“I just wanted to cram everything into a record that these people had ignored which left me everything.”
– Lou Reed to Joe Smith for blankonblank
The era of the late Sixties usually brings to mind the West Coast, naked hippies cavorting in festival grounds, flower power, psychedelia and LSD. But there was a band that resolutely bucked the trend. They were the anti-‘anti-establishment’ and in contrast to sunny California, they resided within the urban decay of New York City’s Lower East Side, instead of festivals, city dwellers danced to their music at the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry, and rather than hallucinogens, they celebrated heroin. And even though they were derided by the critics and sold very few albums during their lifespan, they later influenced nearly every indie rock band from Sonic Youth to The Strokes.
The Velvet Underground was founded by two contrarians: Lou Reed, a middle class Jewish kid with a troubled upbringing and a BA in English who churned out pop fodder for Pickwick Records, and John Cale, a Welshman who had performed with La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music (an ensemble famous for holding a single note for several days and screaming at a plant until it died) and was over in New York City on a Leonard Bernstein scholarship to study classical viola.
Under the moniker The Primitives, Reed had a small hit with a record he quickly penned for Pickwick who wanted to cash in on the dance craze sweeping America in the mid-Sixties. Asked to perform his single ‘The Ostrich’ on television, Reed had to quickly assemble a real band and brought in John Cale with whom he had had a chance meeting. The two bonded over music and also (in Reed’s words) ‘dope’, and started jamming and writing songs that would later appear on The Velvet Underground albums.
With former Syracuse University colleague and intellectual Sterling Morrison and the quiet younger sister of a friend Moe Tucker solidifying the line-up, the Velvet Underground secured a residency at Cafe Bizarre in 1965. They may have faded into obscurity if Andy Warhol hadn’t been in the audience one particular night. Warhol had been working on a multimedia idea for his Film Festival in which he wanted to project the films onto the actors onstage. His Factory denizens then thought it would be a great idea to add music and VU fit the bill.
The Velvets became the nexus of Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable and around their performance revolved visual media such as films and a relentless light show which forced the band to wear sunglasses on stage, and in the process created even more of a mystique. Warhol also took on managerial duties for VU and after a host of rejections, he managed to secure them a record deal with MGM/Verve. He insisted that they feature the stunning German chanteuse who had wow-ed the uber-cool Factory family with her detached glamour, Nico.
The band recorded most of the debut album in a few days in Scepter, a decrepit recording studio, for less than $3000. Even though Warhol is listed as the album’s producer, it would certainly be too great a leap to even imagine him sitting at the mixing desk and barking at Reed for another vocal take. John Cale told an interviewer, “Andy Warhol didn’t do anything.”
In 1989, Lou Reed reasoned why Warhol deserved that accolade in an interview with Musician: “He just made it possible for us to be ourselves and go right ahead with it because he was Andy Warhol. In a sense, he really did produce it, because he was this umbrella that absorbed all the attacks when we weren’t large enough to be attacked… and as a consequence of him being the producer, we’d just walk in and set up and do what we always did and no one would stop it because Andy was the producer. Of course he didn’t know anything about record production—but he didn’t have to. He just sat there and said “Oooh, that’s fantastic,” and the engineer would say, “Oh yeah! Right! It is fantastic, isn’t it?””
Warhol did help finance the album along with Norman Dolph, a Columbia Records sales exec who also acted as an engineer along with John Licata. This may partially explain the lack of clarity and overall fuzziness of many of the songs although the few that were recorded in LA have a cleaner sonic. It has later been said that Tom Wilson produced most of it and the feel and arrangement has been put down to John Cale who himself later produced albums for Patti Smith, The Modern Lovers and Squeeze.
The resulting album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, is unlike anything that came before it. There is the stark, deadpan icy beauty of Nico’s vocals on beautifully cultivated pop-like songs “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Femme Fatale” and then married with the avant-garde on “All Tomorrow’s Parties”.
The drones of La Monte Young underpin some of the album’s songs like ‘European Son’ while Mo Tucker and her minimalist drum kit deliver Bo Diddley and Babatunde Olatunji-inspired rhythms that underpin the entire record. And on many tracks like ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ and ‘Run, Run, Run’ repetition is the order of the day.
In fact throughout the entire album you will be hard pressed to find any kind of virtuosic soloing. Reed later told Guitar World, “The Velvet Underground, we were about parts, although some of the solo work grew out of having discovered feedback on electric guitar and liking that. I was just trying to get the good feedback and get rid of the bad feedback. It was a matter of where you stood in those days… But we had a rule in the Velvet Underground: no blues licks. There were people who were really good at that. But that’s not what we were about.”
Musically they were the polar opposite of the indulgent riff-ing of West Coast acts like The Grateful Dead and they were similarly at odds in terms of their lyrical content. With songs like ‘Heroin’ with lines like “Its my wife and its my life”, Reed revealed the darker side of drug culture. He also delved into other themes like masochism in ‘Venus in Furs’ but didn’t understand all of the fuss as he told Joe Smith, “I got a little puzzled at how savage the reaction was against us was. How savage and decadent and look at what these songs are about. They didn’t even know Venus in Furs was a book …
“Stuff like this had been in novels and i write a song called heroin and you would of thought I murdered the Pope or something. It should have been, ‘Now we can get a lot of people who have talent for writing into rock n roll and now we’ll all write about real adult stuff.’ I wanted to write rock n’ roll that you could listen to as you got older and wouldn’t lose anything. It would be timeless – the subject matter and the literacy of the lyrics.” According to Reed, “I wanted to write the Great American Novel, but I also wanted to be in Rock n’ Roll.”
Aside from its content, the album was plagued by other issues such as expense of the album cover with its peeling banana and a legal claim of $500,000 made by Factory actor Eric Emerson whose image was projected in the photo on the album cover. The distribution was cancelled for two months until the legal problems were settled. And when it came back into the shops, it was up against the behemoth of ‘Sgt. Pepper’.
At a time when the album was becoming king, The Velvet Underground and Nico only sold 30,000 copies but as Brian Eno famously said “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” In fact, it would be easier to list the experimental or independent rock outfits the Velvet Underground didn’t inspire and it is far too obvious to create a list. But Reed’s later words say it all: “What we had was ambition and a goal … to elevate the rock and roll song and take it where it hadn’t been taken before.”