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'.
GREAT ROCK AND ROLL MOMENT ALERT!!!!!!
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
out Tim's Review of The Velvet Underground Boxset "Peel Slowly and See"
things VU can be found by clicking this link
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)