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The Velvet Underground

Few rock groups can claim to have broken so much new territory, and maintain such consistent brilliance on record, astheVelvet Underground during their brief lifespan. It was the group's lot to be ahead of, or at least out of step with, theirtime.The mid- to late '60s was an era of explosive growth and experimentation in rock, but the Velvets' innovations --whichblended the energy of rock with the sonic adventurism of the avant-garde, and introduced a new degree of socialrealism andsexual kinkiness into rock lyrics -- were too abrasive for the mainstream to handle. During their time, the group more

Few rock groups can claim to have broken so much new territory, and maintain such consistent brilliance on record, astheVelvet Underground during their brief lifespan. It was the group's lot to be ahead of, or at least out of step with, theirtime.The mid- to late '60s was an era of explosive growth and experimentation in rock, but the Velvets' innovations --whichblended the energy of rock with the sonic adventurism of the avant-garde, and introduced a new degree of socialrealism andsexual kinkiness into rock lyrics -- were too abrasive for the mainstream to handle. During their time, the groupexperiencedlittle commercial success; though they were hugely appreciated by a cult audience and some critics, the largerpublic treatedthem with indifference or, occasionally, scorn. the Velvets' music was too important to languish in obscurity,though; theircult only grew larger and larger in the years following their demise, and continued to mushroom through theyears. By the1980s, they were acknowledged not just as one of the most important rock bands of the '60s, but one of thebest of all time,and one whose immense significance cannot be measured by their relatively modest sales.Historians often hailthe group for their incalculable influence upon the punk and new wave of subsequent years, and whilethe Velvets wereundoubtedly a key touchstone of the movements, to focus upon these elements of their vision is to onlyget part of the story.The group was uncompromising in their music and lyrics, to be sure, sometimes espousing a bleaknessand primitivism thatwould inspire alienated singers and songwriters of future generations. But their colorful and oft-grimsoundscapes were firmlygrounded in strong, well-constructed songs that could be as humanistic and compassionate as theywere outrageous andconfrontational. The member most responsible for these qualities was guitarist, singer, and songwriterLou Reed, whose sing-speak vocals and gripping narratives have come to define street-savvy rock & roll.Reed loved rock & roll from an early age,and even recorded a doo-wop type single as a Long Island teenager in the late '50s(as a member of the Shades). By theearly '60s, he was also getting into avant-garde jazz and serious poetry, coming underthe influence of author DelmoreSchwartz while studying at Syracuse University. After graduation, he set his sightsconsiderably lower, churning out tunes forexploitation rock albums as a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records in New YorkCity. Reed did learn some useful things aboutproduction at Pickwick, and it was while working there that he met John Cale, aclassically-trained Welshman who had movedto America to study and perform "serious" music. Cale, who had performed withJohn Cage and LaMonte Young, found himselfincreasingly attracted to rock & roll; Reed, for his part, was interested in theavant-garde as well as pop. Reed and Cale wereboth interested in fusing the avant-garde with rock & roll, and had found theideal partners for making the vision (a veryradical one for the mid-'60s) work; their synergy would be the crucial axis of theVelvet Underground's early work.Reed andCale (who would play bass, viola, and organ) would need to assemble a full band, making tentative steps along thisdirectionby performing together in the Primitives (which also included experimental filmmaker Tony Conrad and avant-gardesculptorWalter DeMaria) to promote a bizarre Reed-penned Pickwick single ("The Ostrich"). By 1965, the group was a quartetcalledthe Velvet Underground, including Reed, Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison (an old friend of Reed's), and drummer AngusMacLise.MacLise quit before the band's first paying gig, claiming that accepting money for art was a sellout; the Velvetsquicklyrecruited drummer Maureen Tucker, a sister of one of Morrison's friends.Even at this point, the Velvets were well on their wayto developing something quite different. Their original material,principally penned and sung by Reed, dealt with the hard urbanrealities of Manhattan, describing drug use, sadomasochism,and decadence in cool, unapologetic detail in "Heroin," "I'mWaiting for the Man," "Venus in Furs," and "All Tomorrow's Parties."These were wedded to basic, hard-nosed rock riffs,toughened by Tucker's metronome beats; the oddly tuned, rumblingguitars; and Cale's occasional viola scrapes. It was anuncommercial blend to say the least, but the Velvets got anunexpected benefactor when artist and all-around pop-art iconAndy Warhol caught the band at a club around the end of1965. Warhol quickly assumed management of the group,incorporating them into his mixed-media/performance art ensemble,the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. By spring 1966, Warholwas producing their debut album.

Warhol was also responsible for embellishing the quartet with Nico, a mysterious European model/chanteuse with a deepvoicewhom the band accepted rather reluctantly, viewing her spectral presence as rather ornamental. Reed remained theprincipallead vocalist, but Nico did sing three of the best songs on the group's debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, oftenknown as"the banana album" because of its distinctive Warhol-designed cover. Recognized today as one of the core classicalbums ofrock, it featured an extraordinarily strong set of songs, highlighted by "Heroin," "All Tomorrow's Parties," "Venus inFurs," "I'llBe Your Mirror," "Femme Fatale," "Black Angel's Death Song," and "Sunday Morning." The sensational drug-and-sexitems(especially "Heroin") got most of the ink, but the more conventional numbers showed Reed to be a songwriter capableofconsiderable melodicism, sensitivity, and almost naked introspection.The album's release was not without complications,though. First, it wasn't issued until nearly a year after it was finished,due to record-company politics and other factors. Thegroup's association with Warhol and the Exploding Plastic Inevitablehad already assured them of a high (if notorious media)profile, but the music was simply too daring to fit onto commercialradio; "underground" rock radio was barely getting startedat this point, and in any case may well have overlooked the recordat a time when psychedelic music was approaching itspeak. The album only reached number 171 in the charts, and that's ashigh as any of their LPs would get upon original release.Those who heard it, however, were often mightily impressed; BrianEno once said that even though hardly anyone bought theVelvets records at the time they appeared, almost everyone whodid formed their own bands.

A cult reputation wasn't enough to guarantee a stable livelihood for a band in the '60s, and by 1967 the Velvets werefightingproblems within their own ranks. Nico, never considered an essential member by the rest of the band, left or wasfiredsometime during the year, going on to a fascinating career of her own. The association with Warhol weakened, as theartistwas unable to devote as much attention to the band as he had the previous year. Embittered by the lukewarmreception oftheir album in their native New York, the Velvets concentrated on touring cities throughout the rest of thecountry. Amidstthis tense atmosphere, the second album, White Light/White Heat, was recorded in late 1967.Each of thealbums the group released while Reed led the band was an unexpected departure from all of their other LPs.White Light/WhiteHeat was probably the most radical, focusing almost exclusively on their noisiest arrangements, over-amped guitars, and mostwillfully abrasive songs. The 17-minute "Sister Ray" was their most extreme (and successful) effortin this vein. Unsurprisingly,the album failed to catch on commercially, topping out at number 199.By the summer of 1968, the band had a much graverproblem on its hands than commercial success (or the lack of it). A riftdeveloped between Reed and Cale, the most creativeforces in the band and, as one could expect, two temperamental egos.Reed presented the rest of the band with anultimatum, declaring that he would leave the group unless Cale was sacked.Morrison and Tucker reluctantly sided with Lou,and Doug Yule was recruited to take Cale's place.

The group's third album, 1969's The Velvet Underground, was an even more radical left turn than White Light/White Heat.Thevolume and violence had nearly vanished; the record featured far more conventional rock arrangements that weresometimesso restrained it seems as though they were making an almost deliberate attempt to avoid waking the neighbors.Yet thesound was nonetheless effective for that; the record contains some of Reed's most personal and strikingcompositions,numbers like "Pale Blue Eyes" and "Candy Says" ranking among his most romantic, although cuts like "What GoesOn" provedthey could still rock out convincingly (though in a less experimental fashion than they had with Cale). Theapproach may haveconfused listeners and critics, but by this time their label (MGM/Verve) was putting little promotionalresources behind theband anyway.

Even in the absence of Cale, the Velvets were still capable of generating compelling heat on-stage, as 1969:VelvetUnderground Live (not released until the mid-'70s) confirms. MGM was by now in the midst of an infamous "purge" ofitssupposedly drug-related rock acts, and the Velvets were setting their sights elsewhere. Nevertheless, they recordedaboutan album's worth of additional material for the label after the third LP, although it remains unclear whether this wasintendedfor a fourth album or not. Many of the songs, though, were excellent, serving as a bridge between The VelvetUndergroundand 1970's Loaded; a lot of it was officially released in the 1980s and 1990s.

The beginning of the 1970s seemed to herald considerable promise for the group, as they signed to Atlantic, but at thispointthe personnel problems that had always dogged them finally became overwhelming. Tucker had to sit out Loaded duetopregnancy, replaced by Yule's brother Billy. Doug Yule, according to some accounts, began angling for more power intheband. Unexpectedly, after a lengthy residency at New York's famous Max's Kansas City club, Reed quit the band near theendof the summer of 1970, moving back to his parents' Long Island home for several months before beginning his solo career,justbefore the release of Loaded, his final studio album with the Velvets.

Loaded was by far the group's most conventional rock album, and the most accessible one for mainstream listeners. "RockandRoll" and "Sweet Jane" in particular were two of Reed's most anthemic, jubilant tunes, and ones that became rockstandards inthe '70s. But the group's power was somewhat diluted by the absence of Tucker, and by the decision to haveDoug Yulehandle some of the lead vocals. Due to Reed's departure, though, the group couldn't capitalize on any momentumit mighthave generated. Unwisely, the band decided to continue, though Morrison and Tucker left shortly afterward. Thatleft DougYule at the helm of an act that was the Velvet Underground in name only, and the 1973 album that was billed tothe group(Squeeze) is best forgotten, and not considered as a true Velvets release.With Reed, Cale, and Nico establishing importantsolo careers of their own, and such important figures as David Bowie, BrianEno, and Patti Smith making no bones about theirdebts to the band, the Velvet Underground simply became more and morepopular as the years passed. In the 1980s, theoriginal albums were reissued, along with a couple of important collections ofouttakes. Hoping to rewrite the rules one lasttime, Reed, Cale, Morrison, and Tucker attempted to defy the odds againstsuccessful rock reunions by re-forming in the early'90s (Nico had died in 1988). A European tour, and a live album, wascompleted in 1993 to mixed reviews; before a plannedAmerican jaunt could start, Reed and Cale (who have feudedconstantly over the past few decades) fell out yet again,bringing the reunion to a sad close. Sterling Morrison's death fromillness in 1995 seems to have permanently iced anyprospect of more projects under the Velvet Underground name, althougha few of the surviving members played togetherwhen they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. By that time,an impressive five-CD box set (containing all fourof the studio albums issued when Reed was in the band, as well as a lot ofother material) was available to enshrine thegroup's legacy for the ages. « hide

Similar Bands: David Bowie, The Stooges, Lou Reed, John Cale, The Rolling Stones


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