Formed in New York City in 1964, The Velvet Underground were masters of obscurity. They took the threads of rock and roll and interwove them with almost any other art form to experiment with and perplex their listeners.
The earliest incarnation of the band was formed by Welsh multi-instrumentalist prodigy John Cale and aspiring singer and songwriter Lou Reed. Originally playing under a number of names, most notably, The Warlocks, they arrived at the name The Velvet Underground in 1965 as they took on a regular form with Maureen ‘Moe’ Tucker on percussion and Sterling Morrison on the guitar.
The band played gigs in dark and dingy underground establishments making a noise that few were familiar with at the time. This is mostly thanks to Cale’s eccentric ideas and myriad influences. It would be no rarity to see Cale shred a few shrieks from a viola in the middle of a deafening ‘wall of sound’ section with Moe’s drums roaring and Morrison’s guitar shivering. It was this avant-garde sound that attracted pop artist Andy Warhol to the band.
By 1966, Warhol had become the band’s manager making creative decisions for the band and all the while promoting them and 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, a record that to this day has had a dominant impact on the musical landscape, but was at the time, not particularly well received in the mainstream.
This early sound of The Velvet Underground would impress enough of the New York youth to keep the band happy for now. The group unshackled themselves from the creative dominion of Warhol dropping Nico as secondary singer (as Reed had wished to be the main vocalist) for their second album White Light/White Heat. This second album was a further step into obscure depravity continuing the themes of drug abuse and grievous sexual acts, most clearly recognised in the seventeen-minute epic, ‘Sister Ray’.
Again, the band found themselves in a position lacking critical success and although this was the intention of these misfits, it appeared there were creative differences in the group that overboiled with the subsequent departure of Cale. It was at this point that Reed took the lead in the creative drive for the band. This change allowed for a turn from Cale’s eccentricity toward a sound more commercially accessible while maintaining the band’s trademark sound for their third self-titled album.
By the time The Velvet Underground released their fourth album, Loaded, their sound had been polished, now with all the rough edges that they identified with eroded. The album is by no means an unsatisfying listen with some of the band’s most recognisable hits like ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’’. However, something was missing, with the absence of Moe Tucker, the band decided to continue with Billy Yule. As Moe recalled: “Billy Yule, fine drummer but … too normal”.
It was apparent in Loaded that the sound was different, and despite Billy Yule being a more technically gifted drummer than Moe, the sound of The Velvet Underground had taken damage. Moe had never played by the rules and never had any major ambitions as a musician, but ended up playing the drums to fill a gap in the band. Her method was unorthodox from the very start as she set her drums up with the bass drum on its side on a stand playing it with sticks rather than the traditional foot-pedal.
It was this unorthodox approach to drumming that provided the glue to which the rest of the band adhered. Moe was absent for the recording sessions for Loaded due to her pregnancy as she opted to spare her offspring-to-be from the thunderous roar of the gigs and studio sessions. However, this decision didn’t come without regret as she reflected that she wished she could have played on the album, humbly admitting that the album missed her too. The one song in particular that Moe wished she could have played on was ‘Ocean’ as she thinks she could have given it her unique touch. This sentiment was also shared by Lou Reed as he reflected in later years that he regretted recording Loaded without Moe and that instead, they should have waited until the end of her maternity leave.