» Velvet Underground Biography
by Marion Phillips - February 5, 2004
The Velvet Underground was a band whose importance was only recognised by critics and musicians after the group had dispersed.
But its influence only grew through these almost 4 decades since it started and it affected bands as diverse as Stooges, Joy Division, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Sonic Youth, among others.
Big Apple Worms
The Velvet Underground was made of outstanding people, who were opposites amongst them.
Lou Reed was the singer, guitarist and main composer. Born in 1942, in Long Island, US, in a rich and conservative family, he always had problems with his parents, who even sent him to a hospital for psychological treatment, where he had electroshock sessions.
When Reed was studying in the Syracuse University, he met Sterling Morrison, who was born in the same year and place as Reed and came from another "righteous" middle-class family. The two shared the same room in the campus, both had musical aspirations and were friends with the poet Delmore Schwartz.
After Reed finished his Literature course in Syracuse, he decided to become a full-time composer, and in 1964 he recorded a single using the name "The Primitives" through the seal Pickwick, as if it were a band, when in fact, he played all the instruments. To promote the single, Reed hired John Cale, Tony Conrad and the drummer Walter DeMaria, who were students of the modernist composer La Monte Young.
The violinist John Cale was born in 1940, in Crynant, Wales. He studied composition in London University's Goldsmiths College, and in 1964 he went to New York to study with La Monte Young. Cale got fascinated with the easiness that Lou had to improvise interesting lyrics in the moment he was singing, and they became friends.
After the seal went bankrupt, Reed and Cale decided to keep the band, but due to lack of commercial perspective, Conrad and DeMaria left the project. Then Reed met Sterling Morrison again in a subway station, invited him to join his group and with the drummer Angus McLise they played in some clubs, using the names The Warlocks and The Falling Spikes.
In mid 1965, they had already adopted the name The Velvet Underground, which was suggested by Conrad, who saw the name on the cover of a cheap sadomasochist novel. They were invited to open the shows of the Myddle Class band, by their manager, the journalist Al Aronowitz. As Al wanted to manage the Velvet Underground as well, the drummer McLise didn't like his proposal and he left the band.
Morrison and Reed remembered that a friend of theirs from the time of the Syracuse University had a sister who played drums, and they decided to contact her and ask her to join them.
Maureen (Mo) Tucker, born in 1945, in New Jersey, US, worked for IBM at the time she was called, and in spite of Cale''s opinion that to have girls in the band wasn't a good idea, she was the drummer who played with them in their first show as the Velvet Underground, opening for the Myddle Class in the Summit High School, in November 1965, and who remained with them until the end
After that, Al got for them a residency gig at the Café Bizarre bar, in Greewich Village and that's when Andy Warhol met them and changed everything.
Exploding Plastic & A Banana
The painter, photographer, moviemaker and journalist Andy Warhol was already notorious for his avant-garde silk-screen pictures and
black & white movies. He had a studio that was called The Factory, where he made his artworks and had meetings with his friends of all walks of life.
One of these regulars was the model, singer and actress Nico, who had just arrived from London, after recording a single produced by the Rolling Stones manager Andrew Oldham.
Both her birthdate and birthplace are controversial. She may have been born in 1940,
in Budapest, Hungary as well as in 1938, in Cologne, Germany.
Nico was the kind of artist that was better at being herself than anything else, and she's considered a legend of the history of Rock.
She's the mysterious beauty, who walked in all levels of society and who met the most important rock musicians of the 60's.
Warhol asked Reed to make two songs for Nico to sing, which were called "Femme Fatale" and "All Tomorrow's Parties" and also asked him to adopt the name The Velvet Underground and Nico. This interference of Warhol wasn't welcomed by Cale and Reed at first, but they accepted it, because of the support he was giving them.
In 1966, Warhol asked them to take part in his presentation at the Cinemateque, in which almost all arts were be combined on the stage. The Velvet Underground played, while the dancer Gerard Malanga danced with his whip, special lights were projected on them and Warhol's movies were projected behind the band.
Soon afterwards, Warhol produced their first album that was called "The Velvet Underground And Nico". He also made its cover design, which showed only a banana. It featured their provocative songs about drug users and dealers - "Heroin" and "I'm Waiting For The Man", pananoia - "Sunday Morning" and sadomasochism - "Venus In Furs" (which was based on a novel by Von Sacher-Masoch of the same name). Two of them were sang by Nico, in spite of Reed's opposition to this.
From the multi-media show came the idea for a tour that was called Exploding Plastic Inevitable, in which they traveled throughout the US as a group of musicians, dancers, light technicians and warhol as the responsible for the movies projection.
But this was far from being a conventional art show. In part because of The Velvet Underground's music and then because of Warhol's movies, which were called "The Harlot", "The Shoplifter", "Blow Job", etc, and were sometimes considered vulgar by the critics and the public of the cities in which they presented, which made of this tour a great adventure and a great commercial failure.
Their first album was finally released in 1967 through the Verve seal. The Velvet Underground continued to tour as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, but this time without Warhol, who was promoting a new movie in Cannes and Nico, who was singing in a New York club. A little time later, they broke the association with Warhol and continued on their own.
The first album received little attention of the media, due to its violent and strange sound. Even so, their work called the attention of the Beatles'
manager Brian Epstein, who wanted to release their record and take them on tour in Europe, but the proposal
was stopped by his death.
Nevertheless, they had a new manager called Steve Sesnick, who convinced their label to produce a new album, which was called "WhiteLight/White Heat" and had songs like "Sister Ray" and "The Gift".
The band's sound is even cruder and more violent, with
Cale's minimalist musicality, plus Reed's irreverent lyrics.
Things were going bad between Reed and Cale, as each had his own point of view on what the band's sound should be. This divergence ended when Reed announced that Cale was out of the band, and invited the bassist Doug Yule to take his place.
Another album was recorded in 1969, this one called simply "The Velvet Underground". It showed a great change in the band's sound. Their music was more basic rock n' roll and the only experimental song of the album was "The Murder Mystery". It has some other good songs like "Some Kinda Love", "I'm Set Free" and "Afterhours".
In 1970, started the last period of the band, in which the seal gave up on them, because all their albuns were commercial failures. Also Mo had to quit the band for some time when she got pregnant and Billy Yule (Doug's brother), was called to take her place.
With this new formation, they started to play at the Max Kansas City, a bar that was one of the most famous underground meeting places of New York artists. They recorded a new album, called "Loaded", but before it was released by the seal Cotillion, Reed left the band, as he didn't agree with the rock star image the manager wanted for him.
However the band went on, this time with the unknown singer Walter Powers in Reed's place and this way the band toured throughout the US. In 1971, Morrison decided to leave the band, and he went to Texas to teach English. To his place went the guitarist Willie Alexander.
Still one more album was recorded but the MGM seal decided not to release it. Doug Yule took the band's name on until 1973, when he released the album "Squeeze" in which he played all the instruments.
In the meantime and beyond, John Cale produced all of Nico's solo albuns and still has a successful career as a rock producer. Lou Reed, became well-known in the rock scene, after he allied with David Bowie, who produced his first solo record "Transformer" in 1972.
In the 80s, Nico died of a heart attack and Warhol died of a hospital infection after a surgery. In 1993 the original four members of the band got together for a tour and a live album, which brought the band's notoriety to the present. Sterling Morrison died months after the reunion.
The band may be over, but its sound remains as daring as when it was developed.
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Copyright © 2003 Marion Phillips