The Velvet Underground was the most inspirational group of all-time. More so than The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and The Sex Pistols. A bold statement to make, but there you go, I’ve said it!
Imagine stumbling across The Velvet Underground playing in a New York club in 1966 accompanied by an Andy Warhol lightshow and provocative dancers Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgwick. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was like no other art / music collaboration. Art and film collided with a wall of ear-piercing feedback and noise, often ad-hoc, unrehearsed. While The Beatles were singing about love and The Beach Boys were singing about surfin’ and girls, The Velvet Underground sang about the darkest of underground themes – drugs, sado-masochism and death.
The Velvet Underground was made complete by a coming together of separate forces. The non-conformity and space the music created allowed Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison to experiment and bring individual ideas to an uncompromising table, while Mo Tucker kept a constant beat and Lou Reed delivered a poetic New York conversational vocal.
Andy Warhol introduced Nico to the group and together they recorded one of the most inspirational, seminal and classic albums of all-time; possibly the best ever debut album. Commonly known as ‘the banana album’ for its Warhol cover of (originally) a peelable banana, The Velvet Underground & Nico was recorded in 1966 and released in 1967. The album opens with the beautiful and serene pop song, ‘Sunday Morning’ produced by Bob Dylan’s producer, Tom Wilson. The rest of the album, was “produced” by Andy Warhol and takes the listener on a journey through the depths of depravity, the scum and wasters normally hidden in the shadows, drug addiction and sexual deviation. The music is at times soft and welcoming, and at others, the most shocking, absorbing and purposely difficult noise ever recorded.
I was introduced to The Velvet Underground in the late 1970s when they were regularly referenced as a major influence by many contemporary groups of the post-punk movement. But nothing prepared me for the screeching noise of ‘Venus In Furs’, the middle eight feedback in ‘Run Run Run’, and most of all ‘Heroin’ – one of the most important songs ever produced.
Listening to ‘Heroin’ very loud still gives me goose bumps and fills my body with an unexplainable tingling. It takes me on a trip every time. I feel the up and down nature of the rollercoaster rush and calm, rush and calm, eventually exploding in a crescendo of noise and beauty. No other song has this effect on me. Nothing comes close. The energy. The noise. This song is about shooting up heroin and was released in 1967 for fuck sake!
After two great albums, John Cale left The Velvet Underground, and with it went the avant-garde experimentation. The Velvet Underground, to all intent and purpose, became a backing band for Lou Reed. Though I love the latter two studio albums (‘The Velvet Underground’ 1969 and ‘Loaded’ 1970) the songs are soft rock / pop songs devoid of any confrontation, experimental fragments or noise – the three components that make the first two albums (‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ 1967 and ‘White Light White Heat’ 1968) so absorbing, appealing and original.
Lou Reed eventually left The Velvet Underground to pursue a solo career, and in 1972 he was responsible for another classic album. ‘Transformer’ (1972) is one of my favourite albums of all-time and is rich with perfect pop songs like ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, ‘Perfect Day’ ‘Vicious’ and ‘Satellite Of Love’.
It’s true that Lou Reed was a massive influence on thousands of aspiring musicians from the mid-1960s to present day. But that was as part of The Velvet Underground. A couple of weeks ago I had a great conversation with a work colleague. We share a love of The Velvet Underground but both agreed Lou Reed’s solo albums, ‘Transformer’ aside, are best described as poor at best. I was intrigued to hear ‘Metal Machine Music’ (1975) but have no reason to return for a second listen. Other albums such as ‘New York’ (1989) and ‘Songs for Drella (1990) with John Cale, may well be other people’s cup of tea; as are ‘Berlin’ (1973) and ‘Coney Island Baby’ (1975). For this, I believe, possibly controversially at this moment in time, that Lou Reed was much over-rated as an artist. But I thank him for giving me The Velvet Underground and Transformer; and for that I will never forget. Rest in peace Lou.
Originally broadcast in 1986 in the UK, The South Bank Show’s Velvet Underground documentary contains interviews with Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker, Nico, Andy Warhol and lots of early Velvet performance footage.