The Velvet Underground (abbreviated as The Velvets or V.U.) were an American rock and roll band of the late 1960s.
Although never commercially successful, The Velvet Underground remain one of the most influential bands of their time: a famous remark, often attributed to Brian Eno, is that while only a few thousand people bought a Velvet Underground record, almost every single one of them was inspired to start a band. This is certainly an overstatement, but it does demonstrate their massive influence and cult following that has outlasted the group's five-year existence.
The Velvet Underground were one of the first rock music groups to experiment with the form, and to incorporate avant-garde influences. Credited with establishing a genre known as 'anti-pop', the group's often raw sound would influence many later punk, noise rock, and alternative music performers, and singer Lou Reed's lyrics brought new levels of poetic sophistication and social realism to rock. Critics Scott Isler and Ira Robbins argue that "The Velvet Underground marked a turning point in rock history. After the release of The Velvet Underground and Nico, knowing the power of which it was capable, the music could never be as innocent, as unselfconscious as before."
Willie Alexander (keyboards, vocals 19711972);
John Cale (bass guitar, electrically amplified viola, keyboards, vocals 19651968, 19921994);
Angus MacLise (percussion 1965);
Sterling Morrison (guitar, bass guitar, backing vocals 19651971, 19921994);
Walter Powers (bass guitar, backing vocals 19701972)
Lou Reed (vocals, guitar, piano, harmonica 19651970, 19921994);
Maureen Moe Tucker (percussion, vocals 19651972, 19921994);
Doug Yule (bass guitar, keyboards, guitar, drums, vocals 19681973)
The foundations for what would become The Velvet Underground were laid in late 1964. Lou Reed had performed with a few short-lived garage bands and had worked as a songwriter for Pickwick Records, a job Reed described as "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 John Cage and LaMonte Young, but was also interested in rock music. (Young's use of extended drones would be a profound influence on the early Velvet's 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 short-lived The Primitives, assembled to support a Reed-penned single, "The Ostrich". Reed and Cale recruited Sterling Morrison who'd already played with Reed 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 sadomasochism by Michael Leigh the group found left in the street. Morrison has 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, also dealing with sadomasochism.
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 beatnik poetry, with MacLise playing gentle "pitter and patter rhythms behind the drone".
In July of 1965, Reed, Cale and Morrison recorded a demo tape. When he briefly returned to England, Cale gave a copy of the tape to Marianne Faithful, hoping she'd pass it on to Mick Jagger. Nothing ever came of the demo, and it was released on the 1995 box set Peel Slowly and See.
When the group accepted an offer of $75 for their first paying performance at a high school, MacLise left the group, protesting what he considered commercialization. "Angus was in it for art", Morrison reported.
MacLise was replaced by Maureen "Mo" Tucker, an acquaintance of Morrison's. Tucker's abbreviated drum kit was rather unusual: She generally played on tom toms and an upturned bass drum, using mallets rather than drumsticks, and she rarely used cymbals. Her driving rhythms (at once simple yet exotic) became an essential 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.
While the American west coast was undergoing the Summer of Love, psychedelia and flower power, the typically east coast Velvets concerned themselves with darker subject matter: transvestites, heroin addiction, and sadomasochism. Also setting them apart from their contemporaries was their use of feedback and amplifier noise in a musical context, exemplified by the seventeen minute track "Sister Ray" from their second album.
Enter Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol became the band's manager in 1965, and suggested they feature the German singer Nico on several songs. Warhol's reputation certainly helped the band gain a higher profile. Though Reed eventually fired Warhol, he praised the integrity of his early efforts with the group. Warhol gave the Velvets unprecedented free reign over the sound they produced.
In 1966, MacLise temporarily rejoined the Velvet Underground for a few weeks when Reed was suffering from hepatitis and unable to perform at a number of scheduled concerts. 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 "The Booker T", after the leader of the musical group Booker T & 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.
The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
At Warhol's insistence, Nico joined the V.U. on their debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico. The album was recorded in one or two days there is some disagreement in the band members' memories and released by MGM Records in March of 1967.
The album cover was famous for its simple, suggestive 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, phallic, peeled banana beneath. This would later be used as the cover to their boxed set, appropriately titled "Peel Slowly and See," released in 1995.
Eleven songs showcased their stylistic 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".
The overall sound was propelled by Reed's strong deadpan vocals, Cale's droning or shrieking viola, Morrison's often R&B or country-influenced guitar, and Tucker's hypnotically simple but steady, propulsive beat.
The Velvet Underground and Nico peaked at number 171 on Billboard Magazine's top 200 charts, but the promising debut was muted somewhat by legal complications: The album's back cover featured a still from a Warhol motion picture, Chelsea Girls. The film's cinematographer had been arrested for drug possession, and, desperate for money, claimed the still had been included on the album without his permission. MGM Records pulled all copies of the album until the legal problems were settled.