

Lou Reed first played professionally while in his early teens with Long Island bands such as Pasha and The Prophets and The Jades. Studying journalism and creative writing at Syracuse Univ., he worked as a journalist and as a songwriter for Pickwick Records; he met John Cale in 1964. Cale had studied classical viola and piano in London, and his compositions had been broadcast by the BBC when he was eight years old. Cale came to the U.S. in 1963 on a Leonard Bernstein fellowship but abandoned his classical studies to pursue his interest in avant-garde music, joining LaMonte Young’s experimental group The Dream Syndicate on electric viola. Reed teamed with Cale and classically trained guitarist Sterling Morrison in bands such as The Ostriches and The Primitives, adding female drummer Maureen Tucker in 1965. Becoming The Velvet Underground—named after a book of the same name—the group enjoyed a residency at Cafe Bizarre in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1966 and immediately sparked controversy for their unorthodox music and stage demeanor.

The Velvet Underground came to the attention of artist Andy Warhol, who was looking for a rock group to add to his multimedia outfit, The Factory. Among the members of The Factory was Nico, who had been a European model since the age of 16. She had moved to N.Y. in 1959 and studied acting with Lee Strasberg before appearing in Warhol´s 1966 film Chelsea Girls. Augmented by Nico, The Velvet Underground joined Warhol´s “total environment” show, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which opened in N.Y. and subsequently toured Canada and the U.S.

Signed to MGM/Verve Records, The Velvet Underground recorded their debut album with Andy Warhol as nominal producer. Packaged in a jacket that featured Warhol’s famous peelable banana cover, The Velvet Underground and Nicocomprised music and lyrics the likes of which had not yet appeared in rock music. Propelled by John Cale’s innovative musical experimentation and Lou Reed’s disarmingly realistic and sinister lyrics, the album included the startling “Heroin,” with its screeching, electronic drugged-out crescendo, the sadomasochistic “Venus in Furs,” the gritty “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “There She Goes Again,” and the gentle “Sunday Morning” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” the latter sung by Nico. Garnering virtually no radio airplay, the album failed to sell, yet it was eventually recognized as one of the most influential albums of the 1960s.

Nico subsequently left The Velvet Underground to pursue a solo career and, with the attendant loss of interest by Warhol and the press, the group’s White Light/White Heatwas largely ignored by the public, yet it contained the lurid 17-minute classic “Sister Ray.” The group toured to diminishing audiences and Cale left in March 1968. He was replaced by multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule for the subtle The Velvet Undergroundalbum, which featured the ballad “Pale Blue Eyes.” Recordings made for a fourth (unreleased) MGM/Verve album surfaced in 1985 on VU. The group switched to Cotillion Records for their final studio album, Loaded,which included “Rock and Roll” and “Sweet Jane.” Following a summer’s residency at Max’s Kansas City in N.Y, Reed left The Velvet Underground in August 1970. Morrison left in March 1971, soon followed by Tucker, after which the group was maintained with new members through 1973.

Nico was the first former member of The Velvet Underground to record a solo album, but Chelsea Girlfailed to sell despite the inclusion of Jackson Browne´s “These Days” and Bob Dylan´s “I’ll Keep It with Mine.” The Marble Index,for Elektra, featured her own morose songwriting and harmonium playing, and her two subsequent albums, Desertshoreand The End,were produced by John Cale. By the mid-1970s, her career had fallen into disarray, although she continued to record until her death on July 18, 1988, of a cerebral hemorrhage incurred in a bicycle accident on the Spanish island of Ibiza.

In the meantime, John Cale had produced The Stooges’ debut album, launched his own recording career on Columbia with Vintage Violence,and recorded Church of Anthraxwith minimalist saxophonist-keyboardist Terry Riley. Cale switched to Reprise for The Academy in Periland the critically acclaimed Paris 1919,recorded with Lowell George and Ritchie Hayward of Little Feat. However, by 1974, Cale had returned to England.

By 1972, Lou Reed had signed a solo contract with RCA Records, recording his self-titled debut album in London. His second, Transformer,produced in London by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, yielded a major hit with “Walk on the Wild Side” and served as his breakthrough album. However, the Berlinalbum sold poorly, so Reed assembled a touring band to record Rock ‘n’ Roll Animalat N.Y.’s Academy of Music. The album became the best-seller of his career and included “Heroin,” “Sweet Jane,” and the classic “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Sally Can’t Dancealso sold quite well despite its air of parody. Reed’s career reached its nadir with 1975’s Metal Machine Music,which consisted of little more than feedback, electronic beeps, and tape hiss.

In 1974, Nico and John Cale performed a concert at London’s Rainbow Theatre with synthesizer player Brian Eno (of Roxy Music) and bassist Kevin Ayers and percussionist Robert Wyatt (of Soft Machine) that produced the live album June 1, 1974. Cale recorded Fear (regarded as one of his finest solo albums) and Slow Dazzlewith Eno and guitarist Phil Manzanera, another veteran of Roxy Music, and toured Europe in the spring of 1975. He produced Patti Smith’s stunning debut Horsesand The Modern Lovers´ debut album; he then switched to A&M Records for Sabotage Live.

Following the sedate Coney Island Baby,Lou Reed switched to Arista Records for a number of poor-selling mediocre albums, save perhaps Street Hassle,through 1980. That year he appeared in a cameo role in Paul Simon’s movie One Trick Pony. Returning to RCA Records, he recorded more accessible and mature albums for the label beginning with 1982’s acclaimed The Blue Mask. He helped record the “Sun City” single, toured with the first Amnesty International tour, and performed a number of benefits for the homeless. Reed returned to his anxious style of songwriting with the politicized New Yorkalbum on Sire Records, hailed as his most vital album in 15 years. In 1990, Reed joined John Cale for the first time in 20 years to compose and perform the tribute album to the late Andy Warhol, Songs for Drella.

John Cale recorded several albums in the 1980s, most notably Music for a New Society,assisting Brian Eno in the recording of 1990’s Wrong Way Up. Maureen Tucker reemerged with 1981’s Playin’ Possumand later recorded for the independent label 50 Skidillion Watts. Reed recorded the moving yet demanding Magic and Loss,inspired by the deaths of two friends, one of whom was songwriter Doc Pomus. In January 1993, Lou Reed performed at President Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball, later joining Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and John Cale as The Velvet Underground for a European tour and Live MCMXCIII,recorded at L´Olympia Theatre in Paris. On Aug. 30,1995, Sterling Morrison died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., at the age of 53. By 1996, the year The Velvet Underground was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Reed had switched to Warner Brothers for Set the Twilight Reeling,recorded entirely in his home studio. Cale recorded the music for the film I Shot Andy Warholand the album Walking on Locustsfor Hannibal/Rykodisc in 1996, the year Maureen Tucker joined songwriter-guitarist Mark Goodman in Magnet.


The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967); White Light/White Heat (1968); The Velvet Underground (1969); Loaded (1970); 2969 Live (1974); Live at Max’s Kansas City (rec. Aug. 1970; rei. 1972); The Velvet Underground (1971); Archetype (1974); Lou Reed with The Velvet Underground (1973); VU (1985); Another View (1986); The Best of the Velvet Underground: Words and Music of Lou Reed (1989); Live MCMXCIII (1993); Peel Slowly and See (1995). NICO: Chelsea Girl (1967); The Marble Index (1968); Desertshore (1970); The End (1974); Icon (1996); Drama of Exile (1983); Chelsea Girl Live (1995); Do or Die (1982); Live Heroes (1986); Hanging Gardens (1988). JOHN CALE: Vintage Violence (1970); The Academy in Peril (1972); Paris 1919 (1973); Fear (1975); Slow Dazzle (1975); Guts (1977); Sabotage Live (1979); Honi Soit (1981); Music for a New Society (1982); Caribbean Sunset (1984); John Cale Comes Alive (1984); Words for the Dying (1989); Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1991); Fragments of a Rainy Season (1992); Walking on Locusts (1996); Eat/Kiss (1997); I Shot Andy Warhol (music from soundtrack; (1996). JOHN CALE AND TERRY RILEY: Church of Anthrax (1971). JOHN CALE, KEVIN AYERS, BRIAN ENO AND NICO: June 1, 1974 (1974). JOHN CALE AND BRIAN ENO: Wrong Way Up (1990). JOHN CALE AND BOB NEUWIRTH: Last Day on Earth (1994). LOU REED: Lou Reed (1972); Transformer (1972); Berlin (1973); RockV Roll Animal (1974); Sally Can’t Dance (1974); Live (1975); Metal Music Machine: The Amine Beta Ring (1975); Coney Island Baby (1976); Rock and Roll Heart (1976); Street Hassle (1978); Live...Take No Prisoners (1978); The Bells (1979); Growing Up in Public (1980); Rock ‘n’ Roll Diary, 1967-80 (1980); The Blue Mask (1982); Legendary Hearts (1983); New Sensations (1984); Mistrial (1986); New York (1989); Magic and Loss (1991); Set the Twilight Reeling (1996); Perfect Night (1998); Ecstasy (2000). LOU REED AND JOHN CALE: Songs for Drella (1990). MAUREEN TUCKER: Playin’ Possum (1981); Life in Exile After Abdication (1989); I Spent a Week There the Other Night (1991); Dogs Under Stress (1993). MAGNET: Don’t Be a Penguin (1997).


Victor Bockris, Gerard Melanga. Up-tight: The Velvet Underground Story (N.Y., 1983); V. Bockris, Transformer: The Lou Reed Story (N.Y., 1994); James Young, Nico: The End(Woodstock, N.Y., 1993).

—Brock Helander

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