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From David Bowie to Nirvana: 10 best covers of The Velvet Underground

“The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band” – Brian Eno

The Velvet Underground never really found success while they were still making music. Though Lou Reed and John Cale would go on to have very successful solo careers outside the group, the facts remain that, for a while at least, the New York rock ‘n’ roll royalty remained largely undervalued and overlooked. Their subversive pop sound was not destined to top the charts but it would go on to shape music for the future.

There’s no denying that The Velvet Underground are, to this day, one of the most influential bands in all of rock ‘n’ roll. Though The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are rightly cited as pillars of modern pop music and beyond, the reality of VU’s widespread influence can be seen in the covers below. Across a myriad of styles and genres, Sterling Morrison, Mo Tucker, Nico, Lou Reed and John Cale have infiltrated the beating heart of music since their inception.  

Whether an early-adopter like David Bowie or a late-comer to the band’s intrinsic street-sound, The Velvet Underground are now revered as founding fathers of music as we know it. Whether it was Reed’s conversational and controversial lyrics, Cale’s nonchalantly simplistic arrangements or the stylistic direction they always chose to pick up, the band personified the alternative rock scene in the sixties and seventies — far from the shiny sales of the aforementioned British invasion groups — The Velvet UNderground were the real underbelly of society. 

As proof of their influence, check out the 10 best Velvet Underground covers of all time, songs from everyone including David Bowie, Patti Smith and many more. 

10 best Velvet Underground covers:

10. ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ – Patti Smith  

As well as being the Godmother of punk, Patti Smith also made creating covers cool again. Able to perfectly toe the line between tribute and pastiche, Smith’s skills in covering others’ expressions is one of her most highly-valauble talents. She’s happy to take on any song from any genre, but it’s clear with this cover of ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ the familiarity she holds for VU. 

The band were, of course, an intrinsic part of Smith’s New York City education and, after a short time in the city, she became acquainted with the actual players in the game. Smith, who is famously close friends with Lou Reed, has never been shy to show her admiration for the Velvet Underground frontman. “His consciousness infiltrated and illuminated our cultural voice,” she said when she was chosen to give a speech while Reed was added to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Lou was a poet, able to fold his poetry within his music in the most poignant and plainspoken manner. Oh, such a perfect day.”

This cover form 1976 is about as visceral as it gets. 

9. ‘Oh Sweet Nuthin” – My Morning Jacket, Neil Young & Elvis Costello  

Neil Young’s annual Bridge School Benefit was always a bonanza filled with esteemed acts all looking to chip in with some classic moments. It was only right that when the 2013 event took place, only a day after Lou Reed’s tragic passing, that Elvis Costello, My Morning Jacket and Neil Young came together to pay tribute to Reed with a cover of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Oh Sweet Nuthin”. 

The passing of Reed, no matter how many times it had happened before, left the world reeling. Not only had the music scene now lost one of its most potent creators but the gravity of his work suddenly landed with aplomb. Reed had set the bar pretty high for acts like Young and Elvis Costello and they knew it.

This tribute to the great man is still a fitting tribute.  

8. ‘Venus in Furs’ – Debbie Harry  

Another New York alumni, Debbie Harry owes a lot to The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. Harry was a waitress at Max’s Kansas City, a famous haunt of Warhol and the VU, before making the jump to the stage. Here, on this cover of ‘Venus in Furs’, Harry’s vocal soars higher than ever before. 

To cover a Velvet Underground song and remain authentic is always difficult, unless, of course, you’ve always lived the music to a tee as Debbie Harry had. The singer transcends the decades between her and the Velvet Underground and embodies the emblem of New York city cool with a simple swish of her impeccable vocal.  

It’s a shining moment of Harry’s own impressive career.  

7. ‘Rock N’ Roll’ – The Runaways 

For a moment, The Runaways were destined to be the biggest band in America, the commercially-minded punk group of the future; the band attempted to shake their record label shackles with bold covers such as this. Taking on The Velvet Underground is always tricky; taking on a fan-favourite track is almost always destined to fail. 

The Joan Jett led group tear through the cover as part of their 1975 debut record and unleash one hell of a cover to boot. The song is completely transformed and, despite being less than a decade away from the original release, somehow makes it a fresher and more exciting proposition. 

6. ‘Here She Comes Now’ – Nirvana

Much like Velvet Underground, Nirvana were the kings of the underground scene in Seattle for some time before they truly exploded. During that moment, they were happy to play the tortured artist and not chase the major label deal that would eventually see them dominate MTV and beyond. Instead, they preferred to sit back and release split singles with their friends The Melvins.

Not such a strange proposition until you realise that it was a split release of Velvet Underground covers. While we’re not sure how many they did, in fact, sell to their audience, we can all be glad they made the record. Without it, we wouldn’t have heard Cobain and Nirvana’s cover of Velvet Underground number ‘Here She Comes Now’. 

5. ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ – Nick Cave   

‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, a song by the Velvet Underground and Nico, originally written by Lou Reed, was first released as part of the band’s momentous 1967 debut studio album. According to Reed himself, the song is “a very apt description of certain people at the Factory at the time,” he said in reference to Andy Warhol’s Factory Studio in New York City. “I watched Andy,” he added. “I watched Andy watching everybody. I would hear people say the most astonishing things, the craziest things, the funniest things, the saddest things.”

While the likes of Bauhaus, Jeff Buckley, Siouxsie and the Banshees and countless others have attempted to cover the song in their own unique way, in the years that followed its release, we’re focusing on a certain rendition brought to you by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It’s Cave at his darkest and, therefore, sweetest. 

The murder balladeer has never been afraid to embrace the darker side of music and he lets this Velvet Underground grime pour through his vocal.

4. ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ – R.E.M.    

Destined to top charts and sell out stadiums across the world, R.E.M.’s debut on the music scene welcomed the Georgia group as the emotionally charged and internally intelligent group of your dreams. They were the thinking man’s alternative rock band and their cover of the Velvet Underground’s iconic hit ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ in 1984 is a testament to that.

The footage below was recorded on June 9th, 1984, at the bright and busy beginnings of R.E.M.’s impeccable career. Shot in the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Bill Berry and Mike Mills deliver a simply gorgeous performance of ‘Pale Blue Eyes’.  

Attempting to cover the Velvet Underground is one thing, pulling it off is a whole together different proposition. But it is something R.E.M. pull off not only with the talent and guile of a supremely well-drilled band but with the passion of fans.

3. ‘Femme Fatale’ – Big Star 

Alex Chilton and co. were never ones for producing an inordinate amount of covers, and so when they did select another artist’s song to take on, you knew it meant something special to Big Star. This cover of ‘Femme Fatale’ is up there with their best.  

Released as part of their huge record Third/Sister Lovers the song represented a nod to a complete stylistic change. The band’s previous efforts had been directly influenced by The Beatles but on this album, things had turned a bit darker and The Velvet Underground were the chief inspiration. It meant they needed to pay their dues and record a cover too. 

Naturally gifted in tone, Chilton and co. deliver one of the more touching and expertly gilded covers we’ve heard. 

2. ‘Waiting for the Man’ – David Bowie    

The long love affair between David Bowie and Lou Reed is well documented, and their friendship would often spill out on to their respective careers. “Lou Reed is the most important definitive writer in modern rock,” Bowie once said of his close friend. “Not because of the stuff that he does, but the direction that he will take it.”

On many occasions, the pair would share the stage, and on many others, they would take on each other’s songs.A particularly brilliant moment came when Reed joined Bowie for his 50th birthday celebrations to sing the searing track. Bowie also covered the song in 1967, making him quite possibly the first artist to cover the track in Britain — a devoted fan, it seems.   

Here, we’re looking at Bowie’s 1972 cover of The Velvet Underground hit ‘Waiting For The Man’ as our favourite of the bunch.

1. ‘Sister Ray’ – Joy Division 

There is something utterly magnetic about the connection on this cover of Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray’. Whether it is the late, great Ian Curtis’ commitment to the original content or the clash of styles as Joy Division make sure that they put their own spin on the song — one thing is for sure, it is truly incredible piece of music. 

Before the world was blessed, or cursed, with the ability to record and capture concerts and live performances, occurrences like this hung in the ether. Your favourite band covering a song live was the kind of moment where you would find yourself constantly having to confirm the story only to be swatted down in equal measure.  

Taking place at London’s Moonlight Club on April 1980, Joy Division were beginning to close out their tour, a run of shows that would be their last with their frontman Ian Curtis who took his own life on May 18, 1980. A momentous and historic night for a number of different reasons, the show also marked the time that they chose to cover one of the bands who inspired them the most.  

It’s easy to draw comparisons between The Velvet Underground and Joy Division but the tone and delivery of this cover says more than we ever could. It’s a shining reminder of just why both bands are still so highly revered to this day.

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