The Velvet Underground, made up of lead vocalist Lou Reed, John Cale on piano and bass guitar, Sterling Morrison on rhythm guitar and Maureen Tucker on drums, 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.
This is something I also agree with; to my mind we wouldn’t have much of the music that we do if it wasn’t for the Velvet Underground. Bands like The Cure, Joy Division, and Sex Pistols have all 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; essentially 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. In fact, the band was only really famous for selling so few copies; this was partly down to the fact that the provocative lyrics present on the album meant that many publishers at the time refused to advertise it and radio stations refused to play it. As a result, the album only climbed to number 171 on the Billboard album chart. So rare are original pressings that they now sell for hundreds online. It was only years later, after many bands started to cite the album as a key influence, that the wider public took notice.
But what makes it so good? When you first hear the record, there are parts of it that initially strike you as weird, odd and confusing. Musically, experimental is the word that springs to mind. It’s instrumentation changes moods like the weather throughout the album. At times it sounds psychedelic in nature, track four, ‘Venus in Furs’, features whaling melodies and droning instrumentation, most associated with the psych sounds of the time. Similarly, track six on the album ‘all tomorrow’s parties’ is long and features an almost monotonous vocal, while the guitars are loose and driven by heavy drums, giving the track quite a psych feel to it.
Other tracks on the album make it obvious why the record is credited with planting the seeds of punk rock. Track two on the album, ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ is my favourite on the album and can only really be called punk; its choppy chord progressions and driven drum beat give the song real character and it really does sound like the very beginnings of what would become punk rock. The reverberations of punk are also showcased in track eight, ‘There She Goes Again’ and track five, ‘Run Run Run’. These two tracks feel more like classic rock ’n’ roll than ‘Waiting for the Man’, which is, for me, hinting at something closer to punk rock, but that doesn’t mean to say they don’t have any less of a bite. ‘Run Run Run’ for example, features an almost bluesy DNA but its the loose and chaotic experimental instrumentation on the track that completes it, and ‘There She Goes Again’ features jangly guitar parts that give it a kind of soft-rock-gone-sinister sound.
The standout vocal performance on the album is Nico, who the band were convinced would be good addition by producer, manager, and cover designer, Andy Warhol. Though both the way in which he managed the band, and the way in which he produced the record 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 standout for me is track 9, ’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 went on to enjoy a successful solo career and I highly recommend you check her solo work out.
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 ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ by Steeler’s Wheel, before descending into chaotic noise with no clear direction. It’s fast, loud, chaotic sound is the definition of the change the band brought to the musical landscape at the time. The track is indicative of the experimentation the band would become known for.
Lyrically, this album is as provocative as any album before or since. Lou Reed had an incredible talent for creating atmospheres with his lyrics and was not shy about sharing his own very real experiences with the darker side of life. ‘Waiting for the Man’ was written from the personal experience Reed had picking up heroine from his drug dealer. “I’m waiting for the man, with 26 dollars in my hand” he sings, meaning he had enough money on him to buy around 1.5 grams of heroine at the time. Reed’s love affair with heroine is referenced again in track seven, ‘Heroine’ in which he says the drug is his wife and his life. Lyrics of this nature were a shock to audiences at the time, nobody was talking about drug use so overtly and Reed’s insistence on tackling controversial topics didn’t stop there. ‘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, again affirming the kind of attitude that would now be called punk.
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, as have the rest of the band, as the very essence of influence.