The Velvet Underground Posters
Next to the Beatles and the Stones, the Velvet Underground were probably the most influential band in rock history. And when you consider that the Velvets only sold a small fraction of the records those two British units did, theirs is an amazing accomplishment, indeed.
Of course, Brian Eno once said that every person who bought the Velvets' first album subsequently went out and formed their own band--and, naturally, Eno's original band, Roxy Music, would've hardly been possible without the Velvet Underground, nor would have R.E.M., David Bowie, Mott The Hoople, Blue Oyster Cult, the Stooges, or Patti Smith (in fact, the Velvets' John Cale produced the debut LPs for the latter two acts).
The irony is that while most punk-rock wouldn't exist without the Velvet Underground, nor would softer-sounding, almost ambient rock acts like Mazzy Star and American Music Club, demonstrating just how wide the band's influence spanned.
The band came together in New York City--in fact, the band represents New York in an archetypal sense more than any other rock group in history. Founders Lou Reed and bassist/violist John Cale were both staff songwriters, composing schmaltzy pop (including surf and teen dance tunes) for the small Pickwick label--although they were being influenced at the same time by the avant-garde modern classical styling of composers like John Cage and La Monte Young (the latter with whom Cale sometimes played).
The idea, then, was to merge the avant-garde and "noise" (including the basic idea of energy through repetition--which would later become the battle cry for punk rock) with basic "Louie Louie" rock and sometimes even melodic pop. After adding Texan guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker to the mix, the fledgling Velvets became the house band at Andy Warhol's Factory, playing the soundtrack to the artist's infamous Exploding Plastic Inevitable multi-media extravaganzas. Warhol suggested they add German chanteuse Nico to the lineup, and through Warhol's association and supposed production (in title only), the group got a recording contract with MGM, resulting in The Velvet Underground & Nico featuring Warhol's now-legendary banana cover.
That first LP dealt with such non-mainstream New York themes as heroin, sexual perversion (the band took its name, after all, from a novel about S&M sex), and just general darkness at a time when most rock acts were preaching love, peace, and groovy vibes. Both Nico and Warhol were gone for the second LP, White Light/White Heat, which covered many of the same themes--the title track recreates the effects of shooting speed; another tune explored transsexuality--but was even more abrasive than the first, setting the stage for latter-day comers like the Jesus & Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, and heavy metal in general.
Cale was gone, due to inner-frictions, by the third release, which eliminated much of the noise in favor of Reed's more melodic tendencies, exploring the softer side of the group. Doug Yule had been added to replace Cale--and he eventually played a major role in the Velvets' final official LP, Loaded, the closest thing the band ever did to a true pop album, featuring Reed's timeless rock anthems, "Sweet Jane" and "Rock 'N' Roll." The band was falling apart, however, and Reed left before the LP was completed. After a final "Velvet Underground" (in name only) LP, Squeeze, featuring none of the original members--the band was defunct.
It seemed they may end up simply a rock footnote, although Reed's outrageous solo career throughout the '70s, as well as Lester Bangs's passionate writings about the group in CREEM magazine, saw the band become a posthumous legend, with bands like the New York Dolls and the Ramones singing their praises.
The original lineup--sans the deceased Nico--reunited for a European tour in 1993, though inner-bickering split them up again before the tour reached the U.S. A live LP did document the event, however, along with a longform video. It's hard to rate the group's albums, as everyone has their own personal favorite--and they frequently change, depending on mood. All four studio LPs are available together, however, along with a fifth CD of outtakes and rarities as a 1995 PolyGram boxed set called Peel Slowly And See.