The Velvet Underground had its origins, oddly enough, in the world of manufactured pop music, around 1965. Long Island native songwriter/singer/guitarist Lou Reed had gone from college at Syracuse University to a day job as a staff composer and musician for Pickwick Records, whose specialities (besides budget reissues and compilations) were 'sound-alikes' and knockoffs of the latest musical trends. Reed could turn out songs to order in any number, and with days spent writing in an office, and evenings making quickie singles and albums in Pickwick's small studio, he learned his way around the record-making process.
When Reed's dance-craze parody The Ostrich became a surprise hit in New York (for the non-existent Primitives; Reed played guitar and sang with Pickwick studio musicians), a band was quickly assembled to perform the song at local dances and shows. The bassist for the new Primitives was Welsh-born John Cale, classically trained and already experienced in avant-garde and performance art (including playing piano in a relay with John Cage). Reed and Cale hit it off, and as The Ostrich lost its plume and the Primitives disbanded, they started to consider more serious musical work, beginning when Reed played Cale a selection of songs they'll never publish, including the unapologetic Heroin. (Reed had never tried the drug; he'd drawn from others' experiences and descriptions.) As Reed and Cale began to write together, one afternoon they bumped into a college friend of Reed's; fellow guitarist and anti-authoritarian Sterling Morrison, in Manhattan. Morrison soon joined in, and somewhere along the line they began referring to their group, which had no regular name as yet. With the addition of 'Angus MacLean' as drummer, the Falling Spikes, Warlocks, etc., began making song demos, and playing locally.
One day another college friend, Jim Tucker, came to visit the group at their loft, carrying a paperback book he'd found in the street en route; a sexual exposé by Michael Leigh titled The Velvet Underground. The name was ideal and was adopted right away. Not long after, work picked up for the Velvet Underground, and the prospect of actually getting paid to perform proved too much for Angus MacLean, who soon quit the band. With a show pending, someone luckily remembered Jim's sister Maureen Tucker played drums, had her own set, and didn't already belong to a band. Mo immediately accepted the chance to play, and within days had become a permanent member... even when her no-frills drum set was stolen. (She carried on with a set of trash cans, hauled in from outside.)
By Christmas 1965 the Velvet Underground had a residency at a New York café, and thoroughly hated it, being roped into playing during the holidays for next to nothing. One evening their audience included artist Andy Warhol, who'd come to meet the band Gerard Malanga had been telling him about. Warhol had been looking for an underground rock group to use in his multimedia shows, was intrigued by their name and persona (though he soon re-christened them the Velvets), and was impressed enough to want them to start right away, although they were booked to play through to the end of the year at the same locale. The band got out of this easily enough; having been told if they played their The Black Angel's Death Song one more time, they'd be fired, they opened their very next set with it, to Warhol's amusement. The Velvet Underground was instantly let go, and soon after showed up at Warhol's Factory. They were put to work not only as musicians, but sometime subjects and helpers for Warhol's film and art projects. Cale and Reed also developed close personal relationships with Warhol, and Tucker sometimes joined him when he attended Mass.
Warhol soon brought another great talent to meet the Velvets; European beauty 'Nico', who'd been a model and actress (appearing in _Dolce Vita, La (1960)_), and more recently a chanteuse, singing at the Blue Angel Lounge in New York. Warhol wanted Nico to sing with the band, play along if she could (harmonium and percussion), and otherwise just stand around looking beautiful. Reed began writing songs for Nico, like I'll Be Your Mirror and Femme Fatale, and Nico attached herself to Reed, Cale and others, as and when the occasion demanded. The overall band situation looked promising, but there was already noticeable friction between the band members and the Warhol circle, which included Gerard Malanga, Edie Sedgwick, Ondine, Mary Woronov, and Betsey Johnson (who later married John Cale, with photos appearing in a fashion magazine). The Velvets and Nico hit the road in 1966, as part of Warhol's pop-art roadshow, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and by the end of the year Warhol's name had finally procured a record deal with MGM's Verve label, and with Warhol expected to produce their debut album.
Appearing in January 1967 (with a unique peelable-banana cover, which was Warhol's main contribution to the record; his studio involvement was as minimal as much of his art, while producer's duties were mostly filled by Lou Reed and 'Tom Wilson'), the first Velvet Underground album seemed condemned to instant obscurity. Advertising was cancelled or declined in most of the usual places, mostly because of the stark, matter-of-fact content and subject matter of its songs (drugs including speed and heroin, the club scene, unconventional sex and relationships and life on the fringes of the pop-art world). Alongside the usual photos and band information ran both good and bad reviews of their music, reprinted from the press. None of the usual adjectives fit the band, with Reed's overloud, tremolo-crazed guitar, Cale's electric viola, bass and keyboards, Morrison's raw-nerve fuzz guitar and bass, the tomboyish Tucker pounding her drums with mallets, from a standing position... and Nico, alternately beckoning and icing things up with her voice. The Velvets were hard to classify, and harder to understand, for most pop music followers. To add to the downside of things, a lawsuit brought against MGM by a Warhol associate whose image appeared in a back-cover photo stopped distribution of the album, until the cover could be retouched and reprinted, at considerable cost and delay. A ripple on the bottom of Billboard's LP chart was as far as they got, the first time.
The Velvet Underground continued to work with Andy Warhol and Nico into 1967, with diminishing levels of satisfaction; plainly Nico and Warhol were each more concerned with their own careers than the Velvets', and over the next year, they parted ways with both. The Velvets acquired a full-time manager, and while most of the world celebrated the Summer of Love in London and California, they prepared their second album, back in New York: White Light/White Heat, released in early 1968, with a black-on-black cover photo of friend Billy Name's arm tattoo. Most of the album's sound was distorted and noisy, with the band preferring to play at high decibels in the studio as onstage, and often only allowing one take per song. (According to legend, the album was recorded in a single day; Maureen Tucker recalled a series of sessions, years later.) With Warhol out of the picture, the band found it hard to get work in New York, and began appearing more in Boston, where they found acceptance. They also began regular cross-country touring, in the manner of most major-label bands of the time.
Growing tensions between Reed and Cale ultimately drove Reed to force Morrison and Tucker to decide: either Cale was out, or the group was over. Cale departed, and was replaced by guitarist/bassist/singer 'Doug Yule', whose presence and softer vocal style altered the Velvets' sound considerably. The third Velvet Underground album, eponymously titled and appearing in 1969 (this time not on Verve, but the MGM label itself), was largely acoustic, with Reed and Yule sharing lead vocals, and for the American market, mixed by Reed with almost no echo or reverb. (For the worldwide market, an alternate mix was prepared by 'Val Valentin', with standard reverb and echo.)
Between 1969 and early 1970, the Velvets continued to tour, and prepare material for a fourth album, recording both in the studio and live on the road. With their next album nearly ready to go, the band was abruptly dropped by MGM, who nonetheless insisted on keeping the studio tapes. (On the one hand, the band didn't mind leaving MGM/Verve, who offered little in the way of promotion or distribution; nobody knew what to say to fans who asked why they couldn't get copies of the Velvets' records, while the music press and radio mostly ignored them, even with faked track timings for lengthy singles. On the other hand, they'd continued to record expecting the tapes to be sold to their next label.) Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records came to the rescue, and the band was signed to their subsidiary label Cotillion (fresh from its success with the Woodstock (1970) film soundtrack), remaking many of the last year's songs. Tucker became pregnant, and had to gradually back away from performing and recording until the baby (her daughter Kerri) was born; Yule's brother 'Billy Yule', who was still in high-school, filled in on drums.
The strain of being in the spotlight, of having to put on a show at the insistence of their manager, of trying to make a more commercial than original album this time, and of having nothing but notoriety for years of hard work, was becoming too much for Lou Reed, who found his singing voice failing more and more often as the months went on, coupled with a mounting sense of exhaustion. As Yule pressed for more of a leading role in the band, Reed let him take it, and as the Velvets wound up the recording of Loaded in 1970, and their summer residency back in New York at Max's Kansas City, Reed decided he'd had enough. One night after the last set at Max's, Reed's parents picked him up; he briefly introduced them to his band-mates, and headed home, leaving it to the next day to tell anyone he was out.
With Reed gone, and Morrison not interested, Doug Yule became front man for the Velvets, who were still under contract to tour and record. Willie Alexander took Doug Yule's place, while Yule became something of an imitation Lou Reed, writing and singing in Reed's style; before long the new line-up was being derided as the Velveteen Underground. When Morrison and Tucker saw opportunities to leave, they took them, with Morrison ditching the band on the road when he learned he'd been offered a position teaching English at Texas A&M, and Tucker deciding to go when changing the band's name became a topic of discussion. Yule ended up being the only member to arrive in England during 1971, to record the album Squeeze (not released in the US), which he completed with help from Deep Purple's Ian Paice. The band was able to fulfil their Atlantic contract with the first bootleg recording ever accepted by a major record label; Velvets fan 'Brigid Polk' had brought her new cassette recorder to Max's Kansas City on the last night Lou Reed had appeared, and the (mono) tape turned out surprisingly well. Another live album, compiled from 1969 tour dates, followed on the Mercury label a couple years later.
As the Velvet Underground appeared to settle into the dust of the 1960s, Lou Reed emerged at last as a real pop star, making the music he wanted to make; after more than a year of self-imposed retirement doing simple office work for his parents' company, he began venturing out again, in time landing a solo contract with RCA Records. Long-time Velvets fan David Bowie encouraged RCA (which he also recorded for) to support Reed, and threw himself into the production of Reed's breakout album Transformer, which included Reed's signature hit, A Walk On The Wild Side. John Cale, Nico, and later Maureen Tucker also recorded successful solo albums, while Sterling Morrison occasionally jammed on guitar with his students, and sometimes allowed access to his personal Velvets archives. (Doug Yule traded his guitars for carpentry tools at the end of the 1970s, becoming a cabinetmaker until he resumed his musical career in the 1990s, this time also playing violin.)
It wasn't until the late Seventies, with Lou Reed's career firmly established and the beginnings of punk rock, that the Velvet Underground finally began to get the recognition they deserved, for their originality and their dedication to the spirit of rock-n-roll. New artist after new artist, when asked to name their influences, would include the Velvet Underground, while the first Velvets album eventually earned (but didn't receive) a Gold Record award, with half a million sales. Reed was interested enough to go to court, confirming that he'd written the lion's share of the band's songs (even those credited to the whole band originally), and that he would be so listed on every new release of the old material. The other band members, in turn, sued for back payments for their touring days, and along with a settlement came the formation of an all-group partnership.
With the advent of digital remastering and improved studio technology in the early 1980s, the three Velvet Underground albums from the 1960s were prepared for reissue by PolyGram, which had bought out the MGM label. The search for master tapes turned up the lost recordings from the never-completed fourth Velvets album, and a selection of these and other unreleased masters (some bootlegged to death over the years, from acetate test-discs) was compiled as a new release. As an experiment, the tapes were mixed not to 60s, but to 80s standards; the results demonstrated that the Velvet Underground had been considerably ahead of their time, musically at least. Both the collection VU and its follow-up, Another View, sold well, and interest in the band was regenerated.
After Andy Warhol's death in 1987, Lou Reed found himself stumped in trying to write a tribute to his old friend and mentor, and contacted the one person he knew understood Warhol the way he did; his old bandmate John Cale. Cale, as it turned out, hadn't been getting far in his own Warhol tribute, and when the two met again to match ideas, things dovetailed as well as they ever had. Songs for Drella, their joint Warhol tribute released in 1989, was a triumph, and Reed and Cale began performing the album live on tour, with selections on television.
By 1992, continued interest in the Velvet Underground prompted the best line-up (Reed, Cale, Morrison and Tucker) to re-form for a possible tour, with Tucker and Morrison moving back to New York to join Reed and Cale. Beginning with an afternoon's rehearsal in a rented space, and with the forces that had pulled them apart long since gone, the Velvets were able to rediscover what they'd enjoyed most about making music together; the sheer fun they'd had doing it. A highly successful tour was followed by an equally successful live album and video release, while their reissued earlier catalog continued to sell, better than the first time around. New generations of fans (and budding musicians) discovered their music, now considered classic, and proto-punk; finally, an apt description.
In 1996, the Velvet Underground was given some long-awaited official acclaim, with their entrance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately Sterling Morrison wasn't able to see this happen, having died of lymph cancer only months earlier (and just a month after its diagnosis), but his widow appeared with the band members, to accept on his behalf.
Elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
Members have included Lou Reed, John Cale, 'Sterling Morrison', Walter De Maria, Angus MacLise, Maureen Tucker, Nico, Doug Yule, Billy Yule, Walter Powers, Willie Alexander, Rob Norris and Ian Paice (Deep Purple's drummer borrowed for the 1973 album "Squeeze"). Dancers Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov were also considered unofficial members during their run as interpretive dancers for the band in 1966-1967.
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