For my first program for Rocktober 2021, an audio primer for the very first documentary of one of the most important bands of the latter half of the 20th century, The Velvet Underground, directed by Portlander Todd Haynes and broadcasting on October 15th on Apple TV.
The Velvet Underground are a band you have heard of, if not exactly heard. When you do hear them, it is usually in passing, or one of two tracks from the catalogue that are favorites of whomever is presenting them. Often, you hear about their their story in terms that have nothing to do with the music or their greatness: Andy Warhol, The 1960's, Avant Garde, banana peel, etc.
The Velvet Underground, 1969: (l-r) Doug Yule, Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison. Photographer unknown, courtesy of UMG.
Originally calling themselves The Warlocks and The Falling Spikes (the latter a reference to using heroin intravenously), they adopted their now famous name after finding a book in the street by journalist Michael Leigh, which detailed the so-called deviant sexual behaviors of white suburbanites. They were a band that definitely broke the mold on many fronts, even with their line-ups: most of the members, like founder Lou Reed, were from or living in New York. Experimental musician John Cale and former model Nico were the exceptions, from Wales and Germany, respectively. Adding to this was that their "drummer" was a woman, Maureen Tucker; she played a partial kit, and did this standing up.
"I wanted to write the great American novel, but I also liked Rock and Roll."Lou Reed
The decade they formed in and released most of their material in, the 1960's, saw a seismic shift in demographics that would forever alter their musical style. Thanks to the growth of the suburbs and the Second Great Migration by Blacks, older eastern and Midwestern cities like Chicago and New York started to decay and fall apart, while places like California would flourish. If Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys invented the concept of California as being a magical paradise, then Lou Reed documented the fall of New York just as perfectly.
John Cale, 1967, in New York City. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Getty Images.
Their sometimes abrasive sound would make them truly fringe artists during their brief lifetime, which initially included just four studio albums (a fifth one called Squeeze in 1973 without Reed is discounted by all involved), and on a great many touring dates they were lucky if 20 people would show up to see them. Much of this was due to the subject matter of their songs, which, even for so-called "progressive" radio, was too much to handle: heroin, methamphetamines, drag queens, transsexuals, prostitutes, fellatio, orgies, etc. Radio refused to play them and only a handful of truly underground stations emerging on the FM dial would, and critics did not know what to make of them.
Nico, 1967, in Monterrey, California. Photo by Elaine Mayes.
All Music, founded in 1991 and the premier guide to all things music on the internet, ranks them at #5 among all artists in terms of influence. The joke, coined by Brian Eno, goes something like this: The Velvet Underground only sold 100 albums, but those 100 people went on to form bands of their own. These eleven songs were chosen as a representation of the sounds, subject matter and characters that made the Velvet Underground the premier 1960's New York bohemian icons they would indelibly become.
* Rock & Roll (full-length version), 1970, Loaded ("Fully Loaded" version)* Lady Godiva's Operation, 1968, White Light/White Heat* I'm Waiting For The Man, 1967, The Velvet Underground and Nico* Stephanie Says,