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
"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
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