The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground spent the early part of their career as the musical component of Pop artist and impresario Andy Warhol’s 1960s multi-media “happenings.” In the following decades, however, the influence of the Velvets’ sometimes druggy, sometimes aggressive sound would permeate virtually every “alternative” corner of popular music, laying the seeds for punk rock and opening up new possibilities for lyricists and musicians alike. During their time together, though, the members of the Velvet Underground had to contend with hostile critics, unappreciative crowds, indifferent record companies, and playing quite literally in the shadow of Warhol’s extravaganzas.
The Velvets were founded in New York by Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison, who met at Syracuse University in the early sixties. Reed was in a rock and roll band, much to the disappointment of his parents, who had wanted him to be a classical pianist. At 15 he recorded his first record—the single “So Blue”—with his band, the Shades. His penchant for irreverence surfaced frequently at Syracuse; Reed was ejected from the
Members included John Cale (born December 5, 1940, in Crynant, Wales; bass, viola, guitar, and vocals; left group in 1967, was replaced on base by Doug Yule, 1968), Sterling Morrison (born Holmes Sterling Morrison, Jr., August 29, 1942, in East Meadow, NY; guitar and vocals), Nico (born Christa Paffgen, [most sources say] March 15, 1943, in Budapest, Hungary [one source says Cologne, Germany]; left group in 1966; died in 1988; vocals), Lou Reed (born Louis Firbank, March 2, 1942 [one source says 1944], in Freeport, NY [one sources says Brooklyn, NY]; vocals, guitar, and piano; left group in 1970), and Moe Tucker (born Maureen Tucker, c. 1945, in New Jersey; drums and vocals).
Group formed in 1965; played gigs in New York City; appeared in Pop artist Andy Warhol’s film The Velvet Underground and Nico: A Symphony of Sound, 1966; toured with Warhol’s multi-media show The Exploding Plastic Inevitable; signed with MGM/Verve and released first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1966; left MGM and signed with Atlantic, released final studio album, Loaded, and disbanded, 1970.
campus ROTC program for holding a gun to the head of his commanding officer. He also developed his literary streak there, falling in with troubled poet Delmore Schwartz, whose promising career would be destroyed by pills and alcohol. Schwartz exercised a huge influence on Reed, whose lyrics would reflect a fondness for the well-wrought image and an avant-gardist’s eye for the bizarre. Sterling Morrison, who also admired Schwartz, played with Reed in bands called Moses and his Brothers, Pasha and the Prophets, and L.A. and the El Dorados.
Reed hooked up with a small record company called Pickwick, which paid him nominal sums for songs that would be attributed to non-existent acts. “There were four of us literally locked in a room writing songs,” Reed recalled in the book Up-Tight. High on marijuana or racing on speed, Reed and his colleagues wrote dozens of songs per day; when the company decided to release one of his singles, it needed a group to perform it. Thus Reed’s absurdist dance number “The Ostrich,” which featured “Sneaky Pete” on its flip side, was credited to a recording sensation called the Primitives. The company then enlisted a group of musicians—Morrison, his friend Tony Conrad, and a Welsh music student named John Cale—to tour with Reed as the Primitives. The band had its moment of small-scale fame, but the record was not a hit.
Reed’s musical instincts were a complex mix; he was inspired by the feel of rhythm and blues, but found the experimentalism of avant-garde jazz artists like saxophonist Omette Coleman equally fascinating. His interest in underground literature and modern poetry encouraged him to explore dark themes in his compositions; while writing throwaway tunes for Pickwick, he also composed songs like “Heroin,” which would become a Velvets classic. Reed and Cale found themselves unexpectedly compatible as songwriters and musicians. Cale’s classical background and musical experimentalism—he once helped perform composer John Cage’s “Vexations,” which consists of an 80-second piece of music repeated 840 times by a relay team of pianists—found liberation and sympathy in Reed’s artistic sensibility. Reed moved into Cale’s apartment. He recalled in Up-Tight that he met Sterling Morrison again on the subway. Soon the three joined underground art-scene denizen and drummer Angus MacLise to form the earliest incarnation of the then-unnamed Velvet Underground, with Reed and Morrison on guitars and Cale on bass and viola. Reed’s deal with Pickwick had folded, so the former would-be commercial pop stars decided to play music to please themselves.
It was 1965 and underground cinema—influenced by surrealism and other experimentalist trends in art—was flourishing in New York City. Angus MacLise had ties to several filmmakers, including Piero Heliczer. Heliczer organized a multi-media event that included film, dance, slides, lights, and music by Reed, Cale, Morrison and MacLise. Suddenly the band had an avenue apart from the Manhattan club scene, which at that time was dominated by rhythm and blues acts.
They provided music—live and taped—for several other film shows and recorded a demo in July of 1965 that included the songs “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin.” Reed and company sent the demo to a number of music industry people, including British promoter Miles Copeland. Cale traveled to England several times to help drum up interest in the band, and the quartet was about ready to move to London when they met Andy Warhol. Before that fateful encounter, however, they survived by playing to small but appreciative crowds. Still, it seemed unlikely that they would achieve real success in the United States and they still had no name. Then Morrison’s friend Conrad found a paperback book on the street and showed it to his colleagues. The book, The Velvet Underground, billed itself as “a documentary on the sexual corruption of our age.” It told a lurid tale of sadomasochism and other sexual adventures in New York City. The band had a name at last.
The Velvet Underground gathered instant notoriety when one of Heliczer’s films of the band appeared on a CBS television feature on underground cinema. The Velvets received a call from journalist and aspiring entrepreneur AI Aronowitz as a result of this exposure. After seeing one of their performances at a Heliczer “happening,” Aronowitz offered the band a spot opening at New Jersey’s Summit High School for the Myddle Class, a group he was managing. MacLise refused to begin and finish playing at another band’s command—even for the extravagant sum of $75—and when his fellow musicians pressed him to take the offer, he left the band. In need of a new drummer, Reed enlisted Maureen “Moe” Tucker, the sister of an old friend of his and Morrison’s. Tucker worked as a computer operator by day and had quit her previous band when their guitarist was shot onstage. The other Velvets initially told her she wasn’t a full-fledged member because, she remembered in Up-Tight, “John was adamant about not wanting any girls in the band.”
The Summit performance shocked and confused the audience, but Aronowitz saw potential. Deciding that the Velvets needed practice, he arranged a regular performance at Greenwich Village’s Cafe Bizarre. The band made very little money and did not endear themselves to the patrons or the management, but the gig afforded them a chance to earn their “chops” and try out new material. Tucker—by then a full-time member—played tambourine because the Cafe didn’t want drums. In the midst of their dissatisfaction with the place, the Velvet Underground met Andy Warhol. Soon the Cafe Bizarre’s management told them that if they played the “Black Angel’s Death Song” again they’d be fired; the Velvets responded with an especially heartfelt version of the song and got the axe.
Warhol and a group of hangers-on spent New Year’s Eve, 1965, at the apartment that Reed and Morrison were then sharing. Soon after, Warhol’s headquarters—The Factory—became a second home for the Velvets as well as the scene of much brainstorming and networking. The Pop impresario wanted to include the Velvets in his upcoming discotheque experiment, but also wanted them to play with a young European chanteuse named Nico. A model, actress, and singer, Nico had appeared in famed Italian film director Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita; Warhol felt that her deep, frosty vocals and startling beauty would nicely complement the Velvets’ sound. The band resisted, not wanting to be anyone’s backing group, but Warhol persuaded them to let her sing some of their songs and even got them to change their name to the Velvet Underground and Nico. The band members had swallowed their pride, knowing that Warhol’s influence in the art world provided a genuine chance for widespread recognition.
In January of 1966 Warhol shot a film of the new lineup entitled The Velvet Underground and Nico: A Symphony of Sound. Police broke up the shooting because of complaints about noise, but the film prevailed, later providing a backdrop for Velvets live shows. Warhol wanted to project movies onto the members of the band as they played and surround them with light shows and dancers. The first such multi-media event took place at the Cinematheque; it became known as “Andy Warhol, UpTight,” and soon went on the road. After a shaky start, the show hit its stride at the University of Michigan Film Festival in Ann Arbor. “Ann Arbor went crazy,” Warhol said in Up-Tight.
After the tour Warhol and his associates—including filmmaker Paul Morrissey—looked for a nightclub where the Velvets could play on a regular basis and “become famous.” Through some friends they found a club called The Dom. Pressed for a name for the new “happening,” Morrissey culled the words “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” from the liner notes to a record by folk-rock superstar Bob Dylan. The new show was instantly successful. Warhol, as the visionary behind the event, was featured prominently in numerous press reviews, but the Velvets got their share of attention. Rock critic Richard Goldstein, in a review quoted in Up-Tight, called their sound “a savage series of atonal thrusts and electronic feedback.… [It] seems to be the product of a secret marriage between Bob Dylan and the Marquis de Sade.”
Warhol and Morrissey decided to bring the Velvets and Nico into the studio to record an album; Reed, allegedly jealous of Nico, left her at first with nothing to sing. The project took only a few days to record, with Warhol acting nominally as producer. What he actually did in the studio remains unclear—Morrissey told Malanga in Up-Tight that Warhol showed up “once or twice”—but there is no doubt that he provided the motivation and initial funds for the album. Reed told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke that Warhol mainly assisted by “keeping people away from us.” MGM/Verve agreed to release the record, largely on the strength of Warhol’s connections. Warhol also lent his artistic talents to the record by designing its cover, which would become one of the most famous in rock history: plain white with an enormous banana, the “peel” of which could be pulled away. The only words that appeared on the front were Warhol’s signature.
The record, simply titled The Velvet Underground & Nico, featured 11 songs, almost all of which have became classics. Nico crooned “Femme Fatale” and a few other tunes well suited to her oddly dispassionate, chilly voice. As Morrison told the authors of Up-Tight, the singer-star came by her “haunting” vocal style naturally: “Nico was just really depressed.” Reed delivered “I’m Waiting for My Man,” “Venus in Furs,” “Heroin,” and several others in his trademark deadpan style. The content of many of the lyrics—notably focusing on drug addiction, sadomasochism, and transvestism—severely limited the album’s chance at commercial success. Reed’s take on drug use and fringe life lacked the clear moral “lessons” and tidy value judgments that would have made the music more accessible. The band’s sound stretched from crystalline pop to raw, percussive rock that verged on the atonal. “We’re musical primitives,” Cale told Goldstein in an interview reprinted in Up-Tight. Rolling Stone’s Fricke, reviewing the re-mastered editions of the Velvet Underground albums released by Polydor in 1985, called the first LP “a powerful summation of art and fear.”
The Velvets continued performing with The Exploding Plastic Inevitable—or E.P.I.—though tensions mounted between Nico and the rest of the group. They wore sunglasses onstage to protect their eyes from the harsh lights, and Tucker began playing garbage cans and other non-traditional drums. Soon they were booked to play several dates in Los Angeles; their show with Frank Zappa’s psychedelic art-rock ensemble the Mothers of Invention left listeners alternately impressed and bemused. The two bands did not get along, however, and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department closed down their joint performances on the third day. After the L.A. dates, San Francisco music promoter Bill Graham persuaded the E.P.I, to play at his Fillmore theater with the Mothers and then-unknown psychedelic rock band the Jefferson Airplane. But, the Velvets held the entire San Francisco scene in contempt and fought bitterly with Graham. Their preoccupation with grungy reality, addiction, and sexual power relations and their discomfiting sound and “uptight” attitude clashed violently with the flower-power atmosphere of the mid- 1960s California rock scene.
Nico left the group in 1967, partly because her solo performance schedule at the Dom clashed with the Velvets’ tour plans. Reed fired Warhol as the band’s manager, reportedly prompting him to ask Reed if he wanted to play museums for the rest of his life. Reed’s answer was to find a new manager, Steve Sesnick. The Velvets recorded their second album—the uncompromising White Light/White Heat —for Verve over a few days in September of 1967. This sophomore effort features the loudest, most abrasive music the Velvets ever produced: feedback-drenched lead guitars, churning rhythms, fuzz, and pure noise surrounding tunes about transvestites, getting high, and even a bizarre Reed-penned short story called “The Gift,” recited by Cale over a chugging rhythm track.
Perhaps the epitome of White Light/White Heat’s irreverence and experimentation is the 17-minute jam “Sister Ray,” a grinding anthem to decadence. “The only way to go through something is to go right into the middle,” Reed remarked about the record in Up-Tight. “The only way to do it is to not kid around.” He added that “Sister Ray,” a spontaneous studio jam inspired by avant-garde jazz, exercised a huge influence on subsequent rock: “I mean, if ‘Sister Ray’ is not an example of heavy metal, then nothing is.” Billboard’s reviewer predicted good “underground” sales and commented on the group’s “intriguing lyrics.” Despite expectations, the label did not support the album and it failed to sell. In September of 1968 Cale left the Velvet Underground to pursue a solo career. Tensions between Cale and Reed had escalated and the latter had called a meeting of the band to announce Cale’s departure. Morrison and Tucker felt they had to side with Reed or risk dissolution of the band, but the episode inspired ill will on all fronts. Bassist Doug Yule, a Boston native, joined the band for its next tour dates and went into the studio with the Velvets to record their third LP, The Velvet Underground, which MGM released directly—rather than on its subsidiary, Verve—in March of 1969. This record included some of the band’s loveliest melodies, in particular “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Jesus” and “Candy Says” as well as upbeat songs like “What Goes On” and “Beginning To See the Light.” Reviewers responded favorably: Cashbox wrote that “the group creates an evocative, sensuous sound, and the LP could pick up considerable sales.” Some critics—writing much later, after the release of the Polydor reissues—saw the album’s strengths even more clearly. Rolling Stone’s Fricke referred to the record as “gently expansive” compared to the sonic assault of White Light. High Fidelity’s Michael Hill called the third LP “their most consistent and accessible effort.” Yet MGM did not distribute the album adequately to generate real sales despite Sesnick’s attempts to aggressively promote it.
The Velvets recorded tracks for a fourth MGM LP, but the label dropped them and the album was never released. These songs would not be available except on bootleg recordings and overpriced, poorly mastered imports until their release as VU in 1985. The band toured extensively in 1969 and a live album of this period—released in 1974 by Mercury as 1969 The Velvet Underground Live —showcases the Reed-Morrison-Tucker-Yule lineup at the height of its power. Despite the ferocity of their touring schedule, the Velvet Underground had no money and no label at the end of 1969. In early 1970 Sesnick closed negotiations for a contract with Atlantic Records. In June the band played a famous series of gigs at a Manhattan club called Max’s Kansas City. A live album of those shows, which features Yule’s brother Billy substituting for a pregnant Tucker, was released on Atlantic in 1972— remixed from a fan’s cassette recording.
The Velvet Underground recorded one more studio album, 1970’s Loaded, but Reed quit the band before it was mixed. Featuring studio versions of Reed classics “Rock and Roll” and the much-covered “Sweet Jane,” as well as “New Age,” “Oh Sweet Nuthin’,” and several other tuneful rockers, Loaded served as the Velvets’ swan song. Yule sang lead on a couple of songs and played lead guitar, keyboards, and some drums as well as bass. The album—over which fans have long been divided—featured the guitar-driven, gospel- and blues-tinged quality that would dominate mainstream rock in the first half of the 1970s.
It quickly became evident to the remaining Velvets that without Reed the band could not last. He went on to a tempestuous and often highly acclaimed solo career; Tucker got married and moved to Florida to raise her family, periodically putting out low-budget solo records; Morrison became a university English professor, and Yule established a furniture-crafting business in New Hampshire, playing music occasionally. By the mid- 1970s, however, it became apparent that the Velvets had been a stunning catalyst to the development of alternative rock. The influence of the Velvet Underground’s sound and imagery was amply evident at the birth of the glam-rock and punk movements of the seventies. By the post-punk explosion of the 1980s, rock and roll bands across the spectrum—from country-rock to rap—displayed the mark of the first “uptight” band. Hugely successful groups like R.E.M. covered Velvets tunes and sang the late group’s praises. The 1985 re-release of the Velvets’ early and unreleased material secured their posthumous fame. It has become a rock and roll truism that only a thousand people heard the first Velvet Underground LP, but they all formed bands.
Nico and Warhol died in 1988. Reed and Cale joined forces for a “song cycle” about Warhol, Songs for Drella, which they performed to critical raves and released as an album in 1990. The work recounts much of the Velvets’ early history and even re-ignites some of the embers Reed and Cale left smoldering more than two decades earlier. “All the promise we showed in those two albums, we never delivered on it,” Cale reflected in Up-Tight in 1983. Many of the Velvets’ admirers share this same sense of a mission uncompleted. Reviewing Moe Tucker’s 1992 album / Spent a Week There the Other Night —which features guest performances by Reed, Cale, and Morrison, and even one track that boasts all four—Kurt Loder asked in Esquire, “Why doesn’t the Velvet Underground just reunite, make an album of its own, and instantly become the most meaningful band on the planet?” Should such a reunion occur, it would no doubt afford the Velvets the recognition they never got as a young band. Still, the Velvet Underground consistently emphasized in its material the obstacles to such happy resolutions. “My prime ambition,” recalled Reed in a 1986 Rolling Stone interview, “was to knock the door down on what rock & roll songs were about.” As the 1990s wore on, it seemed, the world was knocking the Velvets’ door down.
The Velvet Underground & Nico (includes “Femme Fatale,” “I’m Waiting for My Man,” “Venus in Furs,” and “Heroin”), MGM/Verve, 1966, reissued, Polydor, 1985.
White Light/White Heat (includes “The Gift” and “Sister Ray”), MGM/Verve, 1967, reissued, Polydor, 1985.
The Velvet Underground (includes “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Jesus,” “Candy Says,” “What Goes On,” and “Beginning To See the Light”), MGM, 1969, reissued, Polydor, 1985.
Loaded (includes “Sweet Jane,” “Rock and Roll,” “New Age,” and “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’”), Atlantic, 1970.
The Velvet Underground Live at Max’s Kansas City, Atlantic, 1972.
1969 The Velvet Underground Live, Mercury, 1974.
VU, Polydor, 1985.
Another View, Polydor, 1986.
(John Cale and Lou Reed) Songs for Drella, Sire, 1990.
(Moe Tucker, featuring former members of the Velvet Underground) I Spent a Week There the Other Night, New Rose, 1992.
Bockris, Victor, and Gerard Malanga, Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story, Omnibus, 1983.
Atlantic, April 1990.
Billboard, February 24, 1968.
Cashbox, June 28, 1969.
Esquire, February 1992.
High Fidelity, May 1985.
Interview, October 1989.
Nation, February 27, 1989.
New York, November 25, 1985.
Rolling Stone, November 22, 1984; March 14, 1985; September 25, 1986; May 4, 1989; January 11, 1990.
Stereo Review, May 1985.
Further information for this profile was obtained from liner notes to Polydor reissues of Velvet Underground LPs, written by Kurt Loder, December 1984.
"The Velvet Underground." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/velvet-underground
"The Velvet Underground." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved March 23, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/velvet-underground
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