Long before finding international fame with The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed had been creating music for years either in teenage doo-wop bands or in semi-fake studio bands. He played while working for a budget New York City label as a staff-songwriter, a role that inadvertently led him to meet John Cale and eventually the beginning of The Velvet Underground.
Reed spent a lot of his teenage years messing around in a series of different school and college doo-wop bands, however, they didn’t enjoy the longevity that The Velvet Underground ended up having. Partly because the groups were constantly splitting and remerging and, of course, that Reed had yet to find his feet as the pioneering musician who would later solidify himself as.
“We were so bad we had to change our name every few weeks. No one would ever hire us twice — knowingly,” the man himself said about his former incarnations.
In 1958, Reed began his recording career by cooing along on backing vocals for doo-wop gang The Jades on the song ‘Leave Her For Me’. The material, which isn’t terrible by any means, does feel extremely out-of-place on Reed’s largely regarded magnum opus of The Velvet Underground & Nico.
After finishing college and then moving to New York City, Reed, alongside some unaccredited musicians, performed as The Roughnecks during his pre-Velvet Underground days when he was a staff songwriter and performer at Pickwick International Records. Four of their tracks recorded in 1964, showed up on a 1979 Australian Velvets bootleg called The Velvet Underground, etc which clearly demonstrates Reed on vocals and almost definitely on guitar too.
Following that up, The Primitives are another group from Reed’s New York days at Pickwick and were the first group that he was in with his soon-to-be Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale. To begin with, they were originally a studio-only group but that changed when their single ‘The Ostrich’ remarkably generated interest from a TV dance show that wanted the group to appear on the program.
Whatever you think of the music he made in his formative years, which is undoubtedly impressive, it is fascinating to hear Reed’s voice as you’ve never heard it before and listen to him as he found his feet, develop as an artist and solidify the foundations of the future Lou Reed we all know so well.
Take a listen to some of the material below, kicking things off with a 16-year-old reed with The Jades.