The Velvet Underground Album Reviews

The Velvet Underground have been cited as an influence by a legion of followers. Even if the ground rules of the rock album as an art form had been largely written by the time the Velvets’ debut arrived in 1967, there is still a strong argument for their status as the first rock band to exist as an alternative and underground act, as well as the first rock band to include a member with avant-garde credentials. What allowed the Velvet Underground to pursue an artier and less commercial agenda was the patronage of artist Andy Warhol, whose influence permitted the group to get away with music and lyrics that were more risqué than anything in the rock world prior.

The first incarnation on the group had two primary forces; New York-born vocalist and guitarist Lou Reed bore some influence from Dylan in his literate lyrics and dry delivery, but his own unique voice is already apparent by the group’s debut. Reed is nasty and decadent at his most ornery, but also capable of sweetness and light. As Reed points out in response to criticism of lyrical content of S&M and drug use, literature had been able to explore these areas so there was no reason why a double standard should apply to rock music. The other major force in the group was Welsh-born multi-instrumentalist John Cale; originally from a classical and avant-garde background, his contributions on bass, viola, piano, organ, and celesta, as well as his use of drone notes, push the band into musically adventurous territory. The Velvet Underground was perhaps the first major group to feature a woman as an instrumentalist; drummer Moe Tucker is an excellent foil for the group with her innovative drumming style, largely foregoing cymbals. The original quartet was completed by rhythm guitarist Sterling Morrison, while on their debut the group are joined by German vocalist Nico, thrown at the group to make them more commercial, but whose effect is really the opposite; her icy, amusical vocal style is much less accessible than Reed’s hypnotic drawl.

Cale left after their second album, and was replaced by Doug Yule, and the Yule albums are gentler and less experimental. Reed quit the band after their 1970 album Loaded, which is far more mainstream sounding than their previous albums. Doug Yule dragged the brand on for Squeeze which has pointedly never been released on CD.

All four Reed-fronted Velvet Underground albums are obvious reference points for any student of rock music, but of course there’s plenty more to explore from the Velvet Underground camp: Cale, Reed and Nico have all produced acclaimed solo records. I’ve never connected with Reed’s solo career, although I should probably try out his seventies albums rather than the CD era efforts which are easier to find. I really enjoy Cale’s solo career though – Paris 1919 and Fear are terrific albums.

Ten Favourite Songs by The Velvet Underground

Venus In Furs
Heroin
Sunday Morning
Pale Blue Eyes
Sweet Jane
Rock and Roll
I’m Waiting For The Man
Sister Ray
Run Run Run
Candy Says