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What's left to say that hasn't already been said? The Velvet Underground practically invented the term “critic's darling'. Being a Velvets fan is like a prerequisite for anyone attempting to communicate through the narrow world of music journalism. But, you're here (and for that I thank you), and just might be curious as to what all the hubbub is about and may have some questions. Isn't this that band that sold about 12 records in the 60's? Why do they still pop up everywhere in modern rock magazines and web sites like this one? Is Lou Reed still alive? If that's the case then get comfortable and I'll tell you a story. 

Picture this or ask your grandparents: 

1964: The Beatles hit like a bomb, transforming everything seemingly in an instant. Powerless teenagers suddenly become a Youth Culture. LIFE magazine starts showing up with cameras. A nation, still reeling from the murder of it's young President, embraces this bright new pop phenomena as a source of hope, a reason to be cheerful. America is flooded with a slew of British “beat' bands and, in bedrooms and garages across the land, hair is combed forward and harmonies are memorized. Bob Dylan reinvents the wheel in New York's Greenwich Village. 

Lou Reed, working as a songwriter for Pickwick Records, writes a knocked off dance number called “Do the Ostrich" which the company likes well enough to tell Reed to assemble a band to promote the single with live performances. Sam Cooke is shot and killed by a hotel manager in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, across town, a classically trained Welsh musician named John Cale is playing electric viola with avant garde composer La Monte Young, drummer Angus MacLise, violinist Tony Conrad and vocalist Marian Zazeela in an ensemble called The Theater of Eternal Music - or, as we hepcats called  “em - The Dream Syndicate. One night at a party Cale and Conrad meet Reed and agree to record “Do the Ostrich', with Walter DeMaria drumming, under the name The Primitives.  The single tanks although not until after the band plays a show or two and Reed and Cale start working on mixing their pop and avant garde proclivities.

1965: With Reed on guitar and Cale on bass and viola, along with Reed's college mate Sterling Morrison on guitar and  MacLise on percussion, a new music calling itself the Velvet Underground after a paperback book,  starts playing in Cale's Ludlow Street apartment. Young girls scream at movie screens as “A Hard Day's Night' explodes across the world. Bob Dylan buys a Fender Stratocaster. James Brown lives. Phil Spector gives way to Motown.  

In July Reed, Cale, Morrison and MacLise record 5 songs in the Ludlow Street apartment: “Heroin', “Venus in Furs' “Black Angel's Death Song', “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams' and “Never Get Emotionally Involved with Man, Woman, Beast or Child'.  These tapes are lost now but it's pretty safe to assume that all featured the edgy, minimal drones coupled with smart, terse and literate lyrics concerning adult subject matter that would become the Velvets' hallmark. A later rehearsal tape, minus MacLise, surfaces in 1995 as Disc One in Polydor Records Box Set "Peel Slowly and See". Buy this today. Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention sign to Verve Records and record their debut, “Freak Out'. Michael Jackson and his brothers win a talent show at Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana.

While playing a show at New York's Cafe Bizarre, consisting of extended, noisy improvisations over which Reed intoned his dark words that reflected the grim realities of the human condition as well as the joy in his dispassionate, direct manner, the Velvets are offered a management contract by Andy Warhol on the condition that his protege Nico should sing with the band. Not entirely happy with this, the band decides to go for it anyway. With Warhol footing the bill for new guitars and amps and getting gigs and promising a record contract it seemed a relatively easy compromise to make for such a possible payoff. Paul Revere and the Raiders debut as house band on Dick Clark's ABC TV show “Where the Action Is'.


The Velvet Underground are offered $75 to open for the Mydlle Class at a high school in Summit, New Jersey on November 11,1965. Angus MacLise, considering the acceptance of money for art or allowing someone to tell him when to start and stop playing to be heresy, abruptly quits the band. In doing so, to my mind, he proved himself to be the most uncompromising artist of his, possibly any, day. Think about it. He quit the Velvet Underground because they were too commercial. Let's hear it for Angus (RIP 1979) and don't you dare buy any of those CDs of his improvisational music from Nepal that have recently been released AND ARE AVAILABLE AT AMAZON AND ELSEWHERE! He is replaced by Maureen Tucker, a friend of Reed and Morrison who played drums, thus solidifying the 1st “official' VU line-up.

........ meanwhile.

1966: The Doors start a six month residency at L.A.'s  Whiskey A-Go-Go and are signed to Elektra Records following a recommendation by Arthur Lee of the group Love. Shortly after, the band is fired for doing a song called “The End' during which singer Jim Morrison addresses the Oedipal Myth of murdering one's father and/or sleeping with one's mother. An R&B singer and sculptor from Glendale, California who went to school with Frank Zappa changes his name from Don Van Vliet to Captain Beefheart. Warhol presents the Velvet Underground at New York's Delmonico Hotel, where they pitch their screed in front of multiple movie screens during dinner at a psychiatrist's convention. The Grateful Dead make their first appearance at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco.

Jimi Hendrix plays R&B under the name Jimmy James and the Blue Flames at clubs around Greenwich Village at the same time as the Velvets. Lou Reed has guitar repairman Bill Lawrence install primitive distortion echo and vibrato units into his guitar. The Monkees' TV show debuts on NBC. Syd Barrett and his band Pink Floyd begin a residency at London's Marquee Club. The Velvet Underground fly to L.A. to play, among other gigs, a stint at The Trip with The Mothers of Invention opening. The shows are closed down by the police the third night Local press pans band, accusing them of bringing NY paranoia into their beautiful Aquarian Dream. Cher is quoted as saying the VU "....won't replace anything...except maybe suicide." 

The Velvet Underground return to NY and perform as part of Warhol's "Exploding Plastic Inevitable", a multi-media presentation featuring multiple films run simultaneously on screens while dancers danced and the Velvet Underground played the music that was to become their debut record at impossible volumes while the light show throbbed. The band continues honing their material at NY Clubs and as house band at The Factory, Warhol's loft/studio. Courtney Love is born in San Francisco.

1967: "The Doors" eponymous debut and "Fresh Cream", the Cream debut, are released in January. Self-titled debut "The Velvet Underground & Nico",  is released in March. "Are You Experienced",the Jimi Hendrix debut in May.  "Sgt. Pepper" and "David Bowie" on Deram drop in June. Pink Floyd's debut "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" in August. "Vanilla Fudge" in October. "A Whole New Thing", the debut from Sly & the Family Stone in November.  The first Jeff Beck Group featuring Rod Stewart forms and a band called the Golliwogs change their name to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Even in a year of such stellar debuts "The Velvet Underground & Nico" stood, and stands, apart. This record upped the ante and changed the rules more than any other record listed above. Including "Sgt. Pepper".  From the grim, though non-judgmental/sensationalistic presentation of such heretofore untouched subject matter as drug addiction ("Heroin") and sexual liberation ("Venus in Furs") through the grating cacophony of the more experimental numbers (" Black Angel's Death Song", "European Son") and slightly twisted frat rock drones ("Run, Run, Run ", "There She Goes Again") to the eerie ice-like vocals of Nico on the ballads (" Femme Fatale", " All Tomorrow's Parties", " I'll Be Your Mirror") , " The Velvet Underground & Nico" contained sounds no one had heard before.Nor, apparently, did many want to hear at all, let alone again. The album never charted. 

Rolling Stone Magazine is published for the first time and the Grammy Award for Song of the Year goes to The 5th Dimension for "Up, Up and Away". Best  New Artist is Bobbie Gentry..  Reed “fires' Warhol as the band's manager. Nico splits.

1968: The Velvet Underground start the year off with a bang releasing "White Light/White Heat", an album even more corrosive and threatening than their first, in January. Far from toning down the confrontational elements of their difficult music, the Velvets turned it all up. The guitar solo in "I Heard Her Call My Name" took the Chuck Berry "box scales" that preceded it and the distorted modal excursions of the then-current psychedelic bands and shot them through with violent intent, massive amounts of electronic processing and total disregard for melody, harmony or even pitch, taking the rock guitar solo into the realm of free jazz. "White Light/White Heat" spends two weeks on the Billboard Top 200 at #199 then disappears. John Coltrane dies.

Dylan releases "John Wesley Harding". John Cale leaves the band over musical differences with Reed. Reed hires Boston folkie Doug Yule to play bass. The new line-up works up new material and play shows in Boston, Cleveland and San Francisco. "The Stooges" debut album, produced by Cale is released in August. The musical "Hair" opens on Broadway. American movies first receive G, PG, R and X ratings.

1969: Richard Nixon is inaugurated in January The FCC bans cigarette ads from television and radio. "The Velvet Underground" is released in April and contains some of Reed's most heartfelt, yet commercial,  songs ("Candy Says", "Pale Blue Eyes", "Jesus") as well as more challenging material, whether due to subject matter ("Some Kinda Love") or sound ("The Murder Mystery"). A much quieter album than it's predecessors, this third record fails to generate any chart interest despite the band's constant touring. The Velvets play a weekend stint, May 30-31 at The Boston Tea Party with the Allman Brothers Band opening They go into New York's Record Plant and record material for a fourth album. Verve Records drops the band, refusing the new material, which remained unreleased until 1985 on "VU" and "Another View". James Brown records "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud. The Woodstock Music and Art Fair is held in upstate New York. Elvis Presley stages television comeback special sponsored by Singer Sewing Machines.  The Velvet Underground sign with Atlantic Records. Eisenhower and Kerouac die.

1970: Beck is born. The Velvets enter Atlantic Studios in New York City and begin work on their fourth album "Loaded". The sessions start to fall apart quickly. Tucker becomes pregnant and leaves the band. She does not appear on "Loaded". Reed begins to lose interest. After recording basic tracks, the band, with Doug Yule's brother Billy on drums, plays a month long residency at Max's Kansas City in New York. On the last night of this stand Reed quits the band and moves back in with his parents. The band returns to the studio to finish the album without Reed.  

The album is released in September with Yule listed first in the credits and lone picture of him sitting at a piano on the back cover. Featuring now classic songs like "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll", the album died on the vine without Reed in the band to promote it through live shows. Doug Yule and band manager Steve Sesnick soldier on under the Velvet Underground name to diminishing returns. Morrison leaves in 1971 and returns to college. Tucker rejoins briefly after the birth of her daughter, but sensing that the magic is gone, leaves again. She eventually returns to rock on a small scale in the 1980s, self releasing solo records of elegant simplicity. Yule hires bassist Walter Powers and singer/guitarist Willie Alexander and, along with his brother on drums, proceeds to sully the Velvet Underground's name with lack-luster performances. 1973 sees the release of an album called "Squeeze", credited to the Velvet Underground although all songs were written and sung by Doug Yule who plays all the instruments except drums, which were played by Deep Purple's Ian Paice. 

The legend of the Velvet Underground begins pretty quickly with the 1972 release of both "VU Live “69" (Polydor), a double album of post Cale performances recorded in Boston and San Francisco and "The Velvet Underground Live at Max's Kansas City" (Cotillion). The "Max's" album was taken from a cassette recording made by Warhol associate Brigid Polk, reportedly on Reed's last night with the band.  The field recording sound quality, along with the snippets of conversation heard around Polk's table ("Look who just came in, man" slurs a young Jim Carroll, "I gotta hide.") make this "first official bootleg" an interesting historical document.

Reed hooked up with Bowie in 74, cracking the charts with "Transformer" and it's single "Walk on the Wild Side". He follows it with the orchestral and depressingly brilliant "Berlin" and continues to make solo records of such varying intent to this day. Nico dies in Ibiza from head injuries sustained in a bicycling accident. Cale went on to release solo records like the song oriented  "Paris, 1919" and the avant garde "The Church of Anthrax" as well as produce stellar debuts from the Stooges and Patti Smith. He continues to compose and record, collaborating with the likes of Harold Budd, Brian Eno and on the Warhol eulogy "Songs for “drella" in 1989, Lou Reed.  The original Velvet Underground (Reed, Cale, Morrison, Tucker) regroup in Paris and play "Heroin" at a Warhol Tribute on June 15, 1990, which extends to a Europe only tour in 1993.

A Paris show from that tour is recorded and videotaped for CD and video release. The band breaks up again without returning to America, although the 3, less Reed, play The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in November of 1994. Sterling Morrison dies on August 30, 1995 of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Patti Smith inducts the Velvet Underground into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on January 17, 1996 in Cleveland. The remaining members play "Last Night I Said Goodbye to My Friend", a new song written by Reed in memory of Morrison. As of this writing (February 2004) this remains the last time the band played together.

So that's essentially the history, kids, I'll leave you with the probably apocryphal quote, attributed variously to Brian Eno and Michael Stipe, that " hardly anybody listened to the Velvets when they were around, but all of them formed bands." 

If you haven't already, please, listen to the Velvet Underground. And form your own band.

Check out Tim's Review of The Velvet Underground Boxset "Peel Slowly and See"

All things VU can be found by clicking this link  

Listen to samples and purchase music from the Velvet Underground  

References utilized in the writing of this article: (All Highly Recommended)
The VH1 Music 1st Rock Stars Encyclopedia by dafydd rees and Luke Crampton (DK Publishing)
From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World by Clinton Heylin (Penguin)
The comprehensive essay by David Fricke in the booklet included with Velvets Box Set "Peel Slowly and See" (Polydor Records)


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