The Velvet Underground, made up of lead vocalist Lou Reed; pianist and bassist John Cale; guitarist Sterling Morrison; and drummer Maureen Tucker, are often cited as one of the most influential acts to ever make music. Many critics and music fans view the group as the early pioneers of a number of musical styles, sowing the seeds of what would later become alternative music.
Bands like The Cure, Joy Division, and Sex Pistols have all at, one time or another, been open about the influences that the group had on them; even David Bowie often said The Velvet Underground were one of his first musical obsessions in the early years of his career (he actually wrote ‘queen bitch’ as a homage to the band) And that’s only a few of the artists they influenced, countless bands wouldn’t have even picked up instruments if they hadn’t heard the Velvet Underground’s music. Brian Eno famously said everyone who bought this album, (which featured additional member, Nico) went on to start a band. In many ways, this album fired the starting gun to a whole new world of musical experimentation and creation.
After reading the above you’d be forgiven for thinking this particular album, the band’s debut released in 1967, was the subject of widespread appreciation, but the truth is it wasn’t. If anything, the band were only known for their poor sales performance, to which there were a number of contributing factors: The provocative lyrics on the album meant that many publishers at the time refused to advertise it, radio stations refused to play it, and, despite the Rock ‘n’ Roll lifestyle being an open secret, much of the record buying public were unable to relate to the tracks’ subject matter. As a result, the album only climbed to number 171 on the Billboard album chart and, so rare are original pressings that they now sell for hundreds online. The album had somewhat of a delayed reception as it was only years later, after many bands started to cite the album as a key influence, that the wider public finally took notice.
But what makes it so good? When you first hear the record, there are parts of it that initially strike you as odd and confusing. Musically, experimental is the word that springs to mind. Its instrumentation changes moods without warning throughout the album; shifting from psychedelic to garage rock sounds and back. Track four, ‘Venus in Furs’, features whaling melodies and droning instrumentation, most associated with the psych sounds of the time. While track six, ‘all tomorrow’s parties’, features a monotonous vocal, loose guitars and driven drums, giving the track an inescapable garage rock feeling.
Other tracks on the album make it obvious why the record is credited with planting the seeds of Punk Rock. Track two, ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ can only really be called punk; its choppy chord progressions and driven drum beat give the song real attitude and it the very beginnings of what would become Punk Rock can clearly be heard. The reverberations of Punk are also showcased in track eight, ‘There She Goes Again’ and track five, ‘Run Run Run’. These two tracks feel similar to classic Rock ’n’ Roll but they come with their own pre-punk bite. ‘Run Run Run’ for example, features a bluesy DNA but it’s the loose and chaotic experimental instrumentation on the track that completes it, similarly ‘There She Goes Again’ features jangly guitar parts that give it a kind of soft-rock-gone-sinister sound.
Vocally, the standout performance comes from Nico, who joined after the band were convinced she would make a good addition by producer, manager, and cover designer, Andy Warhol. Though the ways in which Warhol managed the band and produced the record would ultimately leave much to be desired, his recommendation to include Nico in the band’s lineup was an idea from the top draw. Her voice is soft while remaining sturdy, and melodic enough to bind the loose instrumentation together. She sings on three of the 11 tracks, the best of which is ’I’ll be your mirror’; with the instrumentation more stripped back, she is able to really come into her own as a vocal performer. After her part on this album, Nico did, of course, go on to enjoy a successful solo career which, for many, further proves her musical ability.
In terms of experimental instrumentation, the albums closer ‘European Son’ takes the prize. The seven and a half minute epic starts with an intro reminiscent of Steeler’s Wheel’s ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ before descending into chaotic noise with no clear direction. Its fast, loud, chaotic sound is the definition of the change the band brought to the musical landscape at the time. The track seems to perfectly embody the experimentation the band would become known for.
Lyrically, this album is as provocative as any album before or since. Lou Reed’s talent for creating atmospheres with his lyrics shines through. He wasn’t the type to shy away from sharing his own very real experiences with the darker side of life. ‘Waiting for the Man’, for example was written from the personal experience Reed had picking up Heroine from his drug dealer, while ‘There She Goes Again’ is about a prostitute walking the streets of New York; “Now take a look there’s no tears in her eyes, she won’t take it from just any guy” Reed sings, affirming the kind of unapologetic attitude that would later come to be associated with the Punk movement of the late 1970s.
It stands to reason that, in writing lyrics so loaded, Lou Reed in affect became one of the world’s first Punks, a true pioneer in his trade and he has rightly gone down in history, along with the rest of the band, as the very essence of influence.