If there was one band that could be considered the creators of punk music, the Velvet Underground could probably take that title. The band was ahead of their time and now over four decades after their formation, they are more popular then they were before.
Lou Reed was born on March 2, 1942 in New York. Growing up, Reed got hooked on rock n roll, R&B and doo wop. However in his teen years, Reed’s parents were afraid of him. They were under the belief he was gay. As a result, Reed’s parents had their son recieve shock therapy thinking it would cure him from being a homosexual. By 1965, Reed had formed his own band. Reed met Welsh multi-instrumentalist John Cale and guitarist Sterling Morrison. Completing the line-up with drummer Angus MacLise, the Velvet Underground was formed. The band got their name from a novel of the same name. The band managed to record a demo tape but it did nothing. Before the band played their first gig at the Summit High School in New Jersey, MacLise left the band as he wasn’t interested. His replacement was drummer Maureen “Mo” Tucker. Tucker had some experience in playing the drums but not enough to be considered a professional then. The band suggested she do something unusual. She started playing the drums standing up, which became her trademark.
In 1966, renowned artist Andy Warhol discovered the Velvet Underground and quickly became their manager. Warhol insisted they have a female German singer named Nico join the band. The band vetoed the idea of Nico being the band’s lead singer but nevertheless, Nico became a member of the band. Warhol also had the band play at his multimedia roadshow The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The band was signed to MGM’s Verve Records label and in April began recording material for what would become their first album. All of the songs for the debut album were written by Lou Reed, which makes the band’s debut album as one of the few bands to have a debut album consist entirely of original material. Songs such as “I’m Waiting For The Man” and “Heroin” were both grim looks on the world of drugs while “Venus In Furs” explored into S&M. Nico, who had an affair with Reed during this time, sang three of the eleven songs. Those songs included “Femme Fatale”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”.
When the album was finished, the band had a hard time getting it released. The album was supposed to be released in 1966 but due to its content, Verve didn’t know what to do. On March 12, 1967 The Velvet Underground & Nico was released. The cover for the album was made by Andy Warhol himself. The cover only showed a picture of a banana (which was a sticker). Next to the banana was this statement: “Peel slowly and see”. If one peeled the sticker off, a unpeeled pink banana was seen. Still, the album went to #171 on Billboard magazine’s Top 200 charts. The album was seen as a flop then but today, the album frequently appears on lists made about the best albums made.
By the fall of 1967, Nico left the band has she wished to continue her working relationship with Warhol. Warhol started shopping Nico around as a solo artist. Meanwhile, the Velvet Underground went to work on their second album with Tom Wilson producing. The album, White Light/White Heat, was released in early 1968. Compared to the debut album, White Light/White Heat was much louder and loose. The album contained only six songs. There was the proto-punk sound of the self-titled track and “I Heard Her Call My Name”. The album also contained the bizarre short story called “The Gift”, in which John Cale is reading the story (written by Lou Reed) about Waldo Jefferson who decides to mail himself to his girlfriend as he can’t afford going any other way. The album’s closer, “Sister Ray”, is a loud and blistering seventeen minute track about drugs, homosexuality, and transvestism. Like the debut album, White Light/White Heat did nothing. It stayed on the Billboard Top 200 for two weeks, peaking at #199.
Later in 1968, tensions rose in the band. Specifically, there was friction between Lou Reed and John Cale. Both Reed and Cale had different opinions in what direction the band should take in their career. Sooner or later, Cale was fired by Reed. Cale was replaced by Doug Yule. The band soon went to work on their third album, The Velvet Underground, which was released in 1969. The album failed to make the Billboard charts. Compared to the loudness of the first two albums, the third album is more melodic and mellow. There are upbeat songs such as “What Goes On”, “Some Kinda Love”, and “I’m Beginning to See the Light” but there are also dark acoustic songs including “Candy Says”, “Pale Blue Eyes”, “The Murder Mystery”, and “After Hours”. The latter was sung by a shy Maureen Tucker. The band spent the year on the road performing live. The 1974 album, 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, documents this tour. The band also spent time in the studio working on a fourth album. However due to problems with their record label, the fourth album remained shelved. Later in 1985 and 1986, two albums worth of unreleased material was released. The albums, VU and Another View, give outtakes and complete takes on what the “Lost Album” would’ve been like. Some more material can be found on the 1995 box set Peel Slowly and See. Tracking lists and even a serial number can be found on the Internet and in books.
By 1970, Verve Records was loosing money and needed help. With the help of a new president, Verve dropped all “drug and hippie” acts from the label. The Velvet Underground was one of those bands. Atlantic Records signed the band before they started recording their next album. However, Atlantic asked the band to make an album “loaded with hits”. So the album’s content was aimed to be more radio-friendly. At this time, Maureen Tucker was pregnant. Doug Yule’s brother, Billy, filled-in as drummer. On August 23, 1970 the band played a gig at New York nightclub Max’s Kanas City. This show was later released as an album in 1972, thanks to an audience member who recorded it. After the gig ended, Lou Reed disappeared. Reed announced later he was leaving the band. By late 1970, Loaded was released. The album title was Reed’s idea; in reference at what Atlantic told the band to load the album with hits. Songs such as “Sweet Jane” and “Rock And Roll” became radio favorites. Doug Yule decided to lead the band and hired Walter Powers as bassist. By this time, Maureen Tucker had rejoined. However a year later, Sterling Morrison left as he planned to go to the University of Texas in Austin to earn a Ph.D. in Medieval literature.
Morrison was replaced by keyboardist Willie Alexander. This version of the Velvet Underground toured in England and elsewhere for a short time. In 1972, the band’s longtime manager Steve Sesnick (supposedly) sent Tucker, Powers, and Alexander back to the US while Yule remained the only member left. The band was now signed to Polydor Records. With the help of Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice and other session musicians, Squeeze was released in 1973 under the Velvet Underground name. The album flopped. Yule hired another batch of musicians to tour with but after a tour in 1973, the Velvet Underground was over.
Although the Velvet Underground were done by the 1970’s, former members were able to find success. Lou Reed released a self-titled album in 1971, which did nothing. David Bowie, an avid Velvet fan, came to the rescue and offered to produce Reed’s second album. That album, Transformer, made Reed a star in 1972. He also scored an unexpected hit with “Walk on the Wild Side”. Reed followed it up with a concept album called Berlin in 1973. Berlin was considered a failure but today, people think it’s one of Reed’s best. Reed would continue to make albums and tour. John Cale also started a solo career. He also became a producer and produced the debut albums for the Stooges and Patti Smith. Reed, Cale, and Nico played two shows in London and Paris in 1972, which were later released in 2003. Maureen Tucker was able to release a few albums in the 1980’s as well. Nico continued with her career but was unheard of by the mid-1970’s. She died from a brain hemorrhage on July 18, 1988 after she fell off her bicycle.
Reed and Cale reunited once again when they released Songs for Drella in 1990. The album was a tribute to Andy Warhol, who had died not to long ago at that point. In 1992 Reed, Cale, Morrison, and Tucker reunited as the Velvet Underground. They did a European tour in 1993 and later released a live album and video of the tour. A US tour and an episode on MTV Unplugged were proposed but were shot down when Reed and Cale had yet another falling out. On August 30, 1995 Sterling Morrison passed away from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In 1996, the Velvet Underground were inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. Reed, Cale, and Tucker performed “Last Night I Said Goodbye to My Friend”. The song was a tribute to Morrison. More recently in December 2009 Reed, Tucker, and Doug Yule reunited at the New York Public Library to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the band’s formation and the released of a new book.
Note: Original drummer Angus MacLise passed away in 1979.
Recommended albums: All of them except Squeeze
Personal thoughts on albums: This is a band who only had four album released. All of them are great. I would get them in the order they were released (The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground, and Loaded). Squeeze has never been released on CD, nor do I think it ever will be. I don’t own it but the curious part of me wants to hear it. As for the VU and Another View albums, I’ve always been meaning to get them. I think those would be for people who didn’t get enough out of those four albums. I think I’d be one of them!
Recommended songs: I’m Waiting for the Man, Venus In Furs, Heroin, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Femme Fatale, Sunday Morning, I’ll Be Your Mirror, White Light/White Heat, The Gift, I Heard Her Call My Name, Sister Ray, What Goes On, Some Kinda Love, Pale Blue Eyes, Jesus, The Murder Mystery, After Hours, Sweet Jane, Rock And Roll
Recommended compilations: The band doesn’t have too many of these out. Peel Slowly and See is a box set that gives you everything, except The Velvet Underground album is the infamous “closet mix” that Lou Reed made. Playlist Plus isn’t bad nor is Gold.