The Velvet Underground was an American rock band, active between 1964 and 1973, formed in New York City by Lou Reed and John Cale, who both went on to find success as solo artists.
Although experiencing little commercial success while together, the band is often cited by many critics as one of the most important and influential groups of the 1960s. In a 1982 interview Brian Eno made the oft-repeated statement that while the first Velvet Underground album may have sold only 30,000 copies in its early years, "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band."
Andy Warhol managed the Velvet Underground and it was the house band at his studio, the Factory, and his Exploding Plastic Inevitable events. The provocative lyrics of some of the band's songs gave a nihilistic outlook to some of their music.
Their 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (which featured German singer Nico, with whom the band collaborated), was named the 13th Greatest Album of All Time, and the "most prophetic rock album ever made" by Rolling Stone in 2003. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the band No. 19 on its list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time". The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, by Patti Smith.
The foundations for what would become the Velvet Underground were laid in late 1964. Singer/guitarist Lou Reed had performed with a few short-lived garage bands and had worked as a songwriter for Pickwick Records (Reed described his tenure there as being "a poor man's Carole King"). Reed met John Cale, a Welshman who had moved to the United States to study classical music upon securing a scholarship. Cale had worked with experimental composers Cornelius Cardew and La Monte Young but was also interested in rock music. Young's use of extended drones would be a profound influence on the band's early sound. Cale was pleasantly surprised to discover that Reed's experimentalist tendencies were similar to his own: Reed sometimes used alternative guitar tunings to create a droning sound. The pair rehearsed and performed together; their partnership and shared interests built the path towards what would later become the Velvet Underground.
Reed's first group with Cale was The Primitives, a short-lived group assembled to issue budget-priced recordings and support an anti-dance single penned by Reed, "The Ostrich", to which Cale added a viola passage. Reed and Cale recruited Sterling Morrison—a college classmate of Reed's at Syracuse University—as a replacement for Walter De Maria, who had been a third member of The Primitives. Morrison played the guitar, and Angus MacLise joined on percussion to complete the four-member unit. This quartet was first called The Warlocks, then The Falling Spikes.
The Velvet Underground by Michael Leigh was a contemporary mass market paperback about the secret sexual subculture of the early 1960s that Cale's friend Tony Conrad showed the group. MacLise made a suggestion to adopt the title as the band's name. According to Reed and Morrison, the group liked the name, considering it evocative of "underground cinema", and fitting, as Reed had already written "Venus in Furs", a song inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's book of the same name, which dealt with masochism. The band immediately and unanimously adopted the Velvet Underground as its new name in November 1965.
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 beat poetry, with MacLise playing gentle "pitter and patter rhythms behind the drone".
In July 1965, Reed, Cale and Morrison recorded a demo tape at their Ludlow Street loft. When he briefly returned to Britain, Cale attempted to give a copy of the tape to Marianne Faithfull, hoping she'd pass it on to Mick Jagger. Nothing ever came of this, but the demo was eventually released on the 1995 box set Peel Slowly and See.
Manager and music journalist Al Aronowitz arranged for the group's first paying gig—$75 to play at Summit High School, in Summit, New Jersey, opening for The Myddle Class. When the group decided to take the gig, MacLise left the group, protesting what he considered a sellout. "Angus was in it for art", Morrison reported.
MacLise was replaced by Maureen "Mo" Tucker, the younger sister of Morrison's friend Jim Tucker. Tucker's abbreviated drum kit was rather unusual: she generally played on tom toms and an upturned bass drum, using mallets as often as 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 rhythms, at once simple and exotic (influenced by the likes of Babatunde Olatunji and Bo Diddley records), became a vital part of the group's music. The group earned a regular paying gig at the Café Bizarre and gained an early reputation as a promising ensemble.
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 helped the band gain a higher profile. Warhol helped the band secure a coveted recording contract with MGM's Verve Records, with himself as nominal "producer", and gave the Velvets free rein 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 music. They played shows for several months in New York City, then traveled throughout the United States and Canada until its last installment in May 1967. The show included 16 mm film projections and colors by Warhol. Early promo posters referred to the group as the "erupting plastic inevitable". This soon changed to "the exploding plastic inevitable".
In 1966, MacLise temporarily rejoined the Velvet Underground for a few EPI 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 "Booker T", after musician Booker T. Jones; 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 record of MacLise with the Velvet Underground.
In December 1966, Warhol and David Dalton designed Issue 3 of the multimedia Aspen. Included in this issue of the "magazine", which retailed at $4 per copy and was packaged in a hinged box designed to look like Fab laundry detergent, were various leaflets and booklets, one of which was a commentary on rock and roll by Lou Reed, another an EPI promotional newspaper. Also enclosed was a 2-sided flexi disk, side one produced by Peter Walker, a musical associate of Timothy Leary, and side two titled "Loop", credited to the Velvet Underground but actually recorded by Cale alone. "Loop", a recording solely of pulsating audio feedback culminating in a locked groove, was "a precursor to [Reed's] Metal Machine Music", say Velvets archivists M.C. Kostek and Phil Milstein in the book, The Velvet Underground Companion. "Loop" also predates much industrial music as well. More significantly, from a retail standpoint, "Loop" was the group's first commercially available recording as the Velvet Underground.
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
At Warhol's insistence, Nico sang with the band on three songs of their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. The album was recorded primarily in Scepter Studios in New York City during April 1966. (Some songs were re-recorded, along with the new song "Sunday Morning", later in the year with Tom Wilson producing). It was released by Verve Records in March 1967.
The album cover is famous for its Warhol design: a yellow banana sticker with "Peel slowly and see" printed near the tip. Those who did remove the banana skin found a pink, peeled banana beneath.
Eleven songs showcased their dynamic range, veering from the pounding attacks of "I'm Waiting for the Man" and "Run Run Run", the droning "Venus in Furs" and "Heroin", the chiming and celestial "Sunday Morning" to the quiet "Femme Fatale" and the tender "I'll Be Your Mirror", as well as Warhol's own favorite song of the group, "All Tomorrow's Parties". Kurt Loder would later describe "All Tomorrow's Parties" as a "mesmerizing gothic-rock masterpiece".
The overall sound was propelled by Reed and Nico's deadpan vocals, Cale's droning viola, Morrison's often rhythm and blues– or country - influenced guitar, and Tucker's simple but steady beat. Another distinct feature on many songs was the "drone strum", an eighth-note rhythm guitar style used by Reed.
The album was released on March 12, 1967, peaking at No. 171 on Billboard magazine's Top 200 charts. The promising commercial debut of the album was dampened somewhat by legal complications: the album's back cover featured a photo of the group playing live with another image projected behind them; the projected image was a still of actor Eric Emerson from a Warhol motion picture, Chelsea Girls. Emerson had been arrested for drug possession and, desperate for money, claimed the still had been included on the album without his permission (in the image, his face appears quite big, but upside down). 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)
Nico moved on after the band severed its relationship with Andy Warhol. In September 1967, the Velvet Underground began recording their second album, White Light/White Heat, with Tom Wilson as producer.
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 was one of the first groups to receive an endorsement from Vox. The company pioneered special effects, which the Velvet Underground utilized on the album.
Sterling Morrison offered the following input regarding the recording:
The recording was raw and oversaturated. Cale has stated that while the debut had some moments of fragility and beauty, White Light/White Heat was "consciously anti-beauty." The title track sets a harsh opening, featuring bassist John Cale pounding on the piano in a style akin to Jerry Lee Lewis. It was later included in the repertoire of David Bowie. 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 short story written by Reed and narrated by Cale in his deadpan Welsh accent. The meditative "Here She Comes Now" was later covered by Galaxie 500, Cabaret Voltaire, and Nirvana, among others.
The album was released on January 30, 1968, entering the Billboard Top 200 chart for two weeks, at number 199.
Tensions were growing: the group was tired of receiving little recognition for its work, and Reed and Cale were pulling the Velvet Underground in different directions. The differences showed in the last recording sessions the band had with John Cale in 1968: three pop-like songs in Reed's direction ("Temptation Inside Your Heart", "Stephanie Says" and "Beginning to See the Light") and a viola-driven drone in Cale's direction ("Hey Mr. Rain"). Further, some songs the band had performed with Cale in concert, or that he had co-written, were not recorded until after he had left the group (such as "Walk It and Talk It", "Ride into the Sun", and "Countess from Hong Kong").
The Velvet Underground (1969)
Before work on their third album started, Cale was eased out of the band and was replaced by Doug Yule of Boston group the Grass Menagerie, who had been a close associate of the band. The Velvet Underground was recorded in late 1968 (released in March 1969). The cover photograph was taken by Billy Name. The LP sleeve was designed by Dick Smith, then a staff artist at MGM/Verve. Released on March 12, 1969, the album failed to make Billboard's Top 200 album chart.
It has often been reported that before Cale's departure there was a struggle between his creative impulses and Reed's: Cale's experimentalist tendencies had contrasted with Reed's more conventional approach. According to Tim Mitchell, however, Morrison reported that though there was creative tension between Reed and Cale its impact has been exaggerated over the years.
The harsh, abrasive tendencies on the first two records were almost entirely absent on their third album. 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 Vox amplifiers and assorted fuzzboxes being stolen from an airport while they were on tour. In addition, Reed and Morrison had purchased matching Fender 12-string electric guitars. Doug Yule plays down the influence of the new equipment, however.
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. Doug Yule sang the lead vocal on "Candy Says" (about the Warhol superstar Candy Darling), which opens the LP, and a rare Maureen Tucker vocal is featured on "After Hours", which closes the album. It is a song that Reed said was so innocent and pure he could not sing it himself. The album's influence can be heard in many later indie rock and lo-fi recordings.
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. The live album 1969: The Velvet Underground Live was recorded in October 1969 but not released until 1974, on Mercury Records at the urging of rock critic Paul Nelson, who worked in A&R for Mercury at the time. Nelson asked singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy to write liner notes for the double album which began, "I wish it was a hundred years from today..."
During 1969, 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 songs of their final record, Loaded.
The rest of the recordings, as well as some alternative 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").
By 1969 the MGM and Verve record labels had been losing money for several years. A new president, Mike Curb, was hired. Curb decided to purge the labels of their many controversial and unprofitable acts. The drug or hippie-related bands were released from MGM, and the Velvets were on his list, along with Eric Burdon and the Animals and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. Nonetheless MGM insisted on retaining ownership of all master tapes of their recordings.
Atlantic Records signed the Velvet Underground for what would be its final studio album with Lou Reed: 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 VU had performed, and several of Reed's best-known songs, including "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll."
Although Tucker had temporarily retired from the group due to her pregnancy, she received a performance credit on Loaded. The drums were played by several people, including Doug Yule, engineer Adrian Barber, session musician Tommy Castanaro, and Yule's brother Billy, who was still in high school at the time.
Disillusioned with the lack of progress the band was making and pressured by manager Steve Sesnick, Reed decided to quit the band in August 1970. The band essentially dissolved while recording the album, and Reed walked off just before it was finished. Lou Reed has often said he was completely surprised when he saw Loaded in stores. He also said, "I left them to their album full of hits that I made".
Reed was perturbed about a verse being edited from the Loaded version of "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. (For the 1995 box set Peel Slowly and See, the album was presented as Reed intended; the "Fully Loaded" two-disc edition also features the full versions of "Sweet Jane" and "New Age".) On the other hand, Yule has pointed out 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 Doug Yule years (1970–1973)
With manager Steve Sesnick looking to fill bookings, the band, featuring Walter Powers on bass, Maureen Tucker on drums, with Doug Yule taking over lead vocals and guitar, went on the road once more, playing the U.S. East Coast and Europe. Sterling Morrison had obtained a bachelor of arts degree in English, and left the group in August 1971 to pursue a Ph.D. in medieval literature at 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.
In 1972 Atlantic released Live at Max's Kansas City, a live bootleg of the Velvet Underground's final performance with Reed, (also featuring Doug Yule, Morrison, and Billy Yule) recorded by fan Brigid Polk on August 23, 1970. Meanwhile, the Doug Yule-fronted version of the band was touring the United Kingdom when Sesnick managed to secure a recording contract with Polydor Records in England. He then allegedly sent Tucker, Powers and Alexander back to the US (effectively ending their tenures with the group) while Yule recorded the album Squeeze under the Velvet Underground name virtually by himself, with only the assistance of Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice and a few other session musicians.
Prior to the release of Squeeze, a new Velvet Underground lineup was assembled to tour the UK to promote the upcoming album. This version of the Velvet Underground consisted of Yule, Rob Norris on guitar, George Kay (Krzyzewski), bass guitar, and Mark Nauseef, drums. Sesnick left the band shortly before the tour started, and Yule left when the brief tour ended in December 1972.
Squeeze was released a few months later in February 1973, in Europe only. The album is generally held in low regard by fans and critics: Stephen Thomas Erlewine notes that the album received "uniformly terrible reviews" upon initial release, and was often "deleted" from official V.U. discographies. When asked about "Squeeze", Yule hinted that band manager Steve Sesnick orchestrated the album purely as a money ploy. "Sesnick dumped the second iteration of the band in England with no money and no equipment and just left us there to find our way back. He gave me 6 copies of Squeeze as pay. I never got any money. When you sign with ASCAP or BMI you get an advance. He not only made an arrangement with them but actually signed me and took the money."
Post-VU developments (1972–1990)
Reed, Cale and Nico teamed up at the beginning of 1972 to play a concert in Paris at the Bataclan club. This concert was bootlegged, and finally received an official release as Le Bataclan '72 in 2003.
Before that, Cale and Nico had developed solo careers. Nico had also begun a solo career with Cale producing a majority of her albums. Reed started his solo career in 1972 after a brief sabbatical. Sterling Morrison was a professor for some time, teaching Medieval Literature at the University of Texas at Austin, then became a tugboat captain in Houston for several years. Maureen Tucker raised a family before returning to small-scale gigging and recording in the 1980s; Morrison was in several touring bands, including Tucker's band.
Although Yule had theoretically put an end to the Velvet Underground in late 1972, in early 1973 a band featuring him, Billy Yule on drums, Kay on bass and Don Silverman, guitar (he later changed his name to Noor Khan), played the New England bar circuit, and was billed as "The Velvet Underground" by the tour's manager. The band members objected to the billing, and in late May 1973, the band and the tour manager parted ways. Yule subsequently toured with Lou Reed and played on the latter's Sally Can't Dance album, became a member of American Flyer, then dropped out of the music industry altogether before reappearing in the early 2000s.
In 1985 Polydor released the album VU, which collected unreleased recordings that might have constituted the band's fourth album for MGM in 1969 but had never been released. Some of the songs had been recorded when Cale was still in the band. More unreleased recordings of the band, some of them demos and unfinished tracks, were released in 1986 as Another View.
On July 18, 1988, Nico died of a cerebral hemorrhage following a bicycle accident.
Czech dissident playwright Václav Havel was a fan of the Velvet Underground, ultimately becoming a friend of Lou Reed. Though some attribute the name of the 1989 "Velvet Revolution", which ended more than 40 years of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, to the band, Reed pointed out that the name Velvet Revolution derives from its peaceful nature—that no one was "actually hurt" during those events. Reed has also given at least one radio interview where he stated that it was called the Velvet Revolution because all of the dissidents were listening to the Velvet Underground leading up to the overthrow, and this music was an inspiration for the events that followed. After Havel's election as president, first of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic, Reed visited him in Prague. On September 16, 1998, at Havel's request, Reed performed in the White House at a state dinner in Havel's honor hosted by President Bill Clinton.
In 1990, Reed and Cale released Songs for Drella, dedicated to Andy Warhol who had recently died. ("Drella" was a nickname Warhol had been given, 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 pair had worked together in decades, and rumors of a reunion began to circulate, fueled by the one-off appearance by Reed, Cale, Morrison and Tucker to play "Heroin" as the encore to a brief Songs for Drella set in Jouy-en-Josas, France. Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison also joined John Cale for an encore at his show at New York University on December 5,1992.
The Reed–Cale–Morrison–Tucker lineup officially reunited as "The Velvet Underground" in 1992, commencing activities with a European tour beginning in Edinburgh on June 1, 1993, and featuring a performance at Glastonbury which garnered an NME front cover. Cale sang most of the songs Nico had originally performed. As well as headlining (with Luna as the opening act), the Velvets performed as supporting act for five dates of U2's Zoo TV Tour. With the success of the Velvet Underground's European reunion tour, a series of US tour dates were proposed, as was an MTV Unplugged broadcast, and possibly even some new studio recordings. Before any of this could come to fruition, Cale and Reed fell out again, breaking up the band once more.
On August 30, 1995, Sterling Morrison died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma after returning to his hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York, at age 53. When the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, Reed, Tucker, and Cale reformed the Velvet Underground for the last time. Doug Yule was absent. At the ceremony, the band was inducted by Patti Smith, and the trio performed "Last Night I Said Goodbye to My Friend", written in tribute to Morrison.
In December 2009, to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the band's formation, Reed, Tucker and Yule (with Cale not present) gave a rare interview at the New York Public Library.
The Velvet Underground continues to exist as a New York–based partnership managing the financial and back catalog aspects for the band members. In January 2012, the surviving members of the band initiated legal action against the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts over unauthorised use of the debut album's banana design.
On October 27, 2013, Lou Reed died at his home in Southampton, New York, aged 71. He had undergone a liver transplant earlier in the year. John Cale responded to Reed's passing by saying "The world has lost a fine songwriter and poet…I've lost my 'school-yard buddy'".
The Velvet Underground have been considered among the most influential bands in rock history. Their legacy has stretched into alternative and experimental rock. Their first four albums were included in Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. They were ranked the 19th greatest artist by the same magazine and the 24th greatest artist in a poll by VH1. In 1996 they were inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Temporary members, additional live and studio musicians
- Angus MacLise – sat in on percussion with Tucker switching to bass guitar and Cale and Morrison to lead vocals during a Chicago engagement when Reed was taken ill with hepatitis, June–July 1966.
- Henry Flynt – stand-in for Cale for four live dates during September 1966.
- Nico – collaborator on vocals with the band on four tracks on The Velvet Underground & Nico and several Exploding Plastic Inevitable engagements, 1966–1967. In addition, about half of the tracks on Nico's 1967 debut LP, Chelsea Girl, feature songs written by and/or featuring Reed, Cale and Morrison. Some of these songs are included on compilations like the Peel Slowly and See box set and the Gold 2-CD set.
- Billy Yule – stand-in on drums for a pregnant Tucker on three tracks on Loaded, at the Max's Kansas City 1970 engagement (and on the live album), and the 1973 Boston engagement.
- Tommy Castanaro – stand-in on drums for a pregnant Tucker on two tracks on Loaded.
- Adrian Barber – stand-in on drums for a pregnant Tucker on a number of tracks on Loaded.
- Larry Estridge – tour stand-in (bass guitar) for Walter Powers, June 1971.
- Rob Norris (of the Bongos) – tour member (guitar) for the 1972 UK Squeeze tour.
- George Kay – tour member (bass guitar) for the 1972 UK Squeeze tour and the 1973 Boston engagement.
- Don Silverman – tour member (guitar) for the 1972 UK Squeeze tour.
- Mark Nauseef – tour member (drums) for the 1972 UK Squeeze tour.
- Ian Paice – session musician (drums) for Squeeze (1973).
- The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
- White Light/White Heat (1968)
- The Velvet Underground (1969)
- Loaded (1970)
- Squeeze (1973)
- The Velvet Underground at DMOZ
- The Velvet Underground Web Page
- "Style It Takes" (John Cale on Studio 360 radio program from June 2, 2006); MP3 file; John Cale performing "Style It Takes" (talking about Andy Warhol, the subject of that song).
- "Loop" from Issue 3 of Aspen magazine (December 1966).
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