"They said, 'One more song like that and you're fired'. So we played one more song like that. Sure enough, they fired us." Lou reminisces about the band's early performances.
"There's a bit of magic in everything. And then some loss to even things out."
Formed in New York during the 'flower power' era, the Velvet Underground was a subversive, avant-garde rock group. Their name came from a pornographic paperback. The founders were Lou Reed, a classically trained trumpet player, and John Cale, a Welsh child prodigy who had secured a US scholarship to study classical music. While together, the band failed to achieve commercial success, never to be accorded the recognition their pioneering work warranted. Acknowledged as a precursor nowadays, the Velvet Underground is one of the most influential bands in rock music history.
Though unable to translate ideas into musical terms, media idol/artist Andy Warhol promoted and managed the Velvet Underground. It was the house band at his studio, The Factory. Onstage with bullwhips, hypodermic needles, flashlights, dancers, barbells and wooden crosses, the Velvets entered uncharted territory, playing loud, discordant and crazy music at Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable events. The provocative lyrics of the songs gave a pervasive, nihilistic outlook to the music, spotlighting death, desperation, drugs and perversity.
At Warhol's insistence, Nico was drafted in to sing on three tracks for their debut album in 1967. In June of the 'Summer of Love' the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper. Nico was born in Budapest and privately educated in Germany. All she really wanted was a backing band so she could sing all the songs. Lou Reed and Nico often didn't get on, but Lou composed some of his best '60s works for her.
'Nico had two voices - one was full-register and Germanic; the other wispy.' Paul Morrissey, film-maker, then The Factory's sound-and-light worker.
'If there exists beauty so universal as to be unquestionable, Nico possesses it. The face is perfect - Nico arrests, startles, seizes.' Gerald Malanga, writing in the magazine Status & Diplomat in 1967.
Brian Eno claimed that "while The Velvet Underground & Nico album may have sold only 30,000 copies up until 1973, everyone who bought a copy started a band". In 2003 the LP was named the 13th Greatest Album of All Time and the "most prophetic rock album ever made" by Rolling Stone magazine, who ranked the band #19 on its list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time". The famous LP cover was designed by Warhol and featured a yellow banana sticker with "Peel slowly and see" printed near the tip. Removing the banana skin revealed a pink, peeled banana.
The 11 songs showcased on the LP ranged through the 'I’m Waiting for the Man’ and ‘Heroin’; ‘Venus in Furs' - a S&M, demonic screech; the chiming ‘Sunday Morning’ to the quiet ‘Femme Fatale’ and the tender ‘I’ll be your Mirror’. Warhol's (and my own) favourite, the haunting ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, was described by Kurt Loder as a "gothic-rock masterpiece".
'We were much better live than on records: we never played a song the same way twice. Lou changed lyrics all the time. He can spontaneously generate lyrics onstage like the old blues singers. Lou can go on forever rhyming.' Sterling Morrison.
The pulsating sound was driven by Beatle-cropped, androgynous Mo Tucker's drumbeat (delivered standing up), Morrison's rhythm-and-blues/country-influenced guitar and Cale's superb bass and viola work. His bass playing was described as 'three-dimensional granite slabs' by Wayne McGuire in Crawdaddy. Other distinct features of the music included the eighth-note rhythm style used by Reed, who used alternative guitar tuning to create a droning sound, and the literate, half-spoken lyrics - Reed and Nico's deadpan vocals over the dark, clashing sound.
Nico left the band after the debut LP. Cale, Reed, Ramblin' Jack Elliot and teenager Jackson Browne took turns backing on guitar at her solo gigs. Reed and Cale played on (and contributed songs to) her solo album Chelsea Girls. The Velvets continued without her.
Still strong egos clashed. White Light/White Heat was released in January 1968. John Cale described the second album as 'like hanging by your fingertips'. Recorded over two weeks, it contained the classic 'Sister Ray'. Touring was successful; the band's playing was excellent.
John Cale left the band in September 1968. The 'anti-production' LP The Velvet Underground hit the racks in 1969 with Doug Yule on bass. One track, 'Pale Blue Eyes', is 'perfection in pop' according to U2's Bono. Loaded followed in 1970, with the dynamic 'Sweet Jane'. Even before Loaded's release, the band had disintegrated, although a final studio offering, Squeeze, appeared in 1971. As well as a compilation Andy Warhol's Velvet Underground, two live albums were issued - the excellent double set]1969 Velvet Underground Live and Live at Max's Kansas City. Live at Max's was the band's last recorded performance. Captured on a Sony TC120 cassette recorder, it became the first bootleg to be officially released by a major record label.
The Velvets had little time for their contemporaries. Disparaging, barbed attacks were aimed at Frank Zappa and Jefferson Airplane. Cale and Reed pursued varied, solo careers. Reed’s Transformer in 1972 is considered seminal. The album spilled forth decadence and twilight zone characters, even spawning hit singles, notably 'Walk on the Wild Side' and 'Perfect Day'.
'Perfect Day is about an addict walking through the park in the warm sun, completely separate from the problems that brought him his addiction. New York City was to Lou Reed what Dublin was to James Joyce, the complete universe of his writing. He didn't need to stray out of it for material; there was more than enough there for his love and hate songs. Lou was thoughtful, meditative and extremely disciplined.' Bono, writing in Rolling Stone magazine's tribute to Lou.
Futher reading, credits & research
'Mourning Lou Reed' by Patti Smith. In 1996 fittingly Patti inducted the Velvet Underground into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Wife Laurie Anderson's Farewell to Lou in Rolling Stone. Even their dog played piano.
On July 18th 1988, Nico died of a cerebral haemorrhage following a bicycling accident on Ibiza, whilst on holiday with her son (by Alain Delon) Ari, pictured in the photo above (© Stephen Stone). It was taken during rehearsals at the Factory in 1966.
On August 30th 1995, Sterling Morrison died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 53.
On October 27th, after the return of hepatitis and a liver transplant earlier this year, Lou Reed died at his home in Southampton, New York, aged 71.
Neil Gaiman on Lou Reed. 'His songs were the soundtrack to my life.'
"I'm stunned by what people still think of us," says Mo Tucker. "Lou was grumpy and didn't suffer fools gladly. That's just the way he was, but he was also incredibly encouraging and generous."