Guitarist, singer and songwriter Lou Reed, whose sing-speak vocals and gripping narratives have come to define street-savvy rock & roll, loved rock & roll from an early age and even recorded a doo-wop single as a Long Island teenager in the late 1950s as a member of The Shades.
By the early 60s, he was also getting into avant-garde jazz and serious poetry, coming under the influence of author Delmore Schwartz while studying at Syracuse University.
After graduation, he set his sights considerably lower, churning out tunes for exploitation rock albums as a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records in New York City.
Reed did learn some useful things about production at Pickwick, and it was while working there that he met John Cale, a classically-trained Welshman who had moved to America to study and perform “serious” music.
Reed and Cale were both interested in fusing the avant-garde with rock & roll and found in each other the ideal partner for making the vision (a very radical one for the mid-60s) work.
Their synergy would be the crucial axis of the Velvet Underground’s early work.
By 1965, the group was a quartet including Reed, Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison (an old friend of Reed’s), and drummer Angus MacLise. MacLise quit before the band’s first gig, claiming that accepting money for art was a sell-out. The band quickly recruited drummer Moe (Maureen) Tucker, a sister of one of Morrison’s friends.
Their original material, principally penned and sung by Reed, dealt with the hard urban realities of Manhattan, describing drug use, sadomasochism, and decadence in cool, unapologetic detail in Heroin, I’m Waiting 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, rumbling guitars, and Cale’s occasional viola scrapes.
It was an uncommercial blend to say the least, but the Velvets got an unexpected benefactor when artist and all-around pop art icon Andy Warhol caught the band at a club around the end of 1965. Warhol quickly assumed management of the group, incorporating them into his mixed-media/performance art ensemble, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
Their early gigs were played out while Warhol films were projected and his performance artists danced – and early fans were few and far between; Cher said “it will replace nothing but suicide” after witnessing them for the first time at a Los Angeles gig.
Despite influencing everyone from David Bowie to The Strokes, it always seemed apt that the Velvets’ debut gig was at a psychiatrists’ convention, where they produced “a short-lived torture of cacophony”.
By spring 1966, Warhol was producing their debut album. Warhol was also responsible for embellishing the quartet with Nico (real name Christa Päffgen), a mysterious German-born model/chanteuse with a deep voice whom the band accepted rather reluctantly, viewing her spectral presence as rather ornamental.
Reed remained the principal lead vocalist, but Nico did sing three of the best songs on the group’s debut, often known as “the banana album” because of its distinctive Warhol-designed cover.
Recognised today as one of the core classic albums of rock, it featured an extraordinarily strong set of songs, highlighted by Heroin, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Venus in Furs, I’ll Be Your Mirror, Femme Fatale, Black Angel’s Death Song and Sunday Morning.
The sensational drug-and-sex items (especially Heroin) got most of the media attention, but the more conventional numbers showed Reed to be a songwriter capable of considerable 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. The group’s association with Warhol and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable had already assured them of a high (if notorious media) profile, but the music was simply too daring to fit onto commercial radio, and “underground” rock radio was barely getting started at this point.
The album only reached #171 in the charts – as high as any of their LPs would get upon original release.
Those who heard it, however, were usually mightily impressed. Brian Eno once said that even though hardly anyone bought the Velvets records at the time they appeared, almost everyone who did formed their own bands.
A cult reputation wasn’t enough to guarantee a stable livelihood for a band in the 60s though, and by 1967 the Velvets were fighting problems within their own ranks, and Nico left the band to pursue a solo career, notably with the albums Chelsea Girl (1967), The Marble Index (1969) and Desertshore (1971).
Embittered by the lukewarm reception of their album in their native New York, the Velvets concentrated on touring cities throughout the rest of the US. Amidst this tense atmosphere, the second album, White Light/White Heat, was recorded in late 1967.
White Light/White Heat was probably the most radical, focusing almost exclusively on their noisiest arrangements, overamped guitars, and most wilfully abrasive songs. The 17-minute Sister Ray was their most extreme (and successful) effort in this vein. Unsurprisingly, the album failed to catch on commercially, topping out at #199.
By the summer of 1968, the band had a much graver problem on its hands than commercial success (or the lack of it). A rift developed between Reed and Cale, the most creative forces in the band and, as one could expect, two temperamental egos.
Reed presented the rest of the band with an ultimatum, 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 self-titled third album (1969) was an even more radical left turn than White Light/White Heat. The volume and violence had nearly vanished, and the record featured far more conventional rock arrangements that were sometimes extremely restrained.
Yet the record contains some of Reed’s most personal and striking compositions, numbers like Pale Blue Eyes and Candy Says ranking among his most romantic, although cuts like What Goes On proved they could still rock out convincingly, though in a less experimental fashion than they had with Cale.
The approach may have confused listeners and critics, but by this time their label (MGM/Verve) was putting little promotional resources behind the band anyway.
Even in the absence of Cale, the Velvets were still capable of generating compelling heat onstage, as Live 1969 (not released until the mid-70s) confirms. MGM was by now in the midst of an infamous “purge” of its supposedly drug-related rock acts, and the Velvets were setting their sights elsewhere.
Nevertheless, they recorded an album’s worth of additional material for the label after the third LP, although it remains unclear whether this was intended for a fourth album or not. Many of the songs, though, were excellent, serving as a bridge between The Velvet Underground and 1970s Loaded – a lot of it was subsequently 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 this point the personnel problems that had always dogged them finally became overwhelming. A now-pregnant Tucker was replaced in 1970 by Doug Yule’s brother, Billy.
Lou Reed left the same year, just before the critically acclaimed Loaded album was released. Reed subsequently mythologised urban decadence in his classic Walk On The Wild Side, and maintained a depressing depravity in the face of escalating commercial success.
Loaded was by far the group’s most conventional rock album and the most accessible one for mainstream listeners. Rock and Roll and Sweet Jane, in particular, were two of Reed’s most anthemic, jubilant tunes, and ones that became rock standards in the 70s. Due to Reed’s departure, though, the group couldn’t capitalise on any momentum it might have generated.
Unwisely, the band decided to continue, though Morrison and Tucker left shortly afterwards. Morrison occupied himself earning a doctorate in medieval literature at the University of Texas, before eventually returning to music.
The Yule brothers kept the group going for a time with new members, releasing a further album (Squeeze) in 1972. This version of The Velvet Underground consisted of Yule, Rob Norris (guitar), George Kay (bass guitar) and Mark Nauseef (drums). Yule pulled the plug on the band when the brief tour ended in December 1972.
As many feared, The Velvet Underground’s 1992 and 1996 reunions merely gave drummer Maureen Tucker a payday and robbed the group of a little mystique.
Nico died in Ibiza on 18 July 1988 of a cerebral haemorrhage following a bicycle accident. She was 49.
Sterling Morrison died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at his home in Poughkeepsie, New York, on 30 August 1995. He was 53.
Lou Reed underwent a liver transplant in May 2013 at the Cleveland Clinic. He later wrote on his website that he was feeling “bigger and stronger” than ever – but on 27 October 2013, Reed died from liver disease at his home in Southampton, New York. He was 71.
Bass, organ, viola, vocals