In late 1966, singer/guitarist Lou Reed, multi-instrumentalist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and drummer Moe Tucker were making a name for themselves as the new avant-garde rock band the Velvet Underground. Pop art icon Andy Warhol had just agreed to manage the group, further cementing their status as up-and-coming legends. Founder Reed, who would later become a counterculture hero in his own right, experimented with his unique vocal ability, which is brilliantly exhibited in the 1966 release, ‘Sunday Morning’.
When the Velvet Underground first entered the New York scene, one of Warhol’s first contributions to the group was to aid them in integrating with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a series of multimedia events created by Warhol. Spending countless nights at the infamous studio titled ‘The Factory’, Reed’s songs began to take inspiration from many of the colourful characters who inhabited the vibrant art scene.
This influence was notable in the creation of ‘Sunday Morning’. Written, perhaps predictably, on a Sunday morning by Reed and Cale, the song gives a feeling of the anxiety faced with being immersed in the competitive art world in lyrics like: “Watch out, the world’s behind you,” with a nod to the previous evenings activities also catching up with you.
According to Reed, the song’s theme was suggested by Warhol. “Andy said, ‘Why don’t you just make it a song about paranoia?’ I thought that was great, so I came up with ‘Watch out, the world’s behind you, there’s always someone watching you,’ which I feel is the ultimate paranoid statement in that the world cares enough to watch you.” But the overall tone of the song provides a cathartic release of the pressure with his creation producing a tranquil state of mind, perhaps as a way to escape the madness for a while.
The recording took place in November of 1966 when producer Tom Wilson brought the band into Manhattan’s Mayfair Recording Studios. ‘Sunday Morning’ was the final song recorded in their commercially flopping but critically successful debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. Although written originally with Nico’s voice in mind (who had performed it live previously), Reed was chosen that day to record the lead vocals. Nico was given the title of background vocalist.
What came out of the last-minute switch was one of Reed’s best vocal performances to date, by producing a less dramatic, more melodic set of vocals, but still with a taste of his style to come. When Reed departed the band in 1970, he would fully establish his now-signature monotone, slightly off-pitch, oddly timed lyrical style that became his own genre entirely. But it was the Velvet Underground that allowed him space to experiment, and ‘Sunday Morning’ shows just how successful it was for the budding Reed.
Listen to Lou Reed’s isolated vocals for ‘Sunday Morning’ below.