Personalities | The Velvet Underground | Sixties | Rock

Offbeat, daring, challenging, provocative, sometimes outrageous, always different, during the wildly experimental and progressive second half of the 1960s The Velvet Underground was the avant-rock outfit par excellence.

Although not commercially successful, they produced groundbreaking music that would subsequently cultivate a strong cult following while heavily influencing the punk/new-wave generation.

Acclaim And Disdain

Eschewing conventional melodies and pop-style lyrics in favour of dour, rigidly constructed songs about sadomasochism, sexual deviance, drugs, despair and the harsh, often sordid reality of urban life on the fringes, The Velvets attracted acclaim and disdain in roughly equal measure. And for this they were primarily indebted to lead singer-songwriter/guitarist Lou Reed (born Lewis Allen Reed, 2 March 1942), whose uncompromising blend of rock’n’roll with poetically sing-speak narratives delved into territories that were previously verboten.

A pop-grounded musician who had dabbled in avant-garde jazz, Reed met an ideal colleague in John Cale (born 9 March 1942), a classically trained multi-instrumentalist who had left his native Wales in 1963 to immerse himself in New York City’s underground scene. It was shortly after he had played an 18-hour piano recital with experimental composer John Cage and collaborated with minimalist La Monte Young in The Dream Syndicate that Cale hooked up with Reed to pursue his growing love for rock’n’roll. Both were interested in trying to merge rock with the avant-garde, and they took their first step in this direction after Reed and some fellow studio musicians recorded ‘The Ostrich’, an off-key dance-song parody that Reed had co-composed while doing his day job as a staff songwriter for the budget Pickwick label.

Boasting a B-side called ‘Sneaky Pete’, this forgettable single was credited to The Primitives, and to promote it Reed enlisted Cale, avant-garde sculptor Tony Conrad and sculptor Walter DeMaria (playing drums) for some 1964 live appearances. Like Cale, Conrad had been in The Dream Syndicate, so both men were on the same page when Reed informed them that ‘The Ostrich’ simply required all strings to be tuned to a single note – welcome to minimalist rock’n’roll.

Warhol’s Protégés

By 1965, The Primitives had evolved into The Velvet Underground; their name taken from an erotic novel, with Cale contributing bass guitar, viola and organ while Reed’s friend Sterling Morrison (1942–95) played guitar and, following a brief tenure by Angus MacLise, Maureen Tucker (born 26 August 1944) filled the drummer’s role. A young promoter named Al Aronowitz obtained them a residency at Café Bizarre in Greenwich Village, and it was there, while The Velvets were performing numbers such as ‘Venus In Furs’, ‘Heroin’, ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ and ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’, that Pop Art guru Andy Warhol took in one of their shows and decided to manage them.

Under Warhol’s guidance, and against the band members’ better judgment, former model and current Warhol Factory superstar Nico (born Christa Paffgen, 1938–88) was added to the line-up, contributing dusky lead vocals on some of her specially written...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, general editor Michael Heatley


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