Being a drummer isn’t always quite what it’s cracked up to be. Whether you prefer to take your learnings from the late great and always understated Charlie Watts or the swashbuckling style of Keith Moon, chances are, you will spend most of your career in the background. For Maureen Tucker, the notion of being undervalued and overlooked was, for a time, multiplied.
That’s because she was a part of perhaps the most highly influential and widely undervalued band of all time — The Velvet Underground. The group can be most easily assessed through the notable quote of Roxy Music legend Brian Eno when he said: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” Led by Lou Reed and John Cale with ample support from Sterling Morrison, the band failed to find any real commercial success as a whole unit in their heyday. So the idea that Tucker as the band’s drummer would receive her rightful amount of praise was always a little fanciful.
However, with time passed, we can now all look back and see how Tucker, with her minimalistic style, offered The Velvet Underground the understated vibrancy they required to allow Cale and Reed to make their subversive sounds. It would also be remiss of us not to note that Tucker, especially at the time, was a rare sight as a woman behind the drum kit. Though icons like Karen Carpenter would soon emerge, Tucker was a pioneer of the instrument.
The real reason that The Velvet Underground are so revered today is that they refused to conform. From Cale’s unusual droning sound to Reed’s deliberately confrontational lyrics, the group refused to bend the knee to the pop music landscape and, instead, carved out their own piece of the pie. Tucker was an essential part of this uniqueness.
Before Tucker, drummers had been given a resurgence in the spotlight. Moving on from the jazz players of old, percussionists like Buddy Rich and Art Blakey, who were happy to take centre stage and deliver energetic renditions of their favourite fills, rock drummers were given the impetus to make their presence felt. It meant icons like John Bonham and Keith Moon broke free and tried to grab the headlines. Tucker, however, was about as minimal as is possible to be. “I started playing in the Velvet Underground in late 1965,” she told ArtSpace. “Sterling was a friend of my brother’s when I was twelve years old. Basically, I had always known him. And my brother went to Syracuse University, where he met Lou, and Sterling met Lou through my brother. At that time, I was extremely shy and unconfident.”
More so than minimal or shy, Tucker was unconventional in her style. Not only was she female and restrained in her rumbling playing style, but she also performed standing up, providing another artistic angle for the Factory crowd. In fact, it’s hard not to draw parallels between Tucker and her one-time drum teacher, Andy Warhol.
“Andy and I had a very special friendship,” Tucker told ArtSpace. “Not a close personal friendship where we told secrets or anything like that, but I think a mutual respect, maybe, and not quite admiration—well, admiration, but I don’t mean it like it sounds. Andy’s whole persona was particularly poignant.” Though Warhol was dripping in drugs and decadence, Tucker was a clean-living and straight-laced person, even refusing to type swear words if required.
But the duo mirrors one another in their artistic expressions. Warhol’s pop art was always strong, simple, beefed up with critical thinking, and usually followed by a moron claiming, “I could do that!” Much like Tucker’s performances. Simplistic though her patterns were, she was a strong player, happy to thud with meaningful intent. Tucker was also a truly artistic person, clued into what the band were trying to achieve and swept up in the way they were doing it. And, like Warhol, she was usually accompanied by an idiot who claimed they could do it too.
The truth about Maureen Tucker is that she was wildly undervalued as a drummer for The Velvet Underground, but they simply couldn’t be the huge influences on music they are today without her.