Changing the Musical Landscape: Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground
In our recent interview with Rock n Roll War Stories author Allan Jones, he discusses a night out in Knightsbridge with none other than David Bowie and Lou Reed which ended in fisticuffs, two enigmatic musicians colliding over artistic differences – but life must have been frustrating at times for the legendary Velvet Underground frontman, seeking recognition where none at the time was apparent.
Yet in the years that followed this once overlooked rock band would be responsible for influencing a whole host of musical sub-genres.
It was exactly 50 years ago in 1967 New York when a bunch of swaggering street punks formed a band that was so dripping in attitude and originality, they went on to influence everyone from The Sex Pistols & Nirvana to The Smiths & The Arctic Monkey’s, in fact so much that’s good about the Indie rock scene in the years that followed owes much to the influence of The Velvet Underground.
New York in the 60s was the centre of the hippie movement, a cultural kaleidoscope to stimulate the artistic senses of it’s inhabitants. There was an emphasis on creation, on creating the future and a new way of thinking, it was a melting pot of ideas and expression.
Originally formed in 1964, The Velvet Underground was fronted by Lou Reed with John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and exotic vocal contributions by Nico on their first album at least.
They were introduced to Pop Artist, Andy Warhol in 1965 and he briefly became their manager, using them as the house band for his infamous and outrageous Factory parties that took place in downtown Manhattan, which ironically can actually be seen for real playing out in the 1969 Oscar-winning movie, Midnight Cowboy.
When the rest of the music world was embracing love, flower power and multi-coloured clothes, The Velvet Underground embodied the counter-culture and the dark underbelly of life in the Big Apple.
They wore black leather jackets, sported short cropped hair and wore black wrap around sunglasses, bucking the hippy trend and setting a tone and look that would be copied over and over again for the next forty years.
However it wasn’t just their style and attitude that made them stand out, it was their distinct sound and era defining songs about drugs, sex, fetishism, sadomasochism and nihilism.
They played with a distortion and open chord feedback that made their soundscape truly unique. They weren’t just ‘garage rock’; they were ‘gutter rock’. ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ written by Lou Reed about buying drugs on the corner of Lexington Avenue, Manhattan, underlines this theme.
When they released their first album in 1967, titled The Velvet Underground and Nico, the same year as The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper and The Doors by the The Doors, it received huge critical acclaim in the press, in the main due to pop art protagonist Andy Warhol’s simple but effective album cover creation.
All being said the sales were poor and only 30,000 copies of the album were sold. At the time it was a commercial disaster, but is now listed as the 13th most influential album of all time at least by the good people at Rolling Stone magazine, and was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2006. Brian Eno, one of the founders of Roxy Music said,
“Although only 30,000 copies were sold, everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
Exactly the same quote that was later attributed to the audience members who first saw The Sex Pistols. The Velvets were the shotgun that started Punk, New Wave and without too much of an exaggeration, Indie Rock.
If you listen now to the hypnotic opening chords of Sweet Jane from the their 1970 album, Loaded (copied by Primal Scream), and then hear Reed’s brilliant, lazy vocals and electronic riff, you can almost see a thousand teenagers immediately picking up an electric guitar and strumming along in the mirror. This is ‘Sweet Jane’…
Wayne Coyn from The Flaming Lips said,
“The Velvets to me never sounded like a 60’s band”
A sentiment that rings very true. The sound of the song, Venus in Furs, about sadomasochism, had a helping hand in launching Goth rock, and you can hear the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Bauhaus and The Pixies all ebbing out of it.
With a back catalogue including songs like Rock n Roll, What Goes On, White Light/White Heat, Run Run Run and Femme Fatale The Velvet Underground had some serious material, which makes it all the more surprising why so many people still haven’t heard of them to this day, but for those who do know, it’s the cornerstone to their music collection.
“2013’s AM album was inspired by The Velvet Underground’s 1985 compilation album. I actually stole it… I’ll just confess that now and get it out of the way.” – Alex Turner frontman of The Arctic Monkey’s.
In 1971, a young David Bowie was so enamoured he went out of his way to see one of The Velvet Underground’s last live shows in New York. Having been blown away by White Light/White Heat, Heroin and I’m Waiting for the Man, he went backstage and asked if he could speak to Lou Reed. Reed came to the door and Bowie spoke with him for about twenty minutes about their unique sound.
The young David Bowie was a complete unknown back then, and it was several days later that Bowie recounted the story to a friend in New York and was told that Reed had already left the Velvets, so there was no way he had met Lou Reed at the concert. It turned out that the conversation was with Doug Yule who had replaced Reed in 1970, and had pretended to be the original singer.
Bowie was still mesmerised by what he saw and in particular Reed’s original lyrics, so he sat down and wrote Queen Bitch on the Hunky Dory album as a tribute to Reed. Of course, as Bowie rose to fame as Ziggy Stardust his influence grew, and he stepped up to produce Lou Reed’s first and most successful solo album, Transformer, which delivered the legendary tracks, Walk on the Wide Side and Perfect Day. When Reed died in 2013, Bowie said,
“My old friend was one of the most influential singers and songwriters in rock music.”
The Velvet Underground stuck together until 1970 with little to no commercial success. They didn’t play Woodstock or any of the major festivals of the 1960’s, and after Reed departed the band carried on for another year until 71′, with Doug Yule as the front man. Their music wasn’t really appreciated until many years later, forming the ashes that gave birth to a host of different genres. They were in may ways the original cult band.
So have a listen to The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/White Heat, Loaded, The Velvet Underground or the whole host of compilations out there, and for those more familiar we’re going to leave you with a rare track – seven minutes of trippy, hypnotic guitar that will slowly carry you away. Here’s the wonderful ‘I’m Gonna Move Right In’, enjoy.
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