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Music / The Velvet Underground

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The Velvet Underground, circa 1967. And Nico. Oh, and their friend Andy. From left to right: Nico, Andy Warhol, Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and John Cale.

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", Loaded

Groundbreaking independent rock band from The '60s famous for pioneering and influencing various subgenres such as noise rock, experimental rock, art rock, alternative rock, (hell, they were pretty much the first alt-rock band) and punk rock. Also infamous for their loudness, transgressive lyrics, and general too-cool-to-barely-give-a-shit attitude of their material. Overall, it's safe to say that a LOT of today's music would not have existed without them.

The Velvet Underground were formed in 1964 by dissatisfied Long Island songwriter Lou Reed and Welshman John 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 line-up 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/model 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 & Nico, was released in March 1967; it contained several now-classic songs such as "Heroin", "All Tomorrow's Parties", "Venus in Furs", "Sunday Morning", "Femme Fatale", "I'll Be Your Mirror", and "I'm Waiting for the Man". It had a muted commercial reception and few people paid attention initially despite rigorous touring, but is 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 in 1968 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 from 1969 (which was released by MGM Records, Verve's corporate parent) was a more subdued, reflective affair. Its style is most noticeable in the folky "Pale Blue Eyes" and "After Hours". Despite favourable 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/MGM but eventually released on VU and Another View.

The Velvets left MGM in 1969 and signed with Cotillion Records, a sublabel of Atlantic, 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 (1973), 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 of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma 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, with a song dedicated to Morrison), and Reed's death of liver disease in 2013 certainly ended the possibility for good. Nico, for her part, died in a cycling accident in 1988.

Principal Members (Founding members in bold):

  • John Cale - bass, backing and lead vocals, viola, piano, celesta, organ, keyboard, sound effects (1964–68, 1992–93, 1996)
  • Angus MacLise - drums, percussion, bongos, tabla (1964–65, 1966, died 1979)
  • Sterling Morrison - guitar, bass, backing and lead vocals, sound effects (1964–71, 1992–1993, died 1995)
  • Lou Reed - lead vocals, guitar, piano (1964–70, 1992–93, 1996, died 2013)
  • Maureen Tucker - drums, percussion, backing and lead vocals (1965–71, 1992–93, 1996)
  • Doug Yule - lead vocals, bass, organ, keyboard, guitar, drums, percussion (1968–73)
  • Walter Powers - bass, vocals (1970–71)
  • Willie Alexander - keyboard, vocals (1971)

Studio Discography:

Live Discography:

  • 1972 - Live at Max's Kansas City
  • 1974 - 1969: The Velvet Underground Live
  • 1993 - Live MCMXCIII
  • 2001 - Final V.U. 1971–1973
  • 2001 - Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes
  • 2015 - The Complete Matrix Tapes

Selected Compilations & Box Sets:

  • 1985 - VU note 
  • 1986 - Another View note 
  • 1995 - Peel Slowly and See note 
  • 2012 - The Verve / MGM albums note 

I'm waiting for my man, 26 tropes in my hand:

  • Addiction Song: "Heroin".
  • And I Must Scream: "The Gift" and "Lady Godiva's Operation"...
  • The Band Minus the Face: Yule's attempt to continue without Reed.
  • Black Comedy: White Light/White Heat is famous for showing the band's twisted sense of humour, as shown in "The Gift", "Lady Godiva's Operation" and "Sister Ray".
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: "Lady Godiva's Operation".
  • Call-Back: The phrase "time-time" used several times in "Sister Ray" makes a cameo in "Cool It Down".
  • Canon Discontinuity: Nobody acknowledges Squeeze (1973), despite some defenders. To be fair, it's basically a Doug Yule solo album since only he, Ian Paice and a few session musicians played on it, and the only reason it's even in the VU discography is because of their manager Steve Sesnick.
  • 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..."
  • Cool Shades: All the band, especially Reed, rocked these. Just look at the above image!
  • Cover Version: None by themselves, but the Velvets have been frequently covered by Alternative Rock bands like Joy Division, Nirvana, Galaxie 500, The Runaways and others. David Bowie also got in on the act by covering "White Light/White Heat". Earlier, The Yardbirds covered "I'm Waiting for the Man" in their live shows during the band's final months.
    • 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.
    • "I'm Waiting for the Man" was a concert favourite of David Bowie, and frequently made appearances in his shows. Interestingly, he first heard it when his manager brought back an early acetate copy of The Velvet Underground & 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.
  • Darker and Edgier: The Velvet Underground & Nico was this to most rock music of its' time, White Light/White Heat even more so.
  • 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 (1973) had no founding members play on it and received terrible recognition from most critics and fans alike.
  • Drone of Dread: A lot of their songs are based on this to the point where they could be considered the Trope Codifiers. The live piece "Melody Laughter" is a good example.
  • Drugs Are Good: Taken as a whole, "Heroin" is rather ambiguous on the matter, but it does contain the striking line "It makes me feel like I'm a man when I put a spike into my vein."
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: People familiar with their more abrasive first two albums may be surprised to find out that their 1965 demo recordings consist entirely of acoustic Folk Music. This does, however, anticipate the direction they would take on their Lighter and Softer third album, which is not entirely acoustic but certainly qualifies as Folk Rock.
  • 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 & 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.
  • Face on the Cover: Only on their third album The Velvet Underground and their compilation Another View.
  • Femme Fatale: "Femme Fatale," obviously.
  • Four More Measures: "All Tomorrow's Parties".
  • Gentleman and a Scholar: Sterling Morrison has been described as this by many people who knew him.
  • Gratuitous Panning: "The Murder Mystery" and "The Gift" being the most extreme examples.
  • Heavy Meta: "Rock and Roll".
  • Human Mail: "The Gift" explores this.
  • Improv: They did this often even in their composed songs; as The Complete Matrix Tapes attests, they never performed a song the same way twice. A good chunk of their live discography also includes songs that were completely improvised, such as "Melody Laughter" and "The Nothing Song"; however, this element of their music would drop off somewhat after John Cale left the group.
  • Invincible Classic Car: The Stutz Bearcat in "Sweet Jane".
  • Lead Bassist: Both John Cale and Doug Yule. Cale provided much of the avant-garde sound of the first two albums, and Yule contributed lead vocals to a good chunk of the last two.
  • Lighter and Softer: The Velvet Underground, Loaded, Squeeze (1973).
  • Literary Allusion Title: "Venus in Furs". The band's name itself is taken from a book about, fittingly enough, the sexual subculture of The '60s.
  • Loudness War: Surprisingly, most of their releases have averted this trope, even recent reissues. A few scattered songs on them have wound up not being particularly dynamic, but if one reviews their release history it turns out most of those songs have never been particularly dynamic, perhaps owing to the lack of percussion on many of them.
  • 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. The Velvet Underground & Nico has an Andy Warhol-drawn banana on the cover (on the original vinyl you could peel it away, which explains the title of their box set Peel Slowly and See, on which you could do the same thing), White Light/White Heat is a blacker than black cover with white text and a faintly embossed picture of a tattoo, The Velvet Underground is just a picture of the band, Loaded depicts a subway station with pink smoke emerging from it, Squeeze is a drawing of the Empire State Building with a King Kong like hand grasping the base, 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 de-construct 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.
    • According to Sterling Morrison, all the members of the band were assumed to be gay due to their association with Andy Warhol.
  • My Friends... and Zoidberg: The Velvet Underground & Nico.
  • Mythology Gag: As pointed out above, the title of the box set Peel Slowly and See.
  • New Sound Album: And how! Between their four canonical albums, the Velvets changed musical styles just as fast as any of the most well known musical chameleons.
    • The Velvet Underground & Nico showcased an eclectic mix of Psychedelic Rock, Drone Music, Avant-Garde, Proto Punk, and even Folk Music that influenced Krautrock, Punk Rock, Noise Pop, Noise Rock, Shoegaze, Dream Pop, Post-Rock, and basically every other form of alternative/experimental rock since.
    • White Light/White Heat took the noise and avant-garde elements up to eleven, with noise freakouts like the title track and "I Heard Her Call My Name", surreal narratives like "The Gift" and "Lady Godiva's Operation", the epic "Sister Ray" which combines both elements with a Proto Punk riff, and just to mess with listeners, "Here She Comes Now", a light folk song with Looped Lyrics.
    • The Velvet Underground is the complete opposite: 9 Lighter and Softer Folk Rock songs with one avant-garde track (The Murder Mystery) just to mess with listeners. Said folk songs range from normal Folk Rock (Candy Says, Pale Blue Eyes), songs that emphasize the Rock part a bit more (What Goes On), proto-Indie Folk (After Hours), and even a country song (Some Kinda Love).
    • Loaded, as the title impliesnote , is the most commercial effort in their acclaimed discography , bordering on Beatles-esque at times. It certainly worked; "Who Loves the Sun", "Sweet Jane", "Rock and Roll", and "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" still get radio play to this day (Though much like the rest of their discography, it took a bit for them to get picked up by the radio).
    • Squeeze (1973), for what it's worth, was the result of manager Steve Sesnick kicking out Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison (John Cale had already left after White Light/White Heat, and Moe Tucker wasn't present on Loaded due to her pregnancy) and effectively forcing Doug Yule to make a glorified solo record and release under the Velvet Underground name. Sonically, it takes the commercial sound of Loaded up to eleven, while lyrically it swaps out Lou Reeds cynical, poetic lyrics in favor of lyrics that sound like every other mainstream rock from The '70s. The record remains controversial among fans, and the band pretends it doesn't exist.
  • Obligatory Bondage Song: More or less invented it with "Venus in Furs." "Some Kinda Love" also qualifies.
  • 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.
  • Perishing Alt-Rock Voice: With the possible exception of the boyish-sounding Mo, pretty much every one of their vocalists. Arguably the Trope Codifier.
  • Progressive Rock: Even though the band is usually thought of as an Ur-Example of Punk Rock, the band's avant-garde classical influence (thanks to John Cale) and Reed's poetic lyrics also anticipated prog. The Velvets also influenced a lot of Krautrock bands, including Can and Neu!. Prog Archives list Cale's solo work as "prog-related".
  • Record Producer: Andy Warhol, technically — his job was to just pay for the sessions and use his influence to protect the band from executive tampering. 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. Various other people have also been credited as de facto producers for the first album, including Norman Dolph and John Licata, who were engineers for the Scepter Studios sessions, and John Cale, who is credited with coming up with many or most of the arrangements. (Interestingly, Dolph credits Cale, and Cale credits Wilson.)
    • 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."
  • Self-Titled Album: Two of them, in fact: The Velvet Underground & Nico (their debut, with their guest singer's name tacked on at the end) and The Velvet Underground (their more subdued third studio album).
  • Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll: They're The Velvet Underground.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: "The Gift" (guy mails himself to girlfriend and gets killed), "Sister Ray" (huge debauched party, someone gets shot), "Lady Godiva's Operation" (trans woman 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.
    • "Sister Ray" is named after Ray Davies.
    • From "New Age":
      "And when you kissed Robert Mitchum
      Gee, but I thought you'd never catch him"
  • Silly Love Songs: Yeah, they have one. "I Found a Reason", to be precise. "I Love You" could qualify, too, although it's hard to tell how sincere Reed is being.
  • Single Stanza Song: "European Son".
  • Sinister Shades: As seen above, very nearly the whole band wore them. Apparently they started doing this to cope with the bright lights that were a part of their live show, but it became an iconic part of their look and they began wearing them offstage as well.
  • The Something Song: "Black Angel's Death Song".
  • 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).
  • Spoken Word in Music: "The Gift", "The Murder Mystery", arguably bits of "I Found a Reason".
  • Step Up to the Microphone: "After Hours" and "I'm Sticking with You" for Maureen Tucker. Reed admitted that he gave "After Hours" to Mo on purpose because if he'd sung it, it wouldn't have sounded as innocent.
    • All four members sing lead on "The Murder Mystery": Reed and Sterling Morrison on the verses, and Yule and Tucker on the chorus.
  • 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, whose leader Frank Zappa was regarded by Lou Reed as a rival note .
  • 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 threw in things besides guitars, but at least on their first two albums, it was guitar-bass-drums-viola.
    • And organ, glockenspiel, tambourine, piano...
      Lou Reed: One chord is fine. Two chords... That's pushing it. Three chords and it's jazz.
    • They sort of Zig-Zagged this, really. They used all kinds of unorthodox and avant-garde arrangements, but Reed wanted the songs to be the kind of music anyone could play, so they're still usually pretty simple melodically.
  • Transvestite: "Sister Ray".
    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...)
  • Trope Maker:
    • For Alternative Rock and Noise Rock, pretty much. "Sunday Morning" could also be arguably the first Dream Pop song.
    • Lou Reed was pretty much the first songwriter working in popular forms of music to address issues like homosexuality, drug use, and sadomasochism in his lyrics.
  • Twist Ending: "The Gift".
  • Ur-Example: For Punk Rock (they are considered Proto Punk for a reason, after all) and Alternative Rock. As mentioned above, they also had some influence on Progressive Rock and Krautrock bands, as well, and they are sometimes cited as this for Post-Rock as well (Boléro Effect-laden songs like "Heroin" would certainly seem to support this assertion). Their self-titled third album is also cited by some as one for Slowcore, though not as much as the previous 5.
  • White-Dwarf Starlet: The "fat, blonde actress" in "New Age".
  • Word Salad Lyrics. "The Black Angel's Death Song" and "The Murder Mystery".

Alternative Title(s): Velvet Underground