The Velvet Underground

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The Velvet Underground and Nico in 1966 (from left to right: John Cale, Nico, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker)

The Velvet Underground (abbreviated as The Velvets or V.U.) was an American rock and roll band of the late 1960s.

Although never commercially successful, The Velvet Underground remain one of the most influential bands of their time: a famous remark, often attributed to Brian Eno, is that while only a few thousand people bought a Velvet Underground record, almost every single one of them was inspired to start a band. This is certainly an overstatement, but it does demonstrate their massive influence and cult following that has outlasted the group's five-year existence.

The Velvet Underground were one of the first rock music groups to experiment with the form, and to incorporate avant-garde influences. Credited with establishing a genre known as 'anti-pop', the group's often raw sound would influence many later punk, noise rock, and alternative music performers, and singer Lou Reed's lyrics brought new levels of poetic sophistication and social realism to rock. Critics Scott Isler and Ira Robbins argue that "The Velvet Underground marked a turning point in rock history. After the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico, knowing the power of which it was capable, the music could never be as innocent, as unselfconscious as before." [1] (



Core members

Other members

Early career

The Velvet Underground formed in late 1964. Lou Reed had performed with a few short-lived garage bands and had worked as a songwriter for Pickwick Records, a job Reed described as "a poor man's Carole King".

Reed met John Cale, a Welshman who had moved to the United States to study classical music. Cale had worked with John Cage and LaMonte Young, but was also interested in rock music. (Young's use of extended drones would be a profound influence on the early Velvet's sound). The pair rehearsed and performed together, and their partnership and shared interests steered the early direction of what would become the Velvet Underground.

(Reed's first group with Cale was the short-lived The Primatives, assembled to support a Reed-penned single, "The Ostrich".) [2] (

Reed and Cale recruited Sterling Morrison — who'd already played with Reed a few times — to play guitar, and Angus MacLise joined on percussion. This quartet was first called The Warlocks, then The Falling Spikes.

The Velvet Underground was a book about sadomasochism by Michael Leigh the group found left in the street. Morrison has reported the group liked the name, considering it evocative of "underground cinema," and fitting, due to Reed's already having written "Venus In Furs", inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's book of the same name, also dealing with sadomasochism.

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 beatnik poetry, with MacLise playing gentle "pitter and patter rhythms behind the drone".

In July of 1965, Reed, Cale and Morrison recorded a demo tape. When he briefly returned to England, Cale gave a copy of the tape to Marianne Faithful, hoping she'd pass it on to Mick Jagger. Nothing ever came of the demo, and it was released on the 1995 box set Peel Slowly And See.

When the group accepted an offer of $75 for their first paying performance at a high school, MacLise left the group, protesting what he considered commercialization. "Angus was in it for art", Morrison reported.

MacLise was replaced by Maureen "Mo" Tucker, an acquaintance of Morrison's. Tucker's abbreviated drum kit was rather unusual: She generally played on tom toms and an upturned bass drum, using mallets rather than drumsticks, and she rarely used cymbals. Her driving rhythms (at once simple yet exotic) became an essential part of the group's music. The group earned a regular paying gig at a club, and gained an early reputation as an promising ensemble.

While the American west coast was undergoing the Summer of Love, psychedelia and flower power, the typically east coast Velvets concerned themselves with darker subject matter: transvestites, heroin addiction, and sadomasochism. Also setting them apart from their contemporaries was their use of feedback and amplifier noise in a musical context, exemplified by the seventeen minute track "Sister Ray" from their second album.

Enter Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol became the band's manager in 1965, and suggested they feature the German singer Nico on several songs. Warhol's reputation certainly helped the band gain a higher profile. Though Reed eventually fired Warhol, he praised the integrity of his early efforts with the group. Warhol gave the Velvets uprecedented free reign over the sound they produced.

In 1966, MacLise temporarily rejoined the Velvet Underground for a few weeks when Reed was suffering from hepatitis and unable to perform at a number of scheduled concerts. 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 "The Booker T", after the leader of the musical group Booker T & the MG's; 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.

The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)

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At Warhol's insistence, Nico joined the V.U. on their debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico. The album was recorded in one or two days — there is some disagreement in the band members' memories — and released by MGM Records in March of 1967.

The album cover was famous for its simple, suggestive Warhol design: a bright yellow banana with "Peel Slowly and See" printed near a perforated tab. Those who did remove the banana skin found a pink, phallic, peeled banana beneath. This would later be used as the cover to their boxed set, appropriately titled "Peel Slowly and See," released in 1995.

Eleven songs showcased their stylistic range, veering from the pounding attacks of "I'm Waiting For The Man" and "Run Run Run," the droning "Venus In Furs" and "Heroin" to the quiet "Femme Fatale" and the tender "I'll Be Your Mirror".

The overall sound was propelled by Reed's strong deadpan vocals, Cale's droning or shrieking viola, Morrison's often R&B or country-influenced guitar, and Tucker's hypnotically simple but steady, propulsive beat.

The Velvet Underground and Nico peaked at number 171 on Billboard Magazine's top 200 charts, but the promising debut was muted somewhat by legal complications: The album's back cover featured a still from a Warhol motion picture, Chelsea Girls. The film's cinematographer had been arrested for drug possession, and, desperate for money, claimed the still had been included on the album without his permission. MGM Records pulled all copies of the album until the legal problems were settled.

White Light/White Heat (1968)

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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 were one of the first groups to receive an endorsement from Vox Guitars. The company pioneered a number of special effects, which the Velevet Underground utilized on White Light/White Heat.

Reed fired Warhol as manager, and Nico was jettisoned, partly due to her unreliability. In September, 1967, the VU recorded what would become their second album, White Light/White Heat. It was released January, 1968.

The recording was raw and oversaturated, one of the harshest, loudest records yet released. Cale has stated that while the debut had some moments of fragility and beauty, White Light/White Heat was "consciously anti-beauty". Isler and Robbins suggest that the record "is almost unbearably intense."

The title track and first song starts things off with Cale pounding on piano like a demented Jerry Lee Lewis. The eerie, hallucinatory "Lady Godiva's Operation" remains Reed's favorite track on the album.

Despite the dominance of noisefests like "Sister Ray", (covered by Joy Division) and the title track (later covered by David Bowie), and "I Heard Her Call My Name", there was room for the darkly comic "The Gift", a Reed-penned short story narrated in Cale's deadpan Welsh accent. The meditative "Here She Comes Now" was later covered by Galaxie 500 and Nirvana.

The second album cover was a subtle black on black picture of the tattoo of one of Warhol's "Factory" members. White Light/White Heat entered the Billboard top 200 chart for exactly one week, at number 199.

Tensions were growing: the group was tired of receiving little recognition for their hard work, and Reed and Cale were pulling the Velvet Underground in different directions.

The Velvet Underground (1969)

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Before the release of their third album, Reed fired Cale, and replaced him with Doug Yule. The Velvet Underground was recorded in late 1968, and released in March of 1969.

It's often been reported that the early edition of the Velvet Underground was a struggle between Reed and Cale's creative impules: Reed's rather conventional approach contrasted with Cale's experimentalist tendencies. The Velvet Underground would seem to prove the truth of these claims, as the harsh, abraisive tendencies on the first two records were almost entirely absent.

This resulted in a gentler sound influenced by folk music, prescient of the songwriting style that would inform Reed's solo career post-V.U. Morrison's ringing guitar parts and Yule's melodic bass guitar and harmony vocals are featured prominently.

Reed's songs and singing are subdued and confessional. The album's influence can be heard in many later indie rock and lo-fi recordings. The album also features Maureen Tucker's only featured vocal performance on "After Hours", a song that Reed said was so innocent and pure he couldn't possibly sing it himself.

The fourth album (unreleased)

The Velvet Underground recorded a lot of material that was never officially released due to disputes with their record label. What many consider the prime of these sessions were released many years later as VU. This album had a transitional sound between the whisper-soft third album and the pop-rock anthems of their final record, Loaded. John Cale rejoined, briefly, for a few of these recording sessions.

The rest of the recordings, as well as some alternate 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", "Coney Island Baby"). Indeed, most of Reed's early solo career's more successful hits were reworked old Velvet Underground tracks, released for the first time in their original version on VU, Another View, and later on Peel Slowly and See and The Quine Tapes.

Loaded (1970)

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In 1969, MGM Records president Mike Curb wanted to purge any drug- or hippie-related bands from MGM, and the V.U. were on his list, along with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention.

Atlantic Records signed the Velvet Underground for what would be their final studio album, Loaded. 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 Atlantic had anticipated, it contains the most accessible pop the V.U. had performed, and several of Reed's best-known songs, including "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll".

Loaded was edited without Reed's approval. He was particularly bitter about the truncation of a verse from "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. (Years later, the album would be reissued as Reed had originally intended.)

Though Tucker had retired from the group due to her pregnancy, she received a performance credit on Loaded. Drums were actually played by several people, including Yule, engineer Adrian Barber, sessioneer Tommy Castanaro, and Doug Yule's brother Billy.

Disillusioned with the lack of progress the band was making and feeling pressured by manager Sesnick, Reed decided to quit the band and did so in August 1970, just prior to the release of Loaded.

1970 onwards

Although Loaded's spin-off single "Who Loves the Sun" did nothing, the album itself is something of a muted triumph. "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll" became U.S. radio favourites, and the band, featuring Walter Powers III on bass, and Doug Yule promoted to lead vocals and guitar, went on the road once more, playing the East Coast of the U.S. and Europe. By that time, however, Sterling Morrison had obtained a B.A. in English, and left the group for an academic career with 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..

When Atlantic decided to release a live recording from 1970, Live at Max's Kansas City instead of letting the current band record a new album, its members drifted apart, leaving Yule and manager Steven Sesnick alone with the brand name. Sesnick managed to secure a recording contract with Polydor and so Yule recorded Squeeze under the Velvet Underground name with Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice and some unknown session players. While certainly not up to the standard established on the previous Velvet Underground album, Squeeze is a respectable, if not especially noteworthy effort.

Lou Reed and John Cale, in the meantime, developed solo careers. Sterling Morrison was a university professor for some time, then became a tugboat captain. Maureen Tucker raised a family before returning to small-scale gigging and recording in the 1980s; Morrison was in her touring band. In 1988, Nico died of a brain hemorrhage on the island of Ibiza.


In 1990, Reed and Cale released Songs for Drella, dedicated to the recently deceased Warhol. Though Morrison and Tucker had each worked with Reed or 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.

There was a brief reunion of the original lineup in 1993, resulting in a European tour — opening a few concerts for U2 — and a live album, Live MCMXCIII. Cale sang the songs Nico had performed with the group.

Before the band could tour the U.S. or record — an MTV Unplugged album was proposed — Cale and Reed fell out again, breaking up the band once more. It proved to be the definitive end to the band's checkered career when Sterling Morrison died of cancer in 1995.



  • "All Tomorrow's Parties" / "I'll Be Your Mirror" (recorded and released 1966)
  • "Sunday Morning" / "Femme Fatale" (recorded and released 1966)
  • "White Light/White Heat" / "Here She Comes Now" (recorded 1967, released 1968)
  • "What Goes On" / "Jesus" (promo, recorded 1968, released 1969)
  • "Who Loves the Sun" / "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" (recorded 1970, released 1971)
  • "Foggy Notion" / "I Can't Stand It" (promo, recorded 1969, released 1985)
  • "Venus in Furs" / "I'm Waiting for the Man" (live, recorded 1993, released 1994)

Original albums

Later releases of archive material


External links

Template:The Velvet Undergroundde:Velvet Underground es:The Velvet Underground fr:The Velvet Underground it:Velvet Underground nl:The Velvet Underground ja:ヴェルヴェット・アンダーグラウンド pl:The Velvet Underground pt:The Velvet Underground sv:The Velvet Underground


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