Sterling Morrison was the glue that held The Velvet Underground together. A band bolstered by the towering egos of Lou Reed and John Cale, Morrison was a quieter presence, allowing his guitar work to do most of the talking for him.
When he plugged in, however, there was nothing quiet about the way Morrison played. Whether it was bashing away at a song’s chord progression or slicing through the mix with incisive lead lines, Morrison was the more conventional counterpoint to Reed’s experimental drones.
Morrison was generally aloof of music outside of the Velvet Underground: he never made records under his own name, and when he contributed to other musician’s albums or live performances, it was kept almost entirely within the Velvet family. He sat in with Cale on occasion and was part of drummer Maureen Tucker’s touring band for a spell, but the music was just one thing that Morrison had chosen to devote his time to, not the only thing.
An academic and erudite mind, Morrison obtained a PhD in medieval literature and was inspired by Mark Twain to become a tugboat captain in the 1980s. When the Velvets reunited in 1992, Morrison argued for the inclusion of Doug Yule, highlighting his inclusive nature and desire for the entirety of the Velvets history to be represented.
Morrison passed away before the Velvets could be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and when it came time for the band to perform, they eschewed the “greatest hits” nature of the event to debut a new song, ‘Last Night I Said Goodbye to My Friend’. The song was written as a tribute to Morrison, and the emotion that came from the three remaining members resonated throughout the hall. The sparseness of the track made it plain how essential his guitar playing was to the overall sound of the band, and partially through his death, the band never fully reunited.
To celebrate Morrison’s birthday, here are five songs that would have been impossible without his contribution.
Five examples of Sterling Morrison’s genuis:
At the beginning of their career, Morrison and Reed were keen to explore the sonic space that a dual guitar style could produce. It played into Morrison’s personality: easy-going, collaborative, and complete with a quiet and brooding intensity.
The interplay between the two guitars in ‘Heroin’ is captivating. Despite only consisting of two chords, Morrison is able to continuously push Reed’s more percussive playing into increasingly frantic and exciting sonic spaces. The noise they produced together was legendary, but ‘Heroin’ remains a pristine illustration of why the Velvets needed two guitar players in the first place.
‘Chelsea Girls’ (Nico)
Morrison was rarely given songwriting credits outside of the one’s shared by the entire band. It would be a point that Morison would grouse about later, but he saw the need to appease Reed in order to keep the band together.
It was only when he and Reed ventured beyond the direct realm of the Velvets where Morrison was given his due. ‘Chelsea Girls’, the title track to former Velvets collaborator Nico debut album, featured a co-writing credit to Morrison, and his contribution to the ballad’s arrangement is profound in its beautiful simplicity.
‘I’m Gonna Move Right In’
Morrison wasn’t one for flashy solos. He preferred lead lines that complimented a song’s emotional core rather than indulging in masturbatory fretboard fireworks. On the rare occasions that he did show off, however, a keen ear for structure and excitement was one of his greatest assets, relying on the R&B and blues influences that prompted him to pick up the guitar in the first place.
His blues influence comes across on ‘I’m Gonna Move Right In’, an instrumental that is the clearest example of Morrison’s talents as a lead guitarist. Bending notes and clustering frantic chordal runs for nearly seven minutes, ‘I’m Gonna Move Right In’ was just too conventional of an improvisational jam to merit inclusion on the Velvet’s self-titled third album, which is a shame because it remains Morrison’s greatest platform as a lead player.
‘Pale Blue Eyes’
The Velvet Underground represented a change in the way Reed and Morrison coexisted as guitarists. On past albums, the two would have a nebulous distinction between “lead” and “rhythm” guitar, often trading licks and lead runs whenever they felt the desire, as can be heard on ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ and the aforementioned ‘Heroin’. But by their third LP, Morrison was beginning to assert himself as the predominant lead player of the group.
His lead playing in ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, especially his gentle solo, is the best example of Morrison’s restraint. Not a single note is out of place, and Morrison never feels the need or desire to pull off an ostentatious performance. He understands the mood of the song, and plays into the quieter and more tender elements that make the song so stirring.
‘Friendly Advice’ (Luna)
After the Velvets fell apart at the onset of the ’70s, Morrison largely shied away from music. As the reputations of his former bandmates began to grow, his own contributions were often looked over. But one musician who acknowledged Morrison’s monumental impact was Dean Wareham, leader of the legendary dream-pop outfit Galaxie 500. Wareham had written the song ‘Tugboat’ when he learned of Morrison’s post-Velvets career.
When Wareham moved on to his next project Luna, he sent out a request for Morrison to contribute to the band’s second album Bewitched. To his surprise, Morrison agreed, and his signature lead style is most clearly heard on ‘Friendly Advice’. It’s not until you hear him outside of the Velvets context that you realise how much Morrison contributed to the band’s sound, but it couldn’t be more obvious than on ‘Friendly Advice’.