The Velvet Underground. And Nico. Oh, and their friend Andy.
Then one fine mornin' she puts on a New York station You know, she don't believe what she heard at all She started shakin' to that fine fine music You know her life was saved by rock 'n' roll
—"Rock and Roll"
Groundbreaking independent rock band from The Sixties famous for their pioneering and influencing various subgenres such as Noise Rock, experimental rock, art rock, Alternative Rock (hell, they were pretty much thefirst alt-rock band) and Punk Rock. Also famous for their loudness and the nihilism of their material.The Velvet Underground were formed in 1965 by dissatisfied Long Island songwriter Lou Reed and WelshmanJohn Cale, who was studying classical music in the USA. Reed was the main guitarist and songwriter, while Cale played keyboards and viola. Sterling Morrison joined at the same time, assuming guitar and bass duties. After a period with Angus MacLise, the lineup was rounded out by drummer Maureen Tucker, who played with no cymbals and used a very simplistic, tribal style.Andy Warhol was hired as manager and producer; at his insistence German singer Christa "Nico" Päffgen joined the band on several songs. Thanks to his patronage, the band received a contract with Verve Records and entered the studio in 1966 to record. Their debut album, The Velvet Underground And Nico, was released in March 1967; it contained several now-classic songs such as "Heroin", "All Tomorrow's Parties", "Venus in Furs", "Femme Fatale" and "I'm Waiting for the Man". It had a muted commercial reception and few people paid attention initially despite rigorous touring, but it's now highly regarded among critics and fans.The Velvets broke off the relationship with Warhol and Nico rather quickly. In this period their live shows started to contain more pronounced improvisation and harsh, loud material. Their second album White Light/White Heat continued in this direction, as evidenced by the title track and the 17-minute "Sister Ray". By this time, the band members were tired of having no recognition, and tensions were growing between Reed's traditionalism and Cale's experimental, abrasive tendencies.Cale eventually left, and was replaced by bassist Doug Yule. In reaction to this and the theft of the band's amplifiers, The Velvet Underground was a more subdued, reflective affair. Its style is most noticeable in the folky "Pale Blue Eyes" and "After Hours". Despite favorable critical reception, it was their first album to not enter the Billboard 200 (the previous ones managed the meager showings of #171 and #199). They toured throughout 1969 and continued writing material, most of which was shelved after disputes with Verve but eventually released on VU and Another View.The Velvets were kicked off Verve in 1969 by a new president who wanted to purge controversial acts from the label (Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were another victim). They signed with Atlantic Records, who requested less controversial material and an album "loaded with hits". The result was Loaded, their swan song. Despite strong material and, indeed, some hits, the band dissolved during production when Reed left the band in August 1970.Yule attempted to continue the band, but it was over by 1973. The one resulting album, Squeeze, is usually written out of the band's canon.The band reunited once from 1992 to 1993. A live album was released featuring performances from the second reunion. Morrison's death in 1995 pretty much iced the possibility of there being any further long-term reunions of the band (although the surviving members did play in 1996 for the band's induction of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), and Reed's death in 2013 certainly ended the possibility for good. (Nico, for her part, died in 1988).
Principal Members (Founding members in bold):
Willie Alexander - keyboard, vocals (1971)
John Cale - bass, backing and lead vocals, viola, piano, celesta, organ, keyboard, sound effects (1965-1968, 1992-1993, 1996)
Angus Maclise - drums, percussion, bongos (1965, 1966, died 1979)
Sterling Morrison - guitar, bass, backing and lead vocals, sound effects (1965-1971, 1992-1993, died 1995)
Walter Powers - bass, vocals (1970-1971)
Lou Reed - lead vocals, guitar, piano (1965-1970, 1992-1993, 1996, died 2013)
Maureen Tucker - drums, percussion, backing and lead vocals (1965-1971, 1992-1993, 1996)
The Chanteuse: How Warhol named Nico to avoid the band from thinking that he was actually adding a female front singer to the group. (Which he, in a sense, did.)
Comedic Sociopathy/Comically Missing the Point: In "Sister Ray", when Cecil shoots the sailor, the narrator's only reaction is "Oh, you shouldn't do that/Don't you know you'll stain the carpet/Now don't you know you'll mess the carpet."
Cool Car: From "Sweet Jane": "Ridin' in a Stutz Bearcat, Jim..."
At least, not released. There are several rehearsal recordings in which the band are heard to play, among others, "Green Onions", "Boom Boom Boom Boom", and, amazingly, The Beatles' "Day Tripper".
Their first album? Yeah, covered entirely by BECK and a lot of musicians, who dedicated an entire day, and posted everything in Beck's website and YouTube.
"Waiting for the Man" is a concert favourite of David Bowie, and frequently makes appearances in his shows. Interestingly, he first heard it when his manager brought back an early acetate copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico before it was released. So when a young Bowie started playing it live with his band, not only was he the first person to cover the Velvets, he was the first person to do it before the Velvets even got their record out. There's got to be some kind of special achievement for that.
Creepy Monotone: Lou Reed and Nico's vocals. Cale's vocals on "The Gift" could also be considered an example.
Double Entendre: "White Light/White Heat" is a non-sexual example. The song's inspiration by amphetamines is by now well known, but its inspiration by Alice Bailey's occult book A Treatise on White Magic, which advises control of the astral body by a "direct method of relaxation, concentration, stillness and flushing the entire personality with pure White Light, with instructions on how to 'call down a stream of pure White Light'", is less so. Reed is known to have endorsed it in a 1969 interview, and he is also known to have been fond of the idea of writing songs that could be interpreted in multiple ways. Allmusic writer Richie Unterberger has more here.
Downer Ending: In perhaps one of the saddest ends to a band ever, their final album Squeeze had no original members play on it and received terrible recognition from critics and fans alike.
Epic Rocking: "Heroin", "All Tomorrow's Parties", "European Son", "The Gift", "Sister Ray", "The Murder Mystery", "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'".
The possibly unrecorded "full version" of "Sister Ray" played to open gigs on the 1968 tour, which would begin with a forty-minute intro jam called "Sweet Sister Ray" before evolving into a twenty-plus-minute version of the song itself, which in turn would sometimes be reprised at the end of the show. In other words, over an hour of each show was devoted to one epic song. There is one known bootleg recording of a live performance of "Sweet Sister Ray", but unfortunately it does not include the performance of "Sister Ray" that followed it. Another performance of "Sister Ray", which is one of three that appears on The Quine Tapes, does not include "Sweet Sister Ray" but nonetheless extends to thirty-eight minutes in length.
Other super-long live tracks include "Melody Laughter" (complete version is half an hour), "The Nothing Song" (nearly twenty-eight minutes), and "Chic Mystique" (over twenty-six minutes). These probably aren't the only ones, but all of these, as well as "Sweet Sister Ray", can be found on a bootleg box entitled Caught Between the Twisted Stars. ("Melody Laughter" and "The Nothing Song" also appear on the 45th anniversary edition of The Velvet Underground And Nico). Another lengthy song performed live, which in this case is actually a song, is "Follow the Leader", which in at least one version is over seventeen minutes long (again, see The Quine Tapes). Many other songs would also be extended dramatically when performed live; for example, "White Light/White Heat" is under three minutes long in the studio version, but live recordings exist that exceed ten minutes in length (yet again, see The Quine Tapes for an example).
Everything Is an Instrument: That ungodly noise that kicks off the instrumental portion of "European Son" is John Cale pushing a metal chair with a stack of plates on it across the studio.
Lyrical Dissonance: "The Gift", "Lady Godiva's Operation", "Sister Ray", "Who Loves the Sun".
Mind Screw: "Lady Godiva's Operation" and "The Murder Mystery".
Minimalistic Cover Art: All their albums. VU&N has an Andy Warhol-drawn banana on the cover (on the original vinyl you could peel it away, which explains the title of their boxset Peel Slowly and See), WL/WH is a blacker-than-black cover with white text and a faintly embossed picture of a tattoo, Velvet Underground is just a picture of the band, Loaded depicts a subway station with pink smoke emerging from it, VU is a picture of a VU meter and Another View is another picture of the band.
Misogyny Song: "There She Goes Again". May be a deconstruction since it's based around jealousy, an emotion Lou Reed is on record as considering "a destructive, horrible emotion" ("The Gift" and "Satellite of Love" also deconstruct jealousy).
Mistaken for Gay: Lou Reed and John Cale. According to Cale's autobiography What's Welsh For Zen, when they were making music together in the very early days of the Velvet Underground, they were seen as "weird, sadistic, aloof, and nasty," as Cale puts it, and were seen as so close to one another that everyone was certain they were gay.
Obsession Song: Several entries deal with the negative consequences of jealousy, most directly "The Gift", but also "Satellite of Love" (later remade by Reed in his solo career) and "There She Goes Again". There's an interview with Reed in which he expounds at length on how destructive an emotion he finds jealousy to be, as if the song itself didn't already make it obvious.
Record Producer: Andy Warhol, technically - his job was to just pay for the sessions and use his influence to protect the band from Executive Meddling. The sessions were engineered by Tom Wilson, but Reed does point out that Andy's name allowed them to do stuff they couldn't get away with otherwise on a debut. Reed also credits Warhol with giving him the confidence as a songwriter to follow his muse wherever it took him, regardless of how many people wanted to censor his songs.
Averted with "Sister Ray":.
Lou Reed: The engineer said, "I don't have to listen to this. I'll put it in record, and then I'm leaving. When you're done, come get me."
Shaggy Dog Story: "The Gift" (guy mails himself to girlfriend, gets killed), "Sister Ray" (huge debauched party, someone gets shot), "Lady Godiva's Operation" (transsexual goes to have some operation, gets a botched lobotomy from a sloppy doctor and dies).
Shout-Out: "European Son" is dedicated to the poet/short-story writer Delmore Schwartz, who had been one of Lou Reed's professors at Syracuse University.
Soprano and Gravel: Every band member who ever sang. We've got: Reed's Long Islander snarl (almost every tune, but he did also sing in less snarly ways, like on "Sunday Morning" and "Jesus"), Cale's smoother voice and slightly Welsh accent ("The Gift", "Lady Godiva's Operation"), Yule's even more accessible Perishing Alt Rock Voice ("Candy Says"), Tucker's girlish voice ("After Hours", "The Murder Mystery") and, of course, Nico's thick German accent ("I'll Be Your Mirrah", as Cale would imitate it).
Take That: The "Evil Mothers" who'll tell you that "Everything is just dirt" in "Sweet Jane" may have been referencing The Mothers of Invention, who's leader, the notoriously cynical and cantankerous Frank Zappa, had a significant rivalry with Lou Reed.
The "The" Title Confusion: Officially they're "The Velvet Underground", but the definite article gets lost pretty often, including in the title to this very wiki entry.
Three Chords and the Truth: They're legendary for it. They did throw in things besides guitars, but at least on their first two albums, it was all guitar-bass-drums-viola.
And organ, and glockenspiel, and tambourine, and piano, and...
Lou Reed: One chord is fine. Two chords... that's pushing it. Three chords and it's jazz.
Lou Reed:'Sister Ray' was done as a joke—no, not as a joke—but it has eight characters in it and this guy gets killed and nobody does anything. It was built around this story that I wrote about this scene of total debauchery and decay. I like to think of 'Sister Ray' as a transvestite smack dealer. The situation is a bunch of Drag Queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear.
"Sweet Jane". (Jack is in his corset, Jane is in her vest...)