The Velvet Underground never sold many records, but, as many have said, it seems like every one of the group’s fans went out and started a band. While The Velvet Underground’s songs were constructed on the same three chords and 4/4 beat employed by most late-’60s rockers, the Velvets were unique in their intentional crudity, in their sense of beauty in ugliness, and in their lyrics. In the age of flower power they spoke in no uncertain terms of social alienation, sexual deviancy, drug addiction, violence, and hopelessness. Both in their sound and in their words, the songs evoked the exhilaration and destructiveness of modern urban life. The group’s music and stance were of seminal importance to David Bowie, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music, the Sex Pistols, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Luna, and countless others of the protopunk, punk, and postpunk movements.
In 1964 John Cale met Lou Reed in New York City. Both had been classically trained — Cale as a violist and theorist, and Reed as a pianist. By the time of their first meeting Cale was engaging in avant-garde experimentation with La Monte Young and Reed was writing poems about down-and-out streetlife. Cale, Reed, Sterling Morrison, and Angus MacLise (the percussionist in Young’s ensemble) formed a group that played under various names — the Warlocks, the Primitives, the Falling Spikes — in galleries and at poetry readings around lower Manhattan. As the Primitives, they recorded a series of singles on Pickwick Records, for which Reed had once worked as house songwriter. In 1965 the quartet became known as the Velvet Underground. MacLise, who frowned upon the idea of playing for money, quit prior to the rechristened combo’s first paying performance. (A poet and virtuoso percussionist who spent years living in Asia, he died of malnutrition in Nepal in 1979. Archival CDs of his raga-influenced solo work appeared in 1999 and 2000.) Maureen Tucker was enlisted to take his place on a per-diem basis, which became permanent when she constructed her own drum kit out of tambourines and garbage-can lids.
On November 11, 1965, the group played its first gig as the Velvet Underground, opening for the Myddle Class at a high school dance in Summit, New Jersey. Within a few months, Reed, Morrison, Cale, and Tucker had taken up residency at the Cafe Bizarre in Greenwich Village, where they met pop artist Andy Warhol. When they were fired by the Bizarre’s management for performing “Black Angel’s Death Song” immediately after being told not to, Warhol invited them to perform at showings of his film series, Cinematique Uptight. He soon employed them as the aural component of his traveling mixed-media show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. For the latter, he augmented the lineup with singer/actress Nico, to whom he gave equal billing on the Velvets’ first album. She sang only three songs on the record, which was recorded in 1966. Two singles — “I’ll Be Your Mirror” b/w “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Sunday Morning” b/w “Femme Fatale” — were released. The LP, which included Reed’s “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs” (a song about sado-masochism), appeared nearly a year after its completion. It sported a Warhol cover with a peelable illustration of a banana.
The group had a falling-out with Warhol when it performed in Boston without Nico and the rest of the Inevitable troupe, who arrived late. The Velvets then took on Steve Sesnick as their manager. Without Warhol’s name and knack for generating publicity, they faded from public attention. Their following was reduced further with the uncompromisingly noisy White Light/White Heat, which they recorded in a single day following a tour of mostly empty theaters. Cale, frequently in a power struggle with Reed, eventually quit. The remaining members enlisted Doug Yule, who had played with a Boston folk-rock Velvets, the Glass Menagerie. The third album, recorded in L.A., was much softer than either of its predecessors. It cost the group all but the most loyal of their following. MGM dropped the band and it was some months before Atlantic became interested.
Upon their return to New York to record in the summer of 1970, the Velvets played a month-long engagement at Max’s Kansas City (with Doug’s younger brother Billy Yule deputizing for Tucker, who was pregnant). These were the group’s first appearances in New York since 1967, and they rekindled some interest. But soon after Loaded was finished, Reed, at odds with Sesnick, left the group and moved to England, where he lived for two years before reemerging as a solo performer. Although he denounced Loaded, claiming it was remixed after his departure (a charge Yule and Morrison denied), the album introduced “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll.”
With Doug Yule now on guitar and new bassist Walter Powers, the Velvet Underground toured the East Coast before Morrison dropped out in 1971 to teach English at the University of Texas in Austin. Tucker left following a tour of the U.K. She moved to Phoenix, Arizona, then to southern Georgia, where she raised a family and in 1980 began recording solo efforts. Yule retained the Velvet Underground name until 1973. Minus any of the principal Velvets, he recorded Squeeze, which was released only in Britain.
With the success of Reed’s solo career and, to lesser extents, Cale’s and Nico’s, the Velvet Underground generated more interest in the ’70s than it had during its existence. Two live albums were released: 1972’s Live at Max’s Kansas City, recorded the night of Reed’s last appearance with the group, and 1974’s The Velvet Underground, recorded in 1969 in Texas and California.
In 1989 Cale and Reed performed a song cycle written in memory of Andy Warhol, who died in 1988; the work was released on the 1990 album Songs for Drella. In June of that year, the best-known lineup of the Velvet Underground (minus Nico, who died in 1988 of head injuries sustained in a cycling accident) reunited onstage at a Warhol tribute in a small town near Paris. Their 10-minute version of the song “Heroin” led to another reunion three years later. With their longstanding differences seemingly resolved (particularly the battling egos of Reed and Cale), the players began rehearsals for several European shows slated for the summer of 1993. Highlights of the tour were documented on a video and album, Live MCMXCIII. That fall, however, the band fell apart once more, reportedly due to a spat between Cale and Reed over who would produce the group’s upcoming MTV Unplugged appearance and album. The members again went their separate ways. All save Reed performed in late 1994, improvising music for the screenings of two silent Warhol films at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Reed, Cale, and Tucker resumed their solo careers. Morrison, who occasionally performed with Tucker, died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995. The following year, the classic lineup was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The five-CD Peel Slowly and See contains the Reed-era albums plus numerous bonus tracks.
from The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001)
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