Velvet Underground

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The Velvet Underground. And Nico. Oh, and their friend Andy.

Then one fine mornin' she puts on a New York station
You know, she don't believe what she heard at all
She started shakin' to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by rock 'n' roll

Rock and Roll
The Velvet Underground never sold many records, but, as many have said, it seems like every one of the group's fans went out and started a band.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Third Edition (2001), p. 1034

Groundbreaking independent rock band from The Sixties famous for their pioneering and influencing various subgenres such as Noise Rock, experimental rock, art rock, Alternative Rock (hell, they were pretty much the first alt-rock band) and Punk Rock. Also famous for their loudness and the nihilism of their material.

The Velvet Underground were formed in 1965 by dissatisfied Long Island songwriter Lou Reed and Welshman John Cale, who was studying classical music in the USA. Reed was the main guitarist and songwriter, while Cale played keyboards and viola. Sterling Morrison joined at the same time, assuming guitar and bass duties. After a period with Angus MacLise, the lineup was rounded out by drummer Maureen Tucker, who played with no cymbals and used a very simplistic, tribal style.

Andy Warhol was hired as manager and producer; at his insistence German singer Christa "Nico" Päffgen joined the band on several songs. Thanks to his patronage, the band received a contract with Verve Records and entered the studio in 1966 to record. Their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, was released in March 1967; it contained several now-classic songs such as "Heroin", "All Tomorrow's Parties", "Venus in Furs", "Femme Fatale" and "I'm Waiting for the Man". It had a muted commercial reception and few people paid attention initially despite rigorous touring, but it's now highly regarded among critics and fans.

The Velvets broke off the relationship with Warhol and Nico rather quickly. In this period their live shows started to contain more pronounced improvisation and harsh, loud material. Their second album White Light/White Heat continued in this direction, as evidenced by the title track and the 17-minute "Sister Ray". By this time, the bandmembers were tired of having no recognition, and tensions were growing between Reed's traditionalism and Cale's experimental, abrasive tendencies.

Cale eventually left, and was replaced by bassist Doug Yule. In reaction to this and the theft of the band's amplifiers, The Velvet Underground was a more subdued, reflective affair. Its style is most noticeable in the folky "Pale Blue Eyes" and "After Hours". Despite favorable critical reception, it was their first album to not enter the Billboard 200 (the previous ones managed the meager showings of #171 and #199). They toured throughout 1969 and continued writing material, most of which was shelved after disputes with Verve but eventually released on VU and Another View.

The Velvets were kicked off Verve in 1969 by a new president who wanted to purge controversial acts from the label (Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention were another victim). They signed with Atlantic Records, who requested less controversial material and an album "loaded with hits". The result was Loaded, their swan song. Despite strong material and, indeed, some hits, the band dissolved during production when Reed left the band in August 1970.

Yule attempted to continue the band, to poor results. The one resulting album, Squeeze, is universally considered crappy and written out of the band's canon.

Core lineup:

  • Lou Reed - vocals, guitar, 1965-1970
  • John Cale - vocals, viola, piano, bass guitar 1965-1968
  • Sterling Morrison - guitar, 1965-1970
  • Maureen "Moe" Tucker - drums, some vocals, 1965-1970
  • Doug Yule - bass, vocals, guitar 1968-1970 (Cale's replacement)

Post-Reed lineup, 1970-1973:

  • Doug Yule - vocals, guitar
  • Walter Powers - bass
  • Willie Alexander - guitar
  • Ian Paice - drums (on Squeeze)


  • The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
  • White Light/White Heat (1968)
  • The Velvet Underground (1969)
  • Loaded (1970)
  • Squeeze (1973) - In Name Only
  • VU (1985) - compilation of unreleased material
  • Another View (1986) - another compilation of unreleased material
  • Peel Slowly and See (1995) - box set

IIIIIIIII'm waiting for my man, 46 tropes in my hand:
  • The Band Minus the Face: Yule's attempt to continue without Reed.
  • Black Comedy: White Light/White Heat is famous for showing the band's twisted sense of humor, as shown in "The Gift", "Lady Godiva's Operation" and "Sister Ray".
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: "Lady Godiva's Operation".
  • Breakup Breakout: After Lou Reed quit the band, he went on a solo career which was much more commercially successful than anything the VU did.
  • Cool Car: "Ridin' in a Stutz Bearcat, Jim..."
  • Cover Version: None by themselves, but the Velvets have been frequently covered by Alternative Rock bands like Joy Division, Nirvana, Galaxie 500, The Runaways and others. David Bowie also got in on the act by covering "White Light/White Heat". Earlier, The Yardbirds covered "I'm Waiting For The Man" in their live shows during the band's final months.
    • At least, not released. There are several rehearsal recordings in which the band are heard to play, among others, "Green Onions", "Boom Boom Boom Boom", and, amazingly, The Beatles' "Day Tripper".
    • Their first album? Yeah, covered entirely by Beck and a lot of musicians, who dedicated an entire day, and posted everything in Beck's website and YouTube.
  • Creepy Monotone: Lou Reed and Nico's vocals.
  • Canon Discontinuity: Nobody acknowledges Squeeze, despite some (misguided?) defenders. To be fair, it's basically a Doug Yule solo album since only he and Ian Paice played on it, and the only reason it's even in the VU discography is because of their manager Steve Sesnick.
  • Darker and Edgier: The Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light/White Heat
  • Enforced Method Acting: How the Velvets got a good performance out of Nico on "I'll Be Your Mirror".

Sterling Morrison: She kept singing "I'll Be Your Mirror" in her strident voice. Dissatisfied, we kept making her do it over and over again until she broke down and burst into tears. At that point we said, "Oh, try it just one more time and then fuck it — if it doesn't work this time, we're not going to do the song." Nico sat down and did it exactly right.

    • And the band loved her performance so much that whenever they'd play the song live after she left, they'd do it imitating her German accent.
  • Epic Riff: Most of their songs.
  • Epic Rocking: "Heroin", "All Tomorrow's Parties", "European Son", "The Gift", "Sister Ray", "The Murder Mystery", "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'".
    • The possibly unrecorded "full version" of "Sister Ray" played to open gigs on the 1968 tour, which would begin with a forty-minute intro jam called "Sweet Sister Ray" before evolving into a twenty-plus-minute version of the song itself, which in turn would sometimes be reprised at the end of the show. In other words, over an hour of each show was devoted to one epic song.
  • Executive Meddling: The villain here being their manager Steve Sesnick. Reed quit in 1970 mostly because he had it with Sesnick and the record company's attempts to control his songwriting. He sent every other Velvet home but Yule when it was time to record Squeeze in England. He asked Yule and a new line-up to tour England but bailed on them right before the start, leaving them to try and finish the tour on their own.
  • Femme Fatale: "Femme Fatale," obviously.
  • Five-Man Band:
  • Four More Measures: "All Tomorrow's Parties".
  • Guy In A Box: "The Gift" shows us why it's a bad idea.
  • Gratuitous Panning: "The Murder Mystery", "The Gift" being the most extreme examples.
  • Human Mail: "The Gift" explores this.
  • Lighter and Softer: The Velvet Underground, Loaded
  • Literary Allusion Title: "Venus in Furs". The band's name itself is taken from a book about, appropriately enough, the sexual subculture of The Sixties.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "The Gift", "Lady Godiva's Operation", "Sister Ray", "Who Loves the Sun".
  • Mind Screw: "Lady Godiva's Operation".
  • Minimalistic Cover Art: All their albums. VU&N has an Andy Warhol-drawn banana on the cover (on the original vinyl you could peel it away, which explains the title of their boxset Peel Slowly and See), WL/WH is a blacker-than-black cover with white text and a faintly embossed picture of a tattoo, Velvet Underground is just a picture of the band, Loaded depicts a subway station with pink smoke emerging from it, VU is a picture of a VU meter and Another View is another picture of the band.
  • Missing Episode: A number of early songs were probably recorded but never released; others may never have been recorded at all. Here's a list. Many songs that were missing episodes have since been released. Indeed, an entire album's worth of material recorded before they were dropped from Verve (recorded in between The Velvet Underground and Loaded) was eventually released as VU, and several other songs from the same recording sessions were released shortly thereafter as Another View. The two releases add up to over seventy minutes' worth of material. Countless other outtakes have been released on box sets and enhanced re-releases of albums.
  • Mythology Gag: As pointed out above, the title of the box set Peel Slowly and See.
  • New Sound Album: And how! Between their four canonical albums, the Velvets changed musical styles just as fast as any of the most well known musical chameleons.
  • Obligatory Bondage Song: More or less invented it with "Venus in Furs."
  • Perishing Alt Rock Voice: With the possible exception of the boyish-sounding Mo, pretty much every one of their vocalists. Arguably the Trope Codifier.
  • The Pete Best: Angus MacLise dropped out of the band after they took their first paying gig - turned out he was one of those annoying Doing It for the Art people who didn't want to "sell out".
  • Record Producer: Andy Warhol, technically - his job was to just pay for the sessions and use his influence to protect the band from Executive Meddling. The sessions were engineered by Tom Wilson, but Reed does point out that Andy's name allowed them to do stuff they couldn't get away with otherwise on a debut.
    • Averted with "Sister Ray":.

Lou Reed: The engineer said, "I don't have to listen to this. I'll put it in record, and then I'm leaving. When you're done, come get me."

  • Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll: They're the Velvet Underground.
  • Shaggy Dog Story: "The Gift" (guy mails himself to girlfriend, gets killed), "Sister Ray" (huge debauched party, someone gets shot), "Lady Godiva's Operation" (transwoman goes to have some operation, gets a botched lobotomy from a sloppy doctor and dies).
  • Shout-Out: "Sister Ray" is named after Ray Davies.
  • Silly Love Songs: Yeah, they have one. "I Found a Reason", to be precise.
  • Single-Stanza Song: "European Son".
  • Soprano and Gravel: Every band member who ever sang. We've got: Reed's Long Islander snarl (almost every tune, but he did also sing in less snarly ways, like on "Sunday Morning" and "Jesus"), Cale's smoother voice and slightly Welsh accent ("The Gift", "Lady Godiva's Operation"), Yule's even more accessible Perishing Alt Rock Voice ("Candy Says"), Tucker's girlish voice ("After Hours", "The Murder Mystery") and, of course, Nico's thick German accent ("I'll Be Your Mirrah", as Cale would imitate it).
  • Spell My Name with a "The": Officially they're "The Velvet Underground", but the definite article gets lost pretty often.
  • Spoken Word in Music: "The Gift", "The Murder Mystery", arguably bits of "I Found a Reason".
  • Step Up to the Microphone: "After Hours" and "I'm Sticking With You" for Maureen Tucker. Reed admitted he gave "After Hours" to Mo on purpose because if he sang it wouldn't have sounded as innocent.
  • Surprisingly Gentle Album: The Velvet Underground.
  • Three Chords and the Truth: They're legendary for it. They did throw in things besides guitars, but at least on their first two albums, it was all guitar-bass-drums-viola.
    • And organ, and glockenspiel, and tambourine, and piano, and...
    • Not to mention the numerous musical styles tackled on VU & Nico: Gregorian Chants ("All Tomorrow's Parties"), Eastern drones ("Venus In Furs", "Heroin"), lullabies ("Sunday Morning"), pop ballads ("Femme Fatale", "I'll Be Your Mirror"), free jazz ("European Son"), Motown ("There She Goes Again"), your basic Rock 'n Roll ("I'm Waiting For The Man", "Run Run Run") and one other style I can't quite place my finger on ("Black Angel's Death Song"). You name it, they did it.

Lou Reed: One chord is fine. Two chords... that's pushing it. Three chords and it's jazz.

      • Black Angel's Death Song? Avant-garde, maybe?
  • Transgender: "Lady Godiva's Operation".
    • And "Candy Says."
  • Crossdresser: "Sister Ray".

Lou Reed:'Sister Ray' was done as a joke—no, not as a joke—but it has eight characters in it and this guy gets killed and nobody does anything. It was built around this story that I wrote about this scene of total debauchery and decay. I like to think of ‘Sister Ray' as a transvestite smack dealer. The situation is a bunch of Drag Queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear.