It is not only for the sheer importance in the history of rock that the Velvet Underground earns a chapter in itself but also for the impossibility of categorizing their music. If we take a look at the 60s with a little effort, a link can be established with psychedelia, except that here the psychedelic drifts are linked to the intake of heroin, not LSD. The places are not the sunny beaches of California but the pulsating streets of New York. The obsessive and frenetic feeling of the city recurs like a mantra in pieces like “Heroin” and “Run Run Run” along the furrows of the debut “Velvet Underground & Nico” (1967). Alternating sweet pop decadence of “Sunday Morning” and ” I’ll be Your Mirror ”or the dark atmospheres of“ All Tomorrow Parties ” are what makes Velvet Underground unique.
Velvet Underground Lineup
This unprecedented juxtaposition of opposites, between pop and avant-garde, American rock and Weillian European expressionism, is the result of the encounter between two equally different subjects: Lou Reed, former lyricist for Pickwick Records, musician and passionate doo-wop with a certain predisposition and curiosity for the avant-gardes and John Cale, who comes from those avant-gardes, classical studies behind him and spent alongside LaMonte Young and John Cale, and a certain attraction for rock. If the two are the backbone of the group, the definitive line-up is completed with the addition of Sterling Morrison on guitar and Maureen Tucker on drums.
Andy Warhall & Nico
The group, light-years ahead of the vast majority of contemporaries, escapes the risk of remaining a purely underground phenomenon thanks to the providential meeting with Andy Warhol in 1965. Warhol becomes the manager of the group and produces the eponymous debut, creating however the famous cover with the banana and attracting the curiosity of the press to the group.
Not only that, in order to accentuate the decadent aura of the group, they are joined by the ghostly voice of the German model Nico, (initially greeted with a certain hesitation by the other members of the group), who will be responsible for the interpretation of some of the most beautiful pieces of the debut, one of all the splendid “Femme fatale”.
However, the music of the group remains too revolutionary for the general public and the record remains a relatively unknown phenomenon for many years. However, the influence exerted by the group on the future levers in anticipating the nihilism that will be of the punk of ’76, the decadent atmospheres that will be taken up by many new wave and goth groups. The introduction of feedback within the structure of the rock (and pop) song, raison d’etre of the future noise-rock movement, and of all those who, in the footsteps of Velvet, will use it for the creation of sound mantras.
The influence of the group is incalculable and has the same importance for indie rock that the Beatles had for the development of English pop-rock and this despite the limited production of the group. Only two discs with the original line-up, with the second, “White Light White Heat” (1967), already orphan of Nico and then two other records without Cale (replaced by Doug Youle), with “Loaded”, recorded for Atlantic, to close the short saga of the group, towards the pop and glam of which Reed became one of the greatest protagonists in the early ’70s, finding a meeting point between the decadence of the group and that of the English movement and yet another masterpiece, “Transformer” that inaugurates the collaboration with Bowie / Ziggy Stardust and launches Reed’s solo career: a career that also passes through the noise extremism of “Metal Machine Music” (1975), an unlistenable bundle of noises that takes Velvet’s ideas to their extremes.
The Solo Projects
The other members of the group, in particular Nico and John Cale, also carry on brilliant solo careers. The first reached her peak with the gothic “The Marble Index” (1969), a dark record full of classic elements, in which rock is now a distant memory and where one travels, if ever, to the parts of the most dying Scott Walker. The disc is produced by Cale, who after a more traditional record “Vintage Violence” (1970) finds himself collaborating with the minimalist composer Terry Riley in “Church of Anthrax” (1971), an almost entirely instrumental album, and probably the most avant-garde work of his career.
Having swayed for a long time between tradition and avant-garde, Cale finds the center by recording records that maintain an experimental aspect regarding the arrangements (and largely also the stage costumes worn in the 70s), but a relatively classical and songwriting structure in the substance, reaching the highest point of his solo recording career with “Music For A New Society” (1982).