The influence of the Velvet Underground on rock greatly exceeds their sales figures and chart numbers. They are one of the most important rock and roll bands of all time, laying the groundwork in the Sixties for many tangents rock music would take in ensuing decades. Yet just two of their four original studio albums ever even made Billboard’s Top 200, and that pair – The Velvet Underground and Nico (#171) and White Light/White Heat (#199) – only barely did so. If ever a band was “ahead of its time,” it was the Velvet Underground. Brian Eno, cofounder of Roxy Music and producer of U2 and others, put it best when he said that although the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many albums, everyone who bought one went on to form a band. The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, U2, R.E.M., Roxy Music and Sonic Youth have all cited the Velvet Underground as a major influence.
The Velvets’ addressed such taboo subjects as sexual deviancy (“Venus in Furs”), drug addiction (“Heroin,” “White Light/White Heat”), paranoia (“Sunday Morning”) and the urban demimonde (“All Tomorrow’s Parties”). In so doing, they brought rock and roll into theretofore unexplored experiential realms with a literary and unabashedly adult voice. Musically, the group ranged from droning, avant-garde improvisations (“Sister Ray”) to songs built upon time-tested rock and R&B foundations (“I’m Waiting for the Man”). The Velvet Underground managed to be both arty and earthy, reflecting the duality within the college-educated but streetwise Lou Reed, who wrote most of the material.
The group—vocalist/guitarist Reed, keyboardist and viola player John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker - played their first show together in 1965. The following year they were taken under the wing of artist Andy Warhol, who saw them perform at Cafe Bizarre in Greenwich Village. The Velvets soon became the house band at Warhol’s studio, the Factory, and the centerpiece of his multimedia extravaganza, the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable.” Their debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, featured a classic Warhol-designed pop-art jacket that depicted a big yellow banana. Inside were 11 songs that radically revised the rock and roll sensibility - especially two songs about drug addiction, one despondent and sobering (“Heroin”) and another a ribald slice of Harlem street life (“I’m Waiting for the Man”). Several songs, notably “Femme Fatale” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” featured the heavily accented vocals of cool German chanteuse Nico.
The Velvet Underground’s second album, White Light/White Heat was more sonically radical. Filled with leakage and distortion, its chaotic centerpiece was the 17-minute “Sister Ray.” The group’s self-titled third album was, by comparison, quiet and introspective, defined more by cautious optimism (“Beginning to See the Light”) and soul-searching (“Jesus”). By then, John Cale had left at the insistence of Reed, with whom he clashed, and was replaced by Doug Yule. Between the releases of The Velvet Underground and Loaded – officially, their fourth album – the group recorded enough unreleased material to fill two albums. Indeed, two albums of archival unearthings from 1969 were issued in the mid-Eighties as VU and Another View.
When Loaded appeared in late 1970, only Reed and Morrison remained from the original lineup. The group had switched record labels, from MGM/Verve to Atlantic/Cotillion, and adapted a more pop-oriented approach. Loaded contained some of Lou Reed’s most accessible compositions, many of them sung by the pop-voiced Doug Yule. Yet though Reed felt the album was “loaded” with hits, it was their second in a row not to chart at all. That seems inconceivable today, given its high quality and enduring influence. The album’s ten tracks were hooky and melodic, yet informed by Reed’s literary intellect, and two of them – “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll” – have become acknowledged classics. Of Loaded’s anthem to the power of popular music, Reed explained, “’Rock and Roll’ is about me. If I hadn’t heard rock and roll on the radio, I would have had no idea there was life on this planet.”
Prior to the release of Loaded, Reed left the Velvet Underground to embark on a solo career. And though a Yule-led Velvet Underground briefly kept the name alive, that was essentially the end of the story: four brilliant albums that formed a blueprint for the next three decades of rock and roll. The founding members reunited in 1993 for a brief European tour; it had been 25 years since they’d shared a stage. A double-disc documentary, Live MCMXCIII, appeared later that year. There was talk of a new studio album, but the reunion turned out to be short-lived. A new wave of interest in the Velvet Underground was stirred by the 1995 release of Peel Slowly & See, a five-CD box set that included their first four albums and numerous rarities. At their 1996 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Velvet Underground sang a new song, “Last Night I Said Goodbye to My Friend,” a tribute to guitarist Sterling Morrison, who’d died of cancer the previous year.