The Velvet Underground

Introduction

The year 1967 brings two monumental albums to mind for music lovers. The Beatle’s ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and the Velvet Underground and Nico’s self-titled first LP. Both albums, coming from opposite sides of the Atlantic gave genre pushing performances filled with fresh takes and ideas on old and tired concepts. They each did this however, in their own unique way. The Beatle’s 1967 endeavour redefined rock music while setting the precedent for almost all of today’s popular music and for this it gets its credit, being hailed as the “most important and influential rock and roll album ever recorded”. (Karr, 2017) But what about the Velvet Underground?

Known to the band members as the ‘Banana Album’ due to its provocative sleeve designed by Andy Warhol and remembered by musicians and music lovers alike for a sonority and mood conveyed by no album before, this album’s influence is immeasurably deep and wide.  (Vulliamy, 2017) Within what context and from what influences could such an album be birthed? Who would be involved with such a project? How did they create something so unlike anything else at that time and why is the album arguably as influential as the Beatle’s ‘Sergeant Pepper’ of the same year? That story starts around 1965.

Context and Influences

While the Beatles were at the peak of their pop careers, releasing songs like ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Ticket to Ride’, The Velvet Underground had not yet been formed. Popular music at the time featured The Beach Boys with ‘Help Me Rhonda’ and The Rolling Stones with ‘Satisfaction’. (Kot, 2015) Less well known but far more important to the creation of the Velvet Underground was La Monte Young and his Theatre of Eternal Music. John Cale who co-wrote the album was so impressed by the work of La Monte Young that he moved from London to New York to seek out the composer and join his avant-garde ensemble. (Licht, 2013) It was in 1963 that a 15 hour public performance of Erik Satie’s piano piece ‘Vexations’ was staged with John Cale performing as one of the pianists. (Sweet, 2013) Cale’s inimitable drone which shaped the texture of the Velvet Underground’s music almost certainly came from partaking in experiments with composers like La Monte Young and Terry Reilly as well as mixing his classical training with the rock music of the time. (Vulliamy, 2017)

Cale had met Lou Reed, a literature student turned songwriter in 1965. Together they wrote ‘Heroin’ and ‘Venus in Furs’, two of the songs that would later appear on the Velvet Underground album. (Fevret, 2018) Reed’s influences were as vast and mismatched as Cale’s. He was inspired musically by free jazz musicians like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman but yet looked to Bob Dylan to model his singing style. In the band’s early days Reed would write protest songs in the vain of Bob Dylan, the most notable one being ‘Prominent Men’. (Fricke, 1989) Andy Warhol’s magazine ‘Aspen’ featured an essay from Reed titled ‘The View From the Bandstand’, in which he detailed some of his favourite 1950’s Doo Wop Bands such as ‘The Jesters’, ‘The Paragons’ and ‘The Elchords’. Much like Cale learnt the value of musical repetition from working with La Monte Young, Reed learnt the same lesson from listening to these bands. (Reed, L) Also, Reed’s signature aesthetic was very similar to that of the 1950’s Doo Wop scene.

Just like Cale and Reed, each musician in the Velvet Underground brought their own influences with them. Drummer Maureen Tucker would practice playing to Bo Diddley records for up to seven hours a day and was also heavily influenced by the Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji and his ‘Drums of Passion’ album. (Glauner, 1998) Guitarist Sterling Morrison was a big fan of the minimalist style of Booker T and the MG’s and an instrumental called ‘Booker T’ shows up on many bootlegs of the Velvet Underground album. Cale has spoken about his admiration for the band ‘The Seeds’ and Velvet Underground’s 17 minute ‘Sister Ray’ has been compared to their 14 minute track ‘Up in Her Room’. Also the intro to ‘Here She Goes Again’ is very similar to the saxophone intro on Marvin Gaye’s ‘Hitch Hike’.

The Recording Process

Having Andy Warhol as the producer is said to be one of the biggest advantages in terms of the creation of the album. He knew little technically about music and less still about the recording processes involved in the creation of a song. This disregard for the rules and normal recording processes involved made for a sound that is still unique and ideas that are still being used today. (Mirabello, 2018) In an interview about the recording process and working with Warhol, John Cale famously said “he was there”, “he’d say a few things but they’d be effective”. (Buskin, 2013) This relaxed and almost impartial approach to producing an album gave the musicians space to experiment and try ideas which would normally be shunned.

The album was recorded in a rehearsal space in Ludlow Street on the lower east side of New York. Warhol and the band made do with the space even though it was poorly equipped in comparison to even a low budget recording studio. Only Lou Reed who was performing the lead vocals had headphones leaving the rest of the band to perform as a unit in the room. (Vulliamy, 2017)

Heroin and All Tomorrow’s Parties

Creating this album took talent, vision and a lot of luck but most importantly it took fearlessness. The song ‘Heroin’ is a perfect example of this. Writing an honest song is always a daunting challenge, but to undertake a song displaying an honest portrayal of a subject as controversial and emotional as heroin abuse is a challenge most artists would turn away from. The instrumentation starts off slow and sweet with a positive and falsely reassuring guitar part. Lou Reed’s vocals are calm and detached, delivered in a nostalgic tone. The lyrics however foreshadow the chaos and turmoil to come. Suddenly the tempo picks up as the lyrics describe the rush which makes Reed “feel like a man”. The varying tempo and wide dynamic range throughout the song work to describe audibly the feeling given by the drug better than the lyrics ever could. The kick drum seems to mimic the heartbeat of the addict as he progresses through his trip. The constant hum of a violin appears as if from nowhere putting the listener into a trance as the ebb and flow of the song continues. Then in another unexpected turn the hum of the violin turns into a screech and the guitar picks up pace past any definable rhythm. The song begins to fall apart and descend into chaos, summing up both heroin’s appeals and its pitfalls. (Wilcox, 2017)

While Heroin shows the structural genius and fearlessness of the Velvets, it is also worth looking at ‘All Tomorrows Parties’ which became a classic song for the vision and talent involved. This is Andy Warhol’s favourite song from the album because it details the people who would frequent his ‘factory’ and encapsulates the scene from which all of the surrounding art originated. This song also encompasses the fact that this album as a whole could not have been created had all of the band members not met in the circumstances in which they met, each bringing their own unique musical styles to the table.

We are introduced to Cale’s fast paced, repetitive piano roll from the start, providing melody and rhythm to structure the song around. There is no doubt that this style came from studying under La Monte Young and playing pieces like Satie’s Vexations. (Vulliamy, 2017) Moe Tucker’s unique drum pattern provides an eerie feel while Nico’s voice acts as the ice meeting the fire providing an almost lamenting tone to an otherwise warm subject matter. Reed and Morrison’s guitar parts coming in from the right side of the room feel separated from the track, almost as if they are going off on their own improvisational tangent. Interestingly the guitars are noted to have been “Chiming” like ‘The Byrds’ who were high in the charts at the time. Meaning that the Velvet’s creative process did not involve them being hermetically sealed away from mainstream music. (Wilcox, 2017) All Tomorrow’s Parties is a perfect microcosm of the album ‘the Velvet Underground and Nico’ and the scene in which it was created as it took each of the band members, their influences and their environment to create such a song.

Influence and Impact

The Velvet Underground and Nico album continues to inspire pop and rock culture today. However it did not always seem like that was going to be the case, especially upon release of the album. Initially the album sold only 30,000 copies which would seem rather unsuccessful compared to the Beatle’s ‘Sgt. Pepper’ album which shot to number one on the charts only a week after its release in 1967. But even so, key figures in the music industry like Brian Eno were still able to see the value of the Velvet Underground’s record. Eno famously said “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band”, noting that even though the albums initial reach may have been low, it was nonetheless inspiring to those that it reached in a way few albums at that time were. (Fevret, 2018) There were many reasons for the unimpressive response to the album. That year saw the death of Che Guevara, an uprising in Mexico and a military coup in Greece and yet the Velvet’s remained surprisingly apolitical. Also, the mainstream culture which permeated through rock and pop music at that time had drastically changed, 1967 was the summer was the summer of peace, love and flower power which was worlds away from the velvets “dirty melange of hard drugs and decadent sex”. (Richman, 2012)

Over the following decades however, word of this debut LP would spread through word of mouth establishing it as the worst kept secret of the underground scene. 1970 saw Lou Reed leave the group, bringing an end to the band. This move was met with a general indifference from the public until two years later when everyone would be talking about the Velvet Underground. This dramatic change in recognition was for the most part brought about by David Bowie. In 1972 Bowie produced Lou Reed’s hit single ‘Take a Walk on the Wild Side’, this urged fans and new wave bands alike to turn to the Velvet’s back catalogue to hear more. Bootleg records, unpublished songs and a widespread ‘mea culpa’ by the press made the previously unheard of Velvet Underground a force to be reckoned with. (Fevret, 2018)

Today, few would deny the Velvet Underground and Nico’s right to be known as the most influential album of all time. The rock critic Lester Bangs once said “modern music starts with the Velvets”. (Richman, 2012) One major example of the albums influence is Jonathon Rickman, front man for Modern Lovers. The Velvet’s guitarist Sterling Morrison noted “if the Velvet Underground had a protégé, it would be Jonathon Rickman”. He saw the Velvets play over 80 times and slept on their manager’s couch when he first moved to New York. Even in 1967 when the album had just been released, Rickman wrote an article titled ‘New York Art and the Velvet Underground’. Modern Lover’s ‘Roadrunner’ which became a top twenty UK hit was inspired by the Velvet’s ‘Sister Ray’. Even that was topped by their next big single titled ‘Velvet Underground’ which payed homage to the band and their influence directly in the lyrics;

“The guitars got the fuzz tone on, the drummers standing upright pounding along, how on earth were they making that sound, velvet underground” (Brown, 2012)

Other examples of artists influenced by the Velvet’s first LP include Chrissie Hynde, who came to London with only three records, Raw Power by Iggy Pop and the first two Velvet albums. The Strokes 2001 release ‘Is This It’ captures a “cool detachment” and “passionate authority” very much in the vain of The Velvet’s album. In 2003 Julian Casablancas told Rolling Stone “in the beginning the Strokes definitely drew from the vibe of the Velvets”. (Strauss, 2003)

The album is also responsible for the formation of new underground scenes around the world. The British “Shoegaze” phenomenon in the early 90’s could not have existed without the Velvet Underground and their debut album.  Neil Halstead the frontman of ‘Slowdive’ who was influenced by prominent artists in the scene like Mary Chain said “the further I got into it the more I realised that not only did Mary Chain owe the Velvets a debt but so did every other alternative band I was listening to at that point”. (Fevret, 2018)

Conclusion

Even to this day the Velvet Underground and Nico album inspires artists from across all genres. Freddie Cowan of the Vaccines says “I remember hearing All Tomorrows Parties when I was thirteen. It was a rite of passage to discuss the importance of it”. (Hann, 2015) In this way the Velvet’s debut was able to have its posthumous revenge. The themes of painful beauty and languid ennui influenced and impacted artists and music fans for over 50 years, long after its unsuccessful release.

Bibliography

Discography

  • The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967, ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’, Produced by Andy Warhol.
  • Marvin Gaye, 1962, ‘Hitch Hike’, In: ‘That Stubborn Kinda Fellow’, Produced by William Stevenson.
  • The Seeds, 1966, ‘Up In Her Room’, In: ‘A Web of Sound’, Produced by Marcus Tybalt.
  • Babatunde Olatunji, 1959, ‘Drums of Passion’, Produced by AJ Ham.
  • The Strokes, 2001, ‘Is This It’, produced by Gordon Raphael.
  • The Stooges, 1973 ‘Raw Power’, Produced by Iggy Pop and David Bowie
  • Modern Lovers, 1976, ‘Roadrunner’, In: ‘The Modern Lovers’, produced by John Cale.
  • Jonathon Richman, 1992, ‘Velvet Underground’, In: ‘I, Jonathon’, Produced by Brennan Totten.
  • The Beatle’s, 1967, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, Produced by George Martin.

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