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When Lou Reed said The Beatles couldn’t "come up to his ankles"


Rock ‘n’ roll stars don’t care what you think. Or so they pretend. In reality, they care what you think more than most. Lou Reed, however, was one of about two musicians who actually gave less care about your opinion than the healthcare system to an uninsured American. A true iconoclast he rubbed against the grain of society, culture, the status quo, Status Quo, and everything in between during his glowing artistic career. 

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that he achieved artistic masterpieces with the Velvet Underground and faced failure and rejection all the same. Seizing the zeitgeist and fetching 5000 sales for it must sting somewhat. In fact, he even had to return to work for his father’s accountancy firm for a while after leaving the Underground. 

No matter what the cause was, he was a force to behold whenever his opinion was requested. Some of this was notably for effect or some sort of obfuscated intent, but he was always happy to boldly voice it. One act that met with particular wrath was the biggest of all time: The Beatles. 

Speaking in 1987, Reed unflinchingly took aim against the ‘Fab Four’. “From my point of view,” he began, “the other stuff couldn’t come up to our ankles, not up to my kneecap, not up to my ankles, the level we were on, compared to everyone else. I mean they were just painfully stupid and pretentious, and when they did try to get, in quotes, ‘arty,’ it was worse than stupid rock ‘n’ roll. What I mean by ‘stupid,’ I mean, like, The Doors.”

In a later interview with Joe Smith, his opinion had not changed. “The Beatles? I never liked The Beatles, I thought they were garbage,” he opined. “I don’t think Lennon did anything until he went solo,” Reed bemoaned. “But then too, he was like trying to play catch up. He was getting involved in choruses and everything.” Later kindly clarifying: “I don’t want to come off as being snide, because I’m not being snide, what I’m doing is giving you a really frank answer, I have no respect for those people at all, I don’t listen to it at all, it’s absolute shit.”

However, he did concede that there was one song that Lennon wrote worthy of eulogising (and coming from him that is like a vegan complimenting a burger).  “But [Lennon] wrote one song that I admire tremendously, I think it was one of the greatest songs I ever heard, called ‘Mother’. Now, with that, and he was capable of great pop stuff, which is nothing to sneeze at, but the question you asked me was ‘on another level’.”

Interestingly, Reed’s friend and collaborator David Bowie considered The Beatles to be heroes and inspirations, but even he favoured the legacy of the Velvet Underground. Looking back on their influence and album sales, Bowie opined: “Bands like the Beatles [who] were so extremely large in terms of what they sold and the influence they had” clearly had an impact back then but, actually, that “very little of their influence is actually felt now.”

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This was in 1996 when the indie revival was well underway, and Brian Eno’s famous opinion was coming to fruition. “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day,” Eno once explained, “and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”

Speaking of the influence of the record, Bowie said: “It was the fringe, strange bands that nobody ever bought, like the Velvet Underground, that actually have created modern music. And you kind of think, where’s ‘Yesterday’ in all this? Where’s its influence on modern music?”.

Bowie then claimed that the Velvet Underground‘s song ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ actually had more of an impact on music than the Beatles’ 1967 classic, ‘Penny Lane’. Inferencing Blur and Oasis, Bowie said: “Well, there’s a couple of British bands that use trumpets every now and again and say they’re Beatles influenced. But in reality, what they generally gravitate more to is ‘Waiting for the Man’ than in to ‘Penny Lane’”. 

In truth, influence waxes and wanes over time. The Velvet Underground and The Beatles will forever be somewhere in the welter of popular alternative music. In truth, the explosion that The Beatles helped to propagate undoubtedly had an impact on Reed too, and the following quote provides context on his disparagement: “If you say, ‘Who did you like?’ I liked nobody.”

However, if what he wanted to achieve with the Velvet Underground was “to elevate the rock ‘n’ roll song and take it where it hadn’t been taken before,” then in his own cult-like way, he roaringly succeeded. If iconoclastically blasting everyone else was part of that asocial advancement then the eyebrows his comments continue to raise is proof of that too.