Which is better? To be popular in your time or revered in the following decades? The Beatles had both, the Velvet Underground only achieved the latter. In subsequent years, David Bowie, Patti Smith and countless others listed the Velvets as major influences. The Velvets even got credit for inspiring Punk and New Wave.
Bands usually start with a sound that's a little adventurous but still not to far from the mainstream. From there they might take their audience on a quixotic journey. But the Velvet Underground started far, far left of center, where they were at their best, and moved toward the mainstream.
Groups often have a patron. It's usually some producer, manager, fellow musician or record label exec, but rarely is it a pop-art icon. The Velvet Underground had Andy Warhol. The art world's Truman Capote.
The Velvet Underground started like any other band, a partnership of two driving forces: guitarist/vocalist Lou Reed, a man into serious poetry, and a Welch born, classically trained musician, bassist/multi-instrumentalist (including cello) John Cale. They began in NY as the Primitives with Reed, Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and the sister of one of his friends, drummer Maureen Tucker. The group ventured down an original, but clearly un-commercial, road. And if not for Andy Warhol, the Velvets might have come and gone like numerous groups who were a month to six weeks ahead of their time.
Seeing the Velvets during a '65 club gig, the self-promoting "soup can" artist became the group's manager and used them in his mixed media presentations, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. He also added or embedded Nico in the group. A deep voiced, European model/chanteuse, she was reluctantly accepted though Reed remained the primary vocalist. The following year Warhol produced the VU's debut. Often known as "the banana album" due to the Warhol-designed cover, it contains several landmark songs including "Heroin," "All Tomorrow's Parties," "Venus in Furs," and "Sunday Morning." But the album was held up for nearly a year due to record label (Verve/MGM) politics, and when it was finally released it barely registered. The album was obviously beyond the friendly confines of Top 40 radio. Underground FM radio was around but it was still in its infancy and couldn't provide any real help. As a result, the album barely grazed the Top 200. Ironically, even as the Velvets moved toward the mainstream with later recordings, this album represented a chart best. Years later, while discussing Velvet Underground's influence, Brian Eno stated that only 100 people bought the group's debut album, but all of them became musicians. No doubt.
Soon Nico was out (fired or left) and the relationship with Warhol dissipated. The artist just didn't have the time required to devote to the group. Frustrated that their album hadn't broken through, the Velvets launched a U.S. tour prior to the release of the often abrasive and noisy "White Light/White Heat."
'68 saw relations between Reed and Cale, both temperamental and egotistical, reach a nadir with Reed saying he would leave if Cale wasn't sacked. Morrison and Tucker sided with Reed. Doug Yule, eventually the last man standing, became Cale's replacement.
VU's self-titled '69 release, their third album, featured a more conventional and less confrontational approach. But like its predecessor, the album failed to have much commercial impact. Verve/MGM had more or less abandoned the group anyway.
A move to Atlantic Records looked promising but a pregnant Tucker had to sit out the "Loaded" sessions. She was replaced by Yule's brother Billy. The album was the Velvets' most mainstream effort and was known for a pair of classics, "Rock and Roll" and "Sweet Jane." Following a lengthy NY gig Reed bailed, eventually launching an impressive solo career. Tucker returned but she and Morrison soon departed leaving Doug Yule to run the show, which he did for one album ("Squeeze") using replacement players and none of the group's original members. The effort is best forgotten.
In the '90s, the Velvet Underground was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Reed dodged a bullet in '13 when it was announced that he was dying "of liver failure." The singer underwent a liver transplant and claimed he was "stronger than ever." He credited both "modern medicine" and tai chi with saving his life.
Then came news that Velvet Underground had settled a dispute with the Andy Warhol Foundation over the rights to use the famous banana cover Warhol designed for the band's '67 album, "The Velvet Underground and Nico." The "confidential settlement" ended a dispute that had begun four years earlier.
1967 The Velvet Underground & Nico
1968 White Light/White Heat
1969 The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground rode Reed's talking-singing (but mostly talking) vocals. Often opaque and impenetrable, Reed's lyrics had a surreal, taunting quality. The group, especially on acoustic songs, sounded like Bob Dylan on acid with John Cage sitting in. When they cranked it up, the songs recklessly jumped and squealed like out of control Punk. Of course, Punk was still a few years off.
When the Velvets debut was released, The Beatles' "Sgt. Peppers" and the Doors debut album were #1 and #2 respectively on the charts. With those highly polished/produced records nailing the masses, it's little wonder that the Velvets wayward spurts were nowhere in sight. And yet, they managed to last (at least the music, if not the group).
"Velvet Underground & Nico" has the compelling "I'm Waiting For A Man" with the "hey white boy" line that Reed exploits to the hilt in his hazy, menacing NY voice. This set features the somber "Heroin" and "All Tomorrow's Parties." There's also the potent uptempo "Run, Run, Run." Arguably, this is VU's best.
"White Lightening/White Heat" features the Punk-prototype "I Heard Her Call My Name." The title track is another of Velvets' captivating mid-tempo excursions.
"Velvet Underground" has "Beginning To See The Light," a mainstream Rocker that takes a harsh, and appreciated, turn during the guitar solo.
"Loaded" features vocal wallops on "Sweet Jane," a great track, and the hard driving "Train Around The Bend." The acoustic yet energetic "Rock & Roll" is outstanding.