The Velvet Underground
Although never commercially successful, The Velvet Underground remain one of the most influential bands of their time: Brian Eno is purported to have said that, "Only five thousand people ever bought a Velvet Underground album, but every single one of them started a band." The group's often raw sound would influence punk rock, and singer Lou Reed's lyrics brought new levels of poetic sophistication and social realism to rock. Bands heavily influenced by the Velvets include the Modern Lovers and Galaxie 500.
The Velvet Underground formed in late 1964. Lou Reed worked as a songwriter for Pickwick Records, where he 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 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 and Cale recruited Sterling Morrison to play guitar and Angus MacLise on percussion. This quartet 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." MacLise left the group in protest of what he considered commercialisation of their sound. He was replaced by Maureen "Mo" Tucker, whose driving rhythms became an essential part of the group's music.
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 17 minute "Sister Ray" from their second album.
The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)Andy Warhol became the band's manager after seeing them play in 1965, and it was at his instigation that they featured German chanteuse Nico on their debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico. The album 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 sound was propelled by the strong deadpan vocals of Reed, the viola drones of Cale, the country-style licks of Morrison, and the hypnotically simple but steady beat of Tucker, who played on an upturned bass drum with mallets. 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 peel found a pink, phallic banana beneath.
White Light/White Heat (1968)Nico had been jettisoned by the second album, which emphasized a feedback-laced fuzzy sound. The recording was raw and oversaturated, and an inspiration to later musicians of the lo-fi movement. But despite the dominance of noisefests like "Sister Ray", the title track (later covered by David Bowie), and "I Heard Her Call My Name", there was room for the darkly comic "The Gift", a Reed short story narrated in Cale's deadpan Welsh accent and the meditative "Here She Comes Now", later covered by Galaxie 500 and Nirvana. The second album cover was a subtle black on black picture of the tattoo of one of Warhol's Factory members.
The Velvet Underground (1969)Before the release of their third album Reed fired the classically trained Cale, who was replaced by Doug Yule. This, and the theft of the band's equipment, resulted in gentler, more folk music influenced sound for the record which showcased the songwriting styles that would inform Reed's later solo career and Morrison's ringing guitar parts, Yule's melodic bass and harmonies.
The fourth album (unreleased)They recorded a fourth album which was never officially released due to disputes with their record label. Most of it was released many years later as VU. This album had a transitional sound between the whisper soft third album and the pop-rock anthems of their final record, Loaded. After Reed's departure, he later raided and reworked a number of these songs for his solo records ("Stephanie Says", "Ocean", "I Can't Stand It", "Lisa Says").
Loaded (1970)They switched labels for their final studio album, Loaded, which contained "Sweet Jane", one of Reed's best known songs and the most accessible poppy songs they could manage. The album was remixed after Reed's departure, much to his bitterness. He was particularly bitter about the truncation of "Sweet Jane". The record was recorded with Doug Yule's brother Billy on drums, as Mo Tucker was pregnant. Soon afterward, the band broke up, with Yule appropriating the band's name for a solo album.
1970 onwardsAlthough Loaded's spin-off single "Who Loves the Sun" did nothing, the album itself is something of a muted triumph. "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll" became US radio favourites, and the band, now featuring Walter Powers III on bass with Doug Yule promoted to lead vocals and guitar, went on the road once more, playing the East Coast of the U.S. before doing a tour of Europe. By that time, however, Sterling Morrison has finally obtained his B.A. in English, and left the group for an academic career with the University of Texas at Austin. His replacement was singer/keyboard player Willie Alexander. The band played shows in England, Wales, and the Netherlands, some of which end up on the 2001 box set Final V.U..
When Atlantic decided to release a live recording from 1970, Live at Max's Kansas City instead of letting the current band record a new album, its members drifted apart, leaving Yule and manager Steven Sesnick alone with the brand name. Sesnick managed to secure a recording contract with Polydor and so Yule recorded Squeeze under the Velvet Underground name with Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice and some unknown session players. It is not a V.U. album by a long stretch, but is regarded not unlistenable either.
Lou Reed and John Cale, in the meantime, enjoyed long and winded solo careers; Maureen Tucker raised a family before returning to small-scale gigging and recording in the Eighties. In 1988, Nico died of a brain hemorrhage on the island of Ibiza.
There was a brief reunion of the original lineup in 1993, resulting in a European tour and a live album, Live MCMXCIII. Before the band could tour the U.S. or record (an MTV Unplugged album was proposed), Cale and Reed fell out again, breaking up the band once more. It proved to be the definitive end to the band's chequered career when Sterling Morrison died of cancer in 1995.