The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground was Andy Warhol’s house band, playing regularly at his Factory in the 1960s. They were formed in 1964 by principle members John Cale and Lou Reed, and initially played through 1973. They released five studio albums during that time, although John Cale had left the band and was replaced by Doug Yule after the second album, and other founding members Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison would eventually leave after the fourth album. During their initial run, the band was known for the fact that nearly every member was a multi-instrumentalist.

They were also known for the major part they played in spurring the punk rock movement. From their very first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, they included songs that openly discussed sex, drugs and rock and roll. For instance, Lou Reed wrote the song “Heroin,” which eventually became one of the band’s most famous songs. They also discussed heroin in the song “I’m Waiting for the Man,” and they discussed sexual bondage in the literature-inspired song “Venus in Furs.” The album also discussed acquaintances of producer Andy Warhol, such as the song “Femme Fatale,” which Warhol commissioned them to write about Edie Sedgwick.

While the band covered some racy subject matter, they also focused intensely on the sheer quality of their music. Their first album featured Nico’s vocals on “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” and John Cale played viola for the song “Sunday Morning.” Their third, self-titled album also featured “Candy Says,” which was part of a new direction that the band had decided to go in after producing their second album, White Light/White Heat.

The second album had utilized a great deal of feedback and improvised noise, and was much more experimental than the first. They especially utilized feedback and distortion on the song “I Heard Her Call My Name.” They also played an improvisational jam for approximately seventeen minutes on the song “Sister Ray,” which was built on just three chords and told the story of an orgy of drag queens. Similarly racy lyrical themes were used in songs such as “White Light/White Heat,” which was all about drug use (amphetamine, in particular), and “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” which described a lobotomy performed on a transsexual woman. It also contained a song called “The Gift,” which features John Cale reading a short story over the left speaker while the band plays an instrumental accompaniment on the right speaker.

The last album to feature Lou Reed would be Loaded, released in 1970. It was also the last album to feature Sterling Morrison or drummer Maureen Tucker (who was on maternity leave but still appears on a few tracks). The album featured some of their least experimental songs, released at a time when the band and their record label were striving for commercial success. This did not sit well with Lou Reed, as the label’s efforts to produce a hit single resulted in re-edits of songs such as “Rock & Roll,” “New Age,” and “Sweet Jane.”

The Velvet Underground never completely achieved commercial success, but their impact on the music industry was still rather profound. They influenced punk rock, experimental rock, and numerous bands who played around with either genre. In 1996, singer Patti Smith inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, immortalizing their influence on rock music.

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