Lou Reed’s shadow is one that no subsequent has managed to fill, but not for lack of trying. The 1960s was a time when popular music was changing more than it ever had before. The British invasion of global charts had taken over with bands like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Kinks. The rock ‘n’ roll over this period seemed to flow in all directions from the hub of 1950s blues-based rock giants like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.
The pioneering work of some of these groups is commendable for having pushed the decade into a counterculture, revolutionising society – mostly for the better. While The Beatles didn’t initiate it, they certainly helmed the cultural shift toward the hippie idealogy of spiritual enlightenment, peace and free love. A new generation was plate by plate, dismantling the gloomy and oppressive post-war suit of armour, bringing the world into a newfound optimism.
While it takes something very special to drive creative music in such a way that western society is changed forever, it takes something perhaps even more impressive to stand in its way. When Lou Reed founded The Velvet Underground in 1964 with the Welsh classically trained multi-instrumentalist John Cale, they weren’t particularly popular. They had an uncompromising vision of what they wanted to achieve musically and refused to let anything deter them, be it money or derision.
By 1967, they had fortunately found a keen follower in the famous New York pop artist Andy Warhol. Warhol saw their unique creative edge and before long, he became their manager. He would promote the group, making them the focal point of his art troupe named ‘The Factory’. It wasn’t long until they released their landmark debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico. The debut album, to this day, has had a dominant impact on the musical landscape, but at the time, it wasn’t particularly well-received in the mainstream. As the legendary producer and avant-garde musician Brian Eno once said, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
The Velvet Underground have had a less obvious but equal impact on music over the past fifty years when compared to most British invasion bands. What stood them out from the crowd was their stubborn cut against the grain. While the madding crowd was singing about peace and love, the Velvets were getting down and dirty with the unsavoury reality of life on the streets of New York. Their music was decades ahead of its time and catalysed musical evolution more than any other contemporary group.
Nirvana could be seen as the closest thing the 1990s had to another Velvet Underground. Their music covered similarly frank and disturbing subjects while trailblazing their own style of the gritty subgenre of grunge music. Over the years, countless groups have paid their respects to the Velvets as a key influence. While it’s impossible to fill Lou Reed’s large and odd-shaped shoes, his somehow possible blend of nonchalant vexation displayed in ‘Here She Comes Now’ cries out for a grunge resurrection. This 1991 recording, released on a split single with ‘The Melvins’, sees the original’s placid darkness morph into a storm of intensity, akin to Patti Smith’s cover of ‘Gloria’.