“We’re the Velvet Underground. We can do anything.”
—Lou Reed during a 1993 Velvet Underground reunion concert.
For me, it’s hard to imagine what rock and roll would be like had there been no Velvet Underground. In my opinion, the band’s music is even more important than that of the Beatles. And may I remind you, that I am a great Beatles fan as well. But there’s something about the VU that has always struck a much more personal chord in me. Perhaps it’s due to the quality of the song lyrics. Certainly, songs like “Heroin”, “I’m Waiting for the Man”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “Sister Ray”, “Pale Blue Eyes”, “Sweet Jane”, and “Rock and Roll” sound as fresh today as they did decades ago. I can’t say the same thing about such Beatles classics as “I Am the Walrus”, “All You Need Is Love”, “Yesterday”, or “Helter Skelter”. Yes, they still sound great, but they don’t sound as immediate.
My first encounter with the Velvets was when I was about 17. My friend wanted to get me a belated birthday gift, and I didn’t want him to spend too much, so I spotted The Velvet Underground and Nico on tape for about six bucks. I told him that would suffice, as I had read so much about the band and how “scary” they were, so I thought it was time to see just what it was they were all about. Prior to then, I had kind of viewed Lou Reed as a bit of a novelty—a guy who supposedly didn’t enjoy the Beatles. How could anyone ever have such an opinion? Yeah, I was a bit overboard in my love for the Fab Four, so I suppose that the purchase of my first VU album was as much a test to see how much of an asshole Lou Reed was as to see if I’d like their music.
During that virgin excursion, I found that I rather liked “Sunday Morning”, “I’m Waiting for the Man”, and even “Heroin”, which I had seen a spontaneously regrouped VU perform on TV some time before. I was struck at how pretty the original version actually was. But then, there was also stuff that I flat out didn’t like, like “Black Angel’s Death Song” and “European Son”. I also wasn’t too smitten with the voice of VU chanteuse Nico. No, it would actually take the purchase of the band’s third album to make me the fan I still am today. A fan that did indeed follow the classic Velvet myth that states that not too many people bought a VU album when the band was originally around, but everyone who did wound up starting their very own band. I already had a band when I bought my first VU album; I was the drummer. But Lou Reed’s music would inspire me to buy my first guitar, learn some simple yet crucial chords, and give me the freedom to write and record my very own music. There has been no better gift given to me since.
You’d better hit her.
The band itself was pretty much Lou’s project from the get-go. He had invited college friend Sterling Morrison to play guitar in a new group. Previously, Lou had played in a bunch of (what he claimed) were some of the worst bands ever, finally landing a job as a staff writer for Pickwick Records and churning out various songs that were the flavor of the day. He would enter the studio with other musicians and record these songs which would then be compiled on quickie rip off albums. He played under such assumed band names as The Beach Nuts and helped compose greasy hot rod tunes like “I’ve Got a Tiger in My Tank”. But Lou wanted more. He wanted his own band to record some songs that he had been working on for a while. So Sterling signed up, shortly followed thereafter by John Cale, a Welsh musician who fancied the more avant garde aspects of music. John was immediately taken with Lou’s songs and how Reed would detune all his guitar strings to one note to create a sort of buzz that wasn’t at all being heard on the radio at the time.
The Velvets’ original drummer was a guy named Angus MacLise who had no interest at all in convention. “You mean I have to show up at a certain time, play for a certain length, and then we leave?” he asked when told about the new group’s plans for playing live shows. When Angus was told that yes, this was indeed the case, he quit. Sterling quickly came to the rescue and suggested his friend’s sister, Maureen Tucker, to take over the drumming position. Reed was hesitant at first, but after seeing what Moe could do, she was in. Lou enjoyed her style of taking the bass drum and turning it on its side and pounding it with her mallets. It was a perfect complement to the band’s experimental tendencies.
Soon the group was playing in the Village at the Café Bizarre. But repeated plays of “The Black Angel’s Death Song” proved to be even too bizarre for the club’s owner. “You play that song one more time, and you’re fired,” he said. So the VU played it one more time. They were out. Yet just a week or so later, pop artist Andy Warhol was introduced to the group by Factory friend Barbara Rubin who loved the group’s music. Warhol thought the band would be perfect for his upcoming Exploding Plastic Inevitable show. Upon the group he would play his films and strobe lights while the music freaked out and the hip New York crowds gathered to see Andy’s latest creations.
“For a while there, people thought Andy was the guitarist,” joked Reed.
She’s going to play you for a fool, yes it’s true . . .
Andy thought it would be a good idea if the Velvets had a chanteuse, so he suggested the model/actress Nico to the band. Lou didn’t want any part of it, but was finally persuaded to work with the starlet. When it came time to record the band’s first album, Lou, Sterling, and John all did their best at fucking up the backing vocals on “Femme Fatale”. Nico seemed oblivious. She wanted more songs to sing. Lou refused. He thought that giving her three cuts (including “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, reportedly Warhol’s favorite VU song) was more than enough.
The band worked diligently and put a lot of care into their recording. However, producer Tom Wilson wasn’t sure at all what to do with the group. He hadn’t ever heard anything like the Velvets. Indeed, the band’s label itself didn’t really want anything to do with the band. They saw no commercial potential whatsoever in the group. They were hoping that the album would make money mainly on the fact that it was associated with Warhol. Wilson “produced” a couple of numbers, including the beautiful “Sunday Morning”, but the rest was left up to the band itself, despite the fact that Andy rubber stamped his famous signature on the front of the album with a “Produced by” credit preceding it.
The album was supposed to have been released in 1966, but Verve managed to mess up those plans. They put zero promotional support behind the record, and then had to pull it from the shelves completely when a Factory member wanted his photo taken out of the back cover shot if he was not paid for its use. So the picture was retouched and the album sent back out. By this time, though, Sgt. Pepper had gripped the entire world and The Velvet Underground and Nico hovered just outside of the top 100 LP charts. In another perverse move, the band decided to include clippings of negative reviews for the album inside the sleeve.
Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart . . .
The Velvet Underground and Nico was proclaimed too “dark” by most radio stations. Some of them even banned the album and all of its tracks from being played altogether. It was called “pornographic” thanks to tracks like the brilliant “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin”. Lou Reed had written the latter tune some years before the Velvets even recorded it. While the rest of the world was turning on to acid, Reed sang of smack openly, honestly, declaring it a sensual demon. “And I guess that I just don’t know” was the chorus. A fitting and chilling testament to the drug culture. Reed scoffed at those who found God through LSD and provided a much more realistic look at the sexiness and depravity that lay behind illicit substances.
Lou wasn’t into writing “typical” love songs, either. Both “Femme Fatale” and “There She Goes Again” featured a nasty streak that brought attention to the realities of the city streets that most turned a blind eye to. Copping the opening bit from Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike”, “There She Goes Again” declared physical punishment against those women who would be caught fucking around with someone else. The female gender got the short of the stick as well in “Femme Fatale” that Reed claimed was about Edie Sedgwick, but it could just as well have been about a prostitute or another junkie or even someone’s mother. The beauty in the songs was that they were so frighteningly real.
Even the beautiful opening track “Sunday Morning” was filled with paranoia. It doesn’t even sound like it’s Reed who’s singing the song. This time his voice was more effeminate, a quick look at the androgyny Lou would embrace in 1972 for his Transformer album. “Watch out, the world’s behind you / There’s always someone around you who will call / It’s nothing at all” sang Reed with no trace of irony. He did it again in “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Run Run Run”.
Lou dedicated “European Son” to his mentor Delmore Schwartz, a famous poet and writer who had penned In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, a short book that had inspired Reed so long ago to take pen to paper himself. The song had the least amount of words compared to the rest, so Lou dedicated it to Delmore, whom Reed felt would have been rather disappointed in thanks to his stints at writing throw away tunes for Pickwick. At least that’s one of the stories behind it.
The fact of the matter is that there are tons of stories behind the album. Which are true and which are false? It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that they were recorded and released. And their existence managed to cause enough ripples within the music community that people eventually had to take notice. For the time being, Reed, Cale, Morrison, and Tucker were content to play for Warhol and his Exploding Plastic Inevitable. But things would change. It wouldn’t be long before Lou took charge of the band on his own. Part of this was due to Verve’s complete misunderstanding of the group and failure to support the band, and part was due to Warhol’s “involvement”. At the heart of it, Lou Reed wanted to do more than just play music for Andy’s films.
To say that The Velvet Underground and Nico has been an influence to so many bands and artists from Patti Smith to Sonic Youth is a gross understatement. The album was very much ahead of its time (no matter what some other critics may say) in that it followed its own path. It created its own sounds. Sure, the Beatles were wowing everyone with full blown orchestras, but here were the Velvets just playing good old rock and roll filled with more poetry and images than Lennon and McCartney could ever care to muster. In the VU’s world, there were no simple answers. All you needed was definitely not love. Not just, anyway. But soon enough, the famed Summer of Love in 1967 would be fading away. 1968 would be just around the corner. A year filled with socio-political turmoil and more rock than you could shake a stick at. It would also usher in the Velvets’ darkest recording in their entire catalogue.
It wasn’t quite “all right” just yet, but it was getting there. For better or worse.