If 1968 was the year that changed the world, then I’d go as far as to say 1967 was the year the world was truly creative – Liverpool alone contributed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as well as poetry’s The Mersey Sound. But across the other side of the Atlantic something truly ground-breaking was about to appear – indeed if Helen was the face that launched a thousand ships then The Velvet Underground was the muse that launched a thousand bands.
Yes, fifty years ago, an album appeared more ahead if its time than anything that had gone before, and some would say since, from a group of New York misfits, marketed by the creative genius that was Andy Warhol. That album was The Velvet Underground and Nico.
The story of this iconic band starts in 1964 when Lou Reed met experimental instrumentalist John Cale and they formed a band called The Primitives. With Reed on guitar and Cale playing anything and everything, they eventually added guitarist Sterling Morrison and a percussionist, Angus Maclise. After a brief name change to The Falling Spikes they eventually settled on ‘The Velvet Underground’ after Michael Leigh’s book about the secret sexual subculture of the 1960’s. When Maclise suddenly left the group, Morrison brought in Maureen Tucker to play drums and, with her unique approach to percussion, the band’s classic sound began to take shape.
The band was eventually introduced to Andy Warhol and became part of his pop art roadshow, Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which operated out of Warhol’s studio, The Factory, on New York’s Union Square West. The exposure significantly raised their profile and whilst Warhol was content to leave them to their own devices, he did introduce German model Nico to the band. Whilst it wasn’t a happy mix and new material had to be written to accommodate her presence, Warhol had clearly seen the marketing opportunity to be exploited and so in 1966 they began recording the album. The initial feedback from the music industry wasn’t good however with much of the material having to be re-recorded before a new producer, Tom Wilson, was brought on board. Wilson had produced the likes of Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, and therefore sat well with Warhol’s wider marketing approach which was to be reflected in the iconic album cover of a peel away banana as well as the tag ‘produced by Andy Warhol’.
It’s an eclectic album that captures the harsher, grimier Velvet Underground staples alongside softer and more welcoming tracks designed to showcase Nico (although Reed in fact sings the opening song ‘Sunday Morning’ which had been intended for her). The album was released on 12th March 1967 but because of a pending lawsuit (the image of an actor was inadvertently featured in a photo of the band performing that was on the album’s back sleeve) it was withdrawn and redistributed in the summer.
Despite the Warhol influence though, the album was not a commercial success and shortly afterwards the band broke from Warhol with ‘temporary’ member Nico also left to go her own way. The Velvet Underground would go on to release three more seminal albums. 1968 saw White Light/White Heat again capturing the harsh and brutal side of New York life although offset by some comic humour. At this juncture, Cale departed following artistic differences with Lou Reed and was replaced by Doug Yule who was to feature on the more gentle and melodic 1969 album The Velvet Underground. Following a year on the road, 1970 saw their final studio album, Loaded, whose more accessible tracks reflected the record company’s demand for more hits. Whilst credited on the album, Tucker was in fact on maternity leave and percussion was covered by a few drummers including Yule’s younger brother, Bobby, who was to play with the band as part of their legendary nine-week residence at New York nightclub, Max’s Kansas City.
Reed left the band in the last week of the shows in August 1970. Despite various fragmented set-ups enforced by the record company, Morrison left in August 1971 with the band formally dissolving in January 1972. Whilst another album, Squeeze, was released in 1973 (only in Europe) it was generally considered to be an attempt by the record company to cash in and as such is widely considered to be The Velvet Underground in name only and is disregarded by fans. Somewhat ironically the UK band Squeeze were inspired to take their name from it.
There was a wealth of live recorded material which saw the release in May 1972 of Live at Max’s Kansas City and a double album in 1974 entitled 1969: The Velvet Underground Live. Both albums were of questionable recording quality and despite a variety of circulated bootleg tapes during the intervening years, it wasn’t until 2015 and the release of The Complete Matrix Tapes, comprising remixed and remastered versions of a series of professionally recorded 1969 performances, that a worthwhile live recording of The Velvet Underground was finally commercially available.
Brian Eno famously said in 1982 that ‘the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band’. The Velvet Underground and Nico embraced musical dissonance, gritty subject matter, simple rhythms, and perceptive lyrics, and has inspired every form of alternative music ever since: Glam; punk; noise rock (WL/WH is considered the first noise rock album); art rock (VU & Nico is considered the first art rock album); New Romanticism; ‘80’s college rock (R.E.M.; U2; The Cure; Red Hot Chilli Peppers; The Smiths); Indie (The Jesus and Mary Chain; Primal Scream) ; Britpop (Blur; Suede; Oasis; Pulp); grunge (Nirvana; Primal Scream); post-Britpop (Coldplay; Radiohead, The Verve) – the list goes on.
Quite simply there has never been an album or band more ahead of its time: one can only sit back and listen with pleasure and wonder at what will be inspired from it next.
In 1990, Reed and Cale released Songs for Drella, a song cycle about Andy Warhol who had died in 1987. The Reed–Cale–Morrison–Tucker line-up officially reunited as ‘The Velvet Underground‘ in 1992, with a European tour beginning in Edinburgh on June 1, 1993 and Cale singing most of the songs Nico had originally performed. Despite the success of the tour, Cale and Reed fell out again, breaking up the band one final time.
On 18th July 1988, Nico had a heart attack whilst on holiday in Ibiza, hitting her head as she fell. She died that evening with a severe cerebral haemorrhage cited as the cause of death.
Sterling Morrison was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1994, from which he died on 30th August 1995, one day after his 53rd birthday.
Lou Reed died on 27th October 2013 from liver disease, despite a transplant earlier in the year, at his home in Southampton, New York, at the age of 71.