Andy Warhol and Lou Reed shared a strong bond for several years after the pioneering pop-artist discovered The Velvet Underground. The collaboration later resulted in him becoming their manager and elevating their status merely by connection, making the band one of the coolest bands on the planet. However, the relationship between Warhol and Reed was never smooth sailing; they were both maverick figures who struggled to get on the same page — it was inevitable that it was going to end disastrously.
The Velvet Underground formed in 1964, but it wasn’t until that their paths crossed with Warhol in 1965 that they started to gain traction and become one of the most talked-about bands in New York. The relationship was initially mutually beneficial. Warhol was a true artist in every sense, and managing a band allowed him to step into new territory. For The Velvet Underground, it was a no-brainer to work under his wing. They were relative nobodies at this time and had nothing to lose but everything to gain by associating themselves with one of the most admired artists on the planet.
“The pop idea, after all, was that anybody could do anything, so naturally we were all trying to do it all,” Warhol wrote in his memoir POPism: The Warhol Sixties. “Nobody wanted to stay in one category; we all wanted to branch out into every creative thing we could — that’s why when we met The Velvet Underground at the end of ’65, we were all for getting into the music scene, too.”
Warhol also took up production duties on the band’s faultless debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico. Although, he didn’t do any actual producing and just let the band do their thing. “I was a product of Andy Warhol’s Factory,” Reed later commented about this period. “All I did was sit there and observe these incredibly talented and creative people who were continually making art, and it was impossible not to be affected by that.”
As a creative, there was no place better to be than working with Warhol, and they started gaining publicity that was unheard of for a band of their stature. Their debut album wasn’t a commercial success at the time, but it was revered as a piece of genius by those who did buy it, and the links to Warhol spread the word about The Velvets.
Reed said: “At one point the engineer would say, apropos of something we’d done, ‘Mr. Warhol, is that OK?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ And as a consequence of that, we experienced total freedom, because no one would change anything because Andy said it was great.” Whilst Warhol did take a back seat when it came to the studio; he did still try and mould the band outside of it. The addition of Nico angered Reed, who felt like he was slowly losing control of his band and wanted to nip in the bud before Warhol’s grasp amplified further.
“He was this catalyst, always putting jarring elements together. Which was something I wasn’t always happy about,” Reed recalled in another interview-. “So when he put Nico in the band, we said, ‘Hmmm.’ Because Andy said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to have a chanteuse.’ I said, ‘Oh, Andy, give us a break.'”
“It was getting more and more difficult to tell the difference between the PR and the actuality because we ended up in the middle of a storm of publicity that we didn’t know was coming,” Velvet’s member John Cale told the Red Bull Music Academy. “We got a lot of notoriety very quickly, attached to Andy. I guess Lou didn’t like that.”
“The way [Reed] handled it and the way he did it was really destructive. I mean he just like blew up the band and fired Andy without telling anybody, and it was like, ‘What?'” Cale added.
When the day came that Reed told Warhol in 1967 that his service was no longer required, it remains unknown whether this was a decision he made on a whim or had been edging towards for a while. That fateful day was the start of the end for The Velvet Underground, and Nico would soon follow Warhol out of the door, as would Cale the following year. Reed didn’t consult with his bandmates before firing Warhol, but he wanted to be in charge of his destiny and didn’t want to be another of Warhol’s creations. So he decided to jump off before the artist got bored and moved on to his new toy. 1968’s White Light/White Heat was another iconic effort from the group, but then Cale left, and by 1970, Reed set out on a solo career.
Commenting on that infamous day, Reed once said: “Andy passes through things, but so do we. He sat down and had a talk with me. ‘You gotta decide what you want to do. Do you want to keep just playing museums from now on and the art festivals? Or do you want to start moving into other areas? Lou, don’t you think you should think about it?’ So I thought about it, and I fired him.
“Because I thought that was one of the things to do if we were going to move away from that. He was furious. I’d never seen Andy angry, but I did that day. He was really mad. Called me a rat. That was the worst thing he could think of.”
The Velvet Underground’s story would have been incredibly different if it wasn’t for their close link with Warhol. We’d probably not be discussing them today if it wasn’t for the opportunities he provided them with under his stewardship. However, Reed had simply outgrown him. Even though they weren’t famous by any stretch of the imagination, they felt like this association with him was hampering the band more than it was benefitting them — although his bandmates thought differently. Warhol was the perfect man at the perfect time for Reed in 1965, but that time had passed, and it was time to go alone. Whether this was the right decision will be forever unknown.