The Velvet Underground: The velvet revolution rocks on

Forty-five years after the Velvet Underground released their debut album, Simmy Richman celebrates one of music's most influential bands

What is the most influential album of all time? Music lovers can (and do) argue about such things at length, but few would deny the first Velvet Underground album its right to be up there. It was number one when another British newspaper published its "50 albums that changed music" list back in 2006. The rock critic Lester Bangs stated that "Modern music starts with the Velvets", and Brian Eno told an interviewer in 1984: "I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 in the first five years. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band." The record is now, unbelievably, 45 years old, but its influence shows no sign of waning. To celebrate this milestone, a six-CD boxset with all the trimmings is just about to be released – so now seems as good a time as any to ask what it is about the record that continues to fascinate and enthral.

The simple answer is to listen to the album. For the long answer you have to go back to 1965. In the UK, The Beatles are just hitting their sweet spot with pop ditties such as "Yesterday" and "Ticket to Ride". In New York, meanwhile, a literature student turned songwriter called Lou Reed has recently met an avant-garde musician called John Cale and the pair have started writing songs together. Two of these will go on to appear on that seminal debut: one, "Heroin", requiring no explanation (sample lyric: "It's my wife and it's my life"), and the other, "Venus in Furs", about sadomasochism. Talk about out of step with the times.

And then they met the artist Andy Warhol and things got really weird. In 1966 Warhol made the group, now including guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Mo Tucker, the house band for his "multimedia events" the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Providing drone-heavy jams to accompany Warhol's film, light and dance shows, The Velvet Underground found the perfect backdrop to their unholy symphonies – as well as a sugar daddy to finance and indulge their experimentation.

And the first, ahem, fruit of that relationship was that 1967 debut LP. With three tracks sung by German Warhol muse turned chanteuse Nico, it has become known as "the Banana album", thanks to Warhol's peelable cover artwork bearing only the instruction to "Peel slowly and see" and the artist's signature. (Because who needs anything as mainstream as, like, the band's name, man?)

The album duly flopped: for if Cale and Reed and co had been out of step in 1965, by the time the album was released it was the summer of peace, love and flower power, a touchy-feely world away from the Velvets' dirty, dirgy melange of hard drugs and decadent sex.

But over the following decades, word of that debut would pass from person to person, establishing it as the underground music scene's worst-kept secret. It did no harm to the cause that Lou Reed's David Bowie-produced solo single "Walk on the Wild Side" became a bona fide hit in 1972. Or that any number of new wave bands found themselves turning to the band's back catalogue for cult cover versions. Suddenly, a band that had lasted only a couple of years in its original line-up became a name to drop and a force to be reckoned with.

The band hit these ears around the time of punk rock. I was about 13 and mainly listening to 10cc and The Beatles. Here was a dark glimpse into a beatnik, bohemian counter-culture then unavailable to a middle-class Jewish kid from north-west London. Songs could be sweet and short or stretch into feedback jams lasting seven minutes. On that first album alone, the Velvets invented – or at the very least inspired – art rock, punk, garage, grunge, shoegaze, goth, indie and any other alternative music you care to mention. It didn't matter that the music was made before my time. The debut album was and still is ahead of everyone's time.

If it is name-checked less these days, that's only because its influence has become a given: in the same way that you don't need to ask a reggae musician if they've heard Bob Marley or a singer-songwriter if they've listened to Nick Drake.

But make no mistake, its power is undimmed. So, to mark 45 years of spreading its corrupting magic and mayhem, we recall the impact of "the Banana album" on musicians from down the decades ....

Under the influence

The 1970s

"If the Velvet Underground had a protégé," said the group's guitarist Sterling Morrison, "it would be Jonathan Richman." Latterly known for sweet acoustic ditties, the Boston-born musician began his career as frontman of garage band the Modern Lovers and was directly inspired by the ragged energy of the Velvet Underground. Indeed, the fan/fanatic saw the group play 80 times, slept on their manager's couch when he first moved to New York, and wrote an article titled "New York Art and the Velvet Underground" for a Boston magazine as early as 1967. By the late 1970s, his band's "Sister Ray"-inspired single "Roadrunner" had become an unlikely top-20 hit in the UK in the wake of the new wave phenomenon. Richman would later top that with a song called "Velvet Underground". The lyrics speak for themselves: "Both guitars got the fuzz tone on/ The drummer's standing upright pounding along/ A howl, a tone, a feedback whine/ Biker boys meet the college kind/ How in the world were they making that sound?/ Velvet Underground."


Before Chrissie Hynde was a rock star, she was a writer for the NME who had landed in London from Akron, Ohio, in 1973 with three records in her possession: the first two Velvet albums and Iggy Pop's Raw Power. She wrote of the band: "Takes me right back to the teenage years of my virginal innocence; the evening I spent in some dingy hall, eyes fixed on the cat in the striped T-shirt and wraparound shades, those songs made my eyes water like I was chewing on a wad of aluminium foil, me hoping I could score some dope after the show; me wishing I could be like them."


It goes without saying that the British "shoegaze" phenomenon of the early 1990s could not have existed without the Velvet Underground, indebted as it was to the Velvets' love of distortion and feedback. And at the heart of that scene were Slowdive, a band fronted by Neil Halstead, who went on to form Mojave 3 as well as being a solo artist. Currently touring the US, Halstead says: "I remember seeing the name a lot in Melody Maker when I was 15. I was a big Jesus and Mary Chain fan and I remember hearing 'Sunday Morning' and thinking it didn't sound much like the Mary Chain. After that I was sucked into the record. It still sounds as exotic and dark and beautiful and cool to me now as it did then. The further I got into it the more I realised that not only did the Mary Chain owe the Velvets a debt, but so did every other 'alternative' band I was listening to at that point."



While the band's influence was everywhere by now, The Strokes' first album, 2001's Is This It, probably comes as close to any record since the Banana album to capturing directly that balance between passionate authority and detached cool. In 2010, The Strokes' singer Julian Casablancas told Rolling Stone: "The Velvet Underground were way ahead of their time. And their music was weird. But it also made so much sense to me. I couldn't believe this wasn't the most popular music ever made. In the beginning, The Strokes definitely drew from the vibe of the Velvets. A lot of our guitar tones are based on what Reed and Sterling Morrison did. I honestly wish we could have copied them more. We didn't come close enough. But that was cool, because it became more of our own thing. Which is something else I got from the Velvets. They taught me just to be myself."


Freddie Cowan is the guitarist of The Vaccines. He says: "I remember hearing 'All Tomorrow's Parties' when I must have been about 13 and Tom [his older brother, the keyboardist in The Horrors] was about 15. It was a rite of passage to discuss the importance of it and beyond that it was the best intro to a song I'd ever heard. One of that first album's biggest advantages is that Andy Warhol 'produced' it and he knew nothing technically about music. Not obeying the rules made for a sound that's still unique and those ideas are still being used. The whole thing is this aggressive, deadpan perfection. It is adult rock'n'roll; brutal and not dumbed down. The influence remains because of the whole approach and attitude. If you write about what you know and do things as if you really fucking believe it, you can't go wrong."

'The Velvet Underground & Nico' (Super Deluxe Version) is out on 29 October on UMC/Polydor

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all