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The Velvet Underground

This article is about the band. For their self-titled album, see The Velvet Underground (album); for the book, see The Velvet Underground (book)
The Velvet Underground was an American rock band first active from 1965 to 1970 (and 1970 to 1973 in a different incarnation). Their best-known members were Lou Reed and John Cale. Although never commercially successful while together, the band is often cited by many critics as one of the most important and influential groups of their era. A famous remark, often attributed to British musician Brian Eno, is that while only a few thousand people bought the first Velvet Underground record upon its release, almost every single one of them was inspired to start a band.

History

Pre-career (1964–1965)

The foundations for what would become the Velvet Underground were laid in late 1964. Singer/guitarist Lou Reed had performed with a few short-lived garage bands and had worked as a songwriter for Pickwick Records (Reed described his tenure there as being “a poor man’s Carole King”). Reed met John Cale, a Welshman who had moved to the United States to study classical music. Cale had worked with experimental composers John Cage and La Monte Young, but was also interested in rock music. Young’s use of extended drones would be a profound influence on the early Velvets’ sound. Cale was pleasantly surprised to discover Reed’s experimentalist tendencies were similar to his own: Reed sometimes used alternate guitar tunings to create a droning sound. The pair rehearsed and performed together, and their partnership and shared interests steered the early direction of what would become the Velvet Underground.

Reed’s first group with Cale was the Primitives, a short-lived group assembled to support a Reed-penned single, “The Ostrich.” Reed and Cale recruited Sterling Morrison—a college classmate of Reed’s who had already played with him a few times—to play guitar, and Angus MacLise joined on percussion. This quartet was first called the Warlocks, then the Falling Spikes.

The Velvet Underground was a book about the sexual underground of the early '60s by Michael Leigh that Cale found when he moved into his New York City apartment (left by previous tenant Tony Conrad). Reed and Morrison have reported the group liked the name, considering it evocative of “underground cinema,” and fitting, due to Reed’s already having written “Venus in Furs,” inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s book of the same name, dealing with masochism. The band immediately and unanimously adopted the book's title for its new name.

Early stages (1965–1966)

The newly named Velvet Underground rehearsed and performed in New York City. Their music was generally much more relaxed than it would later become: Cale described this era as reminiscent of beat poetry, with MacLise playing gentle “pitter and patter rhythms behind the drone.”

In July 1965, Reed, Cale and Morrison recorded a demo tape at their Ludlow Street loft. When he briefly returned to Britain, Cale gave a copy of the tape to Marianne Faithfull, hoping she’d pass it on to Mick Jagger. Nothing ever came of the demo, but it was eventually released on the 1995 box set Peel Slowly and See.

Manager and music journalist Al Aronowitz arranged for the group's first paying gig - $75 to play at Summit High School, in Summit, New Jersey. When the group decided to take the gig, MacLise left the group, protesting what he considered a sellout. “Angus was in it for art,” Morrison reported.

MacLise was replaced by Maureen “Moe” Tucker, the younger sister of Jim Tucker, a friend of Morrison. Tucker’s abbreviated drum kit was rather unusual: she generally played on tom toms and an upturned bass drum, using mallets as often as drumsticks, and she rarely used cymbals. (The band having asked her to do something unusual, she turned her bass drum on its side and played standing up. When her drums were stolen from one club, she replaced them with garbage cans, brought in from outside.) Her rhythms, at once simple and exotic (influenced by the likes of Babatunde Olatunji and Bo Diddley records), became a vital part of the group’s music. The group earned a regular paying gig at a club and gained an early reputation as a promising ensemble.

Andy Warhol and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966–1967)

Andy Warhol became the band’s manager in 1965 and suggested they feature the German-born singer Nico on several songs. Warhol’s reputation helped the band gain a higher profile. Warhol helped the band secure a coveted recording contract with MGM’s Verve Records, with himself as nominal “producer,” and gave the Velvets free rein over the sound they created.

During their stay with Andy Warhol, the band became part of his multimedia roadshow, Exploding Plastic Inevitable, for which they provided the music. They played shows for several months in New York City, then traveled throughout the United States and Canada until its last installment in May 1967. The show included 16 mm film projections and colors by Warhol.

In 1966 MacLise temporarily rejoined the Velvet Underground for a few EPI shows when Reed was suffering from hepatitis and unable to perform. For these appearances, Cale sang and played organ and Tucker switched to bass guitar. Also at these appearances, the band often played an extended jam they had dubbed “Booker T,” after the leader of the musical group Booker T. and the MG’s; the jam later became the music for “The Gift” on White Light/White Heat. Some of these performances have been released as a bootleg; they remain the only record of MacLise with the Velvet Underground. MacLise was said to be eager to rejoin the group now that they’d found some fame, but Reed specifically prohibited this.

In December 1966, Warhol and David Dalton designed Issue 3 of the multimedia Aspen. Included in this issue of the "magazine," which retailed at $4 per copy and was packaged in a hinged box designed to look like Fab laundry detergent, were various leaflets and booklets, one of which was a commentary on rock and roll by Lou Reed, another an EPI promotional newspaper. Also enclosed was a 2-sided flexi disk, side one produced by Peter Walker, a musical associate of Timothy Leary, and side two titled “Loop,” credited to the Velvet Underground but actually recorded by Cale alone. “Loop,” a recording solely of pulsating audio feedback culminating in a locked groove, was “a precursor to [Reed’s] Metal Machine Music,” say Velvets archivists M.C. Kostek and Phil Milstein in the book The Velvet Underground Companion. Indeed, “Loop” predates Reed’s almost identical concept (Metal Machine Music being a double album, obviously with different feedback, also concluding side four with a locked groove) by nearly ten years ("Loop" also predates much industrial music as well). More significantly, from a retail standpoint, “Loop” was the group’s first commercially available recording as the Velvet Underground.

The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

At Warhol's insistence, Nico sang with the band on three songs of their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. The album was recorded primarily in Scepter Studios in New York City during April 1966. It was released by Verve Records in March 1967.

The album cover was famous for its Warhol design: a bright yellow banana with “Peel slowly and see” printed near a perforated tab. Those who did remove the banana skin found a pink, peeled banana beneath. This gimmick would later be repeated on the cover of one of several Velvet Underground boxed sets, also titled Peel Slowly and See, released in 1995.

Eleven songs showcased their dynamic range, veering from the pounding attacks of "I’m Waiting for the Man" and "Run Run Run," the droning "Venus in Furs" and "Heroin" to the quiet "Femme Fatale" and the tender "I’ll Be Your Mirror," as well as Warhol's own favorite song of the group, "All Tomorrow's Parties."

The overall sound was propelled by Reed’s deadpan vocals, Cale's droning viola, Morrison's often rhythm and blues– or country-influenced guitar, and Tucker’s simple but steady beat.

The album was released on March 12, 1967, peaking at #171 on Billboard magazine's Top 200 charts. The promising commercial début of the album was dampened somewhat by legal complications: the album’s back cover featured a photo of the group playing live with another image projected behind them; the projected image was a still from a Warhol motion picture, Chelsea Girls. The film’s cinematographer, Eric Emerson, had been arrested for drug possession and, desperate for money, claimed the still had been included on the album without his permission (in the image his face appears quite big, but upside down). MGM Records pulled all copies of the album until the legal problems were settled (by which time the record had lost its modest commercial momentum), and the still was airbrushed out.

White Light/White Heat (1968)

After the VU severed its relationship with Andy Warhol and Nico, they recorded their second album in September 1967, White Light/White Heat, with Tom Wilson as producer.

The Velvet Underground performed live often, and their performances became louder, harsher and often featured extended improvisations. Cale reports that at about this time the Velvet Underground was one of the first groups to receive an endorsement from Vox. The company pioneered a number of special effects, which the Velvet Underground utilized on White Light/White Heat.

The recording was raw and oversaturated. Cale has stated that while the debut had some moments of fragility and beauty, White Light/White Heat was “consciously anti-beauty.” The title track and first song starts things off with Lou Reed pounding on the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis. The eerie, hallucinatoryLady Godiva’s Operation” remains Reed’s favorite track on the album. Despite the dominance of noisefests like “Sister Ray” and “I Heard Her Call My Name,” there was room for the darkly comic “The Gift,” a short story written by Reed and narrated by Cale in his deadpan Welsh accent. The meditative “Here She Comes Now” was later covered by Galaxie 500, R.E.M., Cabaret Voltaire, and Nirvana.

The album was released on January 30, 1968, entering the Billboard Top 200 chart for two weeks, at number 199.

However, tensions were growing: the group was tired of receiving little recognition for its work, and Reed and Cale were pulling the Velvet Underground in different directions. The differences showed in the last recording session the band had with John Cale in February 1968: two pop-like songs in Reed’s direction (“Temptation Inside Your Heart” and “Stephanie Says”) and a viola-driven drone in Cale’s direction (“Hey Mr. Rain”). (None of these songs was released until they were included on the VU and Another View compilation albums.) Further, some songs the band had performed with Cale in concert, or that he had co-written, were not recorded until after he had left the group (such as “Walk It and Talk It,” “Guess I’m Falling in Love,” “Ride into the Sun,” and “Countess from Hong Kong”).

The Velvet Underground (1969)

Before work on their third album started, Cale was eased out of the band and was replaced by Doug Yule of Boston group the Glass Menagerie, who had opened several VU shows. The Velvet Underground was recorded in late 1968 (released in March 1969). The cover photograph was taken by Billy Name. Released on March 12, 1969, the album failed to make Billboard’s Top 200 album chart.

It has often been reported that the early edition of the Velvet Underground was a struggle between Reed and Cale's creative impulses: Reed's rather conventional approach contrasted with Cale's experimentalist tendencies. According to Tim Mitchell, however, Morrison reported that there was creative tension between Reed and Cale but that its impact has been exaggerated over the years.

In any case, the harsh, abrasive tendencies on the first two records were almost entirely absent on their third platter, The Velvet Underground. This resulted in a gentler sound influenced by folk music, prescient of the songwriting style that would form Reed's solo career. Another factor in the change of sound was the band's Vox amplifiers and assorted fuzzboxes being stolen from an airport while they were on tour; they obtained replacements by signing a new endorsement deal with Sunn. In addition, Reed and Morrison had purchased matching Fender 12-string electric guitars. Doug Yule plays down the influence of the new equipment, however.

Morrison's ringing guitar parts and Yule's melodic bass guitar and harmony vocals are featured prominently on the album. Reed's songs and singing are subdued and confessional, and he shared lead vocals with Yule, particularly when his own voice would fail under stress. Doug Yule sang the lead vocal on "Candy Says", which opens the LP, and a rare Maureen Tucker vocal is featured on "After Hours," a song that Reed said was so innocent and pure he couldn't possibly sing it himself. The album's influence can be heard in many later indie rock and lo-fi recordings.

Year on the road and the "lost" fourth album (1969)

The Velvet Underground spent much of 1969 on the road, feeling they were not accepted in their hometown of New York City and not making much headway commercially. The live album 1969: The Velvet Underground Live was recorded in October 1969 and released in 1974 on Mercury Records at the urging of rock critic Paul Nelson, who worked in A&R for Mercury at the time. Nelson asked singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy to write liner notes for the double album which began, “I wish it was a hundred years from today….”

During the same year, the band recorded on and off in the studio, creating a lot of material that was never officially released due to disputes with their record label. What many consider the prime of these sessions was released many years later as VU. This album has a transitional sound between the whisper-soft third album and the pop-rock songs of their final record, Loaded.

The rest of the recordings, as well as some alternate takes, were bundled on Another View. After Reed’s departure, he later reworked a number of these songs for his solo records (“Stephanie Says,” “Ocean,” “I Can’t Stand It,” “Lisa Says,” “She’s My Best Friend”). Indeed, most of Reed’s early solo career’s more successful hits were reworked Velvet Underground tracks (albeit, the ones he wrote), released for the first time in their original version on VU, Another View, and later on Peel Slowly and See.

Loaded (1970)

In 1969 MGM Records president Mike Curb wanted to purge any drug or hippie-related bands from MGM, and the Velvets were on his list, along with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. Nonetheless, MGM insisted on keeping the tapes of their unissued recordings.

Atlantic Records signed the Velvet Underground for what would be its final studio album with Lou Reed: Loaded, released on Atlantic’s subsidiary label Cotillion. The album’s title refers to Atlantic’s request that the band produce an album “loaded with hits”. Though the record was not the smash hit the company had anticipated, it contains the most accessible pop the VU had performed, and several of Reed’s best-known songs, including "Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll.”

Though Tucker had temporarily retired from the group due to her pregnancy, she received a performance credit on Loaded. Except on a few songs, drums were actually played by several people, including Yule, engineer Adrian Barber, session musician Tommy Castanaro, and Doug Yule’s brother Billy, who was still in high school.

Disillusioned with the lack of progress the band was making and pressured by manager Steve Sesnick, Reed decided to quit the band in August 1970. The band essentially dissolved while recording the album, and Reed walked off just before it was finished. Lou Reed has often said he was completely surprised when he saw Loaded in stores. He also said, bitterly, “I left them to their album full of hits that I made.”

However, Reed was particularly bitter about a verse being edited from the Loaded version of “Sweet Jane.” “New Age” was changed as well: as originally recorded, its closing line (“It’s the beginning of a new age”) was repeated many more times. A brief interlude in “Rock and Roll” was also removed. (Years later, the album would be reissued with the edits restored.) On the other hand, Yule has pointed out that the album was to all intents and purposes finished when Reed left the band and that Reed had been aware of most, if not all, of the edits. The few weeks between Reed’s departure in late August and Loaded’s arrival in the shops in September of the same year also would have left little room for the whole process of editing, reviewing, mastering and pressing.

The Doug Yule years (1970-1973)

Even though Loaded’s spin-off single “Who Loves the Sun” had little success, “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll” became U.S. radio favorites, and the band, featuring Walter Powers on bass, with Doug Yule promoted to lead vocals and guitar, went on the road once more, playing the U.S. East Coast and Europe. By that time, however, Sterling Morrison had obtained a B.A. degree in English, and left the group for an academic career with the University of Texas at Austin. His replacement was singer/keyboard player Willie Alexander. The band played shows in England, Wales, and the Netherlands, some of which are collected on the 2001 box set Final V.U..

In 1972 Atlantic released Live at Max's Kansas City, a live bootleg of the Velvet Underground’s final performance with Reed, recorded by fan Brigid Polk on August 23, 1970. Meanwhile, the Doug Yule-fronted edition of the band was touring the United Kingdom when Sesnick managed to secure a recording contract with Polydor Records in England. He then allegedly sent Tucker, Powers and Alexander back to the US (effectively ending their tenures with the group) while Yule recorded the album Squeeze under the Velvet Underground name virtually by himself, with only the assistance of Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice and a few other session musicians.

Prior to the release of Squeeze, a new Velvet Underground lineup was assembled to tour the UK to promote the upcoming album. This version of The Velvet Underground consisted of Yule, Rob Norris (guitar), George Kay (bass guitar) and Mark Nauseef (drums). Sesnick left the band shortly before the tour started, and Yule left when the brief tour ended in December of 1972.

Squeeze was released a few months later in February 1973, in Europe only. The album is a controversial item among Velvet fans, generally held in low regard by fans and critics: Stephen Thomas Erlewine notes that the album received “uniformly terrible reviews” upon initial release, and was often "deleted" from official V.U. discographies.

Although Yule had theoretically put an end to The Velvet Underground in late 1972, in the spring of 1973 a covers band featuring Doug Yule (vocal guitar), Billy Yule (drums), George Kay (bass) and Don Silverman (guitar) played the New England bar circuit, and was billed as The Velvet Underground by the tour's manager. (The Yule brothers and Kay had all previously played in various Velvet Underground incarnations.) The band members objected to the billing, and in late May 1973, the band and the tour manager parted ways.

Post-VU developments (1972–1990)

Reed, Cale and Nico teamed up at the beginning of 1972 to play two concerts in London and Paris. The Paris concert performed at the Bataclan club was bootlegged, finally receiving an official release as Le Bataclan '72 in 2003.

In 1973, Yule undertook a short tour leading a group that was billed as The Velvet Underground despite his protests; Yule fired the tour manager, and the tour dissolved after a handful of performances.

Reed and Cale, in the meantime, developed solo careers. Nico had also begun a solo career with Cale producing a majority of her albums. Sterling Morrison was a professor for some time, teaching Medieval Literature at the University of Texas at Austin, then became a tugboat captain for several years. Maureen Tucker raised a family before returning to small-scale gigging and recording in the 1980s; Morrison was in a number of touring bands, among others with Tucker’s band.

In 1985 Polydor released the album VU, which collected unreleased recordings that might have constituted the band's fourth album for MGM in 1969 but had never been released. Some of the songs had been recorded when Cale was still in the band. More unreleased recordings of the band, some of them demos and unfinished tracks, were released in 1986 as Another View.

On July 18, 1988, Nico, the German-born singer and early associate of The Velvet Underground, died of a cerebral hemorrhage following a bicycle accident.

Czech dissident playwright Václav Havel was a fan of the Velvet Underground, ultimately becoming a friend of Lou Reed. Though some attribute the name of the 1989 “Velvet Revolution,” which ended more than 40 years of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, to the band, Reed points out that in fact the name Velvet Revolution derives from its peaceful nature—that no one was physically killed (“hurt”) during those events. After Havel’s election as president, first of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic, Reed visited him in Prague. On 16 September, 1998, at Havel’s request, Reed performed in the White House at a state dinner in Havel’s honor hosted by President Bill Clinton.

Reunions (1990-1996)

In 1990, Reed and Cale released Songs for Drella, dedicated to the recently deceased Andy Warhol. (“Drella” was a nickname Warhol had been given, a combination of “Dracula” and “Cinderella”.) Though Morrison and Tucker had each worked with Reed and Cale since the V.U. broke up, Songs for Drella was the first time the pair had worked together in decades, and rumors of a reunion began to circulate, fueled by the one-off appearance by Reed, Cale, Morrison and Tucker to play "Heroin" as the encore to a brief Songs for Drella set in Jouy-en-Josas, France.

The Reed–Cale–Morrison–Tucker lineup officially reunited as "The Velvet Underground" in 1992, commencing activities with a European tour beginning in Edinburgh on June 1, 1993, and featuring a performance at Glastonbury which garnered an NME front cover. Cale sang most of the songs Nico had originally performed. As well as headlining, the Velvets performed as supporting act for five dates of U2’s Zoo TV Tour.

Given the success of The Velvet Underground's European reunion tour, a series of US tour dates were proposed, as was an MTV Unplugged broadcast, and possibly even some new studio recordings. However, before any of this could come to fruition, Cale and Reed fell out again, breaking up the band once more.

On August 30, 1995, Sterling Morrison died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

When the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, Lou Reed and John Cale reformed the Velvet Underground for the last time, with Maureen Tucker in tow. Doug Yule was absent. At the ceremony, the band was inducted by singer/poet Patti Smith, and the band performed "Last Night I Said Goodbye to My Friend", written in tribute to Morrison.

The Velvet Underground continues to exist as a New York–based partnership managing the financial and back catalog aspects for the band members, but no performances will be forthcoming. The April 15, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone ranked the band #19 on its list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time".

Lineups

Year Band Recordings
Vocals,
guitar
Multiple instruments, vocals Guitar Percussion
April–November 1965 Lou Reed John Cale Sterling Morrison Angus MacLise Disc 1 of Peel Slowly and See (1995; minus MacLise)
December 1965–September 1968 Lou Reed John Cale Sterling Morrison Maureen Tucker The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967), White Light/White Heat (1968), two tracks on VU (1985), three tracks on Another View (1986), discs 2–3 of Peel Slowly and See (1995)
September 1968–August 1970 Lou Reed Doug Yule Sterling Morrison Maureen Tucker The Velvet Underground (1969), Loaded (1970; minus Tucker), Live at Max's Kansas City (1972; minus Tucker), 1969: The Velvet Underground Live (1974), eight tracks on VU (1985), six tracks on Another View (1986), discs 4–5 of Peel Slowly and See (1995), Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes (2001)
  Vocals, guitar Bass guitar Guitar Drums  
November 1970–August 1971 Doug Yule Walter Powers Sterling Morrison Maureen Tucker Studio demo of two songs, "She'll Make You Cry" and "Friends" (as yet unreleased)
  Vocals, guitar Bass guitar Keyboards, vocals Drums  
October 1971–December 1971 Doug Yule Walter Powers Willie Alexander Maureen Tucker Discs 1–2 and part of disc 4 of Final V.U. 1971-1973 (2001)
  Vocals, multiple instruments        
January 1972–February 1973 Doug Yule --- --- --- Squeeze (1973), discs 3–4 of Final V.U. (2001; both with hired hands)
  Vocals, guitar Multiple instruments, vocals Guitar Percussion  
June 1990; November 1992–July 1993 Lou Reed John Cale Sterling Morrison Maureen Tucker Live MCMXCIII (1993)
1996 Lou Reed John Cale Maureen Tucker Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony

Temporary, live and studio members

  • Angus MacLise — sat in on percussion with Tucker switching to bass guitar and Cale and Morrison to lead vocals during a Chicago engagement when Reed was taken ill with hepatitis, June–July 1966.
  • Nico — collaborator on vocals with the band on four tracks off The Velvet Underground and Nico and several Exploding Plastic Inevitable engagements, 1966–1967. In addition, about half of the tracks on Nico's 1967 debut LP, Chelsea Girl, feature songs written by and/or featuring Reed, Cale and Morrison. These tracks are generally considered Velvet Underground songs, to the extent that some songs are included on compilations like the Peel Slowly and See box set and the Gold 2-CD set.
  • Billy Yule — stand-in on drums for a pregnant Tucker on three tracks off Loaded and at the Max's Kansas City 1970 engagement, including Live at Max's Kansas City; and the 1973 Boston engagement.
  • Tommy Castanaro — stand-in on drums for a pregnant Tucker on two tracks off Loaded.
  • Adrian Barber — stand-in on drums for a pregnant Tucker on a number of tracks off Loaded.
  • Larry Estridge — tour stand-in (bass guitar) for Walter Powers, June 1971.
  • Rob Norris — tour member (guitar) for the 1972 UK Squeeze tour.
  • George Kay — tour member (bass guitar) for the 1972 UK Squeeze tour and the 1973 Boston engagement.
  • Don Silverman — tour member (guitar) for the 1972 UK Squeeze tour.
  • Mark Nauseef — tour member (drums) for the 1972 UK Squeeze tour.
  • Ian Paice — session musician (drums) for Squeeze (1973).

Discography

References

External links

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