There is this old music industry saying that says “The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who brought one formed a band.” Now who ever said that wasn’t wrong. Over the last 40 years almost every alternative band owes something to the original Velvets. Artist like Nirvana, U2, Beck, R.E.M and Jane’s Addiction have all covered Velvet songs and some say over 1000 different bands have covered the Velvet Underground’s work. So why, if so many have covered the music and so many bands were formed from the sound, why didn’t the group reach the heights of others? Simply, are the Velvet Underground one of the most underrated bands of all time?
Well it’s truly hard to call if something is underrated or not because a lot of the time it all comes down to opinion. It’s true that a large amount of their accomplishments weren’t recognised until years after they broke up, The Velvet Underground really did leave a mark on the music world of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and arguably no other band had such a large impact on post punk music.
The music’s style was curd, obnoxious and self indulgent, the music reflected what it was like living on the streets in New York, filled with tales of sex, drugs, rebellious behaviour. It destroyed this innocent vision of Rock’n’Roll. What you have to remember is around the time that their first album was released in 1967, it was the same year The Beatles released arguably their best piece of work, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Jimi Hendrix had released his first album with the Experience so the Velvet’s sound was not only very different to what music listeners were hearing, but this was also during the summer of love. This might explain why The Velvet Underground found themselves working with Andy Warhol. This all came about after Warhol had suggested taking over management of the group after seeing them at a show one night. Warhol suggested he’d take care of getting the group a recording contract, gigs and new equipment, in return they would add Nico, a Warhol discovery, as a member.
Working with Warhol was perfect for Reed, who would sit around the Factory, Warhol’s base of operations, and listen to all the conversations, making notes in his notebook that he would carry around. This almost gave him an unlimited amount of material on which to write songs. With Black Angel’s Death Song, Waiting for the Man and Venus in Furs already Velvet stand out’s at live shows at this point. The group would normally find themselves playing either in front or behind a screen while Warhol’s experimental films would be projected onto the screen whilst they played. By the time 1966 came around Warhol finally got the group into the studio ready to record that now iconic first album. “The Velvet Underground and Nico” was recorded in Cameo park way studio in Broadway. With Warhol naming himself producer. Now this is a key point. Warhol had never produced an album before in his life and really his producing was just letting the group do what they wanted. So what we got was the Velvet’s live sound. This is a key point because there is a chance that had the Velvet’s had a ‘real’ producer we might have received a watered down version of the material. This all costed around $1500.
The release of this album was pushed back and back until finally it did arrive in stores in March 1967. Today this album is seen as one of the most important recordings, not just for Rock’n’Roll or Post Punk, but of all time, but at the time no one knew what to think of it with the summer of love in full swing and other acts like the Beatles, the Who, The Monkey’s and The Beach Boys dominating music charts this was just too far out for anyone to really get their head around. What didn’t help the album, with it only reaching 171 on the US album chart and didn’t even chart in the UK until 1994, was the fact that by the time it reached the shelves the group were no longer in partnership with Warhol, Lou Reed had fired him as manager and without the media coverage that they could have expected from being with Warhol the album struggled. That wasn’t the only thing. They also found themselves having to recall the album as they were being sued over some of the cover art imagine by an artist who at the time has just been arrested and wanted the group to pay his bail and for a lawyer. The record company finding it easier to just not, recall the album and then re-release it without the image, so the album really didn’t do as well as it would’ve if it had been released in 1966. By this point the Velvet’s were now left out of the mainstream and could do as they, pleased and they did.
White Light/White Heat followed and simply it flopped not being given any radio airplay and the record label coming close to not even releasing it at all. By 1968 a new Velvet line-up arrived after John Cale had been outed by Lou Reed and the others, replaced by Doug Yule. This is the point at which we stopped talking about this iconic Velvet sound. With Cale gone Reed could dispense with the experimental sound and create the cleaner and more structured pop sound he had been making since his early days, in bands like The Jades. The albums also bombed in sales and MGM, who had been the group’s new label, dumped them the same year of release. Loaded followed in the spring of 1970 before the album even made it to the stores; Lou Reed had quit the band, Mo Tucker had left after becoming pregnant and Sterling Morrison was attending literature class and then later quit to attend the University of Austin, this lead to the Loaded and following Squeeze album to bomb and to true Velvet fans are avoided at all costs. Looking at the evidence there is plenty to show that The Velvet Underground weren’t anything special, poor album sales and a short lifespan within the music scene. However, during the 13 years after Doug Yule pulled the plug on the group, a new younger generation began to discover and understand the original Velvet’s body of work and as this happened 100’s of groups began to cover Velvet songs, it just took some time but in the end people began to understand how important the Velvet’s had been on music.
However even today with a large part of the alt-rock scene now understanding and hailing the important influence the original Velvet’s had with their music in more mainstream channels The Velvet Underground are still passed over and although this is completely fine as you have to allow for music tastes the fact that when I saw that, The Velvet Underground and Nico was 36 in the ITunes top album chart I took to social media to proclaim “Maybe the Velvet Underground aren’t so underrated as we all thought.”
Cover image MTV’s Daria