The Velvet Underground was an American rock band formed in New York City in 1964. The original line-up consisted of singer/guitarist Lou Reed, multi-instrumentalist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and drummer Angus MacLise. MacLise was replaced by Moe Tucker in 1965, who played on most of the band’s recordings.
1. The Velvet Underground was not associated with Andy Warhol, but they were good friends
The band was formed in 1964 by John Cale and Lou Reed in New York City after the dissolution of a group called “The Tangerine Puppets”; Sterling Morrison would later be added to the line-up and Maureen Tucker, who had been working as a model, joined soon after. Guitarist Angus Maclise was also briefly involved early on; he left in 1965 due to his objection to Cale’s use of a violin (Maclise played bongos). According to an interview by Terry Gross with John Cale, when asked if their relationship with Andy Warhol influenced the band’s music:
“No … there was a sort of relationship in the very early days when we first signed to Andy Warhol’s, uh, label… But I don’t think there was any great influence. And certainly not musically.”
2. Everyone in Velvet Underground had different influences and they remained together for only four years
The band recorded five studio albums: The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967), White Light/White Heat (1968), The Velvet Underground (1969), Loaded (1970) and Squeeze (1973). All did well on the charts if you consider that they weren’t heavy hitters at the time, but Lou Reed writes some of rock and roll’s most famous songs which makes this fact more or less moot. Most bands today can only wish they could sell a tenth of the records that they did.
3. Their second album, White Light/White Heat is considered their most experimental album
It is also considered by many to be one of the best albums in rock history. They shot a sequence for an unfinished film called “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” starring Ingrid Superstar and Paul Morrissey with John Cale on the soundtrack. The film was never finished but later included as part of Warhol’s “Desire Caught by the Tail”. White Light/White Heat has more than just experimental sound however, it has some very dark lyrical content which includes macabre subjects like drug use and transvestite prostitution (the song entitled “Lady Godiva’s Operation”). The song “Sister Ray” from their third album, “The Velvet Underground”, is an eighteen minute long song depicting a scene of drug related mayhem.
4. Their first record, The Velvet Underground & Nico was produced by Andy Warhol and engineered by Norman Dolph
Their first live performance as a band took place at Summit High School, in Summit, New Jersey on April 11th 1963. They weren’t paid for the gig because it was considered a ‘recording session’ for John Cale who was still contracted to another label at the time (John eventually became one of the most prominent figures in modern music with his innovation and unique style). One year later they recorded The Velvet Underground & Nico which proved to be extremely influential but were turned down by major labels. Andy Warhol eventually signed them to his label, “Verve Records”, as a last resort because he had been so turned down by Columbia and RCA, but within two years the album had sold over 15,000 copies. One song from the album is about a then-underground topic: transvestites.
5. The first track of their first record, The Velvet Underground & Nico was named after a book written by Paul Goodman called “The Velvet Underground”
It also gave the name to Lou Reed’s band which soon became more popular than the literary work itself. It has been said that it is actually an ode to both the book and Reed’s band; this claim is very hard to prove however as there is little evidence to suggest one way or the other.
6. Every member of the group was involved in either solo or side projects at some point during their career together
John Cale played with a band called “The Theater of Eternal Music” and produced records for Nico (who was also an integral part of The Velvet Underground). Sterling Morrison founded a band called “Sterling Morrison and Friends” and Lou Reed started his first solo album, entitled “Lou Reed”. Mo Tucker played drums on two tracks for another Andy Warhol artist, The Rolling Stones (“Cocksucker Blues”, “Something Happened to Me Yesterday”). Maureen Tucker recorded vocals for experimental rock ensemble BAN which is composed of John Cale, Terry Riley, La Monte Young and Angus MacLise.
7. Their most popular song, “Sweet Jane”, is actually about another Velvet Underground song entitled “Rock and Roll”
The lyrics came to Lou Reed when he was in the back of a cab at 3am on his way home from Max’s Kansas City (a nightclub which was part of Andy Warhol’s circle). The next day, when they were rehearsing for their fourth album Loaded, he started working on the song with Sterling Morrison and Doug Yule who replaced John Cale in 1968 because of musical differences. “Loaded” marked the first time since White Light/White Heat that all four members worked together. They recorded it by demo at Col-Way Studios in New York City which turned out to be one of the best-selling albums in rock history.
8. The group disbanded because Lou Reed left to pursue a solo career after their fourth album, Loaded, was released
The last concert they played together was at London’s Music Machine Club on July 14th 1970 where two members were missing: Maureen Tucker who had fallen ill with hepatitis and John Cale who didn’t want to play because he felt that he should have received more attention than the other band members. After Lou Reed left for New York City to record his first solo album “Lou Reed”, Sterling Morrison left for Texas State University where he studied English Literature and Russian History. Doug Yule moved back north to Boston but then returned when Velvet Underground reunion rumors began circulating in the early 1980s. Maureen Tucker went back to painting and Andy Warhol’s “The Velvet Underground” never reunited until 1993 when they were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame.
9. David Bowie once said that if it weren’t for Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground & Nico would not even be talked about today
Reed was a major influence on David Bowie who did a cover of “White Light/White Heat” with Mick Ronson during 1972 before he performed his own version of “I’m Waiting for the Man” in 1974. In the mid-1970s, Lou Reed recorded two solo albums which also influenced Bowie yet he was quoted saying that this same album inspired him to leave New York City and get out of the music scene because it was getting very over-populated (he moved to Berlin).
10. Their live performances were met with much controversy years after they disbanded for good
The last tour they did in support of their fourth album Loaded, which included more time on stage, was criticized by some of the press at the time for its vulgar lyrics and explicit references (such as “head down between my legs” or “looking for a backdoor into her snatch”). This came at a time when many bands like Simon & Garfunkel had become very popular with family-friendly songs like “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”. These type of controversies helped The Velvet Underground gain notoriety; not bad given that they managed to sell only 30,000 copies