From outsider misfits to unlikely musical heroes.
Assistant Music Director at triple j and host of the J files on Double J, Gemma Pike tells us why The Velvet Underground and their iconic album are untouchable.
There are some artists whose influence, by measure of output and subsequent reverence, is astronomical. And there are none who this is more true for than The Velvet Underground. For every kid whose got a Jimi Hendrix or a Nirvana poster on their wall, for every new guitarist clumsily making their way through a Beatles tab, you better believe there is a band starting up sighting The Velvet Underground’s lo-fi, almost lackadaisical style as the cornerstone of their burgeoning songwriting.
To paraphrase the oft-quoted Brian Eno, sales of the band’s 1967 debut album The Velvet Underground And Nico were incidental, around 30 000 copies in the first year (The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which also came out in the same year, sold over five million). It took a decade for the release to move even 100 000 units, but Eno mused that everyone who bought one of those albums went on to form a band. While this is a fairly sweeping statement, Eno’s sentiment isn’t far off. The Velvet Underground were never meant to be big shiny pop stars. And it is the way they sit outside this realm – despite Andy Warhol and Nico certainly providing some pop-centric weight to their existence – that serves as the reason their reach is so widely felt. The Beatles’ influence for example is ubiquitous, not only in music but socio-politically, culturally, even economically. The Velvet Underground? They speak beyond this omnipotence. They show you that art isn’t found in perfection, but in the imperfection. And because anyone can do it, they’re the band for everyone.
Even early in his career Lou Reed, a precocious black sheep brought up in Queens with a love of doo-wop, was bringing a deconstructed method to his work that in retrospect seems disarmingly simple. While working as an in-house songwriter at Pickwick Records, he wrote and recorded the single ‘The Ostrich’, a charming parody of the Chubby Checker-esque dance songs of the time. While not soaring to the same heights as the hits of the day, it picked up enough traction for an ad-hoc band, The Primitives, to be assembled for a TV spot.
Here Reed met John Cale, a prodigious Welshman living in New York, a classically trained viola player enamoured with the city’s avant-garde scene. Cale had been performing in La Monte Young’s Theatre Of Eternal Music, a troupe who’s performances comprised of playing a single note for three days straight, or yelling at a plant until it died. When Reed explained to Cale he had written ‘The Ostrich’ by tuning all six guitar strings to the same note (EEEEee), these two outsiders found a common ground and forged one of the greatest song writing partnerships of a generation - each were ready to break the rules.
And thus they began, the world’s first 'alternative' band. Open tunings, feedback and improvisation, a paired-back stand up drum kit, impassive vocal deliveries – all of these elements conveying stories of the dark and disparate, the salacious and seedy.
It is these techniques that anchor their influence on nearly every alternative, indie, experimental, punk, post-punk and art-rock band that’s ever existed. Out of the framework built by The Velvet Underground, we saw the Sex Pistols galvanise the punk rock sound. Joy Division often covered ‘Sister Ray’ in their sets. Bono once said that everything U2 has ever written is a rip-off of a Lou Reed song, and The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas has attributed Reed with being the sole reason he does 'everything'. Even The Doors’ Jim Morrison appropriated his leather-clad style from the band’s dancer, Gerard Malanga.
Despite their lack of commercial success at the time, their outsider misfits to unlikely heroes story remains one of the most enduring of modern music. The Velvet Underground were uncompromising. Over the course of their five studio albums, they never settled into a particular sound, instead each one bearing a completely different sonic spectrum to its predecessor - a real testament to their willingness to pursue an utterly steadfast vision.
Yet it’s their debut that remains quintessential. The Velvet Underground And Nico, bury me with this masterpiece. A timeless classic, an untouchable band.
Gemma Pike is triple j’s Assistant Music Director, and host of The J Files – a weekly two hour music documentary on Double J and available via podcast.