Although underappreciated in their time, The Velvet Underground was one of the most influential music groups of the 20th century.
Led by Lou Reed, the daring ensemble turned heads and, frankly, disgusted some of the more prudish members of society. But what made them so noteworthy?
Today, we’re diving into the history of this iconic group to answer all your burning questions.
Let’s hit it!
The Story of The Velvet Underground
Frontman Lou Reed had a lifelong love of music. He performed in a doo-wop band in the 50s, transitioning to poetry, jazz, and the avant-garde the following decade.
After graduating from Syracuse University, he had a stint at New York City’s Pickwick Records. Here, he met John Cale, a Welsh musician who’d moved to the United States to pursue the craft. Their mutual interests in rock, pop, and heavy experimentation meant they were a match made in sonic heaven.
In 1965, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Angus McLise joined the two, officially forming The Velvet Underground. Cale played bass, viola, and the organ, while Reed took lead vocals. It wasn’t long before McLise quit, and they recruited Maureen “Moe” Tucker on the drums.
Reed wrote most of the tunes for the NYC-based ensemble. His lyrics often dealt with the harsh realities of city life. Nothing was off-limits, including graphic details of drug use and kinky sex.
After all, it was the 1960s.
While much of the country engaged in the Summer of Love, they sang about heroin addiction and forbidden love.
By the end of their first year together, a chance encounter changed the trajectory of this haphazard crew. Andy Warhol, the father of pop art, happened to catch a show and quickly appointed himself the group’s manager.
While this association gave the group a built-in cult following, their music was still too cutting-edge for radio. Their songs, composed of scrappy violas, out-of-tune guitars, and warbly reverb-soaked lyrics, lacked commercial appeal.
Although The Velvet Underground was arguably the originator of such experimental sounds, it took the Beatles’ release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for the world to catch on.
By then, the avante-garde was more palatable, and the band finally realized success.
About The Velvet Underground’s Influence on Rock
One of the most apparent ways the group set itself apart from the mainstream was by celebrating folks who didn’t fit in elsewhere. Lou Reed had the empathic ability to understand people that many considered outcasts. From artists to persons with addictions and sex workers to dope peddlers, everyone had a place in his music.
But it wasn’t just their lyrics that swayed the future of rock and roll. In fact, their iconic messy sound paved the way for punk, new wave, and alternative artists in the years to come.
The Velvet Underground started with nothing, DIY-ing their early records. Future acts like Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and The Sex Pistols would mimic this under-produced sound. Ironically, the quirks that made them less than commercial-friendly would become mainstream because of their influence.
Unlike the complex compositions of progressive rock, emerging then, their tunes were minimalist. At least, that’s once they’re stripped down to the bare bones.
Worldwide sensations like REM, Talking Heads, and U2 credit them with helping inform their styles.
What was once deemed “porn rock” by some was par for the course just a decade later. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
The Velvet Underground’s Best-Known Songs
While listeners didn’t fully appreciate them during their time, many of The Velvet Underground’s songs carry on today. We’ve gathered some of their most iconic tunes here.
One of their most commercially successful songs was Sweet Jane, from their final album, Loaded. Reed wrote the lyrics in which he describes the lives of two everyday people from the perspective of a rock star.
Unfortunately, he left the band before they completed the record. In his absence, producers cut down Sweet Jane to the recognizable tune we know today. Reed relayed his disappointment in the final track to Rolling Stone magazine, saying, “I would have stayed with them and showed them what to do.”
From the Muse: If you want to hear the entire song as the writer intended, you can check out his live performance at Max’s Kansas City.
I’m Waiting for the Man
Of course, it wouldn’t be a list of The Velvet Underground’s best hits without I’m Waiting for the Man. In true Lou fashion, the song doesn’t take a clear stance on drug use but simply documents the reality of it.
The lyrics relay the dull facts of trying to score heroin, stating, “He’s never early, he’s always late. First thing you learn is you always gotta wait.”
Atlantic Records refused to sign the band because of this tune, along with others like Heroin and Venus in Furs. They were simply too controversial for the label, and Reed refused to sell out, so the band signed on with MGM instead.
All Tomorrow’s Parties
All Tomorrow’s Parties was considered Andy Warhol’s favorite song from The Velvet Underground. And that’s no surprise since it’s all about the characters at Warhol’s Factory.
It’s one of the few where Nico sang lead vocals. Her deep, mellow voice croons, “And what will she do with Thursday’s rags when Monday comes around? She’ll turn once more to Sunday’s clown and cry behind the door.”
While The Factory was the place to be during this time, there was no shortage of drama.
Need to increase your music collection? You can get The Velvet Underground 45th Anniversary edition as a CD, MP3, and even in vinyl!
Why Was The Velvet Underground So Controversial?
Sex, drugs, and rock and roll weren’t the only reasons they ruffled so many feathers. But it’s a start.
The band’s lyrics featured explicit content, especially when other groups embraced peace and love. Compared to flower children, Reed and the others were raw and gritty, choosing to walk on the wild side instead of playing it safe.
For example, the original cover of their album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, featured a yellow and black banana painted by Warhol. When you peeled back the skin, it exposed a pink, fleshy version of the fruit. To some conservative folks, this was obscene innuendo and inappropriate for public consumption.
To further set them apart from their peers, the band’s stripped-down instrumentals made them even less viable in the industry. For these reasons, most record companies wouldn’t consider representing them.
At the end of the day, the group’s rebellious authenticity at once doomed them commercially and made them a lasting name in music.
How Is Andy Warhol Connected to The Velvet Underground?
Andy Warhol wanted a piece of The Velvet Underground as soon as he heard them perform. He felt that their sound was the future of music. The band quickly joined his Exploding Plastic Inevitable performance, and he was acting manager and producer.
They quickly became The Factory’s house band, with Nico on lead vocals.
Undoubtedly, Warhol contributed to their lasting success. Even though they didn’t top any charts during their tenure, they may never have taken off without the artist’s support.
However, the endeavor was short-lived. Due to creative differences, Reed fired Warhol in 1967.
Recently, master tracks of the band’s sessions with Warhol came to light. You can now listen to the original “Banana Album” recordings thanks to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
Uncover more about Andy Warhol: Tony Wilson or Andy Warhol: Who Ran The Factory?
Take a Walk On the Wild Side With The Velvet Underground
While The Velvet Underground didn’t get the acclaim they deserved at the time, their enduring fame is a testament to their influence on rock, punk, and pop music. After all, they don’t just induct anyone into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Did we miss your favorite hit by The Velvet Underground? If so, we’d love to hear from you in the comments!