Profile of the Velvet Underground

Influential Alternative Rock Pioneers

Velvet Underground
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

The Velvet Underground (1965 - 1972) was arguably the most influential rock band that never achieved significant commercial success. Although the origin is unclear, the often-repeated quotation, "The Velvet Underground didn't sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band," recognizes their importance in music history.

Formation

In the early 1960s, when Lou Reed was working as a house songwriter for Pickwick Records, he met Welsh musician John Cale, who had moved to the U.S. to study classical music on a scholarship. The pair bonded over their love of music and formed a group called The Primitives. To round out their band, they recruited guitar player Sterling Morrison and drummer Angus MacLise. 

The four-member band went through two more names, the Warlocks and the Falling Spikes. John Cale's friend Tony Conrad introduced the group to the book "The Velvet Underground," by Michael Leigh, an investigation into the sexual subculture. In November 1965, the group unanimously decided to adopt the name the Velvet Underground.

John Cale described the group's early rehearsal music as similar to the music that accompanied beat poetry. It incorporated droning sounds he learned from the avant-garde composers and a light, rhythmic background. Angus MacLise left the group just after they received their first paid gig at a high school in New Jersey. The remaining members hired Maureen Tucker, sister of Sterling Morrison's friend Jim Tucker, as a replacement, and the first classic Velvet Underground lineup came together.

Work with Andy Warhol

The Velvet Underground met artist Andy Warhol, a leader of the Pop Art movement, in 1965. He soon became the band's manager, and he suggested that they have German singer Nico sing on several of their songs. Warhol had the Velvet Underground provide the background music for his "Exploding Plastic Inevitable" traveling art show through May 1967. 

Andy Warhol secured a recording contract for the band with Verve Records, a subsidiary of MGM, and their debut album "The Velvet Underground and Nico" was released in March 1967. It includes many of the band's most memorable songs including, "I'm Waiting for the Man," "Venus in Furs," influenced by the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novella, and "Heroin." The album cover is one of the most famous rock covers of all time. It features a yellow banana sticker with the message, "Peel slowly and see."

The album had little commercial success. It peaked at #171 on the Billboard album chart. Many observers considered the sounds, including the use of viola, a droning style of guitar strum, and tribal-sounding drums with little cymbal, to be peculiar and esoteric. After disappointment in the album's performance, Lou Reed fired Andy Warhol, and Nico moved on.

Doug Yule Era

In January 1968, the Velvet Underground released its second album "White Light / White Heat." It is a much harder-edged album than the first. It includes the songs "Sister Ray" and "I Heard Her Call My Name." Commercial success eluded the band once again; the album peaked at #199 on the chart. In the wake of the album, tensions between artistic directions favored by Lou Reed and John Cale grew stronger. Consequently, with reluctant agreement from Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed dropped John Cale from the band.

Doug Yule, a member of the Boston-based group the Grass Menagerie, began playing live with the Velvet Underground in October 1968. He appeared on their next album, the eponymous "The Velvet Underground" released in March 1969. Compared with their first two efforts, "The Velvet Underground" was less experimental, and the band hoped it would be accessible to a broader audience. Nevertheless, it failed to reach the album charts at all.

The Velvet Underground spent most of 1969 on the road performing concerts and having little commercial success. Under new management, MGM began culling acts with disappointing sales from their roster in 1969. The Velvet Underground were dropped along with other legends Eric Burdon and the Animals, and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention.

Atlantic Records signed the Velvet Underground, and they recorded their fourth, and final, studio album "Loaded" in 1970. The album's title came from the label's desire to have an album "loaded with hits."The most accessible of the group's four albums, it includes the songs "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll." In a surprise twist for the band, Lou Reed's disappointment with final mixes for the album and pressure from his manager led to him leaving the Velvet Underground in August 1970 three months before the release of "Loaded."

After Lou Reed

Following the release of "Loaded," and failure to reach the charts once again, the Velvet Underground set out to tour through 1971 with Walter Powers replacing Lou Reed. Sterling Morrison, the final founding member of the group, left after a show in Houston, Texas in August 1971. The band soldiered on to tour in Europe in late 1971, but in January 1972, after a show in Pennsylvania, the Velvet Underground formally broke up. 

In response to new interest in the group from the U.K.'s Polydor label in late 1972, Doug Yule hastily pulled together a new lineup and toured the U.K. He recorded an album titled "Squeeze" almost entirely by himself and released it as a Velvet Underground album. Most observers consider it a Velvet Underground album in name only. 

Reunions

Following a Lou Reed and John Cale reunion for the 1990 album "Songs for Drella" in tribute to Andy Warhol, rumors began to circulate about a Velvet Underground reunion. Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker formally reunited in 1992, and they set out on a European tour in June 1993. However, artistic differences between Lou Reed and John Cale broke the band up again before they could perform live in the U.S.  Sterling Morrison died of cancer in August 1995. Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker, and John Cale performed live together for the last time after Patti Smith officially inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

Legacy

The music of the Velvet Underground is acclaimed for both its breadth of influences and breaking of traditions in rock music studio recording. The band fearlessly combined sounds in unique ways to come up with adventurous music that presaged the punk and new wave revolution of the late 1970s. Lyrically, their songs brought a sense of realism to rock music frankly discussing issues like drug addiction and alternative sexuality in ways that audiences seldom heard anywhere else in mainstream music. The group also provided a platform for Lou Reed's solo career breaking ground for musicians from the singer-songwriter movement to hardcore punk and hard rock.

Velvet Underground Fast Facts

  • Name: The Velvet Underground
  • Known For: Influential Avant-Garde Rock Band
  • Formed: 1965 in New York City, New York, USA
  • Disbanded: 1972
  • Selected AlbumsThe Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light / White Heat, Loaded
  • Offbeat Fact: The Velvet Underground was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame despite having no commercially successful albums.

References and Recommended Reading

  • Bockris, Victor. Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story. Omnibus Press, 1983.
  • Kugelberg, Johan. The Velvet Underground: New York Art. Rizzoli, 2009.