The antithesis of late-60s west coast love and peace, New York's The Velvet Underground portrayed a darker side to that era's hedonism. Their pulsating drive married with intellectual precision and resulted in one of rock's most innovative and lasting catalogues. Lou Reed (guitar/vocals) and John Cale (viola, bass, organ) provided a contrast in personality and approach that ensured the band's early notoriety. Reed was a contract songwriter and performer at Pickwick Records, responsible for a series of budget-priced recordings issued under several names, the best-known of which was the Primitives. Cale, a classically trained child prodigy, had secured a scholarship to study in America, but was drawn into the band's nascent circle when he contributed a viola passage to Reed's anti-dance composition 'The Ostrich'. A third member of the Primitives, Walter De Maria, was quickly replaced by Sterling Morrison (guitar), who had studied creative writing with Reed at Syracuse University. The reshaped unit was completed by drummer Angus MacLise who suggested they adopt the name 'The Velvet Underground', the title of a contemporary pulp paperback. MacLise was also instrumental in securing the band's first gigs at multimedia events and happenings, but left when they began accepting fees. He was replaced by Maureen Tucker, sister of a friend of Sterling Morrison.
The band met pop-art celebrity Andy Warhol in 1965 following an appearance at the Cafe Bizarre. He invited them to join the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a theatrical mixture of music, films, light-shows and dancing, and also suggested adding actress/singer Nico to the line-up. The band recorded their debut album in the spring of 1966 but the completed master was rejected by several major companies, fearful of both its controversial content and lengthy tracks. The Velvet Underground & Nico was eventually issued by Verve Records the following year. Infamous for Warhol's prominent involvement - he designed the distinctive peel-off banana screen print featured on its sleeve and is credited as producer - this powerful collection introduced Reed's decidedly urban infatuations, a fascination for street culture and amorality bordering on voyeurism.
Reed's talent, however, was greater than mere opportunism. His finely honed understanding of R&B enhanced a graphic lyricism whereby songs about drugs ('I'm Waiting For The Man', 'Heroin'), sadomasochism ('Venus In Furs') or sublimation ('I'll Be Your Mirror') were not only memorable for their subjects, but also as vibrant pop compositions. These skills were intensified by Cale's haunting, graphic viola work, Nico's gothic intonation and the band's combined sense of dynamism, which blended Tucker's relentless pulse with some of rock's most inspired sonic experimentation. Now rightly regarded as a musical milestone, The Velvet Underground & Nico was generally reviled on release. Contemporary radio shunned its stark ugliness and subject matter, while the disparate counter-cultures of Los Angeles and San Francisco abhorred the dank underbelly that this uncompromising band had revealed as a challenge to their floral dreams.
Nico left for a solo career in 1967 and the remaining quartet then parted from Warhol's patronage. Sessions for a second album, White Light/White Heat, exacerbated other internal conflicts and its six compositions were marked by a raging intensity. While the title track and the relentless 'I Heard Her Call My Name' suggested an affinity to 'I'm Waiting For The Man', two extended pieces, 'The Gift' and 'Sister Ray', caught the Velvet Underground at its most radical. The latter performance, a grinding, remorseless, sexual cacophony, was recorded live in the studio at maximum volume, and although Reed later suggested he was trying to approximate the free-jazz of Ornette Coleman, this 17-minute tour de force offers some of John Cale's most inspired atonal instrumental work. This pivotal figure was then removed from the band and replaced by an orthodox bass player, former Grass Menagerie member Doug Yule. A third album, entitled simply The Velvet Underground, unveiled a pastoral approach, gentler and more subtle, retaining the chilling, disquieting aura of previous releases. Now firmly within Reed's grasp, the quartet were implicit rather than direct, although moments of their previous fury were apparent on several interludes. Loaded, an album of considerable commercial promise, emphasized their new-found perspective. Released in 1970, this unfettered collection contained one of Reed's most popular compositions, 'Sweet Jane', and in celebrating pop's rich heritage, offered an optimism rarely heard in previous work. Paradoxically, by the time Loaded was issued, Lou Reed had abandoned the group he had created and Doug Yule, who had encouraged the commercial aspect of the album, now took control, leading several variations on the Velvet Underground name. A poorly received album, Squeeze, confirmed that the definitive unit ended with Reed's departure, so much so that the album is not generally perceived to be part of the band's discography.
Despite the tribulations endured during its brief life span, The Velvet Underground has since become regarded as one of rock music's most influential acts, particularly during the 80s when a new generation of performers, from Joy Division to Jesus And Mary Chain, declared their indebtedness. A series of archive releases, including 1969: Velvet Underground Live, VU and Another View, add further fuel to the talent and insight that lay within The Velvet Underground and enhance their legendary status. A rumour, followed by an announcement in 1993 that the band, without Doug Yule, had re-formed for a major tour, was greeted with anxious excitement. The subsequent performances delighted thousands of fans, with a vast percentage barely born when the band had last performed. Old wounds were opened between Cale and Reed and no further plans were imminent other than a one-off appearance together following their induction to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1996. Sadly, Sterling Morrison died only a few months before the latter event. The Velvet Underground will remain one of the most influential and imitated groups of the rock era.
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