Monday, June 27, 2005

Velvet Underground: Keeps Your Head Held High

Had a couple of oat sodas with a couple of friends last week over at the Brass Elephant and we started talking about our favorite bands, writers, the night wore on we started "discussing" the current state of affairs in pop music and decided we'd each compile a list of groups, albums that everyone should know about but don't...I was told that Ryan Seacrest had a column in Blender that publishes his "top ten" list of albums that everyone should have in their collection. I remember recoiling in horror at the news, not becuase I was told that Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA, LP was on one of the metro-sexual's list of faves (it's a proper listen if you're thinking of the good old days) but because, somebody, somewhere thought he had a clue. I'm not going to hate (anymore), though...I'll step around the obvious ripoffs like Green Day (who bit everything from the Clash but breaking up) or No Doubt (Selecter, anyone?)...or U2, though I still dig their early shite, who now bite off of themselves from back in the early 80's...At any rate, the discussion made me remember a group who don't get nearly as much dap as they should for contributing to the rock 'n roll palette that we all take for granted now...they were touching on subject matter that has become coin of the relm...who where they? Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, Maureen "Mo" Tucker, Sterling Morrison, Doug Yule, Willie Alexander: The Velvet Underground. If you don't know what time it is, here's a quick once over, son...

1965 The Velvet Underground make their official performance debut and begin to make inroads onto the Greenwich Village scene. After witnessing the group perform at NYC's Café Bizarre, Andy Warhol hires the Velvet Underground to perform in his latest exhibit, "Cinematique Uptight." The group eventually joins Warhol's multi-media art show The Exploding Plastic Inevitable adding German chanteuse Nico to their lineup in the process. Founding member Angus MacLise leaves the group and is replaced by drummer Maureen "Moe" Tucker.

1967 Signed to the MGM subsidiary Verve Records in the previous year, the VU make their full length record debut with "The Velvet Underground & Nico." Despite mixed reviews critically, the LP reaches #171 on the US album charts. Later in the year, mounting tensions the group and their management (Warhol) encourages Lou Reed to take the reigns which leads to the summary firing of Nico and the severing of ties with Warhol. After hiring Steve Sesnick as their manager, the band embarks on a poorly attended club tour.

1968 Early in the year Verve releases the sophomore effort "White Light, White Heat" which was hastily recorded after their last tour. Despite acclaim form artistic circles, the LP tops out at #199 on the US album 200. Ongoing power struggles between John Cale and Lou Reed intensify leading to Cale's departure from the fold- he's replaced by bassist Doug Yule.

1969 Recording session in Los Angeles yields the new Verve release "The Velvet Underground" which noticeably lacks Cale's input becomes the group's first outing not to chart on the US album listings at all and the band is dropped from the label. Later in the year, the Velvets are signed on at Ahmet Ertegun's Atlantic Records.

1970 The group returns to the New York City scene and are booked at Max's Kansas City for a month during the summer as singer Walter Powers is added to the lineup. Billy Yule (Doug's brother) is worked into the group when drummer Maureen Tucker takes a maternity leave from the stage. In the fall, Lou Reed locks horns with band manager Sesnick and when the dust settles, he leaves the Velvets and goes into seclusion.

1971 Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker leave the Velvets- Morrison's position is filled by Willie Alexander.

1972 Lou Reed makes his self titled solo album debut on RCA records.

1973 The remaining members of the Velvet Underground record the new set "Squeeze" which is only released in Europe due to the group's flagging popularity in the U.S.

1985 Verve Records submits the LP "V.U." which is comprised of unreleased cuts from 1968-69. The new album performs better than any that the group has recorded by climbing to #85 on the US album listings at the peak of a three month run. Later, Verve's reissue of 1969's "The Velvet Underground" has a fortnight's stay on the charts stopping at #197-US on the album 200.

1993 The original members of the VU reunite and perform at several European dates. In the fall of the year Sire Records releases "Live MCMXCIII" which enters the US album charts at #180 for one week. By the year's end, the reunion ends when the group dissolves again.

1996 The Velvet Underground are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for their creative contributions to the rock genre.

MO' Velvet Underground Facts:

In 1964 Lou Reed and John Cale met and decided to form a new act with Sterling Morrison (guitar) and Angus MacLise (percussion). The newly formed group began to perform at New York nightclubs in Greenwich Village and are propositioned by Andy Warhol who caught one of their shows at Cafe Bizarre.The Velvet Underground got their name from an adult book that founding member Angus MacLise happened to be reading at the time. MacLise's stay would be a short one, however, he quit the group in '65 because he thought that "getting paid to create art" and working for Andy Warhol made them "sellouts" ( ! ).

In the early 60s before joining forces with John Cale, Lou Reed was a staff songwriter for the Pickwick label. Before they helped form the Velvet Underground, John Cale and Angus MacLise were members of the avant-garde group called The Primitives, who recorded on the Pickwick label.

The Velvet Underground were introduced to Andy Warhol via poet/photographer Gerard Malanga, who was a personal friend of the pop artist. Warhol hired the unrepresented act to perform in his latest media-art showcase, "The Exploding Plastic Inevitable" in 1966 that was one of his collaborations with Malanga as well. It was Warhol that suggested the group add frau Nico (model/ actress/ socialite) as a member- to the group's initial chagrin. Under the aegis of Warhol, who'd assumed the roles of both producer and manager, the act's name morphed into The Velvet Underground featuring Nico. In addition to the above, Malanga helped Warhol churn out paintings and filmed media (they called screen tests) from Warhol's studio, the Factory. The art-music-temperments would not last long but many would later question if the Velvet's music would have seen the light of day were it not for Warhol's interest (a la Jean-Micheal Basquiat).

After leaving the Velvets, guitarist Sterlng Morrison moved on to teach English Literature in Texas. As the 60's drew to a close, Lou Reed and co. began to feel the proverbial "heat" of their self induced marginalization. By 1970 the disenfranchised group cut the LP "Loaded" ( a broad stroked attempt to go "commercial ) which was recorded without Maureen Tucker and subsequently released by the Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion Eecords. By then,however, the band's run as a unit had flat-lined for all intents and purposes. Lou Reed left the fold in the fall, following the group's (now) legendary stay at Max's Kansas City in NYC which left Sterling as the only remaining original member. In spite of varied degrees of success in Europe, the set was panned by the usual suspects domestically as well as die hard fans.

A Day Late And A Dollar Short: In spite of the fact that the Velvet Underground have been cited on lists of Rock's most influential ensembles, the group itlself couldn't get arrested in their day. Lou Reed's "cut-to-the-chase" lyrics and the group's avant-garde leanings railed against the grain of psychedelia recorded by their more accessable contemporaries- keeping the group at "arms length" and literally "underground", as it were. In hindsight, the Velvet Underground's music has proven to be an Oopa (Out Of Place Artifact) of sorts and a logical progression for the legions of artistic hopefuls who'd cut their teeth on groups from the sixties. The Velvet influence can be found in tunes by David Bowie (who produced Reed's groundbreaking "Transformer" LP) , the Stooges, Joy Division, X and Elvis Costello. Influential all, these artists put their own spin on rock in the years that followed in the wake of the defunct VU.

As can be witnessed on the compilations that contain live recordings, Reed & co. would continually build on a song's structure up to the point of performing it onstage. "Live At Max's Kansas City", the Velvet's second ultimate Atlantic outing, was recorded during the group's last dates with Lou Reed in NYC just before he left. It was bought and set for release before Morrison, Yule, Tucker and Powers unwittingly began to work on tunes for a sophomore follow up to "Loaded."

Andy Warhol provided the artwork for the iconic cover of the VU's debut LP that has become known as "the banana album" but he was not the only artist of note to provide artwork for the group's music packaging. Polish designer Stanislaw Zagorski designed the cover for the Velvet Underground's "Loaded" LP that was released in 1970. In addition to the work for the Underground, Zagorski created the album jackets for the Modern Jazz Quartet, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (! ) and Ornette Coleman.

Lou Reed's solo debut contained "Ocean", "Ride Into The Sun", "Walk And Talk It" and "I Love You"- which were cuts he'd submitted for the Velvet Underground's consideration on "Loaded."

The Velvet Underground's instrumentation aside, Lou Reed would later grouse that his lyrics were "too out there" for the ears and sensibilities of the mainstream and more or less got the material that proceeded it retroactively black balled. Even though his subject matter dealt seems tame by today's standards, Reed openly addressed topics that were "seamier" than the age-of-aquarius fare of that time. "Venus In Furs" topified sadomasichist themes while "I'm Waiting On The Man" and "Heroin" covered the obvious. Later, "Sister Ray" took a look at transvestism and drug use -- all topics you can now hear on the regular these days.


1967 - The Velvet Underground & Nico - Verve
1967 - White Light/ White Heat - Verve
1969 - The Velvet Underground - Verve
1970 - Loaded - Warner
1972 - Live At Max's Kansas City - Atlantic
1973 - Squeeze - Polydor
1974 - 1969: The Velvet Underground Live - Mercury
1974 - 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, Vol. 1 - Mercury
1974 - 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, Vol. 2 - Mercury
1974 - Live With Lou Reed - Mercury
1976 - Live - Mercury
1976 - MCMXCIII - Warner


1971 - Andy Warhol's Velvet Underground - MGM
1973 - Velvet Underground, Lou Reed - Pride
1973 - Pop History, No. 19 - Kama Sutra
1973 - Lou Reed And The Velvet Underground - Pride
1974 - Archetypes - MGM
1976 - Pop History, No. 12 - Kama Sutra
1978 - Evil Mothers - Skydog
1985 - VU - Verve
1986 - Another View - Verve
1989 - The Best Of The Velvet Underground - Verve
1990 - Collection - Polydor
1993 - What Goes On? - Raven
1995 - Peel Slowly And See - Polydor
1997 - Loaded: Fully Loaded Edition - Rhino
2000 - 20th Century Masters- The Millennium Collection - PolyGram
2001 - An Introduction To The Velvet Underground - PolyGram
2001 - Bootleg Series, Vol. 1: The Quine Tapes - Universal
2001 - Best Of The Velvet Underground - Japanese Import
2001 - Gift Set - PolyGram

In spite of Nico's caterwauling, this band really does make my "Nick Hornby Top 10 List" of bands because, hey, they had a chick (Mo Tucker) on the drum kit decades before L7, the Bangles or the Donnas were making any noise -- she was the Carole King (yeah, she played the traps too) of the rock 'n roll world...and she was good, yo. Reed and Cale weren't no musical slouches either...Laters...


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