What happens when you take two brilliant musicians, form a group intent on experimental sounds, and sponsor the whole thing by artistic genius Andy Warhol? The answer is The Velvet Underground. While the band may not have been the commercial success that other timeless bands are famous for, The Velvet Underground is arguably one of the most influential bands in the history of rock and roll. When guitarist/vocalist Lou Reed met the multitalented John Cale in 1964, the two knew they had something special. Both musicians experimented wildly with their sounds, using music as an artistic medium. With Sterling Morrison on guitar and Angus MacLaise on drums, the band had officially formed. Named after a pulp fiction novel, The Velvet Underground began playing shows around New York City. The original lineup of the band was short-lived: When the band received their first paying gig, MacLaise left the group on the grounds that The Velvet Underground had sold out. Not to be discouraged, MacLaise was replaced by drummer Maureen Tucker, who was every bit as experimental as the rest of the group.
Within a year of their formation, the band was picked up by none other than artist Andy Warhol, who became the group’s manager. With Warhol at the helm, the band was signed by MGM’s Verve Records, and the band was given the rare privilege of creating whatever sounds they wanted, with no regard for commercial appeal. The band was then recruited to join Warhol’s multimedia show called Exploding Plastic Inevitable, touring across North America until the spring of 1967. That same year, The Velvet Underground teamed up with German singer Nico, who collaborated with the band on three songs, and their first album The Velvet Underground and Nico, was released in March 1967. Featuring the songs “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Run Run Run,” “Venus in Furs,” “Heroin,” “Femme Fatale,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” the album featured a wide range of sounds. With Warhol contributing his talents to design the album’s cover (famously featuring a yellow banana sticker, which when removed reveals a pink peeled banana underneath), the album ultimately peaked at #171 on the Billboard top 200 charts.
Following the release of their first album, the band broke away from Warhol, and Nico left as well. Left to their own devices, The Velvet Underground recruited Tom Wilson as their new producer and began work on their second album titled White Light/White Heat in the fall of 1967, which was then released in the winter of 1968. With a very gritty, raw sound, described by John Cale as being “consciously anti-beauty,” the album, which featured tracks including “Sister Ray,” “I Heard Her Call My Name,” and the oft-covered “Here She Comes Now,” the band barely cleared the Billboard charts at #199. Perhaps the most challenging part of an experimentally-driven band is deciding which directions to take the music. With Reed and Cale at odds over the sounds the band would create, Cale eventually left the group, to be replaced by Doug Yule.
With Cale gone, Yule helped the band record their third album, self-titled The Velvet Underground, which failed to chart. Without Cale’s preference for the gritty sounds made famous in the early years of the band, this third album was noticeably more tame, although it features a range of vocalists, with Reed, Yule, and Tucker contributing to various songs on the album. Following the release of The Velvet Underground, the band toured extensively, releasing both a live album and beginning work on their fourth album. However, owing to disputes with the record label, the album was never officially released, and was presented to fans nearly two decades after its original inception as part of a compilation set.
1969 brought more trouble for the band. MGM, losing money and forced to tighten their belts, did away with any bands which were not profitable to the company, including The Velvet Underground. Now signed with Atlantic Records, the group began work on what was to become their fourth official album, Loaded (1970). Containing songs such as “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll,” it is important to mention that Reed quit the band before the album was officially complete, and was surprised to see it appear in stores less than a month after his departure from the band that he created.
Thus, with drummer Maureen Tucker gone from the band following her pregnancy, Lou Reed’s departure just before the album’s completion, and Sterling Morrison’s exit to focus on his education, The Velvet Underground no longer contained a single member present during the release of their first album. Controversially, Doug Yule continued to record and perform under The Velvet Underground name. Regardless of the validity of his rights to the band and its name, the album Squeeze was released in 1973. Released only in Europe and receiving negative reviews, whether the album officially counts as an official Velvet Underground record is still up for debate to this day. For the next decade, various collections of previous Velvet Underground members would continue touring under The Velvet Underground name, and several live albums and compilation sets were released to fans.
In 1990, Reed and Cale came together once more in memory of the death of Andy Warhol, releasing Songs for Drella. While the album was not released under The Velvet Underground name (instead billed simply as Lou Reed and John Cale), the band officially reunited in 1992 with Reed, Cale, Morrison and Tucker. The reunited band toured across Europe, including a show at the Glastonbury music festival, however before a North American tour could begin, Reed and Cale were again at odds with one another, and the short-lived reunion came to an end. Two years after the band’s breakup, Morrison passed away from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, preventing an original-lineup reunion from ever happening again. In 1996 the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with Reed, Cale and Tucker performing one more show in honor of the event. While the band may never have been a commercial success, the name is nonetheless famous among fans of rock music, and their influence has been far more profound than their record sales would indicate. With acknowledged influence with over 25 different rock groups, including musical greats such as David Bowie, The Smiths, Nirvana, and Siouxsie and the Banshees (among many, many others), the question begs to be asked: what makes a great band great? Is it packed stadiums worldwide? The number of albums sold? The total money earned? Perhaps greatness is more than that. As The Velvet Underground demonstrates, perhaps true greatness lies not in commercial success, but in the number of fans moved by your music. Indeed, without The Velvet Underground and their experimental sounds of the 60s and 70s, music today would be something else entirely.