THE VELVET UNDERGROUND
listen to The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico [Full Album].
In 1964, the same year the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show to sing "I Want to Hold Your Hand," a 22-year-old songwriter by the name of Lou Reed was introduced to the classical musician John Cale. Both Reed and Cale were born in 1942, although they were raised in very different circumstances. Reed grew up on Long Island and Cale was the son of a Welch coal miner. Cale had come to the United States to study music. Within a year the two had formed a band by adding guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker. They named themselves The Velvet Underground after a pornographic novel.
Following a year of playing abstract, highly experimental avant-garde rock and roll to unreceptive, often hostile crowds at small underground East Village nightclubs, the Velvets big break came. Pop artist Andy Warhol was pursuing experimental multimedia projects and after seeing the Velvets perform realized they were the rock band he needed to complete his act. Known as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI), the multimedia extravaganza incorporated low-tech psychedelic light shows, exotic whip dancers and short films made by Warhol, all of which occurred on stage while the Velvets played their original music. Warhol had found a muse, and the Velvets had found a manager.
In the spring of 1966 Warhol produced (funded) the Velvet Underground's first of only four studio albums. His only stipulation was they add the striking Hungarian model and singer, Nico to the band. With her sultry but somewhat monotone voice Nico's musical contribution was more as novelty than a genuine artistic addition to the group. But more importantly Warhol knew that her look added an undeniable sexual, therefore marketable dimension to the scruffy Velvets in their beatnik apparel and omnipresent wraparound shades. Although Warhol was the catalyst to their success, the Velvets music was entirely their own conception. Hailed as one of the most significant experimental, avant-garde rock and roll groups in history, The Velvets music combined the poetic lyrics of Lou Reed with multiple layers of feedback at deafening volume, white noise, droning violins and dreamy, yet purely rock and roll melodies.
In addition to their musical experimentation, the Velvets were also ground breaking lyrically. While bands on the West Coast were singing idealistic songs about peace and love, the Velvets were singing realistic songs about heroin, sexual kinkiness, and the edgier side of life on the streets of New York.
Their influences range from the beat writers of the 1950's, to the roots rock rhythm and blues of Carl Perkins, to the avant-garde compositions of John Cage, (Cale had worked with Cage briefly before joining the Velvet Underground) while their influence encompasses Punk, New Wave, and countless alternative and experimental bands that have followed, such as Sonic Youth.
To a certain degree the Velvet Underground's music remains on the fringe of mainstream culture although it endures as a landmark in the evolution in alternative music. The Velvet Underground, despite their great artistic success and lasting influence, achieved very little commercial success and only remained together as a group until 1970, when Lou Reed left to pursue a solo career.
Since then, Reed has had some success as a solo artist and has remained an influential figure in the world of music. His only top 20 hit was "Walk on the Wild Side," which was about some of the people who worked in Andy Warhol's factory. You may be familiar with that song, which continues to be played in the radio, despite its somewhat controversial lyrics.
John Cale also established a solo career and continued to be an important force in contemporary music, particularly on Punk rock, working with Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and the Stooges and Siouxie and the Banshees.
Page author: A.E.