By Rik Mercaldi
I realize that this title alone will most likely ignite outrage. How could this relatively obscure group of misfits who never even had a hit record, ever compare to our beloved Beatles? I must state for the record that I am a massive Beatles fan, and as someone who loves richly melodic pop tunes, inspired musicianship and ethereal vocal harmonies, as well as being a musician and a writer of songs myself, how could I not be?
In reality, I’m not even really prepared to completely defend the question introduced in my title, but if you’re reading this, it’s obviously peaked your curiosity. So here we go.
I believe that there is a holy trinity in popular music from which almost everything we listen to, is descended from. The Velvet Underground are part of this elite and influential group, along with Bob Dylan and The Beatles.
Bob Dylan’s poetic influence on the development of lyric writing in popular music has been well-documented, so I don’t really think I need to elaborate too much on that topic. If you enjoy listening to songs where the lyrical content contains any form of thought inducing, abstract poetry, you most likely owe that enjoyment to Dylan. You like him, even if you don’t think you do. Hell, The Beatles were influenced by Bob Dylan!
As with Dylan, The Beatles towering influence and impact on music, as well as popular culture, is inestimable. An autonomous unit who wrote and performed songs of such quality, infectiousness, and eclecticism was unprecedented, and the likelihood of us ever experiencing anything like them again in our lifetime is highly unlikely.
So where does The Velvet Underground fit into this story? Here’s an abridged version of their story for the uninitiated, or a bit of a refresher for the already converted.
In their ranks, The Velvet Underground had a fluently literate songwriter in Lou Reed who studied creative writing under the tutelage of the well-known writer Delmore Schwartz while studying at Syracuse University. As a teenager, Reed was enamored with the raw sounds of early rock and roll and doo-wop inspiring him to take up the guitar and play in a succession of bands while developing his craft as a songwriter. He eventually took on a job as a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records, a budget label that churned out sound-alike songs meant to cash in on the latest trends. As his writing progressed, his dissatisfaction with his position grew, and with an inner creativity bubbling relentlessly under the surface, he aspired to bring the sensitivities of a novel to rock music. It was while working with Pickwick that he came into the orbit of a Welsh expatriate and musical prodigy by the name of John Cale.
Cale had recently moved to New York City and had played viola with minimalist, avant-garde composer La Monte Young in his Theatre of Eternal Music ensemble. Pickwick Records felt like they had a hit on their hands with a song Reed had written and recorded called “The Ostrich”. They wanted to put together a band to help promote the single and brought in John Cale to join Reed in what would become an ad-hoc band called The Primitives. Cale was intrigued by the fact that Reed had tuned all of the strings of his guitar to the same note creating a constant droning sound that was not too far removed from the type of experimental music that Cale was playing at the time. When Reed showed him some of the other tunes he was working on, which included primitive, almost folky versions of songs such as “I’m Waiting For the Man” and “Heroin”, Cale was immediately impressed, and the two decided to work together.
Reed’s college acquaintance and fellow guitarist Sterling Morrison was recruited on guitar, and drummer Angus MacLise completed the band’s original lineup. Originally calling themselves The Warlocks, and then the Falling Spikes, it was actually MacLise who suggested naming the band after a paperback copy of Michael Leigh’s notorious sexual subculture expose titled, The Velvet Underground, that they found in the street. Everyone in the group unanimously agreed that this would be their new name.
Their first paying gig opening for the Myddle Class at Summit High School in Summit, NJ. was arranged by music journalist Al Aronowitz.
MacLise, who Sterling Morrison maintained was “only in it for the art” viewed the idea of being told when to start and stop playing as being a sellout and immediately quit the band.
MacLise was replaced by Maureen “Mo” Tucker, the younger sister of one of Morrison’s friends. She immediately added a very interesting approach to the band, both musically, and visually. Unlike most drummers, Tucker played standing up, with an upturned bass drum, snare, and tom-toms with no cymbals. She also frequently played with mallets, probably as much as she used traditional drumsticks. Her playing, also very unique for the time, found more inspiration from the exotic African drumming of Babatunde Olatunji, and the hypnotic tribal rhythms of Bo Diddley, than from any typical beat groups of the era, and provided the final ingredients that helped to cement the band’s signature sound.
In 1965, filmmaker and performance artist Barbara Rubin introduced the band to artist Andy Warhol who seeing the potential of adding music to a multimedia presentation he had in mind, became the band’s manager. Warhol also suggested adding a chanteuse, in the form of a German-born singer, model-actress named Nico (born Christa Paffgen). She would sing several songs but would never really become part of the band itself.
When Warhol eventually secured a recording contract for the band with MGM’s Verve Records, their first album would actually be titled, The Velvet Underground and Nico. Warhol’s association with the band would not only provide much needed exposure but by listing himself as producer of their first album it would ensure that the band had the luxury of complete artistic control over the recording process not usually afforded to most bands. This freedom was instrumental in allowing the band to create what is now seen as one of the most groundbreaking and influential albums ever recorded.
The Velvet Underground and Nico, released in March of 1967, contained not only songs with risqué subject matter (drugs, addiction, sadomasochism) but in the case of “The Black Angel’s Death Song” words that were strung together for the way that they sounded, with total disregard for their actual meaning. By randomly and spontaneously creating a new form of lyricism, the interpretations were subjective, limited only by the imagination of the listener. This form of songwriting had more in common with the avant-garde art movement of Dadaism in the early part of the 20th Century and the cut-method of writing explored by William Burroughs in the 1950’s and early 1960’s than anything that had been done before in the lyrics of a song.
Be it the tortured wail and hypnotic drone of his viola, the relentless, pulverizing bass tones, or his sophisticated, cultured classicism and avant-garde leanings, the musicality that John Cale brought to the band, cannot be overestimated. Reed’s modal, free jazz influenced six-string mayhem and feedback experiments sat stridently atop the solid fluidity of Morrison’s guitar and could produce an astonishing array of textures, from the ethereal majesty of “Femme Fatale” to the sonic maelstrom of “European Son”.
The band severed their relationship with Warhol not long after the release of their first album, Nico left soon after, and their follow up titled “White Light White Heat” released in 1968, found the band evolving further towards an even more aggressive sound than their debut. Creative differences between Reed and Cale resulted in Cale being fired from the group and was replaced by Doug Yule. The band soldiered on through two more albums until Reed finally decided to leave during sessions for their fourth and final album, “Loaded”. All four of their studio albums are frequently included in “Best Albums of All Time” lists and continue to exert a profound influence on successive generations.
What The Velvet Underground brought to popular music, along with an eclectic assortment of influences both lyrically and musically, was an absolutely unapologetic approach to creating music in a rock band format, unheard of at the time. It seemed an almost inconceivable notion to form a band without any regard to achieving popularity or success, but only to create music that was uncompromising and true to their vision. This concept, while not cutting-edge in the realms of visual art and literature, was something new, and truly without precedent in rock and roll, which in a lot of ways, was still in its own infancy.
The staggering number of artists who’ve been influenced either directly, or indirectly, by The Velvet Underground is a virtual who’s who in pretty much every genre of popular music from rock, punk, post-punk, new wave, goth, alternative, indie, etc. Lou Reed has said that the first Velvet Underground album only sold 30,000 copies in its first five years. Musician and record producer Brian Eno, admittedly a huge Velvet Underground fan, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as having said that the album was enormously important and that “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”
The Beatles undoubtedly inspired MORE people to play music and form bands, but The Velvet Underground brought a timelessness, darkness, and literary approach to rock and roll that’s as profound, most assuredly as essential, and unquestionably just as important.
The Velvet Underground Experience is a riveting multi-media exhibit that is currently being presented at 718 Broadway in New York City through December 30th. As a fan, it’s difficult for me to contain my enthusiasm for this event. The exhibit features a stunning amount of rare photos, concert posters, artwork, memorabilia, and several documentary films, it’s an exhaustive trawl through anything and everything related to The Velvet Underground, as well as a comprehensive examination of the art scene that was taking place in New York City at the time. My friend and I spent over three hours there, and as I’m writing this, I’m seriously considering visiting again. If you have any interest in The Velvet Underground or even just a passing curiosity of what the counterculture was up to in the New York City of the 1960’s, you won’t want to miss this.