The Velvet Underground are one of the most influential bands of all time. From their inception in New York in 1964, the classic iteration of the band would release only four albums in The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967), White Light/White Heat (1968), The Velvet Underground (1969) and Loaded in 1970.
However, the aforementioned albums would shape the world of music, fashion and art for generations to come. Through blending nihilism, avant-garde and provocative subject matter, they would cement themselves as the forefathers of nearly every influential musical artist to come.
When legendary frontman Lou Reed met Welshman John Cale in late 1964, they started making music together after discovering a shared interest in drone. Unitedly, they used detuned guitars and experimental techniques Cale had learnt under the tutelage of composers John Cage, La Monte Young and Cornelius Cardew.
They eventually settled on the name The Velvet Underground in 1965. It was taken from the Michael Leigh novel of the same name that was a contemporary hit. Additionally, the book explored the underground sexual subculture of the early 1960s, and after being shown it, original member Angus MacLise suggested the band adopt it as their name. The group liked it, and thought it was indicative of “underground cinema”, and as they say; the rest was history.
After a couple of lineup changes, and wrestling with MacLise’s overbearing, artistic, cult of personality, the classic iteration of the band would settle as frontman and guitarist Reed, multi-intrsumentalist Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker.
Tucker, the only female in the band, was at first met with disdain from Cale, as the thought of having a “chick” in their great group perturbed him. However, Tucker would soon prove her worth and she turned out to be just as influential as her male companions. The way in which she played the drums was highly unconventional for the time. Tucker played her instrument upright and her rare use of cymbals added to the band’s burgeoning drone sound. She was also known to use mallets instead of drumsticks. Her playing influenced no end of sonic pioneers, including the likes of Joy Division, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, and Talking Heads.
Their career-defining work with artist Andy Warhol and German singer/model Nico broke new territory. Without it, the future would not be the same as we know it – owing much to this abrasive, brilliant time of experimentation from the band.
The Velvet Underground first met Warhol in 1965, after being introduced by cult filmmaker Barbara Rubin. The pop artist soon became their manager and suggested they use Nico on several of their songs. Warhol’s reputation helped the band gain a higher profile and secure a record deal with MGM’s Verve Records. He nominated himself as “producer”, but in reality gave the band free rein to exist on their own musical accord.
The band would then become part of Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a multimedia roadshow that put the artist’s films to the band’s music. The roadshow was groundbreaking in its use of drones and minimalism. The artist said he included the band in the show to “use rock as a part of a larger, interdisciplinary-art work based around performance”. The roadshow was highly influential and footage from it reveals it to be the precursor to raves.
After the initial Warhol and Nico period, the band would go on to release three other albums that would pave the way for genres such as punk, post-punk, goth, industrial and, of course, drone. It is a testament to just how groundbreaking and provocative the band were that so many subsequent musical pioneers cite them as being major influences. Made even more impressive by the fact that they did it in such a short period of time, battling personal demons and addiction.
The first of many to break down the barriers of sonic and visual conformity gives them an almost Abrahamic status. Typically, there are too many great Velvet Underground songs to choose from, so strap in, as we narrow it down to their ten best.
The 10 best Velvet Underground tracks:
10. ‘The Gift’ – White Light/White Heat (1968)
‘The Gift’ is the second song that appears on White Light/White Heat, and it is an eight-minute masterpiece. In typical Velvet Underground fashion, it is even mixed in an experimental way. In the stereo version, John Cale is heard in his thick Welsh accent, reciting a deadpan short story in the left ear, whilst in the right, the music acts as a droning, sludgy, instrumental.
The story was conceived by Lou Reed during his college days. It concerns a fictional long-distance relationship between college sweethearts Waldo Jeffers and Marsha Bronson. At the end of the college term, Waldo returns to his hometown in Locust, Pennsylvania, and becomes paranoid that Marsha would not stay faithful to him. Lacking the funds to visit her, he devises a plan to mail himself to her in a large cardboard box, as a surprise.
He ships himself on the Friday, and that following Monday, Marsha is having a discussion with her friend Sheila about Bill, a man she slept with the night before. When the package arrives, the two struggle to open it, whilst Waldo is transfixed with excitement inside. Unable to open it, Marsha grabs her sheet metal cutter from the basement and gives it to Sheila, who stabs through the box as well as Waldo’s head. Pretty macabre, eh?
In addition to the innovative composition, the sound effect of Waldo’s head being cut was achieved by Reed stabbing a cantaloupe – at the behest of none other than Frank Zappa.
9. ‘After Hours’ – The Velvet Underground (1969)
The tenth and final track on the band’s eponymous third album is one of the few Velvet Underground songs sung by drummer Maureen Tucker. Reed claimed the song was “so innocent and pure”, and that it was not possible for him to sing it.
Tucker’s vocals are accompanied by acoustic and bass guitar, and the style of the music is interesting as it is slightly reminiscent of the Tin Pan Alley songs from the 1930s, not typical of the band as they were seemingly always moving forward with their compositions.
The minimal composition on ‘After Hours’, can also be seen as influencing that genre of indie that was big in the early to mid-noughties, soundtracking many a boy-meets-girl movie. 500 Days of Summer or Juno, anyone?
The song’s purity stands out amongst the filth regularly discussed in Velvet Underground songs, presenting a ray of light in the darkness. Furthermore, no end of influential artists have covered the song, including R.E.M., Meg White, Red Hot Chili Peppers and James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins fame.
Furthermore, in 2014, Universal Music held a contest to create an official music video for the song, and from 120 submissions the winner was uploaded to the band’s Youtube channel.
8. ‘White Light/White Heat’ – White Light/White Heat (1968)
The title track, and first on The Velvet Underground’s 1968 album is a ‘proto-punk’ masterpiece that doesn’t mess around – and no wonder. The hazy romp is about the sensation of injecting methamphetamine, and in accordance with this head rush, clocks in at under three minutes.
It features a rigorous Barrelhouse-style piano vamp, and the outro is played by Cale on a heavily distorted electric bass, over a single chord. His technique is said to mimic the throbbing, ear-ringing effects brought on during the meth-induced “rush”.
Not only did the song influence the punk movement, but it was also a favourite of David Bowie. He regularly played it live and a version he recorded in 1971 was released in 1983 to promote Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture.
The song was even performed live by Reed and Bowie during the original Ziggy Stardust tour in July 1972. Whilst Bowie was at the peak of his commercial success when he released his version, due to the popularity of 1983’s Let’s Dance and his new fans pop sensibilities, it only reached number 46 in the UK. Regardless, it remained a mainstay of his set during his career.
Subsequently, and showing its influential status, this druggy caper has also been covered by Julian Casablancas and Mark Lanegan.
7. ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
Numerous attempts to replicate the sound of this song have been had over the years, and none have succeeded. The track, taken from Velvet Underground’s debut, came from Reed observing Andy Warhol’s clique at one of the artist’s infamous Factory Parties.
According to Reed, it was “a very apt description of certain people at the Factory at the time,” he said, before adding: “I watched Andy. I watched Andy watching everybody. I would hear people say the most astonishing things, the craziest things, the funniest things, the saddest things.”
Perhaps, then it was due to Reed being in a certain place at a certain time, that this sound/feeling has never been replicated. The song turned out to be Warhol’s favourite by the band and even lent its name to a William Gibson novel.
Furthermore, the instrumentation is classic Velvet Underground. The piano motif, played by Cale was based on tone clusters, inspired by his friend Terry Riley, with whom he played in La Monte Young’s group in the mid-1960s. It was also groundbreaking as it was one of the first “pop” songs to feature a prepared piano – its strings were intertwined with paper clips to modify its sound. As well, Reed played an Ostrich guitar tuned down to D, adding to the song’s inimitable sound.
Furthermore, Reed wrote the lyrics, but they were sung by Nico – giving them that haunted Nico feel. The song has numerous different versions and has been covered by icons such as Bauhaus, Jeff Buckley and Nick Cave.
6. ‘Rock & Roll’ – Loaded (1970)
From Velvet Underground’s fourth album, this song was written solely by Reed. Cale had left the band and Tucker was on maternity leave. The lyrics talk of the advent of rock ‘n’ roll and a girl named Jenny. Although Reed claimed in 1995: “‘Rock and Roll’ is about me. If I hadn’t heard rock and roll on the radio, I would have had no idea there was life on this planet. Which would have been devastating – to think that everything, everywhere was like it was where I come from. That would have been profoundly discouraging. Movies didn’t do it for me. TV didn’t do it for me. It was the radio that did it.”
Reed’s statement backs up his love for the song – it became an integral part of his solo sets in the years following. In conjunction with his statement, the joyous, anthemic feel of the song almost feels as if Reed is thanking a higher power for the dawn of rock music, saving him from a life of boredom, and misery.
We, as the listener should, be thankful for Reed’s discovery. He not only gave us so many unbelievable songs such as this one, but he gifted us countless other inspiring musicians. The sweetest part of this track has to be the relationship between the rhythm and the slide guitar, dragging you up in the euphoria and making you move.
5. ‘Sweet Jane’ – Loaded (1970)
‘Sweet Jane’ was written just as Lou Reed was about done with the band. However, it is their later masterpiece. The version that made it onto the album was one of many, and features Doug Yule on drums, as Tucker was on maternity. In 2005, Yule stated that the signature riff was made by Reed’s Sunn amplifier being “cranked-up very loud”.
Whilst this song and the album are more rock driven than anything the band had done before, the song is consistently featured in lists proclaiming it to be one of the greatest songs of all time, even U2’s Bono is a fan.
Reed would go on to play this song in many different ways over his career, although the Loaded version is a classic. It too carries an upbeat feeling like ‘Rock & Roll’. Consequently, the song has been covered numerous times. Two notable versions are 1972’s Mott The Hoople’s from All the Young Dudes, produced by, yep, Bowie again, and Cowboy Junkies’, featured in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers in 1994.
4. ‘Venus in Furs’ – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
This classic track is named after the book of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, and typically includes dark sexual themes of sadomasochism, bondage and submission.
At the inception of the band, Reed had already written it, and it became another reason for them choosing the name of The Velvet Underground, as they felt that the name tied into the topics explored in the song.
The composition features Cale’s droning, powerful viola, Reed’s guitar tuned to D-G-C-F-A-C, and in conjunction with the almost ancient, ritualistic, rhythm, it gives the song its trance-like, heavy sound. It has been regarded as proto-gothic and has influenced so many musicians like Bauhaus and Joy Division. Additionally, Steven Severin, of goth heroes Siouxsie and the Banshees, took the surname from the character mentioned in the song.
In his essay on the song and backing up our assertion, Erich Kuersten writes: “There is no intro or buildup to the song; the track starts as if you opened a door to a decadent Marrakesh S&M/opium den, a blast of air-conditioned Middle Eastern menace with a plodding beat that’s the missing link between ‘Bolero’ and Led Zeppelin’s version of ‘When the Levee Breaks’.”
The song was also released as a single on numerous occasions and remains a fan favourite.
3. ‘Heroin’ – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
‘Heroin’ is another reason why The Velvet Underground are set apart from their contemporaries. This is no metaphor for LSD consumption wrapped up in a lullaby. As the title plainly suggests, it is about that darker, decadent drug that was too much for even the hippies.
It is one of the band’s most celebrated pieces, it neither condemns the drug, nor trivialises it. This makes it all the more fascinating to audiences. In a 1972 interview, Reed claimed: “I was working for a record company as a songwriter, where they’d lock me in a room and they’d say write ten surfing songs, ya know, and I wrote ‘Heroin’ and I said ‘Hey I got something for ya.’ They said, ‘Never gonna happen, never gonna happen.’”
Regardless of its provenance, it is classic Velvet Underground. Featuring Reed’s subdued, melodic guitar, it gradually reaches its crescendo. Again featuring Cale’s droning viola, Tucker’s drum patterns and Morrison’s warping rhythm guitar. Explaining her brief absence at the 5:17 mark, Tucker explained: “As soon as it got loud and fast, I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t hear anybody, so I stopped, assuming, well, they’ll stop too and say ‘what’s the matter, Moe?’ [laughs] But nobody stopped. And then, you know, so I came back in.”
Coming back to the discussion of the titular narcotic, the band claimed that they wanted to take an objective, not a moral stance on the drug, and felt that critics and fans alike misunderstood. Sometimes fans would approach the band after shows and tell them they “shot up to ‘Heroin’” – this deeply disturbed Reed. Subsequently, he was hesitant to play the song live.
2. ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ – The Velvet Underground (1969)
A classic that, believe it or not, was written about someone with hazel eyes, as Reed claims in his book Between Thought and Expression. The song is also said to be about Reed’s first love, Shelley Albin, who at the time was married to another man.
It marks a softer, more country inspired composition for the band. There is not much to say about it as the beautiful, almost mournful song speaks for itself.
The song has also been covered numerous times and features heavily in popular culture. Patti Smith, Hole, R.E.M. and Edwyn Collins have all played renditions of it. Showing again the band’s pervasive influence on alternative culture. The song has also featured in Adventureland and Netflix’s hit series Sex Education.
1. ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
From their debut album, this song personifies the ‘proto-punk’ leanings of early Velvet Underground. It has a Dylan-esque, rootsy swagger that embodies the influential cool of the band. It also features a typically Reedish, deadpan story, about a man collecting $26 worth of heroin in Harlem. He would later state: “Everything about that song holds true, except the price.”
Again, this song does the talking for itself. Featuring iconic Velvet Underground musicianship, it is often classed as one of the best rock songs of all time.
Even Bowie and The Stooges have covered this utter classic, and it is said that Bowie’s legendary ‘Heroes’ was influenced by Reed’s songwriting in this song. That says it all.